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Jailed for years in murder-for-hire plot, ex-Plaza carriage owner says: ‘I’m innocent’

Convicted of murder-for-hire plot, former Plaza carriage firm owner maintains her innocence

M.J. L’Donna maintains her innocence over her conviction in a murder-for-hire scheme in 1998. She will be featured in an episode of “Pink Collar Crimes” on CBS this Saturday.
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M.J. L’Donna maintains her innocence over her conviction in a murder-for-hire scheme in 1998. She will be featured in an episode of “Pink Collar Crimes” on CBS this Saturday.

On a recent rainy morning, M.J. L’Donna — who in 1998 became notorious for accusations that she conspired with a hit man to kill her stepfather, her boyfriend and her competitor in the horse carriage trade on the Country Club Plaza — sat in a diner in the River Market, still insisting on her innocence.

“I’m innocent of what the charges were,” she said in her quiet voice, sipping coffee, adding soon after, “I never wanted to hurt anybody.”

L’Donna is 72 now. She lives alone in an apartment near the River Market and works (an admitted felon to her employer) as a companion, giving home care to elderly and disabled clients.

But 20 years ago, when Marilyn Jean L’Donna’s crime filled the headlines, she was 51, a known force and a familiar face at the Surrey Ltd. carriage stand. Petite, heavy on makeup and jewelry, she had a tumbling mane of honey-blond hair that has since turned the color of straw.

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M.J. L’Donna owned the Surrey Ltd. horse carriage company on the Country Club Plaza. Courtesy M.J. L'Donna

In 2006, L’Donna was released from federal prison after serving more than eight years of a 10-year sentence on the charges of supplying a gun and conspiring to arrange the murder-for-hire of her then-boyfriend, John Encell, supposedly to collect on his $250,000 life insurance policy.

At trial, L’Donna did not face charges related to accusations that she also was considering hits on her stepfather, Gene Hall, and on her Plaza horse carriage competitor, Mary Goodale. None of the hits went off. No one was physically hurt. Whatever plans were made were foiled by agents with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who had wired up the so-called hit man, one of L’Donna’s employees, who had a history with the ATF and had become a paid informant.

If it were up to L’Donna, she wouldn’t publicly revisit the most painful time in her life.

But at 7 p.m. Saturday the CBS true-crime series “Pink Collar Crimes” is set to re-examine her crimes in an episode titled “Clash of the Carriages.” The series is produced by Kansas City-area filmmaker Sharon Liese, known for the short film “The Gnomist” and the docu-series “High School Confidential.”

A friendly rivalry between two women vying for control of the lucrative horse-drawn carriage business on Kansas City's country club plaza, becomes increasingly nasty and ultimately descends into a murder-for-hire plot.

“At first I was reluctant,” L’Donna said. “Then when they said they were going to do the show whether I participated or not, then I knew I needed to have a voice. I wasn’t going to let them use the lies that they used previously.”

To her, nearly everything about the way her story has been told over the last 20 years has been false. If she wanted to openly admit to the crimes now, she knows she can. She’s served her time, paid her price with the justice system. But when asked directly if she planned with her employee, whom she then knew as 29-year-old Shawn Butner, to kill Mary Goodale, L’Donna’s answer is unequivocal:

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In 1998, Mary Goodale walked out of the federal courhouse in Kansas City after attending the arraignment of her Plaza carriage competitor, M.J. L’Donna. Orlin Wagner AP

“No.”

Her stepfather?

“He, my mother, they were divorced. … No, no.”

Her boyfriend?

“No . … No, I had more money than he ever thought about having.”

At trial, the prosecution played recordings, including one in which L’Donna tells Butner that she would be receiving $50,000 from her boyfriend’s life insurance. The jury heard evidence that Encell had apparently told L’ Donna that he made her the beneficiary of a $250,000 policy.

One recorded exchange went like this:

Butner: “You getting $50,000?”

L’Donna: “I don’t know how soon it will come through.”

Butner (seeking his cut of the money): “Hey, um, you do think, 5? I mean, like, will 5 grand break ya? I mean, that’s only if ya get it. I mean, if you don’t get it, I guess I’ll get nothing, but if you get it, just play our game right, don’t act suspicious about anything.”

L’Donna: “Oh, no.”

Butner: “I mean don’t start laughing when you find out (he’s dead).”

L’Donna: “I won’t, I know, I would play the role. I’m smart enough to know what to do.”

In the same conversation, L’Donna tells Butner that on Jan. 18, Encell would be taking a room at what was then Ritz-Carlton Hotel on the Plaza, now the InterContinental.

L’Donna: “Why not go to the room?”

Butner: “They’ll hear the gunfire.”

L’Donna: “Well, there’s other ways. And also, there’s pillows.”

Encell was not killed on Jan. 18. Instead, L’Donna was arrested. A jury took less than six hours on July 16 to find her guilty.

