Kansas City has a rich history of revolting crimes and ruthless criminals. So rich, in fact, that when a Star editor suggested picking a Top 10 he created a challenging chore.
After all, how does someone rank all the serial killers, high-profile kidnappers, notorious bank robbers and violent mobsters who have terrorized this metropolitan area over the last 150-plus years?
Then there are criminal oddities. Like the heartless pharmacist who lined his pockets while secretly robbing cancer patients of their medications’ potency. And the adults who cut off a 3-year-old’s head and dumped her body in urban woods, sparking a four-year hunt for justice and her identity.
Where do people like that fit? Perhaps it depends on a person’s point of view.
As The Kansas City Star’s Monroe Dodd noted in the forward to his 2010 book, “Kansas City Crime Central,” there is no mathematical way to calculate the importance of a crime. So we went the subjective route and crafted a newsroom survey.
We simply asked: What are KC’s top 10 true-crime stories?
The survey form provided 23 choices involving crimes dating back more than 100 years. In addition, staffers could nominate personal favorites. They did, pushing the final nominee list to 34. We graded votes on a scale that gave 10 points to first-place picks, nine points to second-place picks, etc.
Nothing came close to challenging our overall No. 1 — the 1933 Union Station Massacre, a deadly gun battle between cops and gangsters that spurred J. Edgar Hoover to drastically reshape the FBI.
After that, tastes varied greatly. Some Star staffers chose cases because of the lingering mystery involved. Others focused on sorrow, gruesomeness or mob power. Some liked legends. Many latched onto lasting impact.
As part of the project, we ruled out crimes that did not happen in the immediate Kansas City area. That meant no votes for the 1959 Clutter family murders in Holcomb, Kan. Same for the 1982 public slaying of Skidmore, Mo., bully Ken Rex McElroy, a killing that remains unsolved despite numerous witnesses. Both cases inspired books and movies.
And the keep-it-local rule also reined in the Jesse James gang. Bushwackers during the Civil War, the gang’s members grew notorious afterward for robbing banks, businesses and trains, sometimes killing clerks and conductors. Many of the gang’s members lived in Clay and Jackson counties. And they allegedly robbed a Liberty bank and trains in Wyandotte County and what now is Independence.
Yet many of the gang’s crimes happened far from here, in places like Minnesota, Texas and Kentucky. Even the 1882 death of Jesse James— shot in the back of the head by a newly recruited gang member — doesn’t count as a Kansas City event. It happened in St. Joseph. Still, the James Gang carried enough local legendary intrigue to finish in The Star’s top 25.
Other notable true crimes that fell outside the Top 10:
Bonnie and Clyde’s shootout at Red Crown tavern
Clyde Barrow’s gang used automatic weapons and fast cars to evade law enforcement for years during a Midwestern crime binge. When gang members needed money, they robbed. When they needed a car, they stole. When facing possible arrest, they often escaped by shooting their way out.
Late one July night in 1933 the gang — Clyde Barrow, his companion Bonnie Parker, his brother, his brother’s wife and a friend — rented two cabins in Platte County at the Red Crown tavern, near where Kansas City International Airport now exists. Despite the heat, they stayed mostly inside. Suspicious Red Crown employees summoned law enforcement.
A posse soon approached behind metal shields and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office’s new armored car. Gang members opened fire with automatic rifles. They forced the armored car back and eventually made a bold break to freedom. Parker and two other gang members sustained injuries, as did some posse members, but not Barrow.
Ten months later their luck ran out when Bonnie and Clyde died in a hail of gunfire in Louisiana.
West Side man dies a hero trying to protect his English teacher
As a teenager in Mexico, Primitivo Garcia pulled an assailant off a man being stabbed, then helped the victim to a hospital.
At age 23 he was working as a shipping clerk and living with his mother and siblings on Kansas City’s West Side. He began taking night English classes at Westport High School and looked forward to his pending marriage.
About 9 p.m. on Nov. 15, 1967, two teenagers approached his pregnant teacher, Margaret Kindermann, as she waited for a ride home after class. One grabbed her purse. They ran. Kindermann followed to get her purse back. In the midst of a teenage crowd she got knocked to the sidewalk.
