On Nov. 5, 1980, a hate-filled thug with a baseball bat turned a small patch of Kansas City’s Penn Valley Park into his personal killing field.
The beating death of a promising young musician named Steve Harvey was just one of the 139 homicides the city recorded that year.
But Harvey’s death became the impetus for a movement affecting countless lives across the country. It created a second chance at bringing justice to people who long thought it had been stolen from them.
It was not the first Kansas City crime with a national impact. Nor was it the last.
At Kansas City’s Union Station, within shouting distance of where Harvey was killed 47 years later, a 30-second barrage of machine gun fire that killed four lawmen in 1933 is considered the defining moment in the making of the modern FBI.
And another mass killing of public servants in Kansas City — the 1988 arson-caused explosion that left six firefighters dead — spurred federal officials to strengthen the rules about how warning placards are displayed on containers of hazardous materials.
More recently, a different Kansas City case drew federal lawmakers’ attention: the shocking crimes committed by Robert R. Courtney, a pharmacist whose unbridled greed destroyed any sense of decency and humanity he previously possessed.
Though it took many years, Courtney’s dilution of cancer drugs for numerous patients began a federal push that resulted in tougher oversight of compounding pharmacies.
“People must realize that a crime motivated by racial or ethnic prejudice against one group is a crime against all of us.” — New York lawmaker Jose Serrano
Alvin Sykes truly believes that.
His civil rights activism began as a teenager in Kansas City, Kan., but it was the killing of Steve Harvey in a Kansas City park that launched Sykes on crusade for justice that took him — and his cause — to a national stage.
After the 27-year-old saxophonist was beaten to death in a racially motivated crime, police arrested Raymond L. Bledsoe, 19.
Sykes, like other friends of Harvey, waited for the justice system to work.
An all-white Jackson County jury acquitted Bledsoe of murder.
The next day Sykes started the Steve Harvey Justice Campaign. He called the U.S. Justice Department in Washington but was told there was nothing that could be done.
Sykes thought otherwise. Accompanied by Harvey’s widow, he spent a day poring through law books at a local library. About 15 minutes before closing time he found what he was looking for.
“It was just like in the movies,” Sykes said recently, recounting the moment.
The federal statute he found made it a crime to injure, intimidate or interfere with someone using a public facility, such as a park, based on that person’s race, color, religion or national origin.
Sykes’ legwork led to federal charges against Bledsoe. And this time, another all-white jury convicted Bledsoe. He was sentenced to life in prison. It was only the fourth time in the country that the statute had been successfully used.
Bledsoe, now 52, remains in federal prison today.
The victory didn’t stop Sykes. He continued his effort as the Justice Campaign of America.
It also led him to the mother of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy whose 1955 killing in Mississippi was one of the most infamous crimes of the civil rights era.
The ensuing Emmett Till Justice Campaign and Sykes’ tenacious work led to the White House, where on Oct. 7, 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act. The law authorized funding and gave the Justice Department new power to investigate unsolved murders from the civil rights era prior to 1970.
“It turned the poison of Steve Harvey’s tragic death into the medicine of justice for countless families across the country,” Sykes said.
“This was no Saint Valentine's Day massacre where gangsters killed each other. Blatantly, arrogantly, the gunmen had shot down seven people in broad daylight in a public place.” — Curt Gentry in “J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets”
What happened outside Kansas City’s Union Station on June 17, 1933, has been well-recounted over the years. Gunmen seeking to free Frank Nash, a criminal being escorted to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, ambushed the lawmen who were transporting him.
Two Kansas City police officers, a federal agent and an Oklahoma police chief, as well as Nash, died in the hail of bullets. Two other agents were injured.
In the aftermath of those bloody seconds, dubbed a massacre in screaming headlines of the nation’s newspapers, J. Edgar Hoover seized the moment. He called the crime “a challenge to law and order and civilization itself.”
Up until then, the Bureau of Investigation that Hoover led was a tiny and relatively powerless agency whose employees weren’t regularly allowed to carry firearms or make arrests.
Hoover pushed for changes — big changes that Congress passed the next year. His agents were given new powers of arrest. They could carry guns. And a whole slew of new laws made federal crimes out of offenses that criminals previously could avoid by crossing state lines.
Though some in recent years have alleged that Hoover played fast and loose with the facts of the incident to manipulate lawmakers into giving him and his agency more power, it is undisputed that the massacre at Union Station had a profound effect on what would become the nation’s preeminent law enforcement organization.