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Thomas Butner (the second of two prisoners in orange) was a key witness against M.J. L’Donna in a murder-for-hire plot. Ed Zurga Special to The Star

Part of her defense now remains largely the same as it did 20 years ago: She thought that Shawn Butner — who would later be arrested for perjury for lying in court (his real first name was Thomas) — was playing a game and she was playing along. She would try to talk to him about work, and he would constantly be asking theoretical, “what if” questions regarding a murder-for-hire.

Only later did she discover that Butner, who had a past criminal record, was a paid confidential informant for the ATF.

Butner had testified in the case related to the death of the six Kansas City firefighters who, in November 1988, died when an aluminum storage trailer in south Kansas City containing 25,000 pounds of explosives caught on fire and blew up. Soon after, a second trailer containing 30,000 pounds of explosives also blew, shaking the ground and city for miles.

L’Donna has contended that Butner was looking for money and a way to get out of trouble with the law. Records at trial showed that the ATF had paid Butner $4,116 as an informant. L’Donna also believes that Butner became a willing “puppet” to ATF Special Agent Ronald Getty, whom she believes used him to advance his career.

“The agent had him wired up,” she said of Butner. “He (the agent) was feeding him information. He had this earbud in his ear. The agent would tell him what to say. Butner was just trying to get himself out of trouble he was in again. … They paid him over $5,000 in my case. That is a big incentive.”

L’Donna called her arrest and conviction “a setup,” which former Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Daniel Stewart contests. Stewart, who prosecuted the case, retired in 2012 after 33 years with the office.

“I think there was plenty of evidence to convict, and the way the U.S. Attorney works and I work is that I would not bring the charges unless I believe that we could prove them beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s what happened with the jury,” he said.

“There were all sorts of tape recordings. She was talking about hiring Butner to supposedly kill her then-boyfriend. All I can say is she went to trial. She said she was joking in those conversations and didn’t mean it. The jury thought otherwise.”

Getty, who is part of the “Pink Collar Crimes” episode and is also retired, called the allegation that he was a careerist working with a bad informant “basically ludicrous.”

“I can say this. I had no idea who M.J. L’Donna was before being contacted about a plot,” Getty said.

“Why would I jeopardize my career by lying? My integrity is the most important; it’s the only thing I’ve got. You can have money. You can have whatever it is you go through your life trying to achieve. Integrity, especially in the line of work I had … I wouldn’t jeopardize that for what I would term to be an individual who was very self-serving from the standpoint of trying to further her business as a carriage operator on the Plaza.”

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M.J. L’Donna was escorted out in handcuffs at the federal courthouse after her arraignment. Marcio Jose Sanchez The Kansas City Star

He said it was true that Thomas Butner used a false identify, as Shawn Butner, the name of a cousin.

“That was not determined until the case was completed,” Getty said. “He was prosecuted for lying. He served time for that. And he still maintains the accuracy of what he told us.”

While she was in prison, L’Donna’s attorney appealed her case on the grounds that Butner was not a reliable witness. The U.S. Court of Appeals did not think the lie was material enough to overturn L’Donna’s conviction.

L’Donna explained all of that to Liese for the “Pink Collar Crimes” episode.

“I hope for it to show the real truth,” L’Donna said.

Liese heard what she said.

“I had to be realistic with her,” Liese said. “This is not going to be an M.J. tells all and M.J. tells her side of the story only. She can tell her side, but others will tell their side.

“She maintains her innocence. This case could have been an eight-episode Netflix series with all its twists and turns.

“She can be pretty convincing; maybe not to a jury.”

L’Donna said that although she believes she was wrongly imprisoned, she tried not to let resentment get the best of her. In prison, she witnessed inmate violence, suicides, corruption.

“I had to decide how I was going to do that time, how I was going to stay positive and come out on top,” she said. “Do the time, don’t let the time do you. I wouldn’t have let them beat me again.”

L’Donna began her incarceration in Texas but finished a federal prisoner in Topeka. After her release, she worked at various jobs, including a call center in Lenexa. Many employers are reluctant to hire felons.

“You have to prove yourself,” she said. “And I believe that I have proven myself. I love my clients, enjoy everything I do to help them.”

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M.J. L’Donna was once a well-known presence on the Country Club Plaza for her carriage business. Courtesy M.J. L'Donna

Some days she still goes down to the Plaza to watch the horses and talk to the drivers. She has good friends. They go to dinner, movies, dancing. She knows that, after the episode airs, it’s possible that more people on the street will recognize her. Maybe those who have thought of her in a negative light might see her differently.

“After everything I’ve been through,” L’Donna said, “I’m always continuing to be the good person I was before all this happened to me. I hope they look at that and realize I am a good person. “

She added, “Whatever the truth is, they’re going to believe what they want to believe. Either they’re going to be my friend and take me as I am, or they’re not.”

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