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'70s slaying of KC politician Leon Jordan a mob hit?

Updated: 2010-12-09T18:10:03Z

By MIKE McGRAW and GLENN E. RICE

The Kansas City Star

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part story. Read part two here.

Forty years after black political leader Leon Jordan was gunned down, new evidence suggests local mobsters or their associates were involved in his murder.

A police report obtained by The Kansas City Star shows the shotgun used to kill Jordan may have made its way into the hands of the mob several years before the murder. The report said the gun was part of a cache of stolen weapons sold through a “North End Italian fence” in 1966.

In addition, key sources have said that a low-profile mob associate known on the street as “Shotgun Joe” may have provided the gun and recruited the killers in what appears to have been a complex plot to murder Jordan.

The man, Joe Centimano, died of cancer in 1972, and police never questioned him.

The Jordan killing was “contracted by the North End and carried out by blacks,” according to a convict named Walton I. Froniabarger, a police informant who in 1972 identified Centimano as the middle man, and another source who Saturday corroborated that story for The Star.

The original police investigation identified numerous possible motives for Jordan’s murder. A co-founder of the black political club Freedom Inc., and one of the most powerful politicians in Missouri, Jordan had associates who ranged from senators and faction-connected politicians to violent street hoodlums.

But his bare-knuckled politics, and what one friend called his “truculent manner,” had angered influential people in the worlds of crime and politics, and may have been part of the motive for his murder.

Cold Case Squad detectives with the Kansas City Police Department re-opened the case this summer following stories in The Star and have been asking questions about Centimano, his possible role in the Jordan murder and his connections to the mob, according to persons who have been interviewed.

Police, however, declined to comment publicly on their investigation.

If Jordan was the victim of a Mafia hit, said Alvin Sykes, a local civil rights leader who pushed police to reopen the case, “that scary fact will not deter me from cooperating with the thorough and credible investigations being conducted by the Kansas City Police Department and The Kansas City Star.

“I encourage justice-seeking Americans with any information on this case to continue to come forward.”

Jordan was killed by three shotgun blasts just after 1 a.m. on July 15, 1970, as he was leaving his Green Duck tavern at 2548 Prospect Ave. It was just three weeks before a Democratic primary, in which he was running for re-election to the Missouri House.

Eyewitnesses said Jordan’s killers were black, but theories have persisted for decades that the assassins were hired by whites.

The shooting had many of the earmarks of a professional mob hit. The killers used a stolen gun that could not be traced and they dumped it almost immediately afterward.

When the shotgun was recovered a few days later, police traced it to a burglary five years earlier in Independence, but could not determine what happened to it after that.

However, when a reporter for The Star recently asked the Independence Police Department for the original 1965 burglary report for the gun, it came with an unexpected bonus. Attached was a supplemental report filed a few months after the burglary.

Dated January 1966, the report said a “reliable” confidential informant told police the shotgun, and other guns stolen along with it, were sold through a “North End Italian fence” and that “the merchandise was disposed of through this source before Kansas City, Missouri Police Department could act on the information.”

Sources interviewed by The Star said they believed the fence often worked exclusively with the mob.

There is no evidence the supplemental report was reviewed by investigators at the time. But Cold Case detectives obtained the same report shortly after The Star.

A mob connection?

Why would Kansas City’s mob want Jordan dead? There were so many reasons, it turns out, that it is surprising the police did not spend more time investigating possible mob involvement at the time of the murder.

To understand the potential motives behind a Mafia conspiracy, it helps to know the Kansas City mob scene at the time.

Although now mostly a memory, organized crime, known at the time as La Cosa Nostra (“our thing”), was still going strong in 1970. FBI affidavits described the organization as a cold, murderous gang of hoodlums. And it didn’t take much to end up in its crosshairs.

The River Quay entertainment district west of the City Market became a mob battleground with bombings, murders and attempted murders through the 1970s.

Jordan angered North End faction politicians and members of the mob who supported them. An ardent civil rights leader, Jordan fought for black political power and to end white-faction control of black voters.

Orchid Jordan, who died in 1995, believed her husband’s murder was politically motivated, she told investigators at the time, because Freedom had become the single most powerful political club locally. Several Jordan confidantes had told police the same thing.

She said her husband sometimes refused to change Freedom’s endorsements of certain candidates, even after being offered money to do so, and added that shortly before his death, Jordan had angry disagreements with North End politicians about the Freedom ballot recommendations in the upcoming election.

George Lehr, a candidate for county judge at the time, met with police shortly after Jordan’s murder. An armed guard stood outside his home, Lehr told the officers, because he was “close politically with Jordan” and was concerned about an attempt on his life.

Lehr said Jordan had joined with other reformers to uproot Democratic faction leaders, some of whom were supported by members of the mob.

“Leon stood for the right things and would naturally have been opposed to what the North Side factions were doing,” said Bill Phelps, who served with Jordan in the General Assembly.

Not only was he a challenge to their political influence and possibly some of their criminal activities, he had physically attacked a state legislator supported by North End political groups.

