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Archive for February, 2017

With two more recent hires, The Kansas City Star is forging ahead with its new — and encouraging — editorial expansion.

The latest hires are Andy Marso, a KCUR reporter, and Kelsey Ryan, a reporter with the Wichita Eagle the last four years.

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Marso

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Ryan

Marso will be covering the health care business, and Ryan will be a “data/investigative reporter.” (I’m not sure what that means, but I guess we’ll be finding out, based on what she produces.)

Marso previously covered state government for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from KU and a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland.

Ryan’s LinkedIn page indicates she got her degree from Emporia State University and previously worked for the Emporia State Bulletin and The Joplin Globe.

What is taking place at The Star is nothing short of amazing, as far as I’m concerned. Until January 2016, when Tony Berg became publisher, The Star had done nothing but shrink and oxidize since being acquired by the McClatchy Co. in 2006.

Now the paper is on a roll. Since Berg took over, The Star has added at least 10 editorial employees; it has completely overhauled its editorial board and editorial page; and it has significantly increased the size of the news hole. Those are all welcome developments for readers, and, with luck, they will ultimately result in upswings in circulation and advertising.

Berg deserves a lot of credit for these upgrades, but it is important to note that he could not be doing this without approval from McClatchy headquarters in Sacramento.

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Forman

McClatchy itself is undergoing significant change. Last month, the company announced it was replacing Patrick Talamantes as CEO. Talamantes had been in the top job since 2012. The new CEO is Craig Forman, a 55-year-old private investor and entrepreneur and a McClatchy board member. Forman’s hiring marks a sharp digression from the old McClatchy model of promoting insiders. (A former Star publisher, Mark Zieman, remains a McClatchy vice president.)

To be sure, McClatchy, which operates media companies in 29 U.S. markets, is hardly thriving. Corporate debt stands at about $900 million, and the company reported a third-quarter, 2016 loss of nearly $10 million. Ad revenue was down about 11 percent from the same quarter in 2015.

Although a McClatchy turnaround is hard to envision, at least the situation is brightening in Kansas City.

Besides, Marso and Ryan, here are some of The Star’s hires within the last year…

:: Steve Vockrodt, a business reporter, who came from the Pitch.

:: Bryan Lowry, chief political reporter, who came from the Wichita Eagle.

:: Hunter Woodall, Topeka correspondent.

:: Katy Bergen, general assignment reporter.

:: Maria Torres, digital and social media.

:: Colleen McCain Nelson, vice president and editorial page editor.

:: Eric Nelson (Colleen’s husband), manager of the digital news operation.

:: Melinda Henneberger, editorial writer and Op-Ed columnist.

**

Every paper can benefit from fresh blood, and The Star sure needed some. It is — and will be — good to see these new names and faces in the paper. I hope the longtime editorial employees who survived the bloodletting that took place between 2006 and 2015 are more hopeful about the future. They have looked into the abyss for a long time. Now, perhaps, they can look up.

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From a front-page story in today’s Kansas City Star, it is clear that the strange, self-defeating outbursts we used to see on the field from Royals’ pitcher Yordano Ventura were by-products of a personal life that was at best chaotic and at worst out of control.

The writers, sports columnist Vahe Gregorian and Metro reporter Maria Torres, shed much light on elements of Ventura’s life that the public had not been privy to before he died in a one-car crash in the Dominican Republic on Jan. 22.

Consider, for example, that the 25-year-old Ventura had been estranged from his mother for nearly a year, since shortly after marrying a woman who was already married at the time she and Ventura married.

From The Star’s story, it sounds like the woman he married, Maria del Pilar Sangiovanni, was strictly bad news. The couple argued a lot, and The Star’s story suggests that Sangiovanni’s father might have choreographed two incidents — one in Surprise, Arizona, the other in Kansas City — involving threats to Ventura. After the first incident, Ventura told police he believed Sangiovanni’s father, who has connections to the ruling political party in the Dominican Republic, intended to have him killed.

The couple separated in July — six months after the wedding — in the midst of Ventura’s last baseball season, a season marked by Ventura throwing at hitters and getting into confrontations with opposing players.

**

The Star’s story, while it sheds much light on Ventura’s immaturity and bad judgment, leaves unanswered two very big questions. First: How did he end up where he was when he crashed his souped-up Jeep that fateful morning? Second: Was he drunk or on illegal and/or prescription drugs.

We may never get satisfactory answers to either question. Regarding what chemical elements might have been in his blood, authorities in the Dominican Republic said last week they have the results of toxicology tests but do not intend to make them public.

How should we interpret that? Well, I’d say there’s about a 99 percent chance he was impaired at the time of the crash.

I cannot fault The Star for not being able to get the toxicology report. Maybe we will learn about that some day, maybe not. But I do fault The Star for not doing more to get to the bottom of the other big question — how he ended up where he was when he crashed.

