The first killings: Happy honeymooners. And a deadly love triangle.
When Robert Gross pulled up in his blue Plymouth Duster at the V.I.P. Health Studio and Massage Parlor on Truman Road, few knew him as a violent creep.
At 27 years old, Gross stood 6 feet tall, a well-muscled 180 pounds. He dressed casually but carefully, trimming his beard close.
He worked as a sheet metal worker, but seemed more interested in his extracurricular activities.
Soon, he would be a suspected killer.
Sleeping by day and prowling by night, Gross lurked in adult bookstores and told people he aspired to run a “stable” of prostitutes. A loner who told sick jokes about paraplegics, he kept guns handy and — when someone crossed him — liked to get even.
The V.I.P. had no storefront. It was a trailer set in some gravel by the side of the road, tucked into a strip of liquor stores and dirty book shops in what locals call the Dog Patch — an unincorporated area between Kansas City and Independence. It was the kind of place where two neighbors could have a gunfight in a front yard without getting a visit from the police.
By the winter of 1978, Gross had become a regular customer at the V.I.P. But that didn’t make him a valued client.
The women there didn’t tell police exactly why, but if they had Gross as a customer once, they didn’t want him again.
Despite his reputation, Gross found one V.I.P. employee willing to date him: Wanda Conkling.
“She was an innocent person,” said Kathy Zeysing, who befriended Conkling around this time. “A real sweet little thing, real cute girl.”
Conkling, a mother of two young boys, had grown up attending the Shawnee Church of the Nazarene and graduated from Shawnee Mission West High School. She had been a bank teller before finding work in massage parlors.
She was temporarily separated from her husband William Cadwalader, a sometime painting contractor who ran with a crowd of professional shoplifters on the margins of organized crime.
With Cadwalader, Conkling endured a tumultuous, on-again-off-again relationship punctuated by frequent beatings.
“Not again! Not again!” Conkling cried as Cadwalader laid into her for what would turn out to be the last time.
Desperate to get away, Conkling ran straight to Gross. “When Willie would knock my teeth out, Bob would pay to fix them,” she told a friend.
For a while, the pair seemed to supply each other with something essential: Conkling’s need to be needed, and Gross’ demand for control.
“Wanda thought he looked like Burt Reynolds,” Zeysing said. “He was kind of handsome, I guess.”
Zeysing’s skepticism turned to alarm when she realized a startling coincidence. Conkling’s new boyfriend was the same guy who, as a teenager, had been caught sneaking into her older sister’s house on Tracy Avenue a decade before.
She called Conkling to warn her: Be careful with Robert Gross.
A second honeymoon
In early 1979, Conkling and Cadwalader reconciled, living together again at their house in a cul-de-sac near Bannister Road and McGee Street.
Conkling stopped seeing Gross, but he didn’t accept that it was over.
He stewed over the idea that Conkling rejected him, and he complained to anyone who would listen: “She made me love her and then she did this to me.”
Gross kept calling the couple’s house. Afraid of what would happen if her husband picked up the phone, Conkling asked friends to tell Gross to stop.
Conkling told friends she was getting scared because a car kept pulling into her driveway at night, shining its headlights through her front windows and driving away.
On Monday, Feb. 5, 1979, a friend told Gross to let it go, that Conkling and Cadwalader were leaving the next day on a second honeymoon.
Gross snapped back that he was going over to confront them before they left.
Conkling and Cadwalader were never seen alive again.
Friends called the house the next day but no one answered. For the rest of the week, every time the mailman came by, he noticed the front door was left open. The family dog, a Great Dane named Cleo who usually barked at him, had disappeared.
Finally, that Friday, a neighbor called police. Officers discovered the bloodied bodies of husband and wife intertwined on their living room floor, killed execution-style with a shotgun.
Cadwalader’s body showed scattered wounds from 12-gauge pellets in the arm, shoulder, back and head.
Conkling lay with her head over her husband’s chest as if she had come to his aid. A shotgun blast had obliterated her face.
Someone had come through the front door and killed them just as they prepared to leave on their trip. The couple had plane tickets to California booked for that Tuesday — the day after they were last seen alive. A suitcase, also torn by a shotgun blast, sat by the front door.
Wanda’s friend Kathy Zeysing saw it on the news.
She couldn’t mistake the couple’s home. During their recent rocky period, Cadwalader had painted a large heart on the front of the house with the inscription “Wanda and Wil 1976-1979.”
Zeysing went straight to the nearest police station and told officers Gross was the killer.
Conkling’s two sons, ages 7 and 12, lived with their father. He spared them the details but told them it was Gross who killed their mother and stepfather.
For most of their lives, the brothers didn’t know much about what happened to their mother, or about Gross’ other crimes. Only decades later did they learn the rest of the story.