“You can’t overstate the significant effect it had on the FBI,” said Jeff Lanza, a retired FBI special agent. “It was the watershed event that changed the bureau into the modern FBI it is today.”
The year before Union Station, the bureau had 821 employees. Its ranks had doubled by 1936, and today the FBI has a global presence with more than 35,000 employees, including more than 13,000 special agents.
The massacre also had a decided effect on the public’s perception of the colorful larger-than-life personalities of the gangster era. No longer were they modern Robin Hoods of popular lore with catchy nicknames like “Pretty Boy” and “Baby Face.”
“They were cold-blooded murderers,” Lanza said.
“Firemen: Your worst day is our every day.” — Wisconsin volunteer firefighter Michael Perry
The Kansas City Fire Department’s worst day came on Nov. 29, 1988.
That morning a tremendous explosion literally shook much of the sleeping city awake. In an instant, six firefighters died when a trailer loaded with tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil blew up.
“It still haunts us today,” said Kansas City Fire Battalion Chief James Garrett.
When the crews of Pumper 30 and Pumper 41 were dispatched that morning to a construction site near 87th Street and Bruce R. Watkins Drive, dispatchers notified them that explosives were stored on the work site.
But according to a later federal report on the incident, they didn’t know what was inside the semi trailer they found on fire when they got there.
Radio transmissions from that morning revealed their uncertainty. One firefighter reported: “Apparently this thing’s already blowed up, Chief. He’s got magnesium or something burning up here.”
Four minutes later the trailer exploded. The force of the blast blew out the windshield of a battalion chief’s vehicle parked a quarter mile away. About 40 minutes later, another trailer exploded.
U.S. Transportation Department regulations at the time required such trailers to be marked with warning placards while they were in transit. However, the placards were routinely removed after they arrived at their destinations. The idea behind that practice was to deter theft or vandalism, primarily because of terrorism concerns. As Timothy McVeigh later demonstrated in Oklahoma City, the mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil in the wrong hands can be devastating.
“By appearing as innocuous trailers, fewer people know what they contain,” the U.S. Fire Administration said in a report on the aftermath of the Kansas City explosion. “Unfortunately, as tragically illustrated here, this lack of knowledge also applies to firefighters. All information here points to the conclusion that they did not know what was in the trailers.”
All of that changed because of what happened in Kansas City.
Congress cited the 1988 explosion as the rationale for the Hazardous Materials Transportation Uniform Safety Act of 1990. It required warning markings on containers or vehicles transporting hazardous materials remain visible and not be discarded or hidden, as previously had been done.
“To understand what you are walking into,” Garrett said, “it really means life and death.”
“Our appetites are often satisfied at the expense of those around us. In a dog-eat-dog world, we lose part of our humanity.” — Musician Jon Foreman
Robert Courtney operated in the shadows of a largely unregulated industry.
While no one was watching, the Kansas City pharmacist began cutting corners by diluting the drugs he dispensed.
Year after year, prescription after prescription, Courtney put money in his pocket while people suffered, not knowing that drugs they had been prescribed to treat their cancer or other illnesses had been watered down.
It took a suspicious pharmaceutical salesman to tip off a doctor because he noticed that Courtney was selling more drugs than he was buying. The doctor notified federal investigators. The ensuing FBI investigation led to criminal charges against Courtney.
Thousands of patients were affected during the nine years he diluted drugs.
In February 2002 he pleaded guilty. The judge who later sentenced him to 30 years in prison said that Courtney’s actions “shocked the conscience of the nation.”
One of those shocked by what Courtney was able to do so long without being detected was U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas. The case spurred Roberts to begin what would turn into a decade-long legislative fight to increase government oversight of compounding pharmacies.
“We needed to clearly define who had the responsibility to ensure the safety of compounded drugs, and it was difficult to do with all of the different stakeholders,” Roberts said in a written statement.
Though the effort languished, Roberts kept pushing. It took another tragic compounding pharmacy case in 2012, in which more than 60 people died as a result of improperly compounded drugs, to finally spur more lawmakers to act. Last year they passed federal legislation to more closely monitor and regulate the compounding pharmacy industry.
“We may never know how many people Robert Courtney harmed, but it was his case that helped us improve the safety of compounded drugs so that bad actors, like Courtney, can be detected,” Roberts said in his statement.
“In the end, the knowledge that someone could dilute life-saving cancer medications to make a profit was all the motivation I needed to remain at the negotiating table to seek a solution.”
To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to email@example.com.
Most of the true-crime stories in this special section are condensed versions of “Kansas City Crime Central,” a Kansas City Star book written by Monroe Dodd.