A man on fire. A lifetime of terror. Hunting a serial killer.
When Robert Gross and Dana Rexrode first saw each other at a card game in Kansas City, Kan., their meeting would have consequences for both.
For Gross, a short prison sentence. For Rexrode, a lifetime of terror.
The game had been organized on a February evening in 1984 by some of Rexrode’s friends from the Santa Fe Railway, where she worked as a dispatcher.
Rexrode found 32-year-old Gross sitting across the table from her. They hit it off.
True, he seemed a bit odd and not particularly bright. But Rexrode, 28, started going out with him. She would regret it.
When they took a ski trip to Colorado, Rexrode woke up one night to find her nightgown pulled up and the lights on, with Gross standing over her saying he was “memorizing every part of her body.”
They had been dating for six weeks when Rexrode decided they weren’t a good fit. She found him oversexed, jealous and possessive. She told Gross he was strange and she was going back to her old boyfriend.
As with Janet Manuel, Wanda Conkling, Cheryl Morris and others, Robert J. Gross did not accept her rejection.
Rexrode began getting repeated hang-up calls at her house in Merriam. When she got an unlisted number, the calls came to her at work, triggering an investigation by the railroad’s own police force.
Two months later, Gross broke into Rexrode’s house. As he had in his youthful burglaries, Gross pilfered women’s clothing — this time, a couple of Rexrode’s nightgowns and several pairs of high-heeled shoes.
He also stole her address book, some old wedding photos, pictures of the two of them on the ski trip, and a pistol.
The harassing calls continued. In one, Rexrode thought it was Gross threatening to burn her house down and rape and torture her. In another, the caller said he would put her sister’s severed head on her waterbed.
Police put Gross under surveillance. Still, he kept calling.
A month later, police lifted the surveillance because they thought Gross had left town to take a job in Texas. A Kansas City police investigator watched Gross drive south from Emporia on Interstate 35 on May 19.
But by June police noted that Gross’ car was back at his house.
Within a few days, Rexrode noticed strange occurrences at her mother’s house, where she had moved in to avoid the harassment. Twice, their dogs were mysteriously let out of the yard — first by someone simply opening the gate, the second time by cutting a rope and bending a lock to open it.
Rexrode was scared. Gross’ stalking had ended in murder before.
But in this case, the harassment was interrupted when Gross delivered a mountain of incriminating evidence into the hands of police.
A man on fire
North of the river, the early morning quiet was shattered about 4:30 a.m. on July 15, 1984, when an explosion destroyed a house on Northeast Winn Road.
The blast hurled debris 100 feet in all directions, throwing lumber across the street and onto the roofs of nearby houses.
A man on fire scrambled away from the wreckage, illuminated in the dark by the flames leaping off of him as he jumped into a small, blue car and drove away.
No injuries were reported in the explosion, which Kansas City police labeled an arson. The motive remained unclear, but the house was owned by a woman who had bought it from a man who owned a bar with Gross. Police suspected a personal grudge lay behind the attack.
Less than an hour after the fire, Gross showed up in the emergency room at the University of Kansas Medical Center with severe burns on his face, hands and upper torso.
In the burn unit, Gross refused to answer questions about what happened to him, giving only his name, address and phone number. Hospital staff grew suspicious and called police.
Gross ended up hospitalized for days while police found his car parked a block away across the state line.
One look at the car only deepened their suspicions.
Covered with mud, wood chips and debris, the car showed fresh damage across the roof and rear end as if heavy objects had fallen on them. Someone had covered part of the license plate with duct tape. Dried blood clung to the driver’s side window and caked the interior.
In Gross’ car, police found two gasoline cans and a map to the house that blew up.
And they found a notebook in which Gross had apparently written notes for his menacing calls to Dana Rexrode: “Dana, don’t hang up.” It had been three weeks since the last reports of harassment against her.
But that wasn’t all. In the trunk, officers found two sawed-off shotguns, including a 12-gauge — not unlike the gun that killed Wanda Conkling and William Cadwalader five years earlier.
The officers also found a gold ring that had belonged to Conkling.
When two men came to retrieve the car, police identified one of them as Gross’ partner in the bar, Reflections Lounge in Liberty, the same man who had sold the now-demolished house.
Officers told the men to get lost.
With the explosion, police and prosecutors on both sides of the state line resolved to finally file charges against Gross and send him to prison.
Meanwhile, Gross was stuck in the hospital, swathed in bandages for the foreseeable future.
