A hidden camera was rolling when the bullets started flying.
It captured the scene just before 10 p.m. Sept. 7 when two gunmen unleashed shots at Demond Robins during an attempted robbery near his Kansas City home.
Robins and the gunmen didn’t realize that federal agents had attached a video camera to a utility pole outside the house in the 2700 block of Monroe Avenue.
Later that night, a court-ordered phone tap recorded Robins saying he needed to find a new place to live because someone wanted to shoot him.
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That phone tap and “pole camera” came as part of a joint Kansas City police and federal agent investigation into what law enforcement officials considered one of the area’s most dangerous drug trafficking organizations.
Court documents suggest investigators found the group selling large amounts of drugs and firearms and then stashing away huge sums of cash. With that money lying around, the records suggest, the suspects sometime looked to rob one another.
The nexus of what one police official called “citywide target No. 1” — a group that neighbors said kept a low profile — came in a neighborhood that has seen intermittent violence for at least five years.
Dale Willis, the alleged leader of that group, and his brother, James Willis, now are jailed in Johnson County, where they are charged with first-degree murder in the killing of a man outside an Overland Park nightclub.
Their $15 million bonds are believed to be the highest ever set in a Johnson County criminal case. Their February preliminary hearing was surrounded by extraordinary security. Sheriff’s deputies armed with assault rifles patrolled inside and outside the courthouse while other deputies kept watch from nearby rooftops.
To protect the identity of witnesses in the case, prosecutors did not provide their names to the defense until right before they took the stand in the preliminary hearing.
Some of those witnesses reported receiving threats after they testified.
Because the investigation into the group’s alleged drug trafficking is ongoing, local and federal police officials said they could not discuss the case with The Star.
But federal court documents the newspaper recently obtained reveal how investigators spent hundreds of hours amassing evidence of how the group fueled criminal enterprises with sales of cocaine and guns.
In addition to the phone taps and hidden cameras, undercover officers conducted months of physical surveillance on the ground and from the air and engaged in face-to-face transactions with heavily armed suspects in dark, secluded locations, those documents show.
Investigators also pored over bank records and financial transactions of group members, who obtained large amounts of cash despite a lack of means for legitimate income.
An agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives testified during the Johnson County preliminary hearing for the Willis brothers that the camera was placed on the pole as part of an investigation with Kansas City police that started in March 2015, after the killing of 22-year-old Arthur Stafford Jr.
Someone fatally shot his brother, Dominique Stafford, about a month later.
The agent, Steve Lester, testified that the federal investigation started with Dale Willis and his company, Duced Out Records. The Stafford brothers were rap artists with Duced Out Records, according to Facebook posts.
Jail records list the Willis brothers’ home address as the Monroe Avenue house where Robins once dodged bullets.
That house is owned by members of the Willis family, according to Jackson County property records.
Lester said the investigation “morphed” into a wire tap involving Robins — a cousin of the Willis brothers — and drug distribution.
Two months after the Robins shooting incident, police received a report of a burglary in progress at a house where they believed Robins had moved. A witness described seeing four armed men on the front porch.
The gunmen were gone when officers arrived. But while checking the house for victims or burglars, police found a .40-caliber handgun that had been reported stolen from Arkansas, $10,500 on a living room table and a Missouri identification card for Robins.
In December, federal prosecutors charged Robins and three other people with trafficking in cocaine.
They charged one co-defendant, 24-year-old Jonathan Villegas-Escobar, with possessing two fully automatic machine guns and a pipe bomb made with dynamite.
Another co-defendant, Constance Anderson, 35, was the victim of a home invasion robbery by two armed men, according to the federal court documents.
“This style of robbery is common in the Kansas City metropolitan area and it is usually tied to narcotics trafficking,” an AFT agent wrote in a court affidavit.
Those robbers left without finding money, according to the documents. But in December, investigators searching a safe deposit box belonging to Anderson found $142,680.
That search came as part of the investigation into the financial dealings of Anderson and Robins. Among the purchases documented was a red Ford pickup truck bought by Anderson last summer and driven by Robins.