Immediately after finding the bodies, Kansas City police assigned a special 12-member squad to investigate.
It would be the first of several teams assembled to solve Gross-related crimes over the next 40 years.
This one started at a disadvantage, with about four days passing between the killings and the discovery of the crime scene, no eyewitnesses, no useful fingerprints and no physical clues.
The murder weapon, being a shotgun, would make any kind of ballistics evidence more difficult. The shotgun left behind pellets — not a bullet that could be matched to a particular gun.
And the killer had taken the gun with him.
In the late 1970s, it was also getting harder to solve murders in Kansas City. By the end of the decade, about three out of every 10 homicides went unsolved. In 1978, the homicide count had jumped to 120, the most in nearly a decade, kicking off a vicious four-year period of fast-paced killing.
The Conkling and Cadwalader homicides went down as the seventh and eighth of 1979. The year would end with 119.
Detectives soon learned about the love triangle and Gross’ collision course with the newly-reunited husband and wife. They surmised that a jealous Gross killed the couple.
But members of the squad also pursued a competing theory that started with Cadwalader as the real target, assassinated by criminal associates who killed his wife to eliminate her as a witness.
Police knew Cadwalader was part of a shoplifting ring connected — tenuously — to the Kansas City mob run by brothers Nick and Carl Civella, who were then at the height of their reputation for gangland hits.
These were wild times in Kansas City. A mob war rocked the city with explosions, bodies left in car trunks and shotgun murders in restaurants.
Four days after the bodies were found, a police major told The Star that the investigation was shifting toward Willie Cadwalader as the main target of the killing.
Members of the special squad plumbed the depths of Cadwalader’s underworld connections, plodding through a labyrinth of blind alleys, running down bits of gossip and searching for reasons why someone might want Cadwalader dead.
They probed his standing among the crew of thieves selling stolen merchandise through Tiger’s Records, a store on Independence Avenue operated by mob figure Anthony “Tiger” Cardarella.
They questioned associates nicknamed “Blondie Joe,” “Big John” and “Bobby D.”
They drove to the federal prison in Leavenworth to interview an inmate who dismissed them with a four-letter word.
They flew to Portland, Ore., where they were told Cadwalader feared being murdered at the behest of a fellow crook whose wife he had angered. Then they came back and drove all the way across Missouri to find out that story was bunk.
They put the couple’s mailman under hypnosis.
At the same time detectives came up empty-handed with the Cadwalader theory, members of the homicide squad were still conducting a parallel investigation focused on their first suspect: Robert Gross.
‘You know in your heart’
Police found out how Wanda Conkling met Gross at the V.I.P. massage parlor. The women who worked there told detectives that Gross was “weird.”
Technically, company policy forbade Wanda from dating Gross, because he was a customer. But the owner made an exception. He knew about the beatings Wanda was taking from her husband.
Women working in massage parlors had reason to be on edge in 1979. Wanda Conkling was the third to be killed in the area within a year.
The previous May, a massage parlor worker had turned up dead in the Missouri River, killed by her boss. In October, in Sedalia, a suspicious fire at a massage parlor killed employee Cherrilyn Stark.
Police investigating Gross talked to his neighbors and started putting together a picture of a dangerous man.
Some told of the guns Gross kept in his house, including a 12-gauge shotgun — the same as the gun used in the killings. One neighbor described how Gross ranted about hating women, hating his mother.
Learning that Gross had a job with a construction company, a couple of detectives interviewed his boss at a work site at the University of Kansas Medical Center. They asked if Gross had been there the week of the killings.
The boss said Gross left on Monday — the day Conkling and Cadwalader were last seen alive. Gross told his foreman he was taking the rest of the week off to “straighten out ... family problems.”
Gross’ parents at first refused to talk. When they changed their minds, Gross’ mother said her son was a “good boy” and wasn’t seeing any girls.
He came home every Sunday to drop off his laundry, she said. In fact, the detective had just missed him.
Gross had not mentioned any of his friends getting killed.
Three days after the bodies were found, Gross showed up at a police station with his attorney, who insisted that officers could not ask Gross any questions.
Police were allowed to take several Polaroids of Gross and a set of fingerprints before he left.
Some detectives felt sure Gross was their man.
“That is the most frustrating thing,” said retired Kansas City detective Robert Kun, a member of the special squad. “You know in your heart and in your gut who the suspect is but you don’t have the evidence to prove it ... It makes you feel halfway inadequate.”
While police became convinced the killer was Gross, a lot of time and manpower had gone down the Cadwalader rabbit hole.
The police were right to look into both theories, said Charles Wellford, a University of Maryland criminologist who reviewed a copy of the case file this year at the request of The Star.
But the whole investigation looks rushed and sloppy, he said. Detectives uncovered promising leads and then didn’t follow up. They went too fast and gave up too soon.