In May 1965, Jordan unleashed a roundhouse punch in the state Capitol that floored Frank Mazzuca. While not considered a mob associate, Mazzuca was known to support its interests in Jefferson City, according to former colleagues.

Jordan accused Mazzuca of purposely embarrassing some of Jordan’s former black colleagues in the Police Department by asking them during a hearing about race discrimination in the department.

Alex Petrovic, a fellow legislator from Sugar Creek, said in a recent interview that he was drafted afterward to march Jordan to Mazzuca’s office to apologize.

“Mazzuca had friends on the North Side, and the word was that they were going to try to kill him (Jordan). But Mazzuca talked them out of it and just wanted Jordan to apologize,” Petrovic told The Star.

He said Jordan was aware at the time that what he had done could get him shot.

“I took Leon down to Frank’s office, and he apologized,” Petrovic said, “but I always wondered if that was enough.”

Mazzuca died of a heart attack in January 1969; Jordan was killed 18 months later.

The Mazzuca incident, combined with all the other issues the mob had with Jordan, may well have been enough to get him killed, said Bill Ouseley, a retired FBI agent who specialized in organized crime in Kansas City.

“Political influence and control was of such import to the outfit that it could get you killed,” he added.

Two police informants, who were members of the “Black Mafia,” a group involved in drugs, prostitution and murder, maintain that was what happened.

Froniabargar said Jordan’s killing was “contracted by the North End and carried out by blacks.” The payoff man, he said, was an Italian-American who owned a liquor store at 19th and Vine. Police later determined that man was Centimano.

Froniabarger’s story recently was confirmed by the other former Black Mafia member who agreed to speak to The Star only on the condition of anonymity. The source said they had also been told that Centimano was involved and recruited the killers.

“I know for a fact it was the Italians who wanted him dead,” the source said. “The people who did this had no reason to kill this man (Jordan), and I wanted to tell his wife before she died, but I was afraid.”

Parts of their stories are also backed up by Eddie David Cox, a federal inmate who has discussed the case with the police and The Star.

Cox said Centimano obtained the shotgun used to kill Jordan in March 1970 — four months before the murder — from his associates in the white Mafia, and turned it over to the killers, who were black.

According to one report in the original investigation, police determined that Centimano “was a small time hoodlum who associated with both the North End and criminal elements in the black community.”

A ‘freelance’ hit?

Organized crime experts said that while black killers have carried out mob hits, it was unlikely that top-level mobsters in Kansas City would have hired them directly to handle a high-profile hit such as the Jordan killing.

Jordan’s murder more likely would have been the work of mob associates looking to curry favor with the leaders of organized crime, Ouseley said.

That is eerily similar to what happened in a separate killing just months after Jordan’s murder.

In October 1970, some of Kansas City’s top mobsters were indicted for running an interstate sports gambling ring out of a North End social club called The Trap.

A month later scrap dealer Sol Landie, a key witness in the case, was murdered.

The killing was made to appear as a home invasion and robbery gone bad. After terrorizing Landie and his wife, the assailants held a pillow to Landie’s head and squeezed two rounds from a .38-caliber handgun into his ear.

They let Landie’s wife live to tell authorities her attackers were black.

“The Landie killing was not sanctioned by the top leaders of the outfit; Nick Civella (who ran the mob at the time) would never have approved it,” Ouseley said.

“In fact,” Ouseley said, “we later determined this was an off-the-reservation deal by some outfit-connected person probably seeking to enhance his position within the organization.”

Landie’s killers were caught a few hours later and quickly turned on a mob associate named John “Johnny Franks” Frankoviglia.

Frankoviglia and the others were convicted for their roles in the “freelance” Landie murder, which ultimately did nothing to derail the gambling case.

Landie’s murder prompted a visit by Jordan’s widow to U.S. Attorney Bert Hurn.

Hurn, now 85, recalled that she told him the Landie killing was proof that her husband was probably killed by blacks hired by white assassins who wanted political control over the black community.

“I suspected myself that that could be the case,” Hurn recently told The Star.

The Story Until Now…

Kansas City police this summer reopened the Leon Jordan murder case — the oldest unsolved murder ever undertaken by the department’s Cold Case Squad.

The decision to reopen the case came after lobbying by local civil rights activist Alvin Sykes, and after a July 11 article in The Kansas City Star.

But the re-investigation got off to a difficult start.

After a reporter asked about the whereabouts of the shotgun used in the Jordan murder, police acknowledged they had lost it.

A week later, a Kansas City crime lab employee rediscovered the weapon, a Remington 12-gauge Wingmaster shotgun, in the trunk of one of the department’s patrol cars.

Police don’t know how it got there, but they have a theory that some weapons experts find hard to believe.

Police contend they lost track of the gun sometime in 1973. The following year, they unknowingly — and serendipitously — purchased the same shotgun from a local gun shop.

They apparently never checked the serial number of the newly purchased murder weapon. Instead, they refurbished it and put it back in service in one of their patrol cars.

To reach Mike McGraw, call 816-234-4423 or send e-mail to mcgraw@kcstar.com. To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send e-mail to grice@kcstar.com. Tomorrow: A mysterious underworld figure called “Shotgun Joe.”

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