This gave police an opportunity. Kansas City detectives still hoped to make a murder case on Gross for the Conkling-Cadwalader killings and the 1981 disappearance of Cheryl Morris.
They thought the evidence they needed might be in Gross’ house. To get inside, they could use the treasure trove of clues taken from his car.
But first they needed a little help from the FBI’s top hunter of serial killers.
‘The profile of a serial killer’
Detectives Robert Rogge and Larry Van Draska got to work at a shared desk in the Kansas City Police Department’s sex crimes unit.
To get inside Gross’ house, they needed a search warrant. They needed to show a judge probable cause.
That could be tough. Cheryl Morris had been missing for three years. The Conkling and Cadwalader case was cold.
But considering what Gross had kept in his car, and his recent multi-county rampage, the detectives felt they had to try.
With Rogge typing and Van Draska working the phone, the pair gathered a massive compendium of every crime Gross had ever been suspected of, going back to his childhood.
They sent the whole package off for analysis at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Va.
The unit, founded 12 years earlier, had recently expanded into a second building as pioneer serial killer hunter John Douglas supervised the criminal profiling program. Douglas had risen to fame through his work investigating the Atlanta child killings of 1979-81, the Chicago Tylenol murders and his interviews with serial killers such as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson.
Under Douglas’ supervision, the Gross files were given to FBI profiler Jim Horn, who noted the early warning sign of Gross burning a girl’s underwear at age 8.
“That’s subsequently followed by a series of arrests and brushes with the law, and mysterious circumstances,” he commented. Suspicious events like the Morris disappearance repeated themselves, “time after time, year after year.”
The FBI sent its answer in writing: Gross’ record was “not inconsistent with the profile of a serial killer.”
More importantly, the profilers made the key suggestion that Gross might have kept some of the women’s belongings as mementos.
Rogge and Van Draska seized on that expert opinion, telling a judge they wanted a search warrant to look in Gross’ house for the clothes Morris was wearing when she disappeared, along with her ID, keys and a college textbook titled “Politics in States and Communities.”
They were also looking for Wanda Conkling’s checkbook and ID.
The judge signed the warrant. Rogge and Van Draska didn’t know it, but they still had one problem.
Gross had been bragging for weeks that he’d booby-trapped his house.
‘Clearly worried about this guy’
Early in the morning, detectives marched up the front walk of Gross’ house, search warrant in hand, until a warning stopped them at the door.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
It was the next door neighbor, standing on his porch watching the parade of cops coming up 114th Street. Now that he had their attention, he related how, weeks earlier, an incensed Gross complained that a burglar stole his .357 Magnum.
“If anyone broke into the house again, they wouldn’t live to talk about it,” Gross had said.
The police regrouped and called in reinforcements. Gathering 30 officers, they cordoned off a two-block area and evacuated four nearby homes.
They brought in a fire truck, an ambulance, and a bomb and arson squad with a large explosive containment drum.
When everything was in place, the police carried tools to the back of Gross’ house and sawed a large hole through the bathroom wall.
Inside, they discovered a pack rat’s paradise with boxes, stacks of papers and various questionable items piled up all over the house. But no booby traps or bombs.
Over the next 32 hours, dozens of police, including a second shift in blue jeans and tennis shoes, carted Gross’ belongings to an impromptu command post in a nearby vacant house, where they sorted through all his worldly possessions.
Of special interest were some handwritten notes that seemed to make reference to Cheryl Morris. In the garage, detective Rogge found a pair of women’s stockings with eye holes cut out, two pairs of handcuffs, a length of rope and a pair of coveralls smeared with mud.
Suspicious, yes. But it didn’t add up to a smoking gun for a murder charge.
That didn’t mean the search was fruitless. It appeared Gross had been making money by selling cocaine. For the police who had been tailing him, it helped explain why he never seemed to go to work.
The inventory included 13 grams of cocaine, scales, cutting agents, records of drug sales, several hundred dollars in cash, and a book titled “Cocaine: The Consumer’s Handbook.”
Crucially, officers also recovered a .380 Starfire pistol, which Gross had stolen when he broke into the house of his former girlfriend Dana Rexrode.
Once again coming up empty on the homicides, prosecutors charged Gross with what they had.
The same day Kansas City police searched Gross’ house, Clay County prosecutors charged him with arson for the house explosion, while Wyandotte County prosecutors charged him with making terroristic threats against Rexrode.
At the hospital, sheriff’s deputies placed Gross under guard, sealing off the area where he was being treated.
