Kansas City’s terrifying year of homicides — the worst in 24 years

Two men were working on the evening of Dec. 7 at a small convenience store in Kansas City — one of America’s most murderous cities in the midst of its deadliest year in more than two decades.

An angry 36-year-old father stalked alone through the store, distracted, on his phone, in a heated argument with his 18-year-old son.

One of the workers, 57-year-old Daryl Singleton, decided to take a cigarette break.

He stepped just outside the glass doors onto the sidewalk at 24th Street and Cypress Avenue and leaned against an ice cooler.

“And I’m standing right here,” recalled the other worker, Fernando Hall, at the front of the store, “…watching Thursday Night Football on that TV.”

At that point, just past 7:30 p.m., Kansas City had already suffered 135 homicides in 2017 — an epidemic that would reach 150 by the end of the year, the highest total by far since a crack-gang-fueled swell of killings peaked at 153 in 1993.

One of the repeating terrors of a brutal 2017 was about to play out — an angry young man unable to resolve a dispute was coming with a gun.

The son who had been on the other end of the father’s phone call arrived by car. The father stepped out to confront him and stood shouting in the open entry of the store.

Hall told the father, “Close the door!”

Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!….some of the gunshots pierced the front glass … Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!

When it stopped, Hall ran to the door and pushed it open. In the gunsmoke he saw two men down: Not only the 36-year-old father but Daryl Singleton too, his co-worker, known by many as “Jelly Roe,” an elementary school chef, a military veteran.

“Daryl! Daryl! Daryl!” Hall shouted.

Shell casings — police would find 12 — littered the concrete. Both men were dead or dying. The son and his car were gone. A neighbor ran on the scene and Hall shouted at him about his co-worker, “Why’d they kill him?! Why’d they kill him?!”

It was one of many such scenes in a year that marked the first time the city experienced three consecutive years of significant homicide increases since the late 1980s. From a historic low of 82 in 2014, the number rose to 111 in 2015, 131 in 2016 and at least 150 this year.

Kansas City was already in the Top 10 for worst homicide rates among major cities before 2017.

St. Louis has also grappled with rising homicides, recording 203 for the year by late December.

Across the country, the story has been different. Despite warnings of a new crime wave, the murder rate in the nation’s 30 largest cities is estimated to decline by about 5.6 percent from last year, according to a recent analysis of preliminary data by the Brennan Center for Justice.

That includes a big drop in the Chicago murder rate, which is projected to decline by about 12 percent after two years of significant increases. Detroit is projected to see a notable decrease of nearly 10 percent.

Such ups and downs underline a point frequently made by criminologists: Because homicide numbers in general are small compared with population, their variation from one year to the next may tell us little.

Most experts measure the change in decades. Violent crime in the U.S. remains near the bottom of a 30-year downward trend.

In New York, city leaders this year are marveling at the lowest homicide total since reliable records have been kept: 286 as of Wednesday. Crime overall in that city has declined for 27 straight years and is at its lowest level since the 1950s.

Officials there have credited recent drops to a police focus on gangs and repeat offenders. But Kansas City’s No Violence Alliance takes a similar approach without the same results.

The Kansas City homicide rate has generally followed the national trend, rising in the 1990s and declining since then. But it has declined more slowly in Kansas City than in other cities. Local criminologists have struggled to find the reason for it.

On the national level, experts have offered a variety of possible factors driving the long-term trends in U.S. crime: macroeconomics, mass incarceration, demographics, policing advances, lead poisoning and others. In urban areas such as Kansas City, experts talk about economic deprivation, racial ethnic segregation and economic diversity.

Individually, the motives behind the killings are usually familiar. Nearly half of Kansas City homicides with known motives in 2017 were ignited by arguments, police data show.

The killers, where known, were usually young — two out of three were between ages 17 and 34. Nine out of 10 were males. Three-fourths of them were black. The victims, too, were mostly young black men.

Most homicides occur between people who are known to each other or have some kind of relationship, police say.

And about 85 percent of the time, the murder weapon was a firearm.

More guns than ever are available, as seen in the record number of background checks for gun sales in FBI data, and in an explosion in reported gun thefts in Kansas City — up some 40 percent since 2015.

Solving cases, especially in years when killings occur in such great numbers, has proven a challenge. Nearly one in two of the city’s homicides in 2017 remain unsolved.

In 74 of them, the killers are unknown to police or there wasn’t enough evidence gathered for prosecutors to file charges. That means killing someone in Kansas City brings about a 50-50 chance of being arrested for it, a problem that galls police and prosecutors but is not new.

Bitter experience has shown that shootings — whether they result in death or not — lead to more shootings. Just like homicides, nonfatal shootings have increased over the past three years. In 2016 the city counted 477 nonfatal shootings. In 2017 the number reached 501 by Thursday.

There is no recognizable epidemic this time like the crack gangs of the past to easily explain this terrifying surge. Issues around conflict resolution, gun culture and strained communities are harder to pin down.

