The recent arrest in Chicago of two former cops who allegedly plotted a grisly kidnapping, extortion and murder scheme sent chills through two Kansas City area men.
For both Clay County Circuit Judge Anthony Rex Gabbert and businessman Charles Ford, details of the plot were too similar to a kidnapping-for-ransom drama that played out here more than 20 years ago.
Neither man sees coincidence in the parallels.
As a prosecutor in the early 1990s, Gabbert prosecuted those same men, Steven Manning and Gary Engel, for kidnapping Ford and collecting money from his family in 1984.
Gabbert said reviewing the new charges was like “re-reading history.”
Each defendant received long sentences after his Clay County conviction. But the men appealed and won release from prison. Manning also beat a death sentence for a 1990 murder in Illinois.
But the men’s fortunes reversed in late October when federal prosecutors in Chicago accused the pair of an extortion plot that resembled their alleged Clay County caper.
Evidence in the new case purportedly includes video and audio surveillance of the men plotting to kidnap and extort $500,000 from a businessman, kill him and then dismember his body in an office that they lightly described as “Club Med.”
But Engel never will see all the evidence against him.
After reading a summary of the government’s case, Engel hanged himself in jail in November at age 61.
Manning appeared less distressed. Right after his arrest, the 61-year-old Manning smiled at a news reporter and appeared to mouth the letters “BS,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “an apparent reference to his opinion of the charges.”
Ford had his own courtroom moment with Manning, when he testified about his abduction 29 years ago outside a Kansas City, North, apartment complex.
“(Manning) doesn’t look like a violent guy,” Ford said recently. “He looks like a cold guy. He doesn’t care.”An ordeal
Ford generally is reluctant to speak about his 1984 kidnapping. Just too many bad old memories.
At the time, he ran a River Market area bar, a cash-heavy business. That, he believes, attracted the thugs.
One night that February, Ford and a friend were approached outside some Northland apartments by at least four men who identified themselves as federal agents with arrest warrants.
Ford immediately suspected something was wrong.
“When they duct-taped me,” Ford said, “I knew what was going on.”
The kidnappers demanded $1 million in ransom and beat and pistol-whipped the men.
Ford recalls telling them at one point: “Kill me.”
But the abductees’ families quickly raised more than $50,000. And after the handover, both victims were released in a cemetery about 12 hours after the abduction.
The police investigation went nowhere for five years.
That’s when a federal inmate told investigators that he had hired Manning and Engel to kidnap Ford.
Prosecutors charged Manning and Engel in July 1990. Within two years, both had been convicted. Manning got life; Engel received 90 years.
Then the case slowly unraveled.A Chicago murder
Illinois authorities fished the body of one of Manning’s business associates, Jimmy Pellegrino, out of a Chicago river in 1990. Pellegrino died from a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.
Shortly thereafter, Missouri prosecutors charged Manning in Ford’s kidnapping.
A month before, Pellegrino had told his wife that he planned to meet with Manning.
“Jimmy had told me the last time I saw him that if he turns up dead, that I should go to (an FBI agent) and tell him Steve Manning killed him,” Joyce Pellegrino later testified.
Illinois prosecutors promptly charged Manning with murder. And after a trial, a judge sentenced him to death.
Manning was a model prisoner, focused on getting out, said Kansas City criminal defense lawyer Cyndy Short, who represented him briefly.
“He kept to himself and did his legal work,” Short said.
That work paid off in April 1998 when the Illinois Supreme Court threw out his murder conviction, ruling that Manning’s trial judge should not have allowed some unfair testimony from a jailhouse informant or permitted the victim’s wife to finger Manning as her husband’s killer.
Beating a death sentence was remarkable indeed.
But Manning just was getting started.Snitch as agent
Throwing themselves into Manning’s Missouri appeals, his lawyers focused on a brief period: just before he was extradited from Chicago to face charges in Clay County.
That’s when investigators put an informant in Manning’s Illinois jail cell, cautioning the snitch to work only on Pellegrino’s murder.
The informant ignored the directive and instead pushed Manning to talk about the Missouri kidnapping. Eventually, the informant’s girlfriend, who also worked with investigators, spoke with Manning about establishing an alibi.
In November 2002, a federal appeals court ruled that, since both the informant and his girlfriend acted as government agents, using them violated Manning’s right to have counsel present during questioning.
After his release, Manning came to Kansas City and briefly worked at a legal clinic that served death row inmates.
Soon he was back in Chicago working on one of his biggest projects to date: a massive civil lawsuit against the Illinois investigators who had developed so much of the evidence against him in the murder and the kidnapping cases.
On Jan. 24, 2005, a Chicago jury awarded Manning $6.6 million after he alleged that two FBI agents manufactured evidence. Manning had contended that FBI agents had retaliated because he wouldn’t work as an informant.
Lawyers investigating Manning’s claims learned that an Illinois police officer paid $500 to the mother of a witness in the kidnapping case.
Jurors also found that the investigators encouraged perjury, fabricated evidence, and concealed those facts from Clay County prosecutors.
Manning never collected a dime because of the intricacies of suing the government. Still, the jury’s findings stood, undermining Engel’s conviction.
In February 2010, the Missouri Supreme Court threw out Engel’s conviction, based largely on the new evidence Manning collected in his civil suit.Another prosecution
The Manning and Engel cases mark rare reversals of criminal convictions. They appear on the websites of the Midwest Innocence Project, Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions and the University of Michigan Law School’s “National Registry of Exonerations.”
Yet Manning’s story continues.
In an affidavit filed with charges in October, an FBI agent described how Manning and Engel purportedly planned to pose as police and abduct a Chicago businessman.
The plan, according to prosecutors, was to extort as much as $500,000, and have the victim sign over his real estate.
During a month of preparation, recorded on video and audio surveillance, the men allegedly outfitted an office with a shower, a sink and a counter that could support several hundred pounds.
On Oct. 24, the day before their arrest, and as the audio rolled, court records contend Manning and Engel discussed how to dismember the body.
Engel allegedly suggested positioning the corpse on the counter so blood could drain into the sink.
“You want him to bleed out,” Engel purportedly said. “You want to let him drain.”
Manning allegedly replied: “But as soon as he bleeds out, in about a half hour, we’ll want to straighten him out. I don’t want a curled body.”
Police arrested them the next day, allegedly as they drove to abduct their victim. Each purportedly carried fake police identification.
Gabbert, who prosecuted Engel at his Clay County trial in 1991 and worked on the case against Manning, said that other than the dismemberment wrinkle, the scheme is eerily similar to the Missouri case.
“Manning is a very dangerous person,” Gabbert said.
John Picerno, a local criminal defense lawyer, said the only real lesson to be learned from Manning’s experience is that bogus evidence serves no one.
Whether Manning was a bad actor whom investigators tried too hard to get off the street or an innocent man wrongfully framed for crimes, the lawyer said, he deserved fair trials.
“If they’re guilty, you’ll get them on this case or the next one,” Picerno said. “But you can’t falsify evidence.”