Ventura left a party in San Jose de Ocoa, in southern Dominican Republic, about 3 a.m., according to The Star, and was headed for Sangiovanni’s house in the city of Constanza. (She says the couple was attempting to reconcile.)

If Constanza was, indeed, his destination, he was taking a very strange route because Constanza is northwest of San Jose de Ocoa, while Ventura was driving northeast. What is known is that he crashed the Jeep about 5 a.m. in the city of Juan Adrian, about 28 miles northeast of his starting point. (He was averaging less than 15 miles an hour.)

Gregorian does not address the misdirection in his story, but an accompanying map offers this explanation: “The fastest route (to Constanza) is not direct and will take him through Juan Adrian.”

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That cannot be right. It makes no sense. Take a look at the map (above) I got from Google. Ventura was going away from Constanza (along the blue line) on highway 201. (The blue line ends at the crash site.)

Constanza, as you can see, is just north of Parque Nacional Valle Nuevo (far left side of the map), off highway 410.

Now, maybe Ventura was lost, as The Star’s story suggests, but it appears virtually impossible that the route he was on is “the fastest route” to Constanza. According to the Google map, there are only two major highways heading north out of San Jose do Ocoa: One goes toward Juan Adrian, the other goes toward Constanza.

Ventura wasn’t a little off course; he was 45 degrees off.

After sending two reporters and two photographers to the Dominican Republic…after weeks of investigation….and after many news and feature stories, The Star, unhappily, still hasn’t unearthed a satisfactory account of what happened that fateful morning in the southern Dominican Republic.

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Many reporters and other editorial employees who populated The Kansas City Star newsroom from the 1970s through the early 2000s — or parts of that period — are mourning the death Thursday Rick Alm, one of the grittiest journalists to ever step foot in the door at 18th and Grand.

Rick, who worked at The Star more than 30 years before being laid off in 2009, died from complications of prostate cancer. The last several days he had been in hospice care in Hutchinson, where he was living.

Always a striking presence in the newsroom, Rick presented an image somewhat reminiscent of Clark Gable in the 1934 Frank Capra movie “It Happened One Night.” Back in the days when ashtrays were part of the fabric of the newsroom, Rick would sit at his desk pounding out a story, one eye squinting, as smoke curled up around his face from a cigarette hanging down from his mouth.

When deep into a story, he would stride purposefully and heavily around the newsroom, brow furrowed and looking sufficiently intimidating to earn him the in-house nickname “The Alminator.”

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Rick Alm

Rick’s first big score at The Star took place in 1981 at the time of the Hyatt Regency skywalks’ collapse. He and another reporter, Tom Watts, collaborated with a structural engineer named Wayne Lischka, whom The Star had hired to figure out what happened the night of July 17, 1981, when 114 people were crushed to death at a tea dance in the Hyatt lobby.

Poring over blueprints and design plans obtained from the city, Lischka determined that a late-construction change in the way the skywalks were suspended had greatly increased the stress and weight on the skywalks. Initially, the support rods were to have extended straight down from the ceiling along the sides of the two skywalks, but engineers decided instead to stagger the rods that suspended the lower skywalk from the upper one. The change was fatal.

For their combined coverage of the disaster — in no small measure because of Alm’s and Watts’ breakthrough story — The Star and The Kansas City Times (the morning edition of The Star) won a Pulitzer Prize for general local reporting in 1982.

Rick went on to spend many years in the Kansas City, Kansas, bureau — first as a reporter, then as bureau chief and back to reporter again — where he exposed the chronic chicanery of a core group of people benefitting from either their positions in city and county governments or their connections to government officials. During those years, Rick wrote about some “bad hombres” (none of them Hispanic) and did so fearlessly.

In that role, he helped lay the groundwork for the seminal election in April 1997, when Wyandotte County residents voted by a 60-40 ratio to combine the city and county governments under Mayor Carol Marinovich .

Consolidation, in turn, triggered the breathtaking economic turnaround that began with NASCAR’s decision in 1998 to build Kansas Speedway near I-435 and I-70.

By that time, Rick had moved on to The Star’s business desk, where he covered the budding casino gambling business in the Kansas City area. He worked on the business desk until leaving The Star in 2009.

**

Here now are the memories of several reporters who worked with Rick…

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Roy Wenzl

Roy Wenzl, former Star reporter and now a reporter at The Wichita Eagle

(posted on Facebook)

In 1981 Rick ran into the Hyatt Regency hotel lobby right after the skywalks fell and made mental notes about the scene before they kicked him out. He ended up as one of the point writers on the Big Story published by The Star four days later. That story came about after Managing Editor Mike Waller ordered a structural engineer hired to look over the Hyatt plans and debris, along with reporters, including Rick. I was with the investigative team when the engineer showed his findings to us, pinpointing the collapse cause. Rick and Tom Watts were assigned to write it all up. Rick and I walked out of the room, and he lit up a smoke outside the door. “Wenzl,” he said, “we just won the f—ing Pulitzer Prize.” Which we did.

