Both outrage and hope are visible in Ruskin Heights after killing of 6-year-old girl

The sign at Paul’s Drive-In on Blue Ridge Boulevard carries a message for the family of Angel Hooper. After her death, manager Mike Gregory has ended the restaurant’s late summer hours because “it’s just not that safe after the sun goes down.”
The sign at Paul’s Drive-In on Blue Ridge Boulevard carries a message for the family of Angel Hooper. After her death, manager Mike Gregory has ended the restaurant’s late summer hours because “it’s just not that safe after the sun goes down.” The Kansas City Star

A child’s murder has brought winter early to Ruskin Heights.

An Eisenhower-era eatery that stands north of the Kansas City neighborhood usually observes summer hours through mid-November. But the recent shooting of 6-year-old Angel Hooper prompted a sign on its door advising that closing time now is two hours earlier on Sunday nights and one hour earlier other evenings.

“It’s just not that safe after the sun goes down,” said Mike Gregory, manager of Paul’s Drive-In, a Blue Ridge Boulevard landmark that dates to the late 1950s.

The death of Angel, whose funeral is Saturday, has brought a chill to the Ruskin Heights district of south Kansas City. The neighborhood that became synonymous with resilience when it rebounded from a devastating 1957 tornado is struggling through a transition just as daunting.

Many renters have moved in, while homeowners have moved out. Other demographics have shifted drastically, too.

This past year, assaults doubled in some neighborhoods. And Angel’s killing is the area’s fourth homicide this year.

Even the school news sometimes has been bad, with state officials placing the Hickman Mills district on provisional accreditation two years ago.

Yet some residents draw hope from the past. After all, they still can remember when the neighborhood came back from total disaster.

“I know we have gone downhill an awful lot,” said Helen Boyles, who with her husband moved into their Ruskin Heights home in 1954 and rebuilt after the tornado three years later.

“What happened to that little girl worries me to no end. But I’m not sure our neighborhood is any different than any others. I had a 50th anniversary tornado picnic, and all the old neighbors came back. Nobody was afraid to be here.”

Several Ruskin Heights area residents and business owners expressed guarded optimism this week. Some mention how thousands of jobs, including those expected in the pending Cerner Corp. office park planned for the former Bannister Mall site to the north, will convince more families to move to the area.

Still, the dominant emotion in Ruskin Heights these days is outrage.

“It’s been widespread disgust,” said William Bozeman, who has operated Bozeman’s Barber Shop on Blue Ridge Boulevard for 14 years.

James Joseph, who owns the Barber’s Lounge across the road, walked down to the 7-Eleven store parking lot the morning after a bullet felled Angel there.

“You could just feel the bad vibe,” he said.

The public reaction has manifested itself in support for Angel’s family through prayer vigils, a 19-hour radio broadcast seeking justice, a parade set for Sunday and the ever-growing memorial of stuffed bears and balloons placed at the northeast corner of 107th Street and Blue Ridge, outside the 7-Eleven.

“Community Gut Check,” reads a message on a piece of cardboard attached to the store’s fencing. “If U Saw It Say It. 6 Years Old! Really.”

Justice is the first order of business, said Eric Jones, who spent part of a recent morning at that corner holding up a sign bearing the message “Honk 4 Peace!”

“Let’s find Angel’s killer,” he said over a constant chorus of car horns.

This week, the 7-Eleven Stores chain contributed $10,000 to a reward fund for information, which can be offered anonymously, that leads to an arrest.

“The only way that (murder) is going to get solved is for someone to tell the police what they know,” said Bert Gemmill, a 30-year area resident who for 12 years has operated Bert’s Auto, just north of the 7-Eleven.

That’s easier said than done, said James Williams, operator of the Razor’s Edge Barber Shop, just up Blue Ridge from Bert’s.

“You don’t want to be a snitch,” he said. “That’s real in this community, period. So, that is a struggle.”

Still, he added, judging from the sentiments he’s heard in his shop, police soon may receive the tips they seek.

“Somebody is going to come forward,” Williams said. “This was so outrageous, it’s just a matter of time.”

Few parts of Kansas City are more evocative of 1950s America than the Ruskin Heights district.

