Over the past four decades Robert Gross has been a prime suspect in several stalking and murder cases. Some of the people close to those cases go as far as to call him a serial killer. Why has he not been convicted for murder?

A massage parlor rampage. Robert Gross behind bars. Getting away with murder.

Ying Li died at the hands of a vicious and determined killer.

Why he killed her remains a mystery.

No candlelight vigils, billboards or public pleas drew attention to Li’s case. No obituary has surfaced. It is still unclear how long she had been living in the area.

At the Northland apartment complex where she died, virtually no evidence remains to show the murder happened. Repairs have erased damage from the fire set to cover up the decapitation firefighters uncovered that early summer morning in 2016.

Management is silent, and most of the people who lived there at the time have moved on, replaced by new tenants.

One woman living in the apartment directly below Li’s, when asked about the crime, gave a look of horror, shook her head “no” and shut the door.

As the homicide investigation has wound on for two years, police released very little information. But they did have a suspect.

Police will not say what evidence led them to suspect Robert J. Gross as the killer.

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A crime scene investigation van pulls into the parking lot of the Oaks at Prairie View Apartments on Aug. 6, 2016. Police investigated an arson and the killing of 52-year-old Ying Li, in which Robert J. Gross became a suspect.
T. Rob Brown Special to The Star

The evidence they had by October 2016 was enough to convince a judge to authorize a search warrant for Gross’ house. And in a replay of the 1980s, detectives and crime scene technicians spent days combing over every inch of the longtime serial murder suspect’s home near 87th Street and Bristol Avenue.

They even took apart the plumbing, carting off sections of pipe while towing away his car.

Police were suspicious enough to take Gross into custody and hold him for the maximum 24 hours they could unless charges were filed.

There were no charges. And he was released.

Gross told a neighbor he had no idea why they arrested him and searched his house.

The Kansas City homicide squad detectives did, and they weren’t giving up.

A year later, with no arrest made in the Li case and Gross still free, a veteran Kansas City police official convened an extraordinary meeting of all the detectives, active and retired, who had ever investigated Gross.

The private meeting drew about 20 law enforcement officials — investigators actively pursuing Gross, retired officers who worked the 1970s and 1980s homicides, and others.

They pooled their knowledge and their memories, digging up what old notes they could. What did they know about Gross? Why had he gotten away with it? How could they make a case on him now?

Thinking of Li’s massage work, investigators remembered that Wanda Conkling, one of the 1979 homicide victims, had worked in the V.I.P. massage parlor on Truman Road. It was where Gross found her.

Retired Kansas City police detective Pete Edlund, who worked the Wanda Conkling and William Cadwalader homicides, said Gross has always been known for his signature predatory behavior.

“He’s a stalker is what he is,” Edlund said in a recent phone interview. “He stalks these people, these women who discard him or break any relationship with him. He stalks them and he kills them.”

But even as the detectives felt sure of the links between the killings across the decades, they still couldn’t make a murder case.

Meanwhile Gross, at age 65, would revert to the patterns of his younger years, giving police an opportunity they desperately wanted — to put him behind bars.

"He stalks them and he kills them."

Back to old habits

By early 2017, Gross was a regular customer at a trio of massage parlors in Olathe and Lawrence. And in a hark back to the old days, he had developed a bad reputation.

At first Gross just asked for normal massages. Then he started doing things like bringing flowers to the women working there.

It gave them the creeps.

When he asked for sexual favors, a massage worker turned him down. That’s when someone started keying cars in the parking lots, clearly targeting the women working at the shops in Olathe where Gross had made a nuisance of himself: A+ Massage on Mur-Len Road and nearby Alpha Massage on South Clairborne Road.

On Oct. 1, the massage worker who rejected Gross’ sexual advances woke up to find that someone had come to her home in the night and keyed her Toyota Rav4, digging long scratch marks up and down both sides of the vehicle.

The same morning, another employee found screws stuck in all four tires of her car.

At A+ Massage, someone tried to cut power to the building.

Later that day, Gross showed up at the two Olathe massage parlors but employees turned him away.

He then drove to the Tea Spa Massage parlor in Lawrence, where a manager and owner of the Olathe shops also worked.

There, as had happened so many times, the stalking and property damage escalated to assault. But this time Gross was caught on video.