**

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Mike Rice

Mike Rice, former Star reporter and now para-legal

(posted on Facebook)

Rick was my mentor. He was the first editor at the paper to take me seriously and give me real news assignments. I will never forget one of the first stories he put me on was the death of a teen-aged KCK boy from a car accident in Oklahoma. He found the parents’ address late in the day and told me to go to their house the next day and interview them. I remember being totally scared shitless that evening. Couldn’t get to sleep. He told me what to do, what to say to them. I didn’t feel I was ready to do something like this, but he said I was. I felt like a 4-year-old kid, and Rick was the dad who was teaching me to swim by throwing me in the deep end of the pool. I was either going to drown or float. I went to the house. The parents let me in, thanked me for my interest in their lost son’s life and talked to me for about an hour…Well, I was floating! The story appeared in the Sunday paper two days later.

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Mike Waller

**

Mike Waller, former KC Star managing editor and later editor (now retired and living in South Carolina)

Rick was one of the first reporters to reach the Hyatt Regency hotel after its skywalks collapsed. He was there before the first responders and stayed until the police forced him to leave. We teamed him up with reporter Tom Watts and hired a structural engineer, Wayne Lischka, to help them interpret hotel blueprints and design plans that the city made available to The Star and The Times on Monday, July 20. Working with photographs taken of the hotel collapse scene on Monday morning and with copies of the design plans Monday night, Lischka discovered the collapse was caused by a design change that doubled the stress on the skywalks. The Star wrote that story on Tuesday, July 21, and Alm and Watts reported on the disaster for the next several months. They turned out to be a perfect team. Alm was a tenacious reporter, a bulldog unfazed by dead ends. Watts was a bit more cautious and methodical, an expert at developing sources. Both were dedicated to accuracy; I don’ recall ever publishing a correction on any of their work throughout their careers. The National Bureau of Standards issued its report in early 1982 on the cause of the collapse and cited The Star’s reporting as 100 per cent accurate. Rick continued his dogged investigative reporting the rest of his life.

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Chris Lester

**

Chris Lester, former KC Star reporter and business editor and now a senior media relations manager for AT&T

(posted on Facebook)

You can draw a line to what was once great about The Kansas City Star through the prolific pens of people like Rick Alm. To be sure, he had a big hand in winning a Pulitzer Prize. Yet he didn’t flash ego, and he never lost his passion for the daily doings of local news. He was a true “grinder,” and I absolutely loved that about him. But Rick also was unfailingly supportive of those who followed him into the craft, and we were blessed to call him our mentor, colleague and friend. Newsrooms have always needed people like Rick, now perhaps more than ever. When Rick left the newspaper, I knew in my bones it was time for me to follow him out that door. If you buy the notion that the best newsrooms are like families, as I do, it feels like we’ve lost a big brother. He was a big man. But his heart was bigger. Tough guys are like that, sometimes. Tonight I’m going to drink a beer and shed a tear for Rick. He’ll be missed.

**

Phil O’Connor, former Star reporter, now with The Oklahoman

OPUBCO Employee, Phillip O'Connor ,Tuesday, June 5, 2012. Photo by Doug Hoke, The Oklahoman

Phil O’Connor

Smoldering. That’s how I remember him. Yes, there were the  dangling cigarettes with the impracticably long ashes that he always seemed to be smoking. But more, I remember Rick Alm for his intensity. His relentlessness. His unending pursuit of story. I met him in 1984, in the KCK bureau, my first job out of college, a clerk watching in awe as the Alminator fearlessly covered the then-bareknuckled world of Wyandotte County politics. I can still see his powerful leg pumping as two meaty fingers furiously typed out  the latest scandal he’d uncovered.  And oh did he uncover scandal. He was a master of records research, an insightful interviewer in the incredulous style of Mike Wallace and a damn good story teller. He later became my boss. We often clashed — an immature kid (me) not ready to work as hard as he did. I regret that now. He just wanted me to be my best. I wasn’t. Still, I was watching. I was learning.

