Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part story. Read part one here.
He was known on the street as “Cokey Joe,” “Crazy Joe,” or “Shotgun Joe,” a low-profile mob associate who ran Joe’s Liquors at 19th and Vine.
But new evidence points to Joe Centimano as an important link in the 40-year-old murder of black political leader Leon Jordan.
Some sources say that Centimano provided the weapon and recruited the unidentified black assailants who eyewitnesses say killed Jordan.
Police did not pursue the Centimano connection at the time of the slaying, but they are now.
Centimano is part of a Cold Case Squad reinvestigation of the Jordan murder case, opened this summer by the Kansas City Police Department following an earlier story by The Kansas City Star and lobbying by local civil rights leader Alvin Sykes.
Centimano’s son Danny acknowledged to the newspaper that he had recently spoken with Cold Case Squad detectives, but declined to give details.
Centimano was such a little-known player at the time, few in law enforcement circles knew he even existed. He definitely was not a full-fledged member of the Mafia, according to retired FBI agent Bill Ouseley, who investigated the local mob for years.
Police involved in the original investigation told The Star recently that they did not believe there was strong evidence of a Mafia connection at the time.
Other sources interviewed by The Star, however, contend that Centimano was friendly with key people in the mob’s hierarchy.
Centimano’s only federal conviction, records show, was for a minor violation of the Volstead Act during Prohibition. He and an associate were caught with whiskey and beer, and Centimano served three months in jail. He died of cancer in early 1972.
Catching a break
Centimano’s name surfaced in the original Jordan murder investigation in summer 1972, two years after the death of the civil rights leader, state legislator and co-founder of the black political club Freedom Inc.
That was when two Kansas City detectives went to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth to interview Walton I. Froniabarger.
Froniabarger had been part of a gang known at the time as the “Black Mafia,” which had been involved in drugs, prostitution and murder.
He was looking to shave some time off a 21-year drug sentence by helping solve the Jordan case.
Froniabarger told detectives that one reason Jordan was killed was “political,” and that one of the men involved had died five months earlier. That person had owned a liquor store at 19th and Vine, he said.
“He would not expound on this,” police noted at the time.
Later, in the presence of his lawyer, Froniabarger said Jordan’s killing was “contracted by the North End and carried out by blacks.” The payoff man, he said, was an Italian-American liquor store owner known as “Crazy Joe.”
With Froniabarger’s help, county prosecutors assembled a case against three black men who were eventually indicted for pulling the trigger in the Jordan murder. Froniabarger, who had six felony convictions, was a key witness.
Authorities charged James “Doc” Dearborn, an associate of Froniabarger’s in the Black Mafia, with Jordan’s murder. Two other men, James A. Willis and Maynard Cooper, were indicted later.
Willis owned a restaurant and had gotten in trouble for a liquor violation. He later served prison time on a drug conviction. He has always denied involvement in the Jordan killing. Cooper, who The Star could not locate, had once served time for assault and was a former leader of the Thirty-first Street gang. Willis was tried first. Willis’ lawyer, during his cross-examination of Froniabarger, asked about his earlier statements to the police about “Crazy Joe.” Froniabarger testified that he did not know “Crazy Joe’s” last name, but thought he had died in early 1972.
Prosecutors could not make the charges stick. Willis was acquitted and charges against Dearborn and Cooper were dropped.
Froniabarger’s testimony about Willis was confused, and may have contributed to the acquittal. But one thing he never wavered on over the years was his repeated statements to police that a liquor store owner he knew as “Crazy Joe” had played a key role in Jordan’s murder.
The Star was unable to locate Froniabarger or determine whether he was still living.
Police eventually determined that “Crazy Joe” was Joseph Centimano and that he owned a liquor store at 19th and Vine. By September 1972, according to one police report, they had also learned that Centimano was “a small time hoodlum who associated with both the North End and criminal elements in the black community.”
Those black criminal elements included Dearborn and other members of the Black Mafia, according to police informants and others.
Centimano’s purported role in the killing lends credence to theories that elements in the white and Black Mafia had reasons to want Jordan dead, and that they both may have played a role in the murder.
In fact, Dearborn was purportedly angry at Jordan for reneging on an agreement to use his political influence to help Dearborn in a pending burglary case. Froniabarger and others said Dearborn was furious.
Froniabarger also told police that Dearborn discussed the Jordan slaying in his presence, saying he had made a hit and that “the dude that had messed him around was no longer here.”
Police then asked Froniabarger whether Jordan’s killing was a contract killing or a revenge killing.
“My own personal opinion, I would think it was a combination of the two,” Froniabarger told police.
Asked who may have paid the killers, Froniabarger said he believed it was “‘Cokey Joe’ or ‘Crazy Joe’ as they call him.”
He said “Cokey Joe” gave Dearborn money when he was released from jail the day before Jordan was murdered.
Dearborn was indeed released on bond the day before the murder, according to a letter Dearborn sent to The Star in March 1973, after he was indicted in the Jordan case.
However, he denied any role in Jordan’s murder and said police refused to give him a polygraph test that would have cleared him.
Dearborn was murdered in 1985, but there was no evidence at the time that it was related to the Jordan killing.
Eddie David Cox — the only white man who had a leadership position in the Black Mafia — also said Centimano was a close associate of members of the Kansas City mob, and that he played a role in Jordan’s murder.
Cox has been discussing the Jordan case with The Star for several years and said he recently had been interviewed by Cold Case Squad detectives.
Cox, 75, is serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Illinois for drug and other offenses. A career criminal with an extremely high IQ, Cox is considered one of the best jailhouse lawyers in the country.
Cox told the newspaper that he knew Centimano well, and that he and other Black Mafia leaders often met with Centimano in his liquor store.
Cox said Jordan angered the mob by refusing to back legislation to loosen regulations on taverns and adult entertainment. That refusal, Cox said, was considered “complete disrespect” to some powerful people.
“Jordan did a number of things that displeased the North End,” Cox told The Star.
Cox said Centimano obtained the shotgun used to kill Jordan in March 1970 — four months before the murder — and turned it over to the killers, who were black.
“The people who are responsible are dead, and it was all about politics,” Cox said.
But Cox said Froniabarger was wrong to claim that Centimano paid the killers.
“The Black Mafia was not hired, but performed (the killing) as an accommodation,” Cox said. “No money was involved.”
Cox also insisted that Dearborn had nothing to do with Jordan’s murder. If Cox does know who did pull the trigger, he isn’t saying.
Either way, Cold Case Squad detectives are actively pursuing the Centimano connection and other leads.