Crime

Guilty on 8 counts: Suspected KC serial killer convicted of stalking, gun crimes

Robert J. Gross was found guilty on eight of the 10 charges against him Wednesday in a federal courtroom in downtown Kansas City.

It was the third day of his trial on federal stalking and firearms charges. In the previous two days, prosecutors showed video of Gross abusing a Lawrence massage parlor worker and handling guns — a violation of federal law for a convicted felon like Gross.

The trial in U.S. District Court saw Gross accused of stalking women who worked at massage parlors in Johnson County and in Lawrence, along with a slew of federal firearms offenses.

“I think it was pretty strong evidence that the government had as it related to the possession of the firearms,” said Gross’s defense attorney John P. O’Connor after the hearing. “The stalking charges, I believe we have a better chance on appeal. But I respect the jury’s verdict and they have decided it for now.”

Gross was found guilty on two counts of interstate stalking, three counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm, and three counts of receiving a firearm while under indictment.

He was acquitted on two counts of stalking.

Jurors returned the unanimous verdict to U.S. District Judge Gary A. Fenner after deliberating less than three hours. Jurors declined to comment as they left the courtroom.

Apart from the charges against him in this trial, the 67-year-old Gross has also long been a suspect in the killings of several women, including two who worked in the massage business. But he has never been charged in a homicide. None of the charges in the trial related to the unsolved murders, arsons and assaults Gross has been implicated in over the past 50 years, which were detailed last fall in a six-part series by The Kansas City Star.

O’Connor, the defense attorney, did not call any witnesses or present any evidence in the trial. Most of the witnesses called by the prosecution were massage parlor workers and law enforcement officers.

More than a dozen federal agents and police detectives who have spent years investigating Gross attended the trial. A group of them filled two rows inside the courtroom as closing arguments were presented on Wednesday.

After the verdict, Gross was sent back to federal custody, where he has been held without bond since his December 2017 arrest while illegally buying two shotguns in Liberty.

Jason Conkling, a son of a murder victim, attended all three days of trial. Gross has long been a suspect in the 1979 slaying of Conkling’s mother Wanda Conkling and her husband William Cadwalader. But he was never charged.

“I am happy about the verdicts. He wouldn’t be outside anymore,” Conkling said afterward. “I can tell my family that even though we didn’t get him on mom’s thing, there is closure and he doesn’t get to do that to anybody else.”

Other victims, women who survived encounters with Gross decades ago, waited elsewhere in the city and across the country for news of the verdict.

“Wow,” said Janet Manuel, by phone from Florida. “They couldn’t get him on anything else, for murder?”

Manuel has been haunted by Gross for more than 40 years, she has said, since he nearly killed her in a Kansas City parking lot. She asked how much prison time Gross will be given at sentencing.

That has yet to be decided by a judge and a sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled. But federal prosecutors have said Gross could face as much as 55 years.

“Give him the max, before he hurts someone else,” Manuel said. “It scares me just to think what if he was back on the street.”

In Kansas City, one of the earliest known victims of Gross’ crimes learned of the jury’s verdict shortly after it came in.

Nancy was a young monther in 1967 when a teenage Gross broke into her house one night. Police caught him in the bathroom wearing her slip, garter and hosiery.

Later on, she followed Gross’ criminal career in the news. She heard about the murders, the suspicious fires, his way of always seeming to avoid consequences from police and prosecutors.

Nancy asked that The Star not publish her last name because, like some other women who had run-ins with Gross over the years, she fears his revenge and doesn’t quite trust that the system will keep him away for good.

And like the others, she’ll be waiting to hear what happens at Gross’ sentencing.

She offered one comment by email Wednesday: “Eternity wouldn’t cover all the pain and suffering he’s caused on this earth.”

At trial this week, federal prosecutors accused Gross of stalking multiple women between Oct. 1 and Dec. 22, 2017. During that period, Gross fell under police suspicion in a rash of property crimes and stalking reports by employees at massage parlors in Olathe and in Lawrence.

The women told police their cars were keyed, screws drilled into their tires and their windows smashed out. The vandalism recalled earlier episodes that preceded assaults or killings of women Gross was connected to in the 1970s and 1980s, according to police reports and the accounts of women who survived attacks.

During closing arguments, federal prosecutors said Gross made arrangements online to buy two 12-gauge shotguns from another man. They met in the parking lot at the Lowes in Liberty. Gross told the man who sold him the shotguns that he was going to use them for protection and to hunt squirrels.

“But he wasn’t hunting squirrels,” Alison D. Dunning, an assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors. “He was hunting four women; he was stalking four women.”

Police detectives and federal agents who arrested Gross seized a black jacket, a cellphone, a black baseball cap and a pair of binoculars. Investigators testified those items are what police use to monitor suspects.

Gross is still facing prosecution in Douglas County for the 2017 sexual assault of the Lawrence massage parlor worker seen on video in court Monday.

As a result of that investigation, law enforcement officials in late 2017 put Gross under surveillance by the Kansas City Career Criminal Task Force, a group made up of local and federal law enforcement officers.

According to court records, the surveillance team observed Gross over several weeks amassing a collection of guns, handcuffs and other security paraphernalia.

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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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