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A naked Robert Gross was allegedly caught on surveillance video in 2017 assaulting an employee at the Tea Spa massage parlor in Lawrence, Kan. Gross was charged with aggravated sexual battery in the incident.
Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

A disgusting rampage

At the Tea Spa massage parlor, tucked into a strip mall at 23rd and Louisiana streets, Gross barged in, handed some cash to the woman at the front desk, went into a back room and stripped naked.

When the massage worker told Gross she wouldn’t do anything sexual, he went ballistic. Stamping around the massage parlor naked, he berated the woman at the front desk, calling her a “stupid bitch.”

The woman gave Gross his money back, but he wasn’t leaving.

Gross continued his tirade and threatened to call immigration on the woman, who was Chinese.

Gross had an understanding with the manager, he claimed. They had agreed about what he could and could not do. He had paid for a massage and he wanted it.

Then Gross started grilling the employee about where she lived. He called her a “lying bitch” and went on strutting around the shop naked.

When the woman tried to get him to leave, he pounced on her.

“You ain’t going no place,” he told the woman, caressing her face as she backed away in disgust.

Gross flicked his penis at her. He tried to grab her face again but she pushed his hand away. Then Gross trapped her in his arms from behind.

The woman broke away. She reached the phone and called for help. Gross groped her breast and slapped her on the rear end as he walked away.

The smile on Gross’ face was so big you could see it on the surveillance cameras recording the whole incident.

While Gross got dressed, the woman went out the front door and came back with a man who told Gross they wanted him to leave.

On his way out the door, Gross, still smiling, turned to the woman and said, “I am going, but you owe me some money, remember that.”

That night, the massage parlor manager was driving into her Lenexa neighborhood when she saw something unnerving.

Gross was driving in the other direction, away from her house.

Connecting the dots

The next morning, Olathe police officer Jeremy Kirkpatrick took another call from one of the massage parlor workers.

He sensed something strange was going on. He had just been at A+ Massage the day before to investigate the vandalism there, and now one of the women was calling again, this time from her home.

When Kirkpatrick arrived, he could see the problem: All four windows on the woman’s Rav4 were broken. But the woman didn’t speak much English. She called her manager to translate.

The manager drove right over and told Kirkpatrick the whole story. She gave him surveillance video of the trouble at the Tea Spa massage parlor, saying she knew the problem customer only as “Bob.”

Police won’t say exactly how, but Officer Kirkpatrick connected the dots between “Bob” at the Tea Spa and Robert Gross.

He contacted Kansas City police detective Alane Booth of the homicide squad investigating the killing of Ying Li.

Soon, Booth was on her way to Lawrence, where she and detective David Garcia watched the surveillance video of the naked, rampaging man. It was Gross, Booth said.

“She knew Robert from a previous investigation and was very familiar with him,” Garcia wrote in his report.

Douglas County prosecutors charged Gross with aggravated sexual battery. Arrested and brought to the local jail, he posted a $5,000 bond and was released.

Back in Kansas City, police again decided that Gross had to be watched and watched closely.

For at least the fourth time since 1979, when Gross was first suspected of committing murder, police dedicated a special team to him. Once more, the Police Department imposed around-the-clock surveillance.

This time, Gross became a target of the Kansas City Career Criminal Task Force, staffed with local and federal investigators.

Modern technology gave them an edge that their predecessors didn’t enjoy. The task force placed a GPS tracking device on Gross’ car to help tail him.

Watching his every move, the investigators came to a troubling conclusion: Gross was up to something sinister.

Guns, masks, handcuffs

On Dec. 2, the team followed Gross to an army surplus store in Kansas City, Kan., where he bought four sets of handcuffs, two masks and two T-shirts with the word “Security” printed on them.

Two weeks later, Gross went to a gun show at the KCI Expo Center — even though as a convicted felon it was a federal crime for him to possess a gun. At the gun show, detectives watched as he handled an Uzi-type weapon and a 9mm handgun.

Five days later, on Dec. 22, it was back to the army surplus store. Gross bought more handcuffs and asked about buying a bulletproof vest.

After dark, Gross drove to Liberty — surveillance team in tow — where he stopped in a shadowy section of a restaurant parking lot and removed his car’s license plate.

He drove to the parking lot of a nearby home improvement store and sat in his car until a man driving a white pickup truck pulled up beside him.

The man had two shotguns that Gross had allegedly arranged to buy.

After a short meeting, Gross was carrying the shotguns, one in each hand, back to his car when task force officers moved in and ordered him to drop them.

Gross was arrested.

Agents searching Gross’ car found binoculars, a camera, paperwork from buying a gun and $2,867 in cash.

