Unsolved killing of Leon Jordan echoes civil rights era

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09/09/2010 4:26 PM

05/16/2014 5:19 PM

Early morning hours of July 15, 1970.

Blasts of double-ought buckshot from a stolen shotgun kill Leon Jordan -- civil rights leader and the state’s most powerful black politician — as he is leaving his Kansas City tavern. He had been clutching the .38-caliber revolver he always carried for protection.

Police still don’t know who pulled the trigger. Or why. But it wasn’t for lack of evidence.

They had eyewitnesses and partial fingerprints. Even the murder weapon, a Remington 12-gauge Wingmaster shotgun, as well as the likely getaway car. And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had offered a reward for information leading to the killers.

Yet no one was ever convicted of murdering Jordan, a dynamic, larger-than-life civil rights pioneer who also was a former Kansas City policeman; politician; co-founder of the black political club Freedom Inc.; and, at one time, head of the Liberian national police force.

While other high-profile, civil rights-era killings have been reinvestigated in recent years, the Jordan case remains one of Kansas City’s most enduring murder mysteries.

"I can’t remember a case with less information, more blind alleys, more possible motives and more possible suspects," said then-homicide Sgt. Lloyd DeGraffenreid Sr. a year after Jordan’s slaying. "It’s totally baffling."

Now, 40 years later, there is a battle over whether to reopen the case.

After a request from local civil rights activist Alvin Sykes, the Kansas City Police Department’s cold case squad had said it would review the Jordan murder to determine if a "full-fledged investigation" was warranted.

Late Friday, however, police spokesman Capt. Rich Lockhart said in an e-mail that "without any new information, we will not be reopening the investigation."

He said the Police Department believed that the case had been "reviewed many times over the past 40 years and all the known leads have been exhausted."

But Sykes is not giving up. He is scheduled to meet Monday with police Chief Jim Corwin to discuss the status of the case.

Sykes also has asked federal authorities to include Jordan’s murder in the FBI’s "Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative," an effort to finally solve scores of civil rights-era killings.

So far, federal officials have declined to include the case for technical legal reasons, but that would not prevent the FBI from taking a second look "if you have information showing that the investigation was improperly handled," a spokesman said.

Interviews, FBI reports and records from the original police investigation — obtained recently and reviewed by The Kansas City Star — raise plenty of questions.

Was the investigation hampered by racism, as some critics contend? Did politics play a role in the failed indictments in the case and weaken the chances of ever solving it? Did famed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s quest to discredit civil rights leaders waste precious time by falsely targeting the wrong assailants?

Answers to those questions, however, may be even harder to come by now that the case has suffered another setback.

Physical evidence — including the murder weapon — is missing from the Police Department’s evidence room. Police acknowledged the loss after The Star requested an inventory of evidence collected in the case.

"There’s no way to tell what evidence we had or what happened to it," said Lockhart, who added that police rarely located such evidence in cases prior to 1976. "It’s gone."

Missing evidence in such a high-profile murder case is "shocking and inexcusable," said Alvin Brooks, a member of the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners, founder of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, and a friend of Jordan’s.

The assassination

By 1 a.m., it was still 86 degrees on the street outside Jordan’s Green Duck tavern at 2548 Prospect Ave.

Lots of folks were up and about that Wednesday morning in 1970, having just turned off the All-Star Game, which went into extra innings on the Astroturf at the new Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati.

Jordan, 65, had just left his night watchman, Kenneth Irvin, inside the tavern and walked toward his car, just a few steps away, according to police reports.

In one hand he carried a bag with two bottles of Vess lemon soda and a half-pint of Hennessy cognac. The other hand was on or near the .38-caliber Smith Wesson Chief Special he never left behind.

Just before Jordan reached his car, three black men drove up in a brown, late-1960s-model Pontiac and fired one round of double-ought buckshot, probably the blast that broke Jordan’s leg.

Witnesses said the shooter got out of the car, walked up to Jordan as he lay on the sidewalk and fired two more rounds point-blank into his groin and chest.