The neighborhood’s developers built more than 1,800 single-family homes on about 600 acres. Many of the compact homes, offered to military veterans for no money down, were built on slabs, without basements. That made families more vulnerable during the May 1957 tornado that killed 44 and left about 500 injured across what’s now south Kansas City.

Yet the area rebuilt quickly. Today, well-kept homes can be seen near or adjacent to ones that stand vacant or with trash piled in their front yards.

In the 11300 block of Sycamore Terrace, a bullet hole from a September shooting remains visible in a home’s window. A projectile struck a 10-year-old girl in the forehead as she watched television with her three siblings. Officers recovered a .22 slug from the floor.

“She’s doing OK now,” said a woman who answered a knock on the door and identified herself as the girl’s mother. She said she feels uncertain about the neighborhood.

“I thought it was safe before,” said the woman, who declined to give her name.

Yet crime has become too constant here.

Doors to some Blue Ridge Boulevard barber shops open when pushed. At another, clients must press a doorbell.

Burglaries are so routine among boulevard businesses that their owners have learned just how discerning thieves can be. In recent years, Bozeman’s shop has been robbed twice. The first time, thieves took Bozeman’s flat-screen television. He replaced it with a TV not quite as pricey.

“The second time they broke in, they didn’t bother to take it,” he said.

Including Angel’s, there have been 27 homicides since 2005 in the area generally east of Blue Ridge Boulevard to West Longview Parkway, and from 107th Street to the Grandview boundary at 119th Street.

The number of assaults in three south Kansas City neighborhoods east of Blue Ridge Boulevard almost doubled in the past 12 months, from 76 to 145.

And yet robberies have declined in the same area by 25 percent. Sandy Sexton, Ruskin Heights Homes Association office manager, wonders whether the decision to hire a private security firm in January contributed to that decline.

Meanwhile, the area’s demographics continue to shift.

Since 1990, its population has fallen 9 percent, census records show. During that time, many white families moved away.

Caucasians made up 86 percent of the population in 1990 and 53 percent in 2000. By four years ago, the area was 28 percent white and 65 percent African-American.

Meanwhile, the percentage of renter-occupied housing units increased steadily. Today, of the 1,875 lots in the Ruskin Heights Homes Association, only about 30 percent are owner-occupied, said Sexton.

Usually, she said, the threshold at which property code violations begin to surface is when the owner-occupied rate falls below 60 percent.

Further, more area housing stock is being marketed to out-of-state investors. That makes it all the more challenging, Sexton said, for her to enforce code, such as mowing high grass or fixing broken windows.

Sexton laments how real estate listings often will emphasize homes in the Ruskin Heights neighborhood as “great investment property” rather than simply trying to appeal to a buyer who actually might want to live in the home.

“They (the owners) would have a long-term investment in the community,” she said.

At minimum, the barbers of Blue Ridge Boulevard are staying put.

“Maybe Cerner will make a difference,” said Brian Williams, who has been operating the Ruskin Heights Barber Shop for many years, referring to the huge, pending development.

Cerner Corp. plans to build 3.7 million square feet of office space on 290 acres formerly occupied by Bannister Mall and Benjamin Ranch. Over 10 years, the project could become home to about 16,000 employees.

“Those people are going to need to eat and shop,” Williams said.

That’s only the largest of several pending developments, said longtime south Kansas City Councilman John Sharp. “There are projects that could bring in about 20,000 new jobs over the next 10 years,” he said.

“That means you will see more and more people moving into our vacant homes.”

That private investment, he added, only came after city officials demonstrated their belief in south Kansas City by building a $25 million South Patrol Division police campus. That facility, at 9701 Marion Park Drive, was dedicated in 2012.

“We wanted to have a very visible law enforcement presence to demonstrate to private investment like Cerner that the city was invested in the area,” Sharp said.

It remains unknown whether such a project, about 2 miles to the northwest, could make a significant impact on Ruskin Heights.

But to Bozeman, who is 70, nearing retirement and wanting to work a few more years, it’s worth keeping his barber shop open.

To James Williams of the Razor’s Edge, “90 percent of the people here are good people, and they are the foundation.”

He’s staying.

And Joseph, whose shop doormat reads “Changing Lives One Haircut At A Time,” will keep his door standing open, as it did all last week.

“I’m not a runner,” he said. “I try to be positive.”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to

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