“There are not necessarily any noticeable trends,” said Kansas City police spokeswoman Capt. Stacey Graves, “just more homicides.”

The alleged gunman at the convenience store, Reginald E. Jones Jr., would turn himself in four days later to be charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of his father, Reginald E. Jones Sr., and Singleton.

They were homicides 136 and 137.

“Look here,” Hall said back at the convenience store. He pointed to a nick in the corner of the wall where it juts away from the front door alcove. He had been standing on the other side of that nick. The hole in the front window, he pointed out, showed that the bullet, if it had not been deflected, surely would have hit him.

So Hall, possibly by inches, avoided becoming No. 138. That fate came four days later to 23-year-old Alexxandra Christian Sonny Morris, whose body was found near 70th Street and Kensington Avenue, fatally shot and left outdoors.

Dominic Clarkson, 20, would be No. 139 the next day, shot to death outside a bait and pet supply business in the 6900 block of Blue Parkway.

“We’re picking up bodies riddled with bullets,” the Rev. Elder Lawrence Walls said, speaking at Singleton’s funeral Dec. 18.

“And everywhere there is grief.”

‘Spread like a disease’

Pale winter daylight fell on Singleton’s casket, draped in the American flag for his military service years ago.

One of his eulogizers was singing.

“I ask a question, Lord. Why so much pain?” The Rev. Bruce Whitley’s baritone voice swelled. “He knows what’s best for me, though my weary eyes can’t see…”

More than 100 people sat bowed in the pews at Kansas City’s Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church. Some of the women shouted out, “Yes! Yes!” as Whitley sang, “God has been good…He’ll dry your tears away…”

This is “the sea of faces” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said she sees when she agonizes over the weight of murder cases that keep coming to her office.

The halls of law and order are full of people striving to turn back the awful tide, she said.

Maybe, Baker said, the state is feeling the wounds of Ferguson, Mo.’s, painful revelations of racially and socially divided communities. Trust is broken and communities are “struggling with that collective fate,” she said.

Gun laws that allow people to carry weapons without a license limit law enforcement’s opportunities to intercept people in some cases before their guns fire, she said, and “frankly, that is one factor.”

Singleton didn’t carry guns, his fianceé, Melody Blankenship, said before his funeral. He was a harmless, jovial man who loved to cook, and cook well.

He had a Christmas shopping list ready, Blankenship’s daughter, LaTrease Boyd, said to the crowd at his funeral, and many of their names were on it.

Likely many would have gotten specially fried turkeys, just like he delivered to friends at Thanksgiving.

“He was a hero,” his cousin Sherrié Walker said. “He was our hero.”

Coalitions in the city have been attacking the rise in violence as a disease — a health issue — largely fueled by explosive conflicts in a culture of guns.

Community organizations like Aim4Peace and the Kansas City Police Department’s No Violence Alliance have focused on mentoring young adults and youth in high schools and middle schools.

The city’s health department, joined with the California-based Prevention Institute, is highlighting conflict resolution in its “Violence-Free KC” campaign.

Health Department Deputy Director Tracie McClendon-Cole, when the toll eclipsed 100 earlier this year, encouraged the city to carry on the work and keep faith.

“These things work,” she told The Star. “It’s just a matter of having the will and desire…” Communities need “sustainable (solutions) that truly change culture, truly change norms and truly change opportunity.”

Kansas City’s murders dominated an area-wide total that exceeded 200 lives lost to violence in 2017. The list includes people killed accidentally for being in the wrong place, people murdered in retaliation for other killings, people killed for their cars or wallets, and people killed because they courted violence.

Some of their names were Mikayla Norris, Alexis Mitchell, Lovell Smith, Alice Humphrey, Jasen Byers, Thomas Orr, Jake Wehmeyer, Ali Griffin, Frank Davila, December Htoo, Clinton Peckman …

How does this happen? Some people will blame “a small percentage of people that are morally bankrupt,” said Damon Daniel, president of the AdHoc Group Against Crime. Some will blame “a toxic behavior that has spread like a disease.” Some, he said, will blame “symptoms of poverty and economic inequities, or broken gun policies.”

“All are applicable,” Daniel said.

But there is also hope, he added, in the support of education and social services that strengthen the community’s resilience.

And there is hope, the Rev. Dorsey Golston Jr. shouted from the funeral service pulpit, in the joy of Singleton’s life.

Singleton — “Jelly Roe” — wouldn’t tolerate all this somberness, Golston said. He’d urge everyone to “pick up the phone and call somebody…knock on the door.”

He lived with “the joy!” Golston said, “that comes in the morning of another day. The joy! that reaches to the person you don’t even know.”

An epitaph

Singleton’s son, Daryl Singleton II, remembered the last time he and his father fought. Some time ago.

“And it was not really even a fight,” he said, laughing about himself and his “Pops” at the funeral. It was something clumsy, a missed haymaker. Two angry men who ended up laughing at themselves.

“We came to an understanding,” the son said. “We would just talk to each other.”