A disappearance. A mysterious drowning. A death re-examined.
Cheryl Morris had no way of knowing who she was dealing with when she met Robert Gross.
Morris had grown up in the 1950s, riding her horse Maria on the family farm in Belton and winning ribbons at the American Royal.
In high school at Shawnee Mission North, she played bass guitar in an all-girl rock band called the KC Kittens.
When she scored tickets to see singer Gino Vannelli at the Uptown Theater, Morris brought along her little cousin Debbie and talked her way backstage to meet the band.
To Debbie, Morris was the cool older cousin. Everyone seemed attracted to her confidence, zest for life and 1970s hippie style.
Morris, 31, stayed close to her family while going to college part-time in Kansas City. She took classes at Longview Community College and waited tables at Patrikio’s Mexican Restaurant at 99th Street and Holmes Road.
That’s where Gross found her in 1981.
Gross, then 30 years old, had been hanging around Patrikio’s for years. It was one of the oldest Mexican restaurants in the city, and his mother had worked there as a waitress, just like Morris.
Morris and Gross went out a couple of times but she rejected him because of his sexual advances. She said he was weird.
After that, Morris started having car trouble, which a mechanic diagnosed as sugar in the gas tank — just as happened to Gross’ former girlfriend Janet Manuel.
The harassment followed a stalking playbook that would become clear to investigators later.
Someone cut the wires to the headlights and taillights of Morris’ car. One night in the Patrikio’s parking lot, she found the tires slashed.
Gross kept calling Morris, at home and at work. Her fear of him is the last thing relatives remember her talking about. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” said cousin Patrick Cook. “She was scared of him.”
When Morris again refused to go out with Gross, he exploded: “You don’t have to worry anymore, because you will not see him or anyone else again!”
Without a trace
About 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 4, 1981, Morris finished her shift at Patrikio’s and called a friend from school to say she’d come over to study for an exam.
Then she walked out the door and vanished.
Morris’ family, immediately sensing something wrong, reported her missing.
Kansas City police found Morris’ car outside her school friend’s apartment, but the friend hadn’t seen her.
A dozen co-workers from the restaurant searched the surrounding woods and stream beds.
Four days after Morris disappeared, her mother asked police if Gross’ name had come up in the investigation.
It hadn’t. But they recognized Gross’ name and made the connection to the killings of Wanda Conkling and William Cadwalader two years earlier. The house where the couple died was less than half a mile from the restaurant.
Standing at the door to his home, Gross told police he knew Morris but he denied they had dated. A detective noted that Gross was uncooperative and wouldn’t let him inside.
Confronted with the possibility that Robert J. Gross was now responsible for three deaths, police redoubled their efforts.
“It’s that same kind of M.O. we saw,” said Kansas City police detective Gary Jenkins, now retired, who drew an assignment to a unit dedicated to investigating Gross. “Here’s two of these that he did. And he’s going to do it again. He’s a serial killer.
“When Cheryl Morris disappeared, they said, ‘Let’s go, we’ve got to go on this guy.’”
This was the second time police assembled a special team to catch Gross.
They put Gross under surveillance day and night, for months. It wasn’t easy: The detectives quickly figured out that Gross was intelligent, paranoid and knew police were following him.
He constantly checked behind him for tails, checked his car for radio transponders and abruptly doubled back in traffic to lose his pursuers.
The surveillance team worked in shifts, using different cars and deploying a motorcycle to speed behind Gross when he drove erratically. They would have used a helicopter if they could get one.
“This was before GPS tracking,” Jenkins said. “He was hard to follow. He was pretty watchful. It was hard to find a pattern on him because he didn’t work. He didn’t keep a regular schedule.”
Even examining Gross’ garbage for clues wasn’t simple. He made a point of carrying his trash bags out to the trucks himself, so police disguised themselves as garbage workers. But it didn’t lead to a break in the case.
They even watched as Gross cavalierly shoplifted from big box stores to supplement his income — the source of which was unclear since it appeared to police that he didn’t have a job.
They didn’t arrest him for stealing. They were looking to bust him for murder.
“We expended a ton of effort trying to stay after the guy,” Jenkins said. “It’s just tough.”
Morris was presumed dead. But without a body, it would be hard to make a murder case.
It can be done. Johnson County would prove that in 1990, when a jury convicted serial killer Richard Grissom even though his three victims were never found. But it is unusual.
The Morris case went cold and she remained listed as a missing person for years. Gross’ attorneys argued that she was alive somewhere, possibly in California.
Her family had to live with the uncertainty.
For her mother, Alice Eaton, that meant torture every time the phone rang or she heard a knock at the door.