They also found a list with “multiple” Asian women’s names, their phone numbers and where they could be found.

News of Gross’ arrest spread quickly through the network of police, active and retired, who had pursued him over the years.

The stalking and gun crimes sounded like classic Gross to Edlund, the retired Kansas City detective.

“Among my fellow retirees, having worked him and known his propensity for stalking and killing, we weren’t surprised,” Edlund said.

“I’ll be up front, he is a serial killer. He’s a bad dude.”

"If he comes back out, he’ll do it again. There’s no stopping this guy ..."

16,000 pages of investigative records

Gross, now 67, sits in federal custody.

He is charged with four counts of interstate stalking, three counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm and three counts of receiving firearms while charged with a felony — in this case the sexual assault case in Lawrence.

During a court appearance, prosecutors noted that they possess a library of investigative records on Gross — 16,000 pages — produced by several generations of police since the 1960s.

Federal prosecutors argued that Gross was dangerous and asked that he be held without bond. The judge agreed.

Arraigned in January, Gross pleaded not guilty. His trial is scheduled for Jan. 22.

Each of the 10 charges Robert Gross is facing carries a sentence of five to 10 years. Under federal sentencing guidelines, someone with Gross’ criminal record would face the top end of the sentencing grid.

Still, Gross has never been charged in a homicide.

He is a suspect in at least four murders — Conkling, Cadwalader, Morris and Li — and remains under investigation by federal authorities. Neither they nor local police would discuss the cases.

And then there’s the reclassification of his aunt Juanita Lovitch’s death as a homicide.

The coroner’s office referred questions about Lovitch’s death to the Kansas City, Kan., Police Department, which in turn referred questions to the FBI. The FBI did not answer questions about a possible investigation.

Experts today can offer a dozen reasons why Gross could have gotten away with murder. No DNA evidence, no eyewitnesses, dumb luck.

Many murders go unsolved every year. Even the notorious Zodiac Killer was never caught.

But the Zodiac Killer was a mystery, not a man who police had been watching for 50 years, like Gross.

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A police bulletin from the 1980s identified Robert Gross as a criminal suspect under scrutiny by the Kansas City Police Department’s Special Investigations Division. The bulletin was included in the investigative file of a 1979 double homicide.
Kansas City Police Department

Gross’ name was printed in the newspaper as a murder suspect in 1984. Police knew his face, where he lived, who his victims were, his crimes detailed in criminal records you could stack up to the ceiling.

And apart from the murders, Gross managed to avoid facing any consequences for some crimes even when he was caught red-handed. The teenage burglaries, the house explosion, the assault on Janet Manuel — law enforcement gave him breaks on them all.

Even now, the justice system is doing what it has always done with Gross: settling for lesser charges, locking him up for a while, hoping he won’t come back.

It’s cold comfort to many of Gross’ victims, who have no guarantee he won’t be out again in five years, or perhaps less, to kill again. It has happened before.

Even if Gross is sent to prison effectively for life on the gun and stalking charges, the desire for finality of punishment and public safety seems to demand a murder conviction, said retired detective Gary Jenkins, who pursued Gross in the 1980s.

“I personally think they ought to go ahead and put the murder on him,” Jenkins said. “Because you don’t ever want that guy back out again.

“If he comes back out, he’ll do it again. There’s no stopping this guy, from everything I’ve learned about him.”

Gross’ attorney, John P. O’Connor, declined to comment on any part of this story. Gross did not respond to a letter The Star sent to him at the Leavenworth Detention Center.

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A artist’s rendering depicts Robert J. Gross, left, during a hearing in federal court in September 2018. His attorney, John P. O’Connor, is seated to his right.
Baldemar Rivas Special to The Kansas City Star

A nephew of Gross, Talis Gross, said he didn’t believe his uncle was guilty of all the crimes that have been attributed to him. He doesn’t think his uncle Bob is a killer.

“If they had evidence on him, don’t you think they would have pinned him on at least one of those murders?” he asked.

Any killing Robert Gross was involved in, the nephew suggested, might have been an act of self-defense. Or, he speculated, maybe the suspicions are driven only by overzealous law enforcement.

“I think there’s some rogue cops who are out just to get him and they’re trying to maybe put some dirt on him and make people think he’s this bad person,” Talis said.

“But maybe that’s a family member’s perspective. You know how it is. You don’t want to believe anything is happening like that with one of your family.”

