How The Star exposed a serial killer who got away with murder for decades

The first time reporters of this generation at The Star heard the name Robert Joseph Gross was from a standard news release about his December arrest on gun charges.

But tucked inside that bulletin were clues to a deeper story.

“Gross has a history of interest in prostitutes, including deviant sexual and violent behavior, particularly against women, dating back to at least 1975,” the FBI noted.

Within a few days, three of us independently picked up tips from sources suggesting we take a closer look at Gross.

Each provided a different piece of the puzzle: a connection to a recent homicide, a mention of an old file buried in courthouse storage, suspicions remembered mostly by elderly, retired police detectives.

The Star decided to investigate. As it turned out, we would spend the bulk of the next year uncovering the rest of the story.

Because Gross’ crimes dated back to a pre-internet era, we started our research by unearthing thick envelopes of newspaper clippings from our own library. There was a packet for Gross, which linked him to victims, who in turn had their own envelopes.

That led us, over the next several months, to dig through hundreds of pages of court records and police files from federal law enforcement agencies and local police departments in Jackson, Johnson, Wyandotte, Douglas, Platte and Clay counties, including some reaching back to the 1960s.

We tracked down survivors and victims’ family members who told us about assaults, suspicious fires and other crimes that had not been previously reported.

Some had more documents to share. One delivered to us a copy of a closed police file from a homicide case.

A friend of one victim introduced us to her sister, who by coincidence had her own hair-raising experience with Gross decades earlier.

Ultimately, we spoke with more than 60 witnesses, current and former law enforcement officers, prosecutors, experts, crime victims and their families and friends.

Many others were deceased or had become hard to find — sometimes on purpose.

We found some living out of state, under new, married names, their specific locations not to be revealed for fear of exposing them to Gross’ revenge. For safety, some are referred to in the story by the names they used at the time.

A reporter and videographer traveled to Florida and Alabama to interview women who survived run-ins with Gross.

While police in past decades had tied Gross to three homicides, the paper’s investigation this year revealed his connections to two more — one in 1980 and one in 2016 — which had never been made public by authorities.

In the process, The Star discovered that authorities reclassified the cause of death for Gross’ aunt from natural causes to homicide, making the change sometime between 1980 and this summer, when the newspaper started asking questions.

From his first encounter with law enforcement as an 8-year-old in 1960 to the 2017 stalking and gun charges for which he now faces trial, Robert Gross has amassed a 57-year history of violence and predatory behavior that is perhaps unprecedented in the annals of Kansas City crime.

Here, for the first time, in a six-part series, The Star tells that story.

About the series

The Star's six-part series on Robert Gross is a product of about 10 months of work by a team of journalists in addition to the three reporters.

Videos for the series were created by Shelly Yang and Neil Nakahodo. Still photos were shot by Yang and photographer Tammy Ljungblad, who also contributed research.

Digital editors Leah Becerra and Mary Kate Metivier handled the web design and social promotion for the series.