A mysterious series of apparently random killings in Kansas City, mostly committed in isolated spots along walking trails, came to an end when the killer deviated from his pattern with a brazen, execution-style shooting in broad daylight on a city street, according to Jackson County prosecutors.
The fifth and final killing came shortly after noon on Aug. 13, when 22-year-old Fredrick Demond Scott allegedly followed a man from a city bus, crept up behind him on the street and shot him in the head — before turning and getting right back on a bus.
Like the other four victims Scott is either charged with killing or is suspected of killing, Steven Gibbons was a stranger but fit a specific profile: they were all white men between ages 54 and 67.
All five victims were shot. Four were shot in the head — three in the back of the head. One was shot in the back.
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“They didn’t see it coming,” Scott said under his breath while being questioned by detectives.
Jackson County prosecutors on Tuesday announced murder charges against Scott in two of the killings and named him as a suspect in three other homicides of middle-aged men along south Kansas City trails.
The killings drew increased attention with the May 18 killing of Mike Darby, 61, co-owner of Coach’s Bar & Grill at 103rd Street and Wornall Road.
Scott, of Kansas City, is charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the deaths of Gibbons, 57, and John Palmer, 54. Court records detail how detectives cracked the case using surveillance video, and how DNA evidence linked Scott to those two victims.
Gibbons survived on life support for more than a day after he was found shot in the 1100 block of East 67th Street. His death came months after police linked four killings near popular trails along Indian Creek, Minor Park and Blue River that showed “obvious similarities.”
Palmer had been found killed nearly a year earlier on Aug. 19, 2016, in a wooded area near East Bannister Road and Lydia Avenue. His death, near the Indian Creek trail, was the first of four that police connected.
The profiles of the victims made them relatively rare among Kansas City homicide victims. Some of the men were killed while walking their dogs. In at least two cases, the dogs remained beside their slain owners until police arrived.
The unsolved killings mystified Kansas City residents and spread fears of a serial killer.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced the charges Tuesday at a press conference at the Kansas City Police Department’s South Patrol station at 8701 Marion Park Drive. Baker’s office charged Scott in the murders on Aug. 18 but the court documents were under seal until Tuesday’s announcement.
The break in the case had come with the Gibbons killing, according to court documents. Police found surveillance video showing Scott follow Gibbons off of a KCATA bus before Gibbons was shot.
Detectives later linked Scott to the scene from DNA from a iced tea bottle and a cigarette butt, and linked him to the Palmer killing with DNA from a t-shirt left at that scene.
On Tuesday, Baker asked members of the public to come forward with information about the other three killings, which remain under investigation.
“At this moment there remains insufficient evidence to charge Scott” in the other cases, Baker said.
“We expect today’s charges will ease some of the concerns (in the deaths of) men walking on the trail, but we are only charging in two,” Baker said. “We need the public’s help in solving all five of these homicides.
“I beg for the public’s help,” Baker said.
She asked Kansas City residents to come forward with any information about Scott’s possible acquisition and disposal of guns and ammunition. According to court documents, Scott had bought four handguns during the time of the trail killings and had reported them all stolen — in one case, only two hours after the victim was found dead.
“If you have seen the defendant in the area of these homicides, or in the area of south Kansas City, please call us,” Baker said. “If you heard shots in the area of these homicides, we’re asking that you please call us.”
Video, DNA and confession
Of the guns used in the killings, police have recovered only one — a 9 mm handgun that, according to court records, Scott acknowledged to detectives he used to kill Gibbons.
That gun, too, Scott had reported stolen. Scott allegedly told detectives he had reported the guns stolen to disassociate himself from the killings, though he denied involvement in three of the shootings.
It was the Gibbons killing that led police to Scott, who had been mowing lawns to make money and, during the time of the shootings on the trails, had been working at a Burger King at Red Bridge and Holmes roads — within a few miles of three of the shooting scenes.
Scott did not own a car during the time of the killings, and got around town much of the time by walking, according to police.
Scott told detectives that he frequently walked the Indian Creek trail, often using it as a shortcut. He also had a friend in the Willow Creek apartments near the trail, where one of the victims was found shot and killed outside his home. Apart from walking, Scott’s primary mode of transportation was the bus.
And the bus is, allegedly, where Scott found Gibbons.
Shortly after noon on Aug. 13, police were called to 1146 E. 67th Street, where officers found Gibbons shot in the back of the head.
Gibbons survived on life support at a hospital for more than a day but died from his injuries.
Detectives found surveillance video that showed Gibbons, minutes before the shooting, boarding a KCATA bus at 75th Street and Troost Avenue. He was followed by a man carrying an iced tea bottle.