The killer jumped back in the car, which sped west on 26th Street.

Within minutes, police believe, the assailants dumped the stolen shotgun in a weed-filled lot at 24th Terrace and Garfield Avenue. They abandoned the stolen Pontiac at 23rd Street and Highland Avenue.

Police later recovered the car and gun and obtained partial fingerprints from them.

Although the assailants were black, experts in civil rights cases said the murder could still have been racially motivated.

"There were many civil rights cases in which blacks were essentially used to carry out what was, in effect, anti-civil rights violence," said Margaret Burnham of Northeastern University School of Law.

After a year, as many as 60 detectives — one of the largest teams ever assigned to a murder in Kansas City -- had wrestled with the case. Early on, the investigation was headed by DeGraffenreid, a black detective and lifelong friend of Jordan’s.

Now 90, DeGraffenreid often wonders who killed Jordan.

"I worked hard to try to solve it," he said. "I was getting all kinds of information, stories about Leon, and it was running me crazy."

Unfortunately, there was no shortage of possible motives.

‘Politically motivated’?

Jordan was gunned down just three weeks before the Democratic primary. His only opponent for re-election to a seat in the Missouri General Assembly was 25-year-old Lee Bohannon, a black activist with the Social Action Committee of 20.

FBI and local police records show investigators spent months checking out a story from a confidential informant that put Bohannon in Detroit, allegedly to pay off the killers.

Nothing ever came of it. The informant’s story fell apart after police checked it out.

When The Star showed Bohannon some of the documents from the police files, he said he was surprised by the depth of the investigation of him.

"This is like a joke to me; it is totally ridiculous," said Bohannon, now a community liaison with the Local Investment Commission.

Bohannon, 65, said he admired and respected Jordan and would never have harmed him.

But he speculated that the lengthy efforts to target him as a suspect may have grown at least in part from the FBI’s now-infamous COINTELPRO (counterintelligence program), which targeted and attempted to discredit civil rights leaders and black activists.

FBI memos about the case, which referred to Bohannon as a "militant" and an "agitator," were forwarded to Hoover’s office.

"COINTELPRO was still going on at the time of that murder, so it fits the time frame," said David Cunningham, an associate professor at Brandeis University and an expert on the program.

But proving that it was a problem in the investigation is another matter, he said.

Jordan may have made serious enemies among the Black Panthers, a national revolutionary group initially formed to protect blacks from police brutality and racism. The group ran medical clinics and provided food to schoolchildren, but also got into shootouts with police.

Jordan was often at odds with the Panthers and other young black activists.

In early 1970, documents show, Jordan told an investigator for the House Committee on Internal Security that at least some of the Panthers were "gangsters who preyed on the community," and were uninterested in solving "real problems."

But police never found any firm evidence linking the Panthers with the murder.

Complicating the investigation further was that Jordan also had occasional run-ins with Kansas City’s white North End-faction politicians, according to FBI and police records.

For one thing, Jordan was competing with them for control of patronage jobs in the Jackson County Courthouse. If he failed to win control of at least some of those jobs, Jordan said at the time, the North End politicians would distribute them to black voters and wrest power from Freedom Inc.

Sylvester Norris, a black political opponent of Jordan’s who worked with white-faction leaders, told police the day after the murder that he heard there was a "contract" out on Jordan. Norris called Jordan a "ruthless politician who would stab you in the back."

A month after the murder, Jordan’s widow told FBI agents that she thought his death was "politically motivated" because Freedom Inc. could deliver 12,000 votes and threatened the power of some potentially violent members of white political groups. She argued that they could easily have hired blacks to assassinate Jordan.

In the end, though, not even federal authorities could decide whether Jordan’s killing was politically motivated. An FBI memo noted that U.S. Attorney Bert C. Hurn considered closing the federal investigation in February 1974 because it did not appear politics was involved.

But a month later, after further review, Hurn decided that the FBI should keep investigating "because of the arrogance, the violence and the technique of the murder."

