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.