Garcia jumped in, pushed a youth aside and began throwing punches. Another teen grabbed a gun and shot Garcia in the stomach. Two weeks later, after developing blood poisoning, Garcia died in surgery.
He became a hero around the world after Time magazine recounted the story. In the 1990s, Kansas City school officials named an elementary school after him.
One mystery lingers in Johnson County triple murder case
Within a week in June 1989, three Johnson County women in their early 20s vanished.
Police soon zeroed in on Richard Grissom, 28, as their suspect. At age 16 he had bludgeoned to death a 72-year-old woman but served only two years in prison. Evidence in the new crimes pointed his way.
Police launched a nationwide manhunt for him. On July 7 an FBI agent spotted Grissom at the Dallas Fort-Worth airport and arrested him.
Police had found jewelry, bank cards, blood drops and other clues tying the women — Joan Marie Butler, Theresa Brown and Christine Rusch — to Grissom. But where were their bodies?
Over an eight-hour interrogation, Grissom said, “You’ll dig them up.”
That never happened. His became the first bodiless murder case tried in Johnson County District Court. Prosecutors prevailed.
Grissom still resides in prison, ineligible for parole until 2093. He has never revealed what happened to the women.
Snatched from her driveway: The Ann Harrison story
In March 1989, a Raytown South High School bus driver pulled up to an east Kansas City house ahead of schedule. She saw her rider’s books, purse and flute case piled neatly under the mailbox. Thinking that 15-year-old Ann Harrison had run back inside for something, the driver paused. After a bit she honked. But there was no Ann.
Minutes earlier, Ann had been kidnapped from her driveway by two drug users joy-riding in a stolen car.
They took her to a house eight miles away, raped her, coerced her into the car’s trunk and repeatedly stabbed her as she begged for mercy. They left the car, with her body inside, on a street where it sat for 36 hours before someone notified police it had been abandoned.
In the meantime, police and Ann’s frantic family and friends passed out fliers and launched a massive search. Tracking dogs followed Ann’s scent to a highway on-ramp before losing it.
Three months after the murder, a tipster provided the killer’s names: Michael A. Taylor and Roderick Nunley, both in their early 20s.
Hoping to avoid death sentences, they pleaded guilty. But judges granted no mercy. Missouri executed Taylor in February. Nunley still sits on death row.
The Johnson County mother who tried to wipe out her family
It seemed that Debora Green and Michael Farrar, smart and highly educated with three beautiful children, should have succeeded at life. But they failed at marriage, and that led to worse things.
Suffering headaches and depression, she turned to drugs and alcohol. He had an affair and sought a divorce. They reconciled, split up and reconciled again. In 1995 Farrar survived three hospitalizations for a mysterious illness. Green had poisoned his meals with ricin-laden castor beans.
A few weeks after she spent four days in a mental hospital, nighttime flames consumed her Prairie Village house. Her frantic 10-year-old daughter escaped through a second-floor bedroom to the garage roof.
Mom watched with little emotion as firefighters tried, unsuccessfully, to rescue the two other children, ages 13 and 6.
Arson investigators determined that someone had poured fuel in four places, including the stairway leading to the upstairs bedrooms. Green eventually pleaded no contest and received life in prison for capital murder.
A preventable tragedy: Mom’s fatal torture of two boys
After years of abusing her triplet boys, Mary Bass intensified their punishment in October 1999.
She held Larry and Gary’s feet in scalding water. In the next days, their skin peeling and the burns becoming infected, the malnourished boys crawled on pillows to get peanut butter sandwiches in the kitchen.
They died from starvation and the untreated infections.
Four years earlier, the boys’ teachers had reported abuse suspicions after noticing bruises and hunger problems.
Just two months before the boys died, someone tipped the child-abuse hot line again. State workers went to the Bass home in Kansas City but left thinking their mother’s story that the boys lived with their father.
Missouri officials suspended three workers for 20 days for failing to follow policy. They also ordered further employee training and a review of department procedures.
Bass’ defense attorney argued she was insane. A jury still convicted her. A judge sentenced her to eight life prison terms.
