Another body found. A fake evidence scandal. And a killer walks.
On Sept. 3, 1987, a man out walking with his son in rural Cass County, a few miles south of Raymore, stopped at an abandoned cistern to show the boy how dangerous they are.
He pulled off the concrete lid so they could see how deep it was.
At the bottom, wrapped in newspapers from 1981, they saw the body of a woman floating face down in 4 feet of murky water.
It was Cheryl Morris, the 31-year-old college student who had vanished six years earlier in Kansas City.
As crime scene investigators pulled Morris’ fragile, decomposing body out of the cistern, parts of it slid apart. A finger fell off. Her skull and forearm crumbled away in the grasp of technicians.
She’d been strangled.
“It was horrible,” said Morris’ aunt Shirley Cook.
The family had long suspected that Robert J. Gross killed Morris, but at the same time they had held out hope she might be found alive.
Now that they knew for sure she was gone, their hope turned to anger, especially for Morris’ mother, Alice Eaton, who had kept the faith for years only to be bitterly disappointed.
“I always thought she would come home,” Eaton told her sister.
For the years of uncertainty, of wondering and waiting, to be repaid with this was almost too much to take.
“To get through it, you have to be strong,” Cook said. “If you don’t have God on your side, I don’t know how you get through it. Maybe you don’t.”
When the body was found Gross, 35, was still in federal prison serving time for gun and drug convictions.
But he wouldn’t be there forever. Morris’ family wanted to know why he wasn’t charged with murder.
“Why didn’t they do something about it?” Cook asked.
The discovery of Morris’ body convinced law enforcement across the Kansas City area to jump-start the investigation once again.
They would all be frustrated when someone in their ranks stretched the evidence too far.
A special squad — now at least the third team dedicated to Gross — came together with seven investigators from the Cass County and Jackson County sheriff’s offices, along with Harrisonville and Kansas City police.
At the time, Kansas City police had their hands full. Deep in the trenches of a deadly war on drugs, they investigated 131 homicides in 1987, a 44 percent jump in two years.
Meanwhile that summer, they had other serial killers to contend with.
Bob Berdella, operator of the Westport curio shop Bob’s Bazaar Bizarre, continued a killing spree that had started three years earlier and would end with at least six victims. At the same time, Missouri’s most prolific serial killer, Lorenzo Gilyard ran rampant over the city. Prosecutors would number his victims at 13. Both killers were eventually caught.
Although Morris had disappeared in Kansas City, responsibility for her case moved to the sheriff’s office in Cass County, where her body was found.
Former Kansas City detective Tom Cook, who had fielded the initial missing person report on Morris, continued working the case when he went to Cass County and became undersheriff.
For a while, it seemed like their investigation was moving forward. Cass County Sheriff Homer Foote said publicly that he knew who the killer was.
In 1988, he announced plans to bring evidence to prosecutors for a grand jury.
But no charges were filed.
Four years later, in February 1992, Gross was up for parole.
He had served seven years of his 15-year sentence. His attorney argued that Gross had an exemplary prison record at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind.
Prison officials, expected to make a decision on his parole within a month, were caught flat-footed by questions about Gross being a suspect in the 1979 killings of Wanda Conkling and William Cadwalader, and in the Morris homicide.
An official with the U.S. Parole Commission said he was unaware that Gross was a suspect in the slayings and “would like to see any substantial information” about his role.
Local law enforcement lined up to issue warnings about Gross’ possible release.
Kansas City police said they would review the Conkling-Cadwalader case.
“If this guy is going to be getting out, we need to go back and see if maybe we can do something now that we couldn’t do back then,” a police captain told The Star at the time.
He wondered if advances in fingerprinting, blood technology or DNA could help.
Sheriff Homer Foote said news of Gross’ parole hearing left him stunned.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” he said. “I thought he had a ways to go.”
Undersheriff Tom Cook, who kept a photo of Morris on his desk as a reminder, said simply: “He’s dangerous.”
