Crime

Buddies bar owner feared for his life years before dying in house explosion

Before his house mysteriously exploded and burned down in an east Kansas City neighborhood, Melvin “Lee” Mecker, owner of Buddies bar on Main Street, told police he was afraid.

In 2017, an ex-boyfriend who was living with Mecker tried to run him over with a vehicle, set fire to the house, and beat him bloody, according to police reports.

For months, Mecker lived in fear from a relationship that had grown increasingly violent, one friend said.

The body removed from the charred wreckage of Mecker’s home at East 15th Terrace and Fremont Avenue on April 10 has still not officially been identified, though friends have said it was Mecker.

Fire investigators have not identified the cause of the blaze. Gas service to the house had been shut off since 2017.

Police have not ruled the death a homicide. The Jackson County Medical Examiner’s Office has not determined how Mecker died, police spokesman Sgt. Jake Becchina said Thursday.

But a trail of police reports and observations of friends paint a picture of a man whose life had become increasingly dangerous. Mecker’s ex-boyfriend, implicated in the police reports, has not been seen since the fire.

The Star is not naming the ex-boyfriend because the status of the police investigations and any charges stemming from those investigations could not be immediately determined.

Those who knew Mecker said the ex-boyfriend was trouble.

“Lee is the type of person who didn’t turn his back on folks. He sees the good in everybody and he tried,” said Eugene Wheelington, one of Mecker’s longtime friends. “But I think this is what led up to his death.”

Mecker, who ran Buddies gay bar as a manager and then an owner for the past two decades, agreed to let his ex-boyfriend live at his house for $500 a month, according to a police report.

But the ex-boyfriend never paid.

At some point, the ex-boyfriend started acting “very strange,” Mecker told police, even trying to run Mecker over with a vehicle.

The ex-boyfriend told Mecker, “God told him to do it,” according to the report.

On Sept. 28, 2017, a frightened Mecker told the man to leave. Mecker gave him $400 cash and drove him to a hotel at Interstate 35 and Missouri 210. Mecker dropped him off and drove back to Buddies.

When he went home after midnight, he found his house on fire. The back door had been kicked open.

Mecker told arriving officers he was sure his ex-boyfriend “set the house on fire and that he clearly has some mental issues.”

The bedroom was badly burned. Firefighters removed a mostly destroyed mattress. The living room carpet was burned, as was a clothes basket.

In the basement, firefighters discovered three separate places where someone set fires.

The trouble didn’t stop there.

Two months after the fires, in November 2017, Mecker told police that he was getting ready for work when his ex-boyfriend punched him in the mouth several times. When Mecker fell to the ground, the ex-boyfriend punched him in the ribs.

Officers wrote in their report that Mecker had dried blood on his lips.

Police administered a domestic violence lethality assessment on Mecker. The examination is done to help those considered at the greatest risk of being killed by an abusive partner.

Mecker was screened for domestic abuse and talked with a hotline advocate.

Police took five digital photographs of Mecker’s injuries as part of a domestic violence report.

A computer check later showed the ex-boyfriend had an outstanding felony warrant for arson.

Police later arrested the ex-boyfriend. He was charged with assault in city court, according to online court records.

One close friend, who asked that he not be named to protect his safety, said Mecker visited him at home the Saturday before he died. Mecker came over often in those days, the friend said, because he didn’t feel safe at the house.

“Lee was scared for his life, and he told me that the Saturday before he passed away, and he looked at me and told me … ‘I don’t know what to do. The police aren’t doing anything,” the friend said.

At one point, the friend offered Mecker a place to stay.

On the day of the house explosion, the friend called Mecker. No one answered.

“That wasn’t like him,” the friend said.

Other friends, including Wheelington and Mel Hudgens, said they will remember how Mecker always helped those in need. On Saturdays, Mecker rolled out a barbecue grill and cooked for the homeless who frequent the area near Buddies.

“He would go without stuff to make sure he could feed other folks,” Wheelington said.

Friends have scheduled a memorial and potluck dinner for Mecker at 1 p.m., May 11 at Side Street Bar & Grill, 413 E 33rd St. Buddies has remained closed since Mecker’s death.

“Everybody is still grieving. Everybody is still shocked,” said Hudgens. “It changed a community for the people who went there (Buddies) every day to drink and be with their friends have lost their home. It is like a rug has been pulled out from beneath them.”

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Kaitlyn Schwers covers breaking news and crime at night for The Kansas City Star. Originally from Willard, Mo., she spent nearly three years reporting in Arkansas and Illinois before returning to Missouri and joining The Star in 2017.
Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.
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