Stomach-churning horror on Interstate 70 in Independence
Drivers heading west on Interstate 70 the evening of Feb. 2, 2000, thought they saw a doll dangling outside a Chevrolet Blazer’s door. It kept bouncing against a tire and the pavement as the driver sped west at 80 to 90 miles an hour.
Horror overtook onlookers when they realized the “doll” was a boy.
The Blazer’s driver, released that day from the Carroll County, Mo., jail despite being wanted in another jurisdiction, had jumped into the idling vehicle outside an Independence sandwich shop along Missouri 291. The vehicle’s screaming owner had tried to get her son, 6-year-old Jake Robel, out of the back seat before the car thief took off.
But Kim L. Davis, 34, hit the gas and dragged Christy Robel and Jake, who was tangled in the seat belt, across the parking lot. Mom lost her grip and fell.
Nearly five miles later, Davis pulled off I-70 onto Noland Road. Other drivers boxed him in, pulled him from the Blazer, hog-tied him and held him for police. The only thing they could do for Jake was cover his body.
The next year Missouri legislators passed “Jake’s Law,” making it a misdemeanor for a jailer to release an inmate without checking to see whether he is wanted elsewhere.
Davis is serving life in prison.
Finally nabbed: Missouri’s most prolific serial killer
In the early 2000s, Kansas City cold-case detectives began sending evidence from old murders to a laboratory for new DNA testing.
In killing after killing, one DNA profile kept showing up. Prosecutors used the evidence in 2004 to accuse a married trash-collection supervisor of strangling two girls and 11 women, most of whom had worked as prostitutes, from 1977 to 1993.
They announced plans to seek a death sentence for Lorenzo Gilyard, then 53. The DNA evidence pegged him as Missouri’s most prolific serial killer.
Prosecutors dropped their death-penalty push when Gilyard agreed to a bench trial, instead of a jury trial, on seven of the killings. They dropped the six other murder cases with a promise to refile if necessary.
In 2007 a judge sent Gilyard to prison for life for killing Catherine Barry, 34; Naomi Kelly, 23; Ann Barnes, 36; Kellie Ford, 20; Sheila Ingold, 36; and Carmeline Hibbs, 30. The judge acquitted him in the seventh death.
Bodies kept turning up in the Prospect Avenue corridor
Kansas City police found the body of Anna Ewing, 42, in an alley on July 14, 2004. They didn’t realize it yet, but a new serial killer had begun trolling Kansas City’s streets.
Like Lorenzo Gilyard, this killer also targeted women who worked as prostitutes. Soon dubbed the “Prospect corridor killer,” he dumped most of the bodies in rundown neighborhoods near Prospect Avenue.
Police arrested Terry A. Blair, 43, a paroled murderer, after he called 911 twice as “Scott” in early September to brag about six killings and tell police where they could find three of the bodies.
A judge convicted him of murdering Ewing; Sheliah McKinzie, 38; Patricia Butler, 45; Carmen Hunt, 40; Darci Williams, 25; and Claudette Juniel, 31. His sentence: six life terms in prison with no chance of parole.
Said the judge: “This defendant’s ego has an insatiable appetite for brutality.”
Unsolved: The disappearance of Baby Lisa
On a cool October 2011 night, Jeremy Irwin returned home from his late-shift job and found the front door open, several lights on and his wife, Deborah Bradley, asleep. Checking on their 10-month-old daughter, he found an empty crib. Baby Lisa had vanished.
An intensive police hunt — including checking tips from across the country and conducting searches of Kansas City woods, the Missouri River, a lake, ravines and even an abandoned well — turned up nothing substantial.
Bradley revealed on network TV morning shows that she that had consumed enough wine to be drunk that night and that she last saw Lisa four hours before the time she initially gave police. She didn’t know what happened to Lisa, she said.
Both parents maintain that someone broke into their home in the 3600 block of North Lister Avenue and snatched Lisa while she slept. Investigators accused the parents of lack of cooperation, but the parents have denied it.
“Every day we wake up hoping it will be the day she comes home to us,” they said in a statement issued before the first anniversary of Lisa’s disappearance.
To reach Donna McGuire, call 816-234-4393 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.