While the parole board’s decision was still pending, Tom Cook personally handed the Morris case file to Cass County Prosecutor Dennis Laster.
The file included crucial new evidence: several Cass County Sheriff’s Office “call sheets” or investigative records, that purportedly showed that a car linked to Gross had been seen several years earlier in the area where Morris’ body was found.
Tom Cook said he discovered the call sheets after the recovery of the corpse.
Laster, writing this year from a Florida hospital bed, where he has been suffering serious health problems, said the newly-discovered call sheets would have been key to connecting Gross to the dumping of Morris’ body in Cass County. But the documentation was incomplete, with no reports attached.
Laster said it might have been enough to charge Gross with murder, but probably wasn’t enough to convict him.
“Without more, I seriously doubt we would have enough to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.
The case was weakened further when a sheriff’s deputy came forward with allegations that the crucial call sheets had been faked. A handwriting expert testified in court that they had been written more recently and then backdated.
Cass County prosecutors never filed charges in Morris’ death, and Gross’ parole eventually went forward.
“The call sheets were important to establishing our case,” Laster said. “Any subsequent prosecution of Gross for the murder of Ms. Morris would have been burdened with the tainted evidence.”
Sheriff Foote said the fake evidence claims doomed the case.
“You couldn’t get it to the front door of the courthouse, much less a courtroom,” he told a reporter at the time.
The scandal became part of a flood of complaints against Foote that later saw him removed from office.
To this day, Foote says he does not believe Tom Cook would have falsified evidence. Foote was disappointed to never see charges filed.
For her part, Alice Eaton resigned herself to the fact that Gross would never be held accountable for her daughter’s death — at least on earth.
“He’s got to die sometime,” she used to say. “And he’ll meet his maker, and he’ll get justice then.”
Morris’ other relatives still searched for answers. They lost faith in the criminal justice system and only grew angrier when told of Gross’ many earlier suspected crimes.
“This is the justice system,” Morris’ cousin Debbie Merys said. “If he was caught … none of this would have happened.”
‘The neighborhood watch’
Before Gross was paroled in 1994, Clay County prosecutors filed a new charge against him in the now 10-year-old house explosion on Winn Road.
Although the statute of limitations for arson had expired, prosecutors theorized that they could still charge him with armed criminal action for blowing up the house.
Within two days of leaving the federal prison in Indiana, Gross, 42 years old, sat in the Clay County jail.
But he wouldn’t be there long.
His defense attorney successfully argued that because the armed criminal action was tied to a crime that was past its statute of limitations, the new charge was past the limit as well.
A judge agreed, and the charge was dismissed.
Gross managed to stay free for about eight years, until 2002, when a stalking complaint sent him back to prison for two years at age 51.
Cheryl Morris’ mother, Alice Eaton, died while Gross served that sentence.
Released again at age 53, Gross lived in his parents’ house near 87th Street and Bristol Avenue.
During the period from 2004 to 2016, Gross is not known to have been suspected of any serious crimes. He was treated for cancer around 2005 but beat it. His mother and father died during these years and he remained at the house, living alone.
On Bristol Avenue, few knew of Gross’ past. He built up a reputation as a helpful — if somewhat odd — neighbor.
Bible in hand, Gross looked after an older woman who lived next door, carrying her recycling bin back from the street and keeping an eye on her house when she was away.
People on his street called Gross “the neighborhood watch.”
But neighbors also wondered about his mental state at times. They heard Gross talking to himself. He was thought to be “hearing voices.”
Still, Gross’ next-door neighbor trusted him enough to call him for help when an intoxicated man came to her stoop and wouldn’t leave. Police came to arrest the man, and Gross was right behind them.
“You know, Bob was the second person that I called,” she said. “That was the good side of him to me. We just helped each other.”
The neighbors would be surprised when a murder investigation once again led to Gross’ doorstep.