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Posts Tagged ‘Mike McGraw’

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.

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The Star’s Mike McGraw and Glenn Rice had a riveting, A-1 story Sunday about one of Kansas City’s greatest murder mysteries — the July 1970 slaying of civil rights leader and politician Leon Jordan.

The slaying, in which Jordan was gunned down outside his Green Duck Tavern at 26th and Prospect, occurred 10 months after I had arrived in Kansas City.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the murder at the time. I was a general assignment reporter for The Kansas City Times, the morning edition of The Star, and had not been exposed to Kansas City politics. I was busy writing all manner of stories, including a June report on Janis Joplin’s last appearance in the Kansas City area. (I interviewed her in the stands, between shows, at Memorial Hall in KCK. Four months later, she died of a heroin overdose in a Hollywood, Calif., motel.)

Soon enough, however, I got involved in political coverage and in 1971 I was assigned to the Jackson County Courthouse, covering politics and courts. (These days, papers generally have political reporters and courts reporters, and they don’t have the same reporters covering both “beats.”)
As a result, I got deeply interested in both politics and the court system, and I came to understand the significance of the Jordan case. 

Jordan was a co-founder of the renowned political group Freedom Inc., which controlled much of the black vote in Kansas City. The other founder was Bruce R. Watkins, a former city councilman who, in the 70s, was Jackson County Circuit Court clerk. He later ran for mayor but lost to Richard Berkley, who served three terms, from 1979 to 1991.

The two prosecutors who served during my years at the courthouse — first Joe Teasdale and later Ralph L. Martin — each took a stab at bringing the case to resolution. Both failed. Two days after the shooting, Teasdale announced first-degree murder charges against two men, Reginald Watson and Carlton Miller. He dropped the charges 10 days later because…well, he had the wrong guys.

Three years later, Martin announced the indictments of James A. Willis, Maynard Cooper and James “Doc” Dearborn. Willis was later acquitted when his alibi — that he was out of town the day of the murder — held up. The charges against Cooper and Dearborn were dropped. I later covered a case in which Willis, a career criminal, was charged; I think it was bank robbery. I spoke with him several times during the trial, and he was a slick operator, a flatterer. He told me, for example, that he had deduced that I wasn’t a cop because I was “too well dressed.”

There were all kinds of rumors about who killed Jordan and why — everything from politics to sexual indiscretions. Unlike many unsolved murders, however, there was never a prevailing theory about what happened, and there was never an “off-the-record” prime suspect, as far as I knew.

It was just a mystery. One thing wasn’t a mystery, though — how well the murder was planned. The crime occurred about 1 a.m. in steamy weather – temperature 86 degrees — as Jordan left the tavern and walked to his car. As McGraw and Rice reported, three black men drove up in a brown, late-1960s-model brown Pontiac. One of the men fired a shotgun at Jordan, bringing him down. Then, the shooter got out of the car and shot Jordan in the groin and chest as he lay on the sidewalk.

Both the gun and the car, which were found later, had been stolen. Police found partial fingerprints (I guess at least one of the assailants didn’t wear gloves), but a match was never made.

Now, Alvin Sykes, a well-meaning and effective civil rights activist, is pushing hard for police to reopen the case. One problem, however, is that physical evidence, including the murder weapon, has gone missing from the Police Department’s evidence room. Also, there’s no new information.

No less an anti-crime figure than Alvin Brooks, a former police officer and city councilman, is against reopening the case. “Forty years later, do you want to do some things, say some things, and have some things come out that would cause embarrassment, when there is a good chance that the perpetrators are deceased?” Brooks was quoted in the story.

Reading between the lines, I think it’s clear that Brooks doesn’t want to see allegations of sordid affairs and infidelities mar Jordan’s reputation as a civil rights leader and political pioneer. 

I agree. This is one case that, in my opinion, will never be solved. I would sure like to know, however, everything that James Willis knows about that case. For the record, Willis, who is alive, still denies any involvement.

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