In 2005, I joined the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and was paired with 8-year-old Jorell Cleveland. I was a 28-year-old college graduate from an affluent family, while he lived in a crowded household in one of St. Louis’ poorest neighborhoods.
But we quickly developed a strong bond that would last for over a decade. Jorell lived with me and my then-fiancé Anna over the summer of 2010, and when he came to our wedding a year later she said she’d always understood Jorell and I were a “package deal.”
Our relationship sometimes strained during his teenage years, but when Jorell was killed in broad daylight near his home in Ferguson in the summer of 2016, I thought it had to have been a mistake. He was only 19. Surely Jorell got caught up in someone else’s dispute; there was no way someone so positive and kind could have such enemies.
But as his case grew cold in the coming years, my perspective changed. As an investigative journalist, I’d begun writing about criminality, and realized that most murder victims knew their assailants. And so, at the behest of Jorell’s family, I decided to investigate his case myself.
Over the course of nearly three years I managed to figure out who killed Jorell. Learning the truth required me to uncover a heartbreaking cycle of poverty, racism, poor education, drug trafficking, and violence. It helped me understand not just how things had gone so wrong in Jorell’s life, but how the system had been rigged against him from the start.
Little Brother: Love, Tragedy and My Search For the Truth tells the story of Jorell’s life and death, and my quest to learn what happened to him. It comes out May 24, 2022 on Hachette Books, but if you plan to buy it, I’d love you to pre-order, as this helps the book gain more notice.
The Little Brother launch event takes place May 25 at the Ethical Society in St. Louis (an incredible venue, btw), and more tour dates are coming. If you’d like me to meet with your book club over Zoom, just give a shout!
Praise for Little Brother:
"I finished Little Brother in one day. It humanizes people and communities who have long been dehumanized. So much of it hits close to home. Ben Westhoff has taken a lot of crazy risks in his work before, but it’s the emotional exploration here that makes it his bravest work yet.”
—Aisha Sultan, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist
"Little Brother: Love, Tragedy, and my Search for the Truth is a very good narrative by a very good author.”
—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
"The creative and original telling of a young man's life and death on the streets and the Big Brother who sought his killer."
—Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic
"With Little Brother, Ben Westhoff takes a relentless journalistic approach to discovering truths about a personal tragedy. Masterful."
—Toriano Porter, Kansas City Star editorial board member