That truck matches the description of one involved in the Overland Park homicide that Dale and James Willis are charged in.
Lester, the ATF agent, testified in the Overland Park murder case that after Robins was shot at about a week before the homicide, he and Dale Willis swapped vehicles, and Willis was driving the red truck.
At Willis’ preliminary hearing, prosecutors played video from the pole camera that showed Dale Willis getting into the truck about nine hours before the Overland Park homicide. Video recorded after the homicide showed the truck arriving back at the house.
Willis was not named in the federal drug case filed against Robins, Anderson, Villegas-Escobar and a fourth man, Jose Aguayo-Rodriguez. But the ATF agent testified that the investigation is ongoing and more indictments are anticipated.
Much of the surveillance activity detailed in the federal court documents involved the alleged sale of drugs and guns by Villegas-Escobar to confidential informants and undercover police. Investigators said Robins was his supplier.
They noted observing Villegas-Escobar at the Monroe home before and after he conducted numerous alleged drug transactions.
Between May and November, multiple transactions allegedly happened involving more than 4 pounds of cocaine, the documents say. They also note the sale of numerous firearms.
Villegas-Escobar also is charged in federal court in a separate drug case involving two other defendants. In two December transactions, he allegedly sold about half a pound of cocaine and two guns, including a military-style semi-automatic rifle with 189 rounds of ammunition.
Other than the shooting incident involving Robins in September, the Willises haven’t been linked directly in court to other violence in the neighborhood. But it has seen shootings and homicides in recent years.
In 2011, a house in the 2600 block of Monroe was shot up with bullets from an AK-47 rifle. There was a homicide on that block in 2013.
And in the 2700 block of Askew Avenue, which is the block just to the west of Monroe, a 2011 block party was interrupted by a hail of gunfire that killed two men and wounded two others.
A woman who lives on that block, who declined to give her name, said neighbors believed the shooting involved “somebody from over on Monroe,” although she did not know who was being referred to.
About two months after that shooting, Kansas City police were looking for James Willis in connection with an aggravated assault. That incident appears to be unrelated to the Askew shooting, according to court records.
Police subsequently arrested Willis, and he was charged in federal court with being a felon in possession of a firearm.
And early last year, a man was shot and killed near the corner of 29th and Monroe. That killing of 39-year-old Brandon D. Mitchell remains unsolved.
But some neighbors say that if the Willises were involved in criminal activity, they never flaunted it.
On the block of mostly well-kept small wood-frame houses, people tend to mind their own business, and neighbors said the Willises kept to themselves for the most part.
A few people interviewed for this story said the Willis family was known more for good things they did for the neighborhood, such as Christmas food basket drives or giving fireworks to kids on the Fourth of July.
Dale Willis, under his rap name of “Poppa Willo,” performed for free at charity benefits, said one neighbor.
That man, who declined to give his name, said he found it hard to believe that Dale Willis would have been involved in a homicide.
Other criminal groups in KC
The group allegedly led by Dale Willis, meanwhile, was not the city’s only violence-prone drug trafficking organization.
Other documents obtained by The Star detail similar investigations into other groups trafficking in heroin, PCP and marijuana.
“People think of Mexican cartels when they think of violent, armed drug traffickers,” said John Ham, spokesman for the Kansas City office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “But it’s right here.”
Regardless of the type of drug being sold, the nexus of guns and violence is woven into each case involving what police refer to as a drug trafficking organization, or DTO.
“When we find drugs, we find guns,” said one Kansas City detective who asked that his name not be used because he works undercover.
And when criminals carry guns, people get shot, police say.
“The DTO has also been involved in violent crimes to include robbery, kidnapping and a drug-related homicide,” a police detective wrote in a search warrant request in one case.
Authorities began investigating that group after Kansas City police made a traffic stop and discovered a safe inside a car containing $70,000.
In another case, a person charged in a cocaine distribution ring also allegedly killed an acquaintance whose body was dumped out of a car near the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus in November.