**

Tom Watts, former Star reporter, now retired and living in Kansas City

I knew Rick as a reporter in the newsroom, but we traveled in different groups. But that night changed everything, and we were joined at the hip for the next several months — not always happily. As with virtually every other reporter and editor at The Star and The Times, we spent hours at the scene trying to get any scrap of information that would help us understand what killed so many people. The choice I made that night was to try and observe the herculean efforts by firefighters and other rescue workers and the best place to do that was inside the hotel. After being told to leave several times, I found a spot on the second level of the lobby behind a large rubber plant where I successfully hid for several hours. During my watch there, a man walked by and warned me that the entire hotel was dangerous and I should take care. Our conversation revealed that he was a structural engineer who had already been hired by one of the firms that would likely be involved in the likely lawsuits that would arise from the tragedy. After a time he also agreed to work with me to keep my reporting accurate — as long as he remained anonymous because he feared his standing in national engineering circles might be damaged by getting involved in a newspaper project. Later that night, as The Star’s staff gathered at the paper to chart our coverage, Rick and I were among several reporters assigned to start digging for the cause of the collapse. Mike Waller, managing editor of The Star; David Zeeck, city editor; and Darryl Levings, an assistant city editor, oversaw our efforts, and a decision was made to hire a structural engineer to make sure our reporting was based on construction facts. My source identified Wayne Lischka as a young engineer who had once worked for him and had his own practice and might not face the same potential professional hazards of the more established engineer. Wayne agreed, and on Monday — armed with page numbers provided by my source — he and Rick examined the structural documents on file at City Hall. Their conclusion was the same as the one reached by my source, that a design change on the rods holding the walkways doubled stress and guaranteed that they would ultimately fail. As Rick apparently told another staffer, Roy Wenzl, that story was the Pulitzer. It may have been, but Rick and I rarely talked about that for fear that it would screw the chances. The two of us worked for months on elements of the cause and related stories. Waller and others have said we made a perfect team. That may have been clearer from the outside. It was true that Rick was aggressive and I was more conservative. If we came to a locked door, Rick was enthusiastic about kicking it down while I looked for a key. In the end, he got us through the door, and I picked up more nuances to the story in my search. We argued over our approaches and occasionally really got pissed at each other, but we got the stories we wanted and respected each other greatly at the end of the day.

**

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Karen Dillon

Karen Dillon, former Star reporter and now a freelance investigative reporter

Rick was my bureau chief in Kansas City, Kansas, in the early 1990s, and he was one of a handful of hard-news editors whom I worked for over my career that I completely respected. Rick was what we call in the newspaper business a reporter’s editor. It wasn’t good writing and feature stories that brought him to the business. What lit up his eyes was a tough story about bad government. He saw his role in journalism as a watchdog, and that’s how he ended up with the story that led to The Star and Times winning the Pulitzer for the Hyatt hotel tragedy. But he was always humble about his part. He told me once over beers, when I was telling some folks that his work had resulted in the most sought after prize in journalism, that it had been a team effort. As the KCK bureau chief, he also wrote a weekly column. And boy, could he twist the knife in corrupt politicians in a way that was needed.

**

Here’s an example of that knife twisting, from a Rick Alm column Karen dug up from Star archives..

SECTION: ZONE/WYANDOTTE COUNTY DATE: October 14, 1993

EDITION: METROPOLITAN

After months of behind-the-scenes haggling, the City Council in Kansas City, Kan., finally decided whose favorite good-ol’-boy lawyers would get appointed as new Municipal Court judges.

One of them is former Wyandotte County District Court Judge William M. Cook, who, on the very day he retired last month, disgracefully fouled that judicial nest.

Cook sentenced former Wyandotte County Commissioner Pat Scherzer to do 100 pushups — or something like that — for driving drunk and shattering the automobiles and lives of six innocent people.

In a rare move, the Kansas Attorney General’s office is appealing the sentence. Attorney General Bob Stephan, who characterized Scherzer as “gutter-sloppy drunk” the night of the accident, said there was “no excuse” for Cook’s 90-day, house-arrest wrist-slapping of Scherzer.

Now Cook will be dispensing equal justice for all in Municipal Court, where traffic tickets, housing-code violations and other misdemeanor and city ordinance cases are heard.

Because the cases are small ones, so are the maximum sentences that Municipal Court judges are permitted to mete out.

That should suit Minimum Bill just fine.

**

Rick’s survivors include four children, 10 grandchildren and a brother. He requested that his body be cremated and that there be no funeral. Former Star staffers are planning a party in his memory in Kansas City, Kan.

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Like me, I’m sure many of you were startled to hear Gov. Sam Brownback’s acknowledgment that he and other state and local officials are exploring the possibility of constructing an airport in Johnson County to rival KCI.

Not that this was the first mention of that prospect because Steve Rose wrote in The Star back in December about the prospect of Johnson County capitalizing on Kansas City’s foot-dragging.

But Sunday’s top-of-the-front-page story by Steve Vockrodt marked the first time anyone in official capacity in Kansas, much less the governor, has officially said, in so many words, “We want in the game.”

Now, this could be a Brownback trick to divert people’s attention from the state’s spectacular fiscal problems — which Brownback and the Kansas Legislature triggered in 2012 by reducing income tax rates for all Kansans and eliminating the income tax for 330,000 LLCs. But even if that’s all it is, it has to be jarring to many Kansas Citians, who may have thought they had all the time in the world to decide on a new terminal at KCI.

Brownback’s latest declaration of “Border War!” is, by far, his most serious, and I hope it gets the attention of the hand-wringing, whining crowd that continually splutters, “But KCI is sooo convenient.”