When Gibbons stepped off the bus at 67th Street, the man followed him, walking behind Gibbons first at a distance, and then closer.
The surveillance camera panned away from the scene of the shooting, denying detectives a record of the attack. About 40 seconds later, the video showed the suspect running from the shooting scene and boarding a bus again.
Just west of the crime scene, detectives later found an iced tea bottle like the one in the video.
At a nearby gas station, detectives obtained video showing a man buying a bottle of iced tea just a few minutes before boarding the bus behind Gibbons.
Detectives took a still photo from that video and circulated it among police, who four days after the shooting matched the photo to Scott, whom they found sitting on a wall and smoking a cigarette at 97th Street and Holmes.
Officers watched Scott throw the cigarette butt on the ground and then picked it up, sending it to the department’s Regional Crime Lab.
The same day, the lab matched the DNA from Scott’s cigarette butt to the iced tea bottle found near the scene of the shooting.
When police arrested Scott, he allegedly admitted shooting Gibbon but said it had been an accident – that he had been taking the gun out of his pocket when it went off.
While the motive in the killings remains unclear, Scott “repeatedly” told investigators that he was angry about the 2015 shooting death of his brother, Gerrod H. Woods, 23.
Woods was one of two men fatally shot Dec. 14, 2015 during a robbery near East 73rd Street and Wabash Avenue. On Friday, On Friday, the man convicted in those killings, Jimmie Verge, was sentenced to 45 years in prison.
Condolences and relief
Baker said there was no clear motive in the killings. “To the families, there’s no motive that makes sense. There just isn’t,” she said.
John Palmer’s family has endured a difficult year since his death a year ago.
He left behind his wife, two grown children, two grandchildren and a large extended collection of family and friends.
Palmer was found shot several times, including in the back, on Aug. 19, 2016, near the Indian Creek Trail. His body had been dragged off the trail into some woods.
Police found a t-shirt at the scene with DNA that matched Scott — who, a year later, under arrest for the Gibbons killing, admitted killing Palmer, a man who relatives said liked to go on long walks through nature.
“He was walking love,” said Janelle Kristian of Olathe, Palmer’s first cousin. The two grew up in the same house as children. He was, she said, “a man of integrity, honesty and caring.”
Palmer wasn’t there for the gathering of some 65 people who always celebrate Thanksgiving together, Kristian said. It’s been hard “knowing we won’t see him again.”
But there was solace, she said, when family members began sharing the news from the prosecutor’s office, that someone had been arrested and charged.
“I feel glad to think maybe they have found and stopped who was doing this horrible thing,” she said. “It’s an awful thing to go through.”
Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith said at least 50 law enforcement personnel have worked on the investigation of the killings. The FBI assisted. On Tuesday, Smith said he extended his condolences to the families of the victims.
“We know this has been an incredibly painful and difficult time for each of you,” Smith said. “We have worked diligently to bring the person responsible for these crimes to prosecution.”
In June, Kansas City police released a 29-second surveillance video showing a man walking along Indian Creek — a man who police thought might have information about the killing in May of Coach’s co-owner Darby.
Darby’s body was found on the trail about a half-mile east of the bar. He had been felled by a single gunshot to the back of the head. Police found a single .22-caliber casing nearby.
As was his custom, Darby had been up early in the morning walking his two dogs, who remained at the scene.
In interviews with detectives, Scott allegedly confirmed he was the man in the video circulated by police.
Darby’s killing, like two others in which Scott has been named as a suspect, remains under investigation.
The other two victims were:
David Lenox, 67, found killed Feb. 27 in the 9900 block of Walnut Street. Lenox had been shot in the back of the head just a few steps away from his front door while walking one of his dogs.
Like Darby’s pets, Lenox’s small brown dog sat waiting next to his owner’s body when officers arrived. A single .380-caliber shell casing lay nearby.
Timothy S. Rice, 57, of Excelsior Springs, was found dead April 4 inside a shelter at Minor Park, near East Red Bridge Road and 110th Street. He had been shot multiple times, including in the head. Police found several 9mm shell casings at the scene.
Two hours after Rice was found, Scott reported a 9mm handgun stolen.
Scott was in custody Tuesday at the Jackson County jail.
John Sharp, a former Kansas City councilman who now leads the South Kansas City Alliance and was at the press conference Tuesday, said people living near the trails can be relieved to know a suspect has been arrested and charged.
“I think it will bring everybody peace of mind,” Sharp said. “We had our south Kansas City Alliance problem-solving event on Saturday and a lady told me that how much she missed walking on the trails but her adult children wouldn’t let her walk on them anymore.
“I think she wanted me to reassure her it was safe and of course I couldn’t do it,” he said. “But now I can.”