Although he retired from the Intelligence Unit of the Kansas City Police Department more than two decades ago, Gary Jenkins spends about as much time examining the Mafia now as he did then. Only his current goal is entertainment rather than incarceration.
“There’s an immense amount of interest, and it never seems to go away,” Jenkins says.
That’s why he created the Kansas City Mafia Film Festival. The event debuted last year and proved so popular that he expanded it to a three-day fest. It runs next weekend at the MTH Theater in Crown Center.
As the name implies, the festival highlights the local history of organized crime. While such family empires were more prominent in New York City and Chicago, the KC underworld was formidable and feared in its own right.
“What was unique was the closeness of their upper echelon,” Jenkins says.
“It was a smaller organization, and they saw each other and maintained a lot of contact. The real inner circle would hardly leave their houses without making sure one of the others knew where they were going. As far as the bigger cities, that’s not so easy because so many more people are involved.”
Jenkins, co-host of the true crime podcast “Gangland Wire Crime Stories” and creator of the Kansas City Mob Tour app, recently expanded his tech-savvy skills to include filmmaking. This year’s fest showcases the premiere of “Brothers Against Brothers: The Civella-Spero War,” an hourlong documentary he directed examining an infamous blood feud among KC criminals.
In the early 1970s, boss Nick Civella and his brother, Carl Cork Civella, stood as the ruthless kingpins of KC. But a rival family – siblings Carl, Joe, Mike and Nick Spero – posed a fresh challenge.
In 1973, Nick Spero’s body was shot twice and dumped in the trunk of a Cadillac convertible. Although the motive was never identified, speculation was it had to do with a power struggle inside the Teamsters union. The Speros blamed the Civellas’ henchmen.
“They believed if you hurt one, then you had to deal with the rest of them,” Jenkins says of the Speros.
This ushered in a decade’s worth of bullets and explosions, until all four Spero brothers had been wiped out.
In addition to “Brothers Against Brothers,” Jenkins will screen his previous documentary “Gangland Wire.” It details how KC and Chicago mob families infiltrated (and eventually lost) several Las Vegas casinos. Also showing is Terence O’Malley’s feature-length doc “Black Hand Strawman,” tracing a century of local organized crime, from the “Black Hand” extortion within the Sicilian American community to the “Strawman” probe of Vegas profit skimming.
Jenkins and O’Malley (who is credited with the idea for launching this festival) will be joined in panel discussions by Clarence Gibson, a 27-year veteran of the KCPD, and William Ouseley, a former FBI agent.
“With the Mafia, or Cosa Nostra, one is experiencing a culture or society inhabited by men of great power and wealth,” says Ouseley, who retired from the FBI in 1985 as supervisor of the Kansas City Field Division of the Organized Crime Squad.
“Violent when they have to be, (they’re) running illegal rackets but operating under their own set of standards and rules, just as we do in legitimate society. It makes for fascinating viewing.”
Ouseley and Jenkins hope such discussions at the fest can clarify some of the misinformation regarding the mob – ironic, considering much of this arises from popular movies that audiences have seen on the subject.
“One of the biggest myths about them is there are tunnels that connect beneath their houses. People don’t like to hear it’s not true,” says Jenkins, a native of Plattsburg, Missouri.
He says the scope of the Mafia is misunderstood.
“People think they have this reach that can touch anybody, and that was hardly true in their heyday and certainly not true anymore. But it was a nice myth. Those they did reach out and touch had maybe gone into witness protection then came back out or still continued to operate in and around their area,” the 74-year-old filmmaker says.
The image of the professional hit man is also a product of cinematic exaggeration.
“They don’t really have ‘contract killers,’ the kind where that’s all they do and are paid a certain amount of money. Mainly somebody who is a member is just told, ‘You need to take care of this.’ And they do it and don’t expect to get paid. They just get paid in stature.”
From KCPD to filmmaking
Jenkins spent 13 of his 25 years in law enforcement working in the Intelligence Unit, where he primarily investigated professional criminals and organized crime. This included cases involving other threatening groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Upon retiring in 1996 he went back to school and earned a law degree. But he also began experimenting with editing software: iMovie, Premiere Pro, After Effects, etc.
“I started making little cartoons for my kids in the animation program and got an opportunity to help a nonprofit that wanted a documentary done about their founding. That increased my skills, and I just got hooked,” he recalls.
Becoming comfortable with software led to his creation of the Kansas City Mob Tour App. The app “shows and explains where Mafia members once lived, drank, gambled, plotted and killed.” It can be purchased on Apple and Google Play for $1.99.
He sells the app to people from all around the country who listen to his podcast and then decide to take a mob tour of KC.
“I’ll admit my stuff is not the most polished in the world,” he says. “But it’s suitable.”
So far the toughest challenge involves getting actual mobsters to help him out. Jenkins divulges he’s tried to recruit a few to be interviewed in his documentaries. No such luck.
He says, “Because I used to be a policeman, they think I’m just looking for a snitch.”
KC Mafia Film Festival
Friday, Nov. 15: “Gangland Wire” at 6:30 p.m., “Black Hand Strawman at 8:30 p.m.
Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 16-17: “Gangland Wire” at noon, panel discussion at 1:30 p.m., “Brothers Against Brothers” at 2:45 p.m., “Black Hand Strawman” at 4:15 p.m.
Where: MTH Theater at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd.
Tickets: $10 on Friday, $16 on Saturday and Sunday.