The nephew said he didn’t know how Gross has been spending his time in recent years. Gross used to have a job in retail. And he worked out a lot – maybe a habit from prison.

Acknowledging Gross’ criminal record, Talis said it wasn’t the fault of his uncle’s upbringing. The rest of the family is strictly law-abiding.

“Where they went wrong with Bob, I’m not too sure,” Talis said. “He’s probably going to be in jail for the rest of his life.”

For some of the living victims, that would be enough.

As for the dead, their surviving relatives still hope Gross will be held to account, for one of the killings at least.

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A booking photo from 2017 shows Robert Gross, 66, after his arrest in Liberty on a federal gun charge. Gross now faces numerous charges of interstate stalking and firearms offenses. He remains in federal custody pending trial.

‘How many lives could have been saved’

Gross lingers like a ghost in the minds of the Conkling and Morris families.

Wanda Conkling’s sons, Jason and Richard, were children when their mother died. They grew up knowing that Gross was suspected in their mother’s killing, but didn’t learn much more about it until they started researching the case a few years ago.

Gross’ arrest last year came as a surprise to them. They saw all the parallels between the new charges and what happened to their mother: the massage parlors, the stalking, the violence.

“When you look at this guy, it’s like he fell right back into what he got arrested for,” Jason Conkling said.

“That’s like a pattern,” Richard said. “Almost exactly like 40 years ago.”

Jason still hopes for justice.

“I can’t figure out how he’s never been charged with a murder,” he said. “It’s not the way you think it should work.

“I’d like to see maybe him get convicted for someone’s murder. Maybe that would be enough to, you know, at least he didn’t fool everybody the whole time.”

Relatives of Cheryl Morris, killed in 1981, can’t rest easy either. Her mother and father are no longer living, but her aunt Shirley Cook, 86, and cousins remain frustrated.

“How many lives could have been saved if they would have caught him back then?” cousin Debbie Merys asked.

“In the end, I’m hopeful that he will get what’s coming to him. The other families, I hope we all get closure in this.”

The boxes containing the Morris homicide investigation reside with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office, where Capt. Kevin Tieman found them earlier this year. He said it appeared they had not been opened in a long time.

“They’re sitting down there and if 10, 20, 30 years later someone comes forward with information that’s chargeable, they’ll pull that box out and see if they can close that case with some sort of resolution,” he said.

Ben Butler, the current Cass County prosecutor, declined to comment on the case.

He said that, because there is no statute of limitations for murder, it could someday be submitted for him to review.

Li’s killing two years ago also remains unsolved but is still being investigated, according to Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd.

Now that Robert J. Gross is in custody for weapons charges, Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd wants to make certain that the state has a solid case before any charges are made for the murder of Ying Li who may be Gross' most recent victim.

“The murder of Ying Li is a very important case,” Zahnd said. “We only get one chance to prove someone committed a murder, and we want to make sure we have all the evidence possible before we file that murder charge.”

Zahnd said he has met with investigators on the case many times and that a prosecutor in his office who is working on it has been designated as a federal prosecutor. A case could be sent to federal court if that offered an advantage, Zahnd said.

Kansas City police spokesman Capt. Lionel Colón and Police Chief Rick Smith did not respond to a set of questions from The Star about Gross, the Li homicide, the 1979 and 1981 homicides, and the many other crimes Gross has been suspected in over the past five decades.

Colón referred all questions about Gross to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kansas City. That office declined to comment.

‘I believe him’

Women who lived through Gross’ attacks over the years — whose houses he broke into or burned down, who survived his hands closing over their airways, who learned to hate the sound of the telephone, who searched for a figure lurking outside the house — have moved out of state with new, married names.

Even from far away, even with Gross behind bars, some still live in fear of him.

Over the past 33 years, Dana Rexrode has spent a lot of time and effort hiding her location, and even her existence, from Gross. She too now lives under a different name.

When a reporter knocked on the front door of her home, a one-story brick bungalow on a quiet street in a working-class neighborhood, she was not happy to be asked about Gross and her ordeal of 1984.

She was afraid that if her location was revealed it would put her life and the lives of her family in danger.

“He promised to kill me and everyone I loved if he ever saw me again,” she said. “And I believe him.”

She knows Gross has been in and out of prison. She knows he’s been arrested again and now sits in a cell, awaiting trial.

But Gross was a menace before, and the justice system released him back into society to victimize women again and again.

Rexrode said she hopes this time Gross will “stay in jail and die there. It would be doing everyone a big favor.”

Then she shut the door.