Love, Tragedy, and My Search for the Truth
Ben Westhoff — 2022
In the tradition of such intimate, piercing explorations of race and inequality in America as The Other Wes Moore and The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Little Brother tells the story of investigative journalist Ben Westhoff's relationship with Jorell Cleveland through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program in St. Louis, Missouri, and investigates Jorell's tragic unsolved murder at the age of nineteen. In 2005, soon after Ben Westhoff moved to St. Louis, he joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and was paired with Jorell Cleveland. Ben was twenty-eight at the time, a white college grad from an affluent family in Minnesota. Jorell was eight, one of nine children from a poor, African-American family living in Ferguson. But the two instantly connected. In the subsequent years, Ben and Jorell formed a bond stronger than nearly any other in their lives. Ben got Jorell his first swimming lessons, took him on his first plane trip, helped him open his first bank account, and showed him how to apply for jobs. When Ben met the woman who'd become his wife, she observed that Ben and Jorell were "a package deal." They were brothers. Then, in the summer of 2016, a shocking crime—Jorell’s murder—changed everything. Jorell was shot at point blank range in broad daylight in the middle of the street, yet his murder remained unsolved by police. Westhoff grappled with mourning Jorell’s death, but also with a feeling of responsibility. As Jorell’s mentor, what could he have done differently? As Westhoff tried to move on with his life, questions nagged at him. As a journalist, he had reported on gang life, interviewed crime kingpins, and even infiltrated drug labs in China. But now, he was investigating the life and death of someone he knew personally, examining what he did and did not know about his friend, and attempting to solve his murder. What is uncovered is a heartbreaking cycle of poverty, poor education, drug trafficking, and violence. Little Brother brilliantly combines a deeply personal history with a true-crime narrative that exposes the realities of life in communities like Ferguson all around the country.