Stalk. Murder. Repeat.
A voice cried out in the dark: “Fire!”
It was a witness who saw flames eating up the second-floor apartment where Ying Li, a 52-year-old woman, lived.
Li herself made not a sound.
Fires had been staged in several places inside the apartment. Li’s body lay in the living room, decapitated.
Li had been advertising herself online as a massage worker, police learned — a clue that would link her murder to a series of crimes that began in the 1960s. Homicide detectives suspected the killer was a man long known to police as an incredibly violent predator.
It was not the first time they had connected him to a woman’s death, or a suspicious fire.
Yet, he had remained elusive to them for more than four decades. And as the smoke cleared that morning, he was still a free man.
The story of Robert J. Gross begins in an era before DNA evidence, at the dawn of the FBI’s profiling science. It traverses Kansas City’s heyday of violence, bypasses the modernization of police forensic techniques, and deposits Gross deep in the 21st century with his worst crimes unpunished.
Generations of survivors, victims’ families and flummoxed detectives are familiar with Gross’ bloody trail of death and destruction. Women he encountered a generation ago are still terrified to speak of him. Gross, through an attorney, declined to comment on this story.
For the first time, The Star is revealing Gross’ darkest secrets, presenting a full picture of the longtime serial murder suspect, his victims, and the prodigious efforts of police to catch a killer.
A stalker is born
It started when he was only 8 years old.
Bob Gross burned a hole in the crotch of a neighborhood girl’s underpants — while she was wearing them.
The year was 1960, and the first mark against Gross was set down in a criminal record.
The incident with the neighbor girl was brought to the attention of Gross’ parents, a mailman and a Social Security worker who both served in the military and brought a certain strictness to their Kansas City home.
Gross’ mother in particular played the role of disciplinarian. She could be tough.
Gross hated her.
He soon got into more trouble as a teenager. Suspected of window peeping, he would twice be caught breaking into homes.
Gross’ first arrest came in 1965. Police caught him in a neighbor’s home, masturbating in the bathroom while wearing the panties of a young girl who lived in the house. He was 13.
Two years later, he got caught again, sneaking into the home of a young mother who lived behind his parents near 61st Street and Tracy Avenue.
The woman, recounting the story more than 50 years later, asked that her name not be published. Living in Colorado, under a different name, she still fears Gross could harm her.
In 1967, the young mother had recently moved into the house with her husband just before the birth of their first child.
“I felt safe in that neighborhood,” the woman said. When the couple went to bed at night, they left the windows open.
But that sense of safety soon faded. They heard noises outside their bedroom window. Later, they suspected it was the teenage Gross, who lived in the basement of his parents’ home, just across their adjoining backyards.
“That could have been good window-peeking, if you were into that,” the woman said.
She started noticing things out of place, coming home to find a cupboard open, a shade left up, or some money missing from the dining room buffet.
It wasn’t quite enough to call the police but it bothered her.
Gross finally got caught in the act one night when the young mother took her child to her parents’ house while her husband was out of town.
An alert neighbor saw lights going on and off in the house and called to report it. The woman’s father grabbed his gun and they drove over, just ahead of police.
The young mother, waiting outside in the car, watched her father and the police storm into the house, lights going on in every window, followed by a commotion.
They found Gross in the bathroom, this time wearing the woman’s slip, garter and hosiery.
The woman watched officers lead Gross out of the house. Even at 15, he was 6 feet tall, she remembers. It was the only time she ever saw him with her own eyes.
She fainted in the car.
“I just lost it,” she said. “It scared me to death.”
The police took Gross to the station but let him off the hook when his parents promised to get him psychological help, the woman was told.
About a week after the incident, Gross’ parents visited the young mother, crying and saying Gross was a good boy.
“He played basketball, he went to Mass every Sunday, went to a parochial school, something was wrong, he wasn’t like that,” she remembers them saying. “They said he had never done anything like that before.”
Sometime after, the woman received a call about Gross from a social worker, who assured her that such behavior was not unusual for a boy that age.
“They recommended that we not do anything further,” the woman said.
Experts understand those burglaries very differently today. An early history of breaking into homes and stealing — or trying on — women’s undergarments can be a strong indicator of future violent behavior.
Many serial killers cut their teeth committing sexually-motivated burglaries, studies show.