Many times, she answered the door for a police detective holding a scrap of women’s clothing found who knows where, asking, “Does this look familiar?” It never did.
Sometimes when Eaton went to the mall, she would see a young woman ahead of her, about the same size and with the same blond hair as Morris, and she would imagine it could be her. It never was.
The family could not understand why police didn’t arrest Gross. A lingering anger became part of their life from then on.
They agreed with police about one thing: Gross wouldn’t stop.
In 1983, two years after Morris disappeared, a former high school girlfriend of Gross’ turned up dead in her backyard swimming pool.
Theresa Barnes had drowned. It was ruled an accident by the medical examiner, but when Gross’ name surfaced in the investigation, detectives’ ears perked up.
They took notice of any women connected to Gross who ended up dead, which happened more than once in the early 1980s.
Barnes and Gross knew each other from Bishop Hogan High. When she died, Barnes was 30 years old, married with three children in Kansas City.
She and her husband had gone out to dinner. When they came home, he went to bed while she stayed up to do paperwork and take a late-night dip.
The husband found her body floating in the pool about 3 a.m.
The death wasn’t investigated as a homicide. But when detectives sussed out the connection to Gross, they drove out to the house to talk to Barnes’ husband.
The husband was surprised at the detectives’ questions. He didn’t suspect foul play. He told them that, as far as he knew, his wife hadn’t heard from Gross in many years.
The one thing she’d ever said was that Gross had once set her closet on fire in a fit of anger.
Still, the detectives wondered. About six months after Barnes died, they received an anonymous tip that she had written a letter to someone in Texas saying Gross had come back into her life. They never found the letter.
Police also were taking another look at the death of Gross’ aunt three years earlier.
Juanita Lovitch, 63, was last seen alive on July 21, 1980, while doing yard work at her Kansas City, Kan., home. She told a neighbor she didn’t feel well and went inside.
Two days passed before her body was found floating in her bathtub.
Small amounts of blood remained in the bedroom, on some clothing and on the bathroom floor.
When the deputy coroner had her body removed from the tub, he found a small knife underneath her.
An autopsy found no obvious stab wounds, however, and the coroner listed the death as occurring from natural causes — most likely heat exhaustion.
But detectives took a greater interest when they discovered that Gross collected a hefty sum from Lovitch’s life insurance.
The Wyandotte County coroner’s office told The Star this summer that Lovitch’s death has been reclassified as a homicide. Her case remains unsolved.
For the first time since he was 15, Gross was arrested in 1983 — and then arrested again. In one case, police accused him of stalking a woman into a laundromat on Wornall Road and groping her. In the other incident, prosecutors charged Gross with “indecent conduct.”
In both cases, prosecutors dropped the charges when the victims didn’t show up in court.
Other complaints similarly went nowhere.
One woman said Gross stole her underwear and a swimming suit in a burglary, returning the swimsuit top with the nipple area cut away.
Police also suspected that Gross was the man who followed a woman into a grocery store to give her a flower, shortly before she received a series of threatening phone calls and someone broke into her house.
On it went. Women across the city ran the risk of crossing paths with Gross and had no warning of the danger. Who would be his next victim?
Seemingly unable to stop him, police reached out to experts just to try to understand what kind of serial killer they were dealing with.
Jekyll and Hyde
In 1984, three years after Morris disappeared, police commissioned a psychological profile of Gross from Richard Dunlop, a local specialist in neuropsychological testing.
Dunlop summarized his conclusions: “We can assume antisocial personality disorder together with compulsive traits, avoidance, borderline sadism, and marginally paranoidal thinking and behavior.”
Today, psychologists suggest two possibilities.
Gross’ crimes may be driven by a condition called borderline personality disorder. Or, he could be a psychopath. Possibly both.
Borderline personality disorder would explain how quick Gross is to create intense — but unstable — personal relationships.
It’s called the “Jekyll and Hyde” scenario: The man seems nice during the honeymoon phase of a relationship. Then, the woman notices he is a little clingy. Jealous and possessive. She distances herself, maybe breaks things off.
That’s when he attacks: with fists, or a tire iron, or a shotgun — whatever is at hand.
If he is a psychopath, he doesn’t really care about the women. He cares about being disrespected by anybody. And he’ll kill to punish them for it.
This modern analysis wasn’t available to police in the 1980s, even as they recognized a clear pattern of behavior: the burglaries, abusive relationships, harassing phone calls, car vandalism and stalking.
Most serial killers are caught within five years. Gross was not.
But as his obsessive persecution of women continued, he did slip up — in spectacular fashion.