As I’ve said for two or three years now (I wish you could see the blue hue my face has taken on), Kansas Citians need to get over their rhapsodic enchantment with KCI’s curb-to-bullpen-to-gate fixation. They need to rip the blinders off and consider the importance of Kansas City joining most of the nation’s other major cities in having a first-class airport.

KCI is uncomfortable, ugly, antiquated and falling apart. Just look at the mountain of deteriorating concrete that is Terminal A, which has been closed a couple of years.

I’m hoping Brownback’s foray will add new urgency to the KCI issue for Kansas City residents, who would have to vote to approve a new KCI terminal before revenue bonds could be issued and work could start.

If a close friend’s reaction is any barometer, Brownback just might have snapped some Kansas Citians out of their soporific state. My friend told me today that for him, the matter of a new single terminal had jumped from “back, back burner” to top priority.

**

Before we go too far, let’s take a closer look at some details about this idea of a big, new Johnson County airport.

Neither Vockrodt nor the officials he quoted in his story offered any hints as to possible sites. The fact is, starting from scratch would probably be cost prohibitive. A new terminal — a terminal on the scale of what Kansas City has been discussing — could cost $1 billion or more. Then, of course, you need runways. The minimum length needed for runways that can accommodate large aircraft is about 8,000 feet. Such runways cost well over $1 billion each.

(In doing research for this story, I came across an account of a military runway that was rebuilt on the cheap: It started showing serious damage almost immediately upon reopening and soon had to be torn out and replaced. The problem? The winning concrete contractor had plenty of experience with concrete…but most of it was in pouring home patios.)

Given the costs cited above, there is only one logical site for a “new” Johnson County airport, and that is the old Olathe Naval Air Station, 167th Street and I-35, near Gardner. Johnson County acquired the air station in 1973 and renamed it Johnson County Industrial Airport. The name was changed to New Century AirCenter in 1994, and all Navy activities ceased two years later.

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New Century AirCenter

NewCentury’s biggest advantage is it has two existing runways — one 5,130 feet long and the other 7,339 feet. I suppose those could be upgraded and lengthened, but the cost would be significant.

One of the squawking points related to a new, single KCI terminal is its estimated $1 billion price tag. But even with two existing runways, converting NewCentury into a first-class airport rivaling KCI would probably cost at least $2 billion or $3 billion…And for the record, KCI has no runway problems. It has three — two that are 9,500 feet long and one that is 10,801 feet long.

Another consideration is raw space. KCI sits on a plot of more than 10,000 acres. New Century stands on 2,500.

**

Despite the significant advantages Kansas City has in this nascent border aviation war, history has shown what can happen when one governmental entity fails to move expeditiously and decisively in regard to airport construction.

The history of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport offers what should be a disturbing scenario for Kansas Citians. (I trust you’ve gathered already, from the airport’s name, that this isn’t a happy story for Cincinnati.)

Back in the ’20s and ’30s, the main Cincinnati airport, Lunken, was located in Cincinnati. It was subject to frequent fogging because of its location, however, and then the 1937 Ohio River flood completely submerged the runways and two-story terminal building.

A Wikipedia entry relates what unfolded:

“While federal officials wanted an airfield site that would not be prone to flooding, Cincinnati officials hoped to build Lunken into the premier airport of the region. A coalition of officials from Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in Kentucky took advantage of Cincinnati’s short-sightedness and lobbied Congress to build an airfield there. Boone County officials offered a suitable site on the provision that Kenton County paid the acquisition cost. In October 1942, Congress provided $2 million to construct four runways. The field officially opened August 12, 1944…”

And that is why, today, the Greater Cincinnati airport is in northern Kentucky.

Gulp…

 

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Yesterday, I published Part I of the story of Jennifer and David Beaird, a Warrenton couple whose two children were killed when the Beairds’ car was struck from behind by a drunk driver — James Leroy Green — in eastern Jackson County last Labor Day. The story concludes today with a look at the Beairds’ financial situation and their tentative plans for the future. Two weeks ago today they welcomed me into their home and talked openly and courageously about their tragedy. Their children were son Gavin, 13, and daughter Chloe, 7. In addition, David’s spinal cord was severed, and he is paralyzed from the chest down and adjusting to life in a wheelchair.  

**

While not dire, the Beairds’ financial situation is uncertain. They will be facing numerous extraordinary expenses in the months and years ahead, including medical equipment for David, household adaptations to accommodate his limitations and very likely a vehicle with hand controls.

Looking ahead, Jennifer may well be the main and only bread winner. She currently heads the H&R Block tax preparation office in Warrenton and, on the side, handles the payroll for a company her brother has in New York City.

Very fortuitously, as it turned out, the couple decided last year that David should buy short-term disability insurance through his employer, a contracting firm affiliated with the St. Louis-based electric and natural gas company Ameren.

“We don’t usually buy anything extra,” Jennifer said, “but I urged him to do it. I said, ‘Let’s get that just in case.’ ”

With the short-term disability, David has been getting about 60 percent of his regular salary. That ends in March, by which time the Beairds are hoping David will have been approved for Social Security disability.