When Gross went to court for the Rexrode case, the Wyandotte County sheriff and undersheriff personally escorted him, handcuffed to a wheelchair. His face scarred and his voice raspy from inhalation burns, Gross pleaded not guilty.
John McNally, then a top assistant prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, took the case himself.
He was aware that the investigation had drawn the interest of local detectives and federal officials.
“They were clearly worried about this guy,” said McNally, now a retired judge.
Gross hired high-powered Kansas City defense attorneys John Turner and Carl Cornwell. They didn’t even discuss a plea deal.
“I suspect he was determined to go to trial from the start,” McNally said. “I got the impression he almost considered himself bulletproof.”
In court, the judge set Gross’ bond at $15,000 — four times the normal amount for that charge at the time.
But while Clay County prosecutors seemed satisfied that Gross blew up the house — even if his motive was unclear — they never brought the arson case forward for a conviction.
Instead, the prosecutor’s office, then led by Larry Harman, shelved the arson charge and dropped it with no explanation.
When asked about the case this year, Harman, now a Clay County Circuit Judge in Liberty, said he could not comment on it.
Part of the reason for dropping the arson charge could have been the federal indictment being prepared against Gross for the cocaine and stolen pistol found in his house. State charges would be rendered moot by a federal prison sentence.
Despite everything — the dramatic explosion, the new evidence in old cases, and the months of terror for Dana Rexrode, who was almost too frightened to speak in court — Gross faced relatively minor charges.
It would be enough to put him in prison for a while, but not long enough for some.
The next-door neighbor who warned police at the front door only grew more worried about what would happen when Gross was loose again.
He never forgot what Gross told him back when they were friendly, before he figured out what kind of man Gross was.
“He hated women,” the neighbor said. “He just said, women were only good for one thing. And that’s what he used them for. And he said he hated his mother.
“I was hoping he’d never get out of jail.”
‘His girlfriends end up dead’
In September 1985, a year after police searched his house, Gross stood in the old federal courthouse on Grand Boulevard to be sentenced on the cocaine and stolen pistol charges.
Judge Scott Wright saw no difficulty in the sentencing. But he found himself at a loss to account for the laundry list of killings and suspicious deaths law enforcement officials had attributed to Gross in his presentence report.
Conkling, Cadwalader, Morris. The aunt. The drowning. And then all the other things for which Gross hadn’t been convicted.
“It just seems like a strange set of circumstances that everybody — I mean not everybody but all these women that he went with, they end up dead,” Wright said.
“You know I, a long time ago I dated several girls, but to my knowledge none of them are dead. It just seems like it’s strange that so many of his girlfriends end up dead.”
A presentence report typically contains the history of the person convicted of a crime. In Gross’ case, it stacked up every possible crime linked to Gross through years of investigation.
Judge Wright would decide not only the length of Gross’ prison sentence, but also whether all those suspicious deaths should be preserved in his record.
Gross’ attorney John Turner tried to persuade the judge to delete some of the most inflammatory portions.
The Barnes drowning, for instance, was ruled accidental. And Morris was still listed as a missing person — not a murder victim. In fact, Turner argued, he had reports that Morris had been spotted hitchhiking and her ID had been used in California.
None of it, Turner said, proved any guilt on Gross’ part.
“Yet because he dated her and because he had a problem with her, it’s suggested in the report that he is a homicide suspect,” Turner said.
“They’ve investigated the devil out of him,” he continued. “They’ve followed him, they’ve spent 36 hours in his house, none of these events has he ever been charged with. The evidence in most of them is weak.”
The judge declined to remove any of the information from the report, except to amend “primary suspect” in a homicide to merely “suspect.”
He sentenced Gross, then 34 years old, to the maximum: 15 years, plus a $30,000 fine.
Running concurrent to that would be Gross’ sentence from the threatening phone calls case in Wyandotte County. Convicted at trial, he had received a sentence of one to five years.
Wright accommodated Gross in one respect, recommending that he serve his sentence at a federal prison in Springfield, Ill., or Lexington, Ky., where Gross could get the psychiatric treatment that his lawyer said he wanted.
In his statement to the court, Gross complained that he hadn’t received mental health treatment in the 14 months he’d been locked up so far.
Neither Gross nor his attorney said in open court what type of mental health treatment he needed.
Gross also issued an apology.
“I’d like to apologize to the court for the mistakes that I have made, but more important than this, I apologize to my parents for the mental anguish that I’ve bestowed upon them,” he said.
“For this reason, I am 100 percent sure that I will never appear before you in a future case.”
It was a promise Gross couldn’t keep.