After four decades, we have the probable answer as to why black political leader Leon M. Jordan was killed outside his Green Duck tavern early on July 15, 1970.
We also know now, in all likelihood, who arranged the killing.
Did the answer come from police? No.
The FBI? No.
It came Sunday from Kansas City Star reporters Mike McGraw and Glenn E. Rice, who have spent months, if not years, examining the case and clawing for answers.
Their riveting, almost breathtaking story (breathtaking if you love a murder mystery entwined with great journalism) appeared on Sunday’s front page. Today (Monday) the Star will have a follow-up story.
The Jordan case has long frustrated and intrigued politicians, law enforcement officials and devotees of Jackson County politics. Part of the frustration ended Sunday with McGraw’s and Rice’s conclusion that Jordan’s murder was the product of a “freelance” hit job by a lower- to mid-level mobster who may have been seeking “to curry favor with the leaders of organized crime.”
The reporters’ theory is that the person who commissioned the crime — an inner-city liquor store owner named Joe “Shotgun Joe” Centimano — hired black men for the job to make the killing look like something other than a mob killing. Traditionally, of course, the mob doesn’t entrust such work to outsiders because 1) they usually get caught, and 2) they usually talk.
The local Mafia kingpin was Nick Civella, who ended up in prison and died in 1983. He is not believed to have ordered the hit but might have taken satisfaction in Jordan being killed. Civella’s political arm in Kansas City’s North End was the late Alex Presta, who would not have been in a position to order a killing.
It is likely that Presta – and Civella by extension – would have viewed Jordan as an irritant, at the very least, as he organized black voters under the umbrella of the Freedom Inc. political club. Jordan and the late Bruce R. Watkins founded Freedom Inc., which remains a political force, in the mid-1960s.
In a September story, McGraw and Rice reported that a month after the murder, Orchid Jordan, Jordan’s widow (now deceased), told FBI agents that she thought her husband was killed because Freedom Inc. could deliver 12,000 votes and threatened the power of some potentially violent members of white political groups. She told police that whoever arranged the killing could easily have hired blacks as the triggermen.
We still don’t know who fired the fatal shotgun blasts that morning: Witnesses said three lack men in a late-1960s-model Pontiac comprised the killing corps. But McGraw and Rice might yet put the entire puzzle together.
Their September story prompted police to reopen the investigation.
McGraw, a career investigative reporter, already has one Pulitzer Prize under his belt for an early 1990s examination of shoddy practices at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Rice, who has been a reporter at The Star at least 25 years, covers the Northland primarily, but he also has spent a lot of time working in the inner city.
This story should put McGraw in the hunt for a second Pulitzer and Rice in the running for his first.
What is so wonderful and exciting about this, to me, is that it’s rare these days to see journalists putting forth theories on unsolved murders.
It wasn’t so unusual in the 30s, 40s and 50s, when journalism was played more dangerously and, yes, recklessly. Over the years, newspapers pulled back on their risk-taking, largely because of fear of libel cases, and started to defer to officialdom — police and prosecutors, mainly.
To its credit, The Star has really gone out on a limb with this story. But McGraw and Rice put the paper on sound footing. A major reporting breakthrough occurred recently when The Star asked the Independence Police Department for a 1965 report on the theft, in a burglary, of the shotgun that later was used to kill Jordan.
The report, The Star said Sunday, “came with an unexpected bonus. Attached was a supplemental report filed a few months after the burglary.”
The report said that a confidential informant told police the shotgun was sold through a “North End Italian fence.” The story goes on to quote two named persons who had given statements previously and one new, anonymous source as saying that Centimano later obtained the shotgun and gave it to the men he hired to carry out the killing.
McGraw and Rice cited a report in the original investigation that characterized Centimano as “a small time hoodlum who associated with both the North End and criminal elements in the black community.”
Today’s story will shine a spotlight on Centimano, the man who, at last, can be considered the main culprit in the murder of Leon M. Jordan.