Another blessing was a windfall from a Go Fund Me account that a friend established. The account, which remains active, has raised $35,000 toward a goal of $50,000. The Beairds are setting aside that money for future needs. In addition, they are hoping to get some insurance money from a relatively small auto liability policy Green had.

A plan takes shape

Upon entering the Beairds’ home, I saw scraps of new carpet standing in the living room and new carpet of the same style affixed to the floor.

“We just had new carpet put down this week,” said Kathy Gordon, Jennifer’s mother, who has lived with the Beairds the last three and a half years.

I was immediately puzzled because the carpet loops were loose and variegated, not flat and tight, as one would expect in the home of a wheelchair-bound person.

“Isn’t it going to be difficult for David to push the wheelchair over that?” I asked.

“Oh, they’re getting the house ready to sell,” Gordon said. “We’re going to be moving.”

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The Beairds’ home in Warrenton

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Their subdivision

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although David and Jennifer are adjusting as best they can to a “new normal,” they feel they will do better away from Warrenton and outside of Missouri. Jennifer, who does her best not to dwell on the tragedy and relive it, said awkward occasions sometimes occur. For example, she now often avoids the grocery she used to patronize in Warrenton, going instead to Wentzville, 16 miles to the east. It is difficult for her, she said, when she feels the glances of people who know her and imagines them saying, “Oh, she’s the lady who lost her kids.”

Jennifer admits, without compunction or shame, “I’m running away.”

p1070006-1They hope to sell their home in the spring and move to upstate New York, the area that was home to Jennifer’s family for many years. Jennifer has no other relatives in Missouri, and David’s brother, sister and parents do not live in Warrenton or the St. Louis area.

During my visit with them two weeks ago today, discussion of the pending move precipitated a light-hearted digression from the otherwise difficult conversation. Referring to his newly deepened dependence on Jennifer and Kathy, David said, “I go wherever they go because I have to.”

Jennifer, who was returning to the kitchen table with a beverage, smiled and said, “Oh, thanks!” and then added, “I think he still loves me, too.”

“Mmhmm,” David said. “I do.”

“Maybe a future”

Upright on the living-room floor, propped against a small wooden case, are two large, framed photos – one of Gavin and one of Chloe. On white matting bordering the photos are messages written by friends, teachers and others.

A message to Gavin from a classmate named Tori said, “You were a great friend, an(d) I’ll always remember you!”

On Chloe’s picture, a boy named Dennis wrote these touching words: “I miss you Chloe. You used to smile at me.”

As Jennifer and David prepare for their new life in New York, they will take with them the beautiful smiles of their children and happy memories from those lives cut maddeningly and senselessly short.

They will also take with them total uncertainty.

Jennifer mused, “Maybe we might still have a future, because we don’t have a future now.”

**

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James Leroy Green

Meanwhile, Green, the driver and defendant in the case, sits in the Jackson County Regional Correction Center contemplating a future behind bars. The prosecutor’s office was able to charge him with two counts of second-degree murder because of the aggravating circumstance of intoxication. Absent intoxication, he probably would have been charged with manslaughter.

If convicted, Green could be sentenced to 30 years to life on each murder count, and the judge would decide whether the sentences would run concurrently or consecutively.

A little after 7 p.m. on Labor Day, Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper B.W. Montgomery interviewed Green in the emergency room at Centerpoint Medical Center, where Green was being treated for minor injuries.

In the “probable cause statement” accompanying the charges, Trooper Montgomery said that upon entering the emergency treatment room, “I immediately detected a strong odor of intoxicants coming from him.”

Green told the trooper he had drunk three beers about an hour before the crash.

Regarding what had occurred on the highway, Montgomery quoted Green as saying:

“I had cruise control on. I was on my way home. I looked down at my phone to swipe to change the song. I did not look up. I was still looking down when the impact happened.”

Green agreed to two blood tests an hour apart to determine his blood alcohol content (BCA). The results have not been made public.

Green has three previous DUI convictions spanning 25 years. He was convicted in Jackson County in 1991 and 2009. The other conviction was in Camden County, in the Ozarks, in 1997.

In a phone conversation I had with David Beaird before meeting with him and Jennifer in Warrenton, David reflected on the devastation that Green had dealt on Labor Day evening:

“He ruined lots of lives, just ruined them. He took so much away – our future…So many people’s future just taken away.”

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At the bottom of a cul de sac in Warrenton, 190 miles east of Kansas City, stands a modest, pale-yellow house where Jennifer and David Beaird have lived the last 10 years. Jennifer’s mother Kathy Gordon lives with them.

Until last Labor Day, Sept. 5, the house was also home to the Beairds’ two children, 13-year-old Gavin and 7-year-old Chloe.

…Labor Day, 2016. A day the Beairds will never forget. Their personal day of infamy.

