People on the sidewalk pay no attention to the jagged hole cut in the storefront above the Jefferson’s sign on Massachusetts Street.
If they slow at all it’s to wonder when the popular restaurant will reopen after a January fire. This is March, after all, a high holy month in this college town where basketball’s roots run deep. It’s tournament time. KU Coach Bill Self raves about Jefferson’s wings.
But the last second of the last game of this year’s March Madness will likely tick off before Jefferson’s reopens, so now’s maybe a good time to talk about the murder.
It happened right inside that hole. A long time ago. Even before Wilt hit town. It was 1954 — high noon, Friday, May 28 to be exact — when Phillip Johnson, a meat cutter from Kansas City, climbed the stairs and emptied a new revolver into a lawyer named Leroy Harris.
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The law office was right above where basketball fans for years have crowded into Jefferson’s at 743 Massachusetts St.
But few passers-by know about the shooting. Partly because the outside stairs came down a long time ago, leaving no access to the upstairs — sealing off the room like a closed box, an old story with no air.
“Up there?” a woman passing by said the other day when asked whether she’d ever heard about the shooting.
“Really, a murder?” her friend asked.
Then came the fire Jan. 15. Firefighters cut a hole in the metal siding up high on the front, and the fresh, cold air stirred the old story.
That hole? Well within reach of a nice-sized extension ladder.
That small opening leads to a dark cavern with a burnt wood floor. Strips of charred wallpaper hang loose. Farther on, one comes to the outer office where Johnson stood that day he opened fire on Harris, at the time the only black lawyer in Lawrence.
A stack of Kansas Supreme Court journals still rests on a windowsill. After more than 60 years, that’s about all that’s left of Leroy Harris’ law practice.
Johnson, who died in prison in 1959, probably wouldn’t mind that the case has been forgotten. Newspaper accounts at the time painted him as a polite and humble man.
After shooting Harris, he went back down those steps and made his way to the Lawrence police station.
“Good morning, ma’am,” Johnson said after placing the gun on the front counter. “I just shot Leroy Harris and I’m not sure if he’s dead.”
Oh, he sure was. Police found Harris flailed back in his office chair, a bullet in his head and his arms hanging low to each side of his white shirt and suspenders.
Nobody ever knew for sure exactly why Johnson shot Harris, but it is known how he got to Lawrence from Kansas City — he rode the bus over that morning.
He was 52. His wife, Daisy, had died a couple of years earlier.
Johnson walked around downtown a bit, stopping in several places and asking if they sold guns. One was the Sportsman’s Shop, which did sell guns and where Johnson purchased a .38-caliber revolver and six bullets.
Then he climbed the angled steps up the side of the building. Harris had been hired to handle the sale of the Johnson house, and apparently the transaction had not proceeded to Johnson’s liking.
“Hello, Leroy,” he said from the outer office.
“Hello, Phil,” Harris replied, and reached into his desk drawer.
That’s when Johnson pulled the new revolver and started firing. One bullet hit Harris square in the head, sprawling him back in his chair like he was deep in a Sunday nap.
Margaret Robertson was tending the front counter in the police station over lunch when Johnson walked in a few minutes later. He told her what he’d done and handed her the gun.
He was “such a polite little man it was hard to understand he might have shot someone,” Robertson told a reporter with the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper.
Johnson, described in news accounts as a “small, mild-mannered, polite Negro,” displayed no sign of nerves as he waited, other than chain-smoking cigarettes. Then a police captain came in. Johnson told him he’d wanted to talk with Harris about speeding up the sale of the house, and that when Harris reached for the drawer, Johnson thought he might be going for a gun.
“I have heard that Leroy sometimes gets tough with folks,” Johnson said in a statement. “So I decided I was going to be ready to handle him if he tried any rough stuff with me.
“I ain’t very big and I got to protect myself.”
The investigation revealed that Johnson had been treated in a psychiatric hospital. He’d claimed to see imaginary people. At one point, he jumped out a window and broke his leg.
His attorneys at trial based their defense on insanity. Didn’t work.
Johnson died Dec. 3, 1959, in the state prison at Lansing.
For a long time, the story around Lawrence history circles was that the law office had been boarded up after the murder, with desk, chair and law books in the same place they were that day.
Sort of a time capsule.
Until 2000 when the story had its “Geraldo moment.” A group of sleuths came down through an opening in the roof. They thought they were going to see a crime scene frozen in time. Instead, they found pretty much the same thing Geraldo Rivera found when he opened Al Capone’s vault: Not much.
Forgotten somehow was that at some point Harris’ old office had been used for furniture storage.
Now, more than 60 years after the shooting, Brandon Graham, part owner of Jefferson’s, isn’t terribly enthralled with the room upstairs.
“It’s kind of interesting — I just never really thought much about it much since we never saw it,” he said.
He’s far more focused on getting Jefferson’s reopened after the fire, which started, authorities think, with an electrical malfunction of a rooftop unit that sends air back into the kitchen.
Graham’s been telling people to go to another of the chain’s restaurants in Olathe. But that’s not Lawrence and now it’s tip-off for March Madness.
There will be no cheers at Jefferson’s this year. Just dead quiet.
Upstairs, too. Inside the jagged hole that leads to the cold, dark office of Leroy Harris.