The young mother sensed the danger. She burned all of the clothing that Gross might have touched.
“I was petrified at all times,” she said. “It was very traumatic.”
She couldn’t stand to live in that house anymore, and moved out as soon as possible. But Gross still haunted her.
Years later, while looking for a new house in south Kansas City, she made an offer on a home on 87th Street only to find out the Gross family had moved in nearby. She scrambled to get out of the deal.
Later still, the woman’s younger sister would, by coincidence, have her own run-in with Gross.
Gross avoided trouble with police for the rest of high school.
To those who didn’t know about his penchant for burglaries, he projected a picture of normalcy. An A and B student at Bishop Hogan High School, he played football and routinely stood out as the top salesman in the school’s annual World’s Finest Chocolate fundraisers.
After graduation in 1969, he went off to study engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla.
In his junior year, Gross dropped out and got a job as a sheet metal worker back in Kansas City.
He would terrorize women here for the next four decades.
Living in fear
Among the first to see Gross’ capacity for violence was Janet Manuel.
Manuel was in nursing school at Research Medical Center when she started dating 22-year-old Gross in the fall of 1973.
To Manuel, just out of high school and still living at home with her parents, Gross seemed nice enough. She thought he was “OK-looking.” He bought her little presents. She allowed him to take naked photos of her. She met his parents: an aggressive mother, she recalled, and a meek father.
It didn’t take long before Gross’ rage and paranoia started showing.
Soon, Manuel lived in fear of him. Mad with jealousy, Gross repeatedly beat her, pummeling her across her arms and back.
The abuse nearly turned deadly one night when Gross found Manuel in a nightclub at the Country Club Plaza, dancing with another man.
Gross sat down at a table with Manuel’s friends and started pulling out the photos he had taken of her.
Mortified, Manuel left the nightclub. Gross followed her across the darkened parking lot and into her car, where he pinned her head in his lap, covered her mouth with one hand and pinched her nostrils shut with the other. She couldn’t breathe.
“Do you know how easy it would be for me to kill you?” he asked.
Manuel thought she was going to die. She prayed for help.
“I don’t know how I broke loose from him,” she said later. “I think God helped me out.”
Gross left, but the nightmare wasn’t over.
As Manuel drove home, she realized Gross must have sabotaged her car — it suddenly wouldn’t go any faster than 10 mph. When she finally arrived at her parents’ house, Gross was there, showing her mother the naked photos.
Manuel begged her mother not to listen to Gross, to make him leave. She pointed to her face, where Gross’ grip had been so strong it left bruises.
After Gross left, Manuel called the police. They told her there was nothing they could do, if Gross wasn’t at the house at that moment.
“No, that’s silly” Manuel said. “C’mon, take a report. You don’t understand, this is serious. He tried to close my airway.”
Gross started calling Manuel’s house at all hours of the night, until finally the family took the phone off the hook.
Manuel’s father saw Gross skulking outside the house in the dark. Later, Gross came back to slash the tires on Manuel’s car and pour sugar in the gas tank, she told police.
One night, Manuel’s brother kept watch with a gun, but Gross didn’t show. The family didn’t bother calling police again.
The nuisance phone calls and car vandalism would become familiar earmarks of Gross’ stalking habits in the future.
Any woman’s pleas for help from police would likely have fallen on deaf ears in those days. In past decades, police often had to witness a misdemeanor to make a case on it. Even if Manuel had reported the harassment that followed, in the 1970s it likely wouldn’t have been understood as stalking the way it is today.
After about seven months, Gross moved on. But like the young mother whose house he burglarized, Manuel kept finding Gross around unexpected corners.
Years later, he showed up in the emergency room where Manuel worked as a nurse. She hid from him.
When a homicide detective came around with questions about Gross, she told her story, down to the smothering hands and slashed tires.
Moving out of state, Manuel lost track of it all, but she never forgot.
Even decades later, living far away, under her married name, Manuel still knows the fear.
“This was just the beginning,” Manuel, now 65, said on a scorching summer afternoon this year, sitting on her front steps in a mobile home park in Florida.
“It just makes you think, who dropped the ball here?”
Manuel thanks God she survived. Others would not be so lucky.
Reporter Mitch Mitchell of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed to this series.