About 6 p.m., a 61-year-old drunk and distracted driver – a three-time-DUI loser whose license had been suspended — slammed into the back of the Beairds’ Hyundai Elantra in his Cadillac Escalade as the Beairds were stuck in traffic on eastbound I-70 in Blue Springs, just west of Adams Dairy Parkway.

It was a horrendous crash. James Leroy Green of Odessa had his big SUV on cruise control and wasn’t looking at the road. Instead, he was, by his own admission, looking down at his phone, thumbing through song titles.

The Beairds (pronounced Beard) were headed back to Warrenton after a trip to Nebraska. They were in the left lane. So was Green. As the SUV hurtled toward the Hyundai, Jennifer, seated in the front passenger seat, looked at the side mirror and saw the SUV bearing down.

“Dave,” Jennifer said, “I don’t think this guy’s going to stop.”

David glanced up into the rearview mirror. All he remembers is seeing “a grey blob.”

After the shattered glass had settled and metal and plastic from a total of five vehicles had exploded and come to rest…and after help had arrived, Gavin and Chloe, who had been in the back seat, were dead. David was paralyzed from the chest down. He wasn’t aware of that in those awful, hazy minutes, but he knew this much, “I’m in trouble.”

Other than a severely bruised right arm, Jennifer was uninjured.

“I was very aware of what was going on around me,” she said quietly. “And I just sat there.”

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David and Jennifer Beaird

On Saturday, Jan. 28, nearly five months after the event that grotesquely changed their lives, David, Jennifer and Jennifer’s mother Kathy sat around the kitchen table in that pale-yellow house and talked to me for more than two hours. They talked, courageously and openly, about what they had been through; about what they are going through; about coping with an almost unimaginable tragedy; and about feeling their way into a dark and formless future.

Understandably, it is not the least bit salving to them that Green, who is tentatively scheduled to go to trial in June, has been in the Jackson County Detention Center on $200,000 bond since the crash. And it does not ease the pain that he is facing six felony charges, including two counts of vehicular, intoxicated second-degree murder. And it does not give them much satisfaction that he may well spend his remaining years in jail.

“It doesn’t ever bring the kids back, and that’s all that matters to me,” Jennifer said.

Meeting and becoming a couple

David, 40, and Jennifer, who will turn 38 this month, met at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. He was raised in Sikeston, in Missouri’s Bootheel. She had been living with her mother and four younger brothers in upstate New York and was preparing to follow a boyfriend to Missouri State. But they broke up, and instead of cancelling her plans, she headed west anyway, ready for a new adventure.

“Mom and my brothers came out here and dropped me off,” Jennifer said with a smile. “I’ve never been afraid of life. I just grab the bull by the horns and go and do.”

Jennifer was living in a dorm, David in an apartment, and each had a roommate. Their respective roommates were dating – which led to Jennifer and David meeting.

Never keen on academics, Jennifer dropped out of Missouri State and worked at a variety of jobs. David persevered with his education and, in 2000, got a degree in fisheries and wildlife management. His first post-college job was with the Missouri Conservation Department’s wildlife division in St. Charles County, just west of St. Louis.

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Gavin

David and Jennifer married in April 2001. On March 1, 2003, Gavin was born.

A few years later, they were doing well enough to build a home in the Warrenton subdivision — new at the time — where they have lived ever since. It’s a modest, two-story home, with a relatively big kitchen that flows into a family room with a large window and lots of natural light.

When Chloe was born, on Feb. 9, 2009, Jennifer had a good job, working in accounting and human resources for a Holiday Inn in Wentzville, 16 miles east of Warrenton. She lost that job because of the Great Recession, however, and was without work for a while before an opportunity presented itself in Warrenton.

To many people, waiting tables at Denny’s wouldn’t look like much of an opportunity, but it was a godsend to Jennifer. “I was so grateful for that job,” she said, “because we were struggling.”

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Chloe

Six years ago, David got a job with a contracting company affiliated with Ameren, the St. Louis-based electrical and natural gas company. It was another outdoor job – the kind he loves – that involved scouting and patrolling power lines in three St. Louis area counties — St. Louis, St. Charles and Franklin.

With time, Jennifer found better-paying work. Five years ago, she went to work as a tax preparer in the H&R Block office in Warrenton, and three years ago she was promoted to leader of the office’s eight-member team. She also handles the payroll for a hotel-refurbishing company one of her brothers has in New York City.

Quality of life improves 

By 2016, life was no longer a huge struggle. The family wasn’t living from paycheck to paycheck. Gavin was changing from boy to young man, and Chloe was in elementary school. The family loved to do things together – from camping, hiking, walking and picking fruit and berries at a nearby orchard to going to Walt Disney World in Orlando, which they did earlier last summer.

Life was good, and, as David said, “So many things were going right.”

On Labor Day, everything instantly turned wrong on I-70 in eastern Jackson County.