“I figured they knew who did it but they couldn’t prove it,” Wellford said. “They didn’t have enough, and lost interest.”
Meanwhile, Gross walked the streets of Kansas City. And as police learned from one neighbor, there was a lot more going on with him than just a double homicide.
In the first week of the Conkling-Cadwalader investigation, police knocked on the front door of Gross’ neighbor across the street, Deena Caywood.
Caywood assumed the detectives had come to ask about that woman Gross beat with a tire iron.
Two years earlier, in 1977, Gross had picked up a sex worker on the street and savagely attacked her when she didn’t do what he wanted. He told police he was robbed, and no one was arrested.
No, the detectives said. They were here about the married couple that got shot to death.
Caywood and Gross were about the same age, in their late 20s, and he often wandered over to her house to play with her kids. He had taken her 3-year-old son to the zoo.
Some people in the neighborhood were leery of Gross — he had that effect on people. But with Caywood’s motorcycle-riding husband and his tough friends hanging around, Gross stayed on his best behavior.
A few days before the homicides, Gross came over to return an electric heater he had borrowed, and out of nowhere started telling Caywood about a married woman he was dating.
Gross complained that the woman was going back to her husband. Gross said he was in love with her and couldn’t understand why she was leaving him for a man who beat her all the time.
Not long after her visit with the police, Caywood started having trouble with Gross.
Soon, she would have her own story to tell, one that painted Gross as a violent man willing to go to extraordinary lengths to take revenge for the smallest perceived slight.
He stormed into her house one day and assaulted a female friend of hers who was lying down in a guest room. Caywood found Gross gripping the woman by her shoulders and shaking her like a rag doll.
Caywood ordered Gross out of the house. “You get out of here, I don’t know what’s wrong with you!” she shouted at him.
Later, Caywood’s husband went over to Gross’ house to straighten things out. Caywood suspects the humiliation left Gross wanting to get even.
Not long after, the Caywoods were camping at Truman Lake. Sound asleep in the middle of the night, they awoke to a police officer smacking the side of their tent.
“Your house is on fire, I suggest you go home,” he told them.
Caywood and her husband left their kids with friends and jumped on their Harley, riding home at dawn.
The fire department was still at the scene. Gross stood in his front yard, watching.
They never spoke again.
Nothing remained of the house but the frame. The curtains melted off the walls.
Caywood always thought Gross did it.
“Just like everything else, they could never prove it,” she said. “We know he did it. Everybody around there knew he done it.”
The family rebuilt the house and stayed for a while, but Caywood sometimes thought Gross was stalking her. At home at night, she heard footsteps in the snow outside her windows and found the footprints in the morning.
Her husband gave her a gun and told her to shoot if Gross came around again. But she never caught him on the property, and after she moved away she never saw him again.
Others found, to their dismay, that Gross kept coming back.
Another cold case
Years after the killings, Kathy Zeysing got a job at the V.I.P. massage parlor where her friend Wanda Conkling had worked.
One day in the early 1980s, who should saunter through the door but Robert Gross.
Zeysing couldn’t believe he had the nerve to show his face. Everyone knew he killed Wanda.
Yet Gross still hung around. He had been spotted in the parking lot, writing down license plate numbers of the women who worked there.
The owner had tacked up Gross’ name and picture by the front desk, with a number to call if he ever came in again.
Now that he was here, Zeysing fled into a rear room, out of sight.
After a few seconds, Gross let himself out, leaving nothing behind but the tinkling of the bell hanging over the front door.
Zeysing didn’t see him again, or hear much of him, for decades. Then, a few years ago, she got a call from Conkling’s son Jason.
Jason had grown up — he’s 47 now, and his brother Richard Jr. is a 51-year-old grandfather in Shawnee.
The brothers wanted to know what happened to their mother. Zeysing told Jason what she knew: about the V.I.P., about Wanda and Willie, about Gross.
The brothers visited police headquarters, where detectives let them see the homicide file: a three-inch folder of reports, crime scene diagrams and graphic photos. It brought to life in vivid detail a childhood they only faintly remembered.
Gross seemed to be the obvious suspect. Jason asked police if they could investigate the case again.
Sgt. Ben Caldwell, of the Kansas City Police Department’s missing person and cold case squad, agreed to look at the file. He didn’t make any promises.
“As far as I know, it is nothing, there are no new developments on it,” Caldwell said. “I can’t speak to the investigation.”
Still, Jason hoped his mother’s killing might finally be solved.
He wasn’t alone. Just down the road, in Mission, was another family who had similar questions about the unsolved case of Cheryl Morris, a 31-year-old part-time waitress and college student who disappeared in 1981.
That investigation also led straight to the door of Robert J. Gross.