Civil rights activist, former police detective, businessman and politician — Leon Jordan led the emergence of black political power in Kansas City in the 1960s.
He conceived, co-founded and in 1962 became the first president of Freedom Inc. With that, the black community cast off decades of deference to various white ward bosses who had wrangled black votes through a combination of intimidation, favors and patronage jobs. Through Freedom Inc., the black community gained control of its own political destiny.
By the end of the 1960s, Jordan had become the most powerful African-American in Kansas City and, some thought, in Missouri. Along the way he won elections — including three terms in the Missouri House — and made a lot of friends. But one summer night in 1970, events proved that he had also developed enemies.
Shortly after 1 a.m. July 15 he walked out of his Green Duck Tavern to his car parked at the curb on Prospect Avenue.
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Jordan habitually carried a .38-caliber revolver to protect the night’s receipts. Most nights he held it ready until reaching his car and pocketing it. This night he carried little money.
As he rounded his car, another drove up. A shotgun blast came from the car. Jordan went down, struck in the chest by double-ought buckshot.
The car stopped. Someone got out and fired two more shots at close range, striking Jordan in the left knee and the right hip.
The ambush-style slaying, according to speculation at the time, probably was perpetrated by someone who had precise knowledge of Jordan’s habits. Witnesses said the ambush vehicle had two men in the front seat and one in the rear.
Bruce Watkins, a former Kansas City Council member and Jackson County circuit clerk who was a close ally of Jordan’s, said he was “certain the killing had a political connection.”
A Metro Squad of police, sometimes numbering 60 or more, began investigating. Two days after the shooting, Jackson County prosecutors charged two men with murder, based on an identification by a 14-year-old witness.
On July 27, however, prosecutors dropped the charges after the boy failed a lie detector test. He apparently had named at least one of the men because of a grudge.
Detectives pursued leads through the rest of 1970, as well as 1971 and 1972. In January 1973 prosecutors charged James A. Willis of Kansas City, Kan., in the slaying. Within two months they also charged Maynard Cooper and James “Doc” Dearborn, a former leader of a Kansas City group known as the “Black Mafia.”
Once again the charges fell apart. In December 1973 a jury agreed with Willis’ assertion that he was not in Kansas City when Jordan was killed. A few days later, prosecutors dropped charges against the other two men.
Dearborn later became a murder victim, shot at a motel near Downtown Airport in 1985.
The leadership of Freedom Inc. went to Watkins, who in 1979 lost a bid to become Kansas City’s first black mayor. He died in 1980.
Orchid Jordan took her husband’s place as a candidate for the Missouri House. She won in 1970 and continued to win by large margins, serving 16 years before stepping down. She died in 1995.
Four decades after he was slain, Leon Jordan’s death remained unsolved — but not forgotten.
In 2010, local civil rights activist Alvin Sykes began pushing homicide investigators and then-Police Chief Jim Corwin to reopen the case. The Star began tracking leads, too, and at one point revealed that what would be the murder weapon had been in the hands of a mob associate several years before the murder.
Finally, in 2011, Jackson County prosecutors stamped “case closed” the same day the Kansas City Police Department released a 900-page investigative report identifying Dearborn, the former Black Mafia leader, as the mastermind and gunman.
Prosecutors did not file any charges because many witnesses were dead.
Exactly why the 65-year-old Jordan was killed remains more elusive.
The police investigation and The Star found that the Italian mafia and the Black Mafia both played a role. In 1965, Jordan slapped a state lawmaker friendly to the mob. Some evidence indicated that Nick Civella, a Kansas City mob boss, may have given permission for Jordan to be slain.
Jordan’s bare-knuckles politics, association with known crooks and apparent disregard for angering local mobsters may have been among the motives for the mob’s involvement, the police investigation found.
“It was a lot of the little things that pushed it over the edge,” said Sgt. Richard Sharp, the lead investigator.
The Star’s Mike McGraw and Glenn E. Rice contributed to this report.
When: July 15, 1970 | What: Politician Leon Jordan is gunned down | Where: 26th and Prospect, Kansas City. | Outcome: Solved nearly 41 years later