Now, David and Jennifer are dealing with the tragedy in sharply contrasting ways.

Stuck in a wheelchair, David is prone to ruminating. He has replayed the fateful moments in his mind countless times, wondering why he and his family had to be in that particular place at that particular time. He asks himself why he was in the left lane that evening, when he almost always drives in the right lane. Or why he didn’t have ice cream, like the other family members did, at a convenience-store stop about an hour earlier. Maybe that would have delayed their departure a couple of minutes, long enough to put them out of harm’s way near the Adams Dairy Parkway exit.

For a long time he was in the deepest hole he had ever been in and saw no way out. Although he never contemplated suicide, he would ask himself, “How can I speed this life up…and get this over with?”

Over time, he stopped second-guessing himself so much and gradually began to see some progress, albeit progress registered in millimeters.

“I want to say I’m doing a little better,” he said in a phone conversation a few days before the Warrenton meeting. “I think every day it’s easier to get up. I’m kind of getting used to my new body – not that I want to…I’ve found that trying to stay active helps a lot.”

He’s not back to driving, doesn’t know if he will work again and, really, has no idea what the future holds.

Unlike David, Jennifer has resisted, for the most part, replaying the awful loop in her mind. She tries to be as positive as possible. She likes to say positivism is just as infectious as negativity. She also has the advantage of being able to get out and move around and keep working, which serves as a blessed distraction.

She’s still leading the H&R Block office and still doing her brother’s payroll. Not that staying busy can replace the void left by the loss of the children or block out the pain of seeing her husband struggling to adjust to his more limited mobility.

She looked tired the day we talked. Her expressive, hazel eyes projected gentleness and softness, but little life. She had been awake for a time during the night, thinking about the children. Long working hours were taking an added toll. As the four of us talked, tears frequently filled Jennifer’s eyes, and at one point, while talking about her determination to try to remain positive, her words trailed off in a cracking voice:

“I’m just continuing on with life and trying to look forward and go on…because it really hurts…so bad.”

The last two words were barely audible.

A moment later, however, she was trying to will herself back up, saying: “I don’t like to be sad; I don’t like to be hurt; I don’t want to live in that sadness. It’s exhausting.”

Tomorrow: Jennifer and David plan for a future away from Missouri

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One of The Star’s best reporters, Rick Montgmery, latched onto an excellent, running story several days ago, and the four stories he has written about the plight of a Somali family’s stop-and-start journey to resettlement in Kansas City have flowed like chapters of a book that’s hard to put down.

Montgomery has brought the readers through a range of emotions: first hope — hope that the family would be allowed to come despite President Trump’s executive order; then distress — because it looked like they might be turned back and would not get the rental home volunteers were readying for them in the Northland; and finally relief and gratification, as the family made it to Kansas City Wednesday evening and headed for their new home.

The family consists of nine members — four girls, four boys and their mother — who were temporarily stranded in Nairobi, Kenya, because of Trump’s travel ban on refugees and residents of seven Muslim-majority nations, including Somalia.

Della Lamb Community Services is sponsoring the family, and several volunteers were helping get the home ready. Some of those volunteers are members of Country Club Christian Church, which I attend and is three blocks from my home. Video from one of The Star’s stories featured volunteer Nancy Lear, who was quoted as saying she was “disgusted” at Trump’s order.

“It just blows my mind,” she said, “that people who are good people have gotten so afraid of something they shouldn’t be afraid of.”

Her words echoed a common refrain that people attending Country Club Christian have heard the last 14 years from senior pastor Glen Miles, who gave his last sermon there Sunday before heading to Columbus, Ohio, for a new post. One of Miles’ favorite subjects is the insidious nature of fear and how it is first cousin to hatred.

Clearly, fear and hatred are the entangled emotions at the root of refugee paranoia. It is ironic that the vast majority of the people fleeing their homelands because they fear for their lives and their futures are encountering reciprocal fear when they arrive — if they’re lucky to arrive — in their new countries.

The fear they are being greeted with is, in most cases, totally unwarranted. The people I saw photographed arriving at KCI last night hardly looked like “bad dudes” or “bad hombres.”  They looked like average people who were glad to be someplace safe.

Greeting them were several area residents holding hand-written signs of encouragement. One sign said: “Welcome to Kansas City — You Matter.” In another photo, some of the family members were trying on brand-new winter coats that volunteers were pulling out of plastic wrapping.

It was a heart-warming sight — a sight standing in sharp contrast to the fearsome images that Trump and his narrow-minded minions are trying to plant in people’s heads.

…During the two years I have been attending Country Club Christian, I had never heard Glen Miles utter a politically tinged statement in any of his sermons. It is generally an affluent congregation, including many members from across the state line in the Johnson County suburbs, including Mission Hills. I would guess at least half the membership is Republican.

As a result, Miles always tread carefully. On Sunday, however, in his get-away sermon, he gave just an inkling of how he felt about Trump’s order.