Indeed, some had long suspected that Jordan’s slaying — which had all the earmarks of a professional "hit" — had something to do with organized crime.

The ‘Black Mafia’

Drug trafficking in midtown had infuriated Jordan. Police Maj. James Campbell, who led the investigation after DeGraffenreid retired, told the FBI that he believed narcotics may have been the real motive for Jordan’s slaying.

Just a few months before his murder, Jordan told a federal investigator that he was working to get a local pusher "busted" and that his neighborhood could take care of its own problems without any assistance from outsiders.

Eddie David Cox, a white man who allegedly helped run the "Black Mafia" — a prostitution, narcotics and gambling ring in Kansas City — told investigators at the time that Jordan was "bitterly opposed to narcotics and could not get bought."

Cox, now 75, told The Star recently that "the fact that he (Jordan) could not be bought is the major reason for his demise, but it was not because of narcotics."

Cox is serving a federal life sentence on drug and other offenses. In an e-mail to The Star he maintained that "the people who are responsible are dead, and it was all about politics." He declined to elaborate.

Jordan also was acquainted with what the FBI at the time characterized as "some dangerous Negro hoodlums." One allegedly was James "Doc" Dearborn, a convicted burglar who allegedly worked with Cox and others to run the Black Mafia. Federal officials said that the group was responsible for at least 17 murders.

Records show that Jordan once asked Jackson County Judge Lewis Clymer to help Dearborn avoid a stiff sentence in a pending burglary case. Jordan quit intervening on Dearborn’s behalf when he found out that he was involved with drugs, and police informants said Dearborn did not take the news well.

There were still more possible motives, the police files revealed. Jordan’s past affairs, some allegedly with married women, were a poorly kept secret. Police chased the "jealous husband motive" for months, but came up empty.

Another possible motive, which police never substantiated, was that Jordan had fenced stolen jewelry and may have angered his customers by skimming a few diamonds off the top for himself.

Such stories have long haunted some in the black community. Sykes said he suspected that those theories were partly to blame for the resistance he has encountered in trying to reopen Jordan’s case — more than any other case he has worked on.

"I have some reservations about reopening it," said Brooks of the Ad Hoc Group. "Forty years later, do you want to do some things, say some things, and have some things come out that would cause some embarrassment, when there is a good chance that the perpetrators are deceased."

But that should not matter, Sykes said.

"Some people say we may not like what we find, but that should not stop us from trying to find his killers," he said.

Failed prosecutions

Prosecutors twice thought they had solved the murder, even though they never established clear motives. Both cases, however, evaporated.

Just two days after the shooting, then-Jackson County Prosecutor Joe Teasdale announced first-degree murder charges against two Kansas City black men, Reginald Watson and Carlton Miller. Police later said they had warned Teasdale they were "marginal" defendants.

The charges infuriated Jordan’s widow and other black leaders. They were confident neither man was involved and accused Teasdale — who was then on the outs with Freedom Inc. — of political opportunism and using the case in his campaign for the Jackson County Court.

He dropped the charges 10 days later after the accusers, two young "eyewitnesses," failed polygraph examinations.

Teasdale defended his actions at the time, maintaining that he had no choice but to charge the men so he could hold them while the investigation continued. But critics said the early false indictments only hampered the probe.

Teasdale declined to comment for this report.

Three years later, then-Prosecutor Ralph Martin announced the indictments of James A. Willis, Maynard Cooper and Dearborn.

The break came when Jordan’s night watchman — who had originally told police he did not see anything useful — testified that he was at the back of the tavern when he heard two shotgun blasts and then heard Jordan say, "Oh no!"

The watchman said he looked out a window and saw Willis with a shotgun, backing away from Jordan’s body.

Some questioned the charges from the beginning, noting that Jordan had known Willis and Dearborn and had done favors for them in the past.

In the end, Willis was acquitted when his alibi held up in court, putting him out of the city at the time of the murder. Charges were quickly dropped against Cooper and Dearborn, who also had denied any involvement.

Willis later sued the police in federal court, accusing them of providing false evidence to a grand jury, but he lost. Now in his 70s and recently released from prison, Willis still denies any involvement in Jordan’s murder.

The Star could not locate Cooper for comment. Nor could it locate the night watchman or determine whether he is still living. Dearborn was killed in 1985.

‘Mockery of justice’

In all, the police interviewed hundreds of people, administered 13 polygraph tests, and analyzed fingerprints from 112 possible suspects or accomplices.

Despite all the dead ends, Sykes remains optimistic, that at least the case will be reopened and reviewed. He is also hopeful that the missing physical evidence will eventually turn up.

"We are disappointed at the loss of the physical evidence in this case," Sykes said last week when told of the disappearance, "but we are not surprised nor deterred."

He pointed out that "it took 30 years to find the murder weapon in the Medgar Evers case."

Sykes has a reputation for not giving up. He persuaded federal and Mississippi officials to reopen one of the nation’s best-known civil rights murder cases, the 1955 beating death of 14-year-old Emmett Till. It took 50 years to find the murder weapon in the Till case.

Last year, Sykes used that case to help convince Congress to pass the "Till Bill," which required federal officials to try to solve more civil rights-era crimes before witnesses and suspects die. This weekend Sykes was in St. Louis to receive a lifetime achievement award named after Jordan.

For him, Jordan’s murder is unfinished business.

"It deserves to be solved; it deserves to be answered," Sykes said. "Leon Jordan stood up at a time when it was dangerous to do so. It is a mockery of justice if this case isn’t solved."

HOW TO HELP

If you have any information about the murder of Leon Jordan, call the TIPS Hotline at 816-474-TIPS (474-8477).

DEATH OVERSHADOWS ACHIEVEMENTS

Leon Jordan left Kansas City twice, both times because he felt racism held him down.

But he always came back — and ultimately soared as a civil rights activist, organizer and political leader.

Perhaps part of the attraction was that Jordan’s rabble-rousing roots ran deep in Kansas City. His grandfather fought in the Civil War Battle of Westport, and his father fought tirelessly against Missouri’s Jim Crow laws.

Born on May 6, 1905, Jordan graduated from Lincoln High School and earned a degree from Wilberforce University, a historical black college in Ohio that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

He married his wife, Orchid, of Clay Center, Kan., in 1932 and worked as a teacher and caseworker for a relief agency before becoming one of the city’s first black police officers in 1936.

He took a leave of absence in 1947 when Liberian President William Tubman hired Jordan to train and run a national police force there. He and Orchid later bought a lifetime membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Fresh from his experience in Liberia, Jordan returned to the police force in 1952, was promoted to lieutenant and assigned to be "in charge of Negro patrolmen" at the Flora Avenue station.

Jordan quit two months later and returned briefly to Liberia. He came home the last time, in 1955, and bought the Green Duck tavern.

Jordan, Bruce R. Watkins and others later formed Kansas City’s first black political club, Freedom Inc. He was elected to the Missouri General Assembly a few years later and helped organize one of the largest voter-registration drives in the city’s history to help pass the 1964 public accommodations ordinance.

"Voting is the only economic and social salvation for black Americans," Jordan said at the time. "If blacks don’t stop being lackadaisical we will never free ourselves from the ghettos."

Jordan’s accomplishments were "nothing short of extraordinary," said Robert Farnsworth, a retired University of Missouri-Kansas City professor who met Jordan in 1961. "I was in awe of him."

But Farnsworth added that Jordan’s contributions seemingly have been all but forgotten, overshadowed by his unsolved murder.

He and Orchid had no children. (She succeeded him in the legislature, later remarried, and died in 1995.)

Several years after Orchid’s death, someone discovered boxes of Jordan’s memorabilia, dumped outside her home. An antiques dealer acquired them and they eventually ended up at the UMKC library, where Farnsworth has pored over them for a book he is writing about Jordan’s life.

| Mike McGraw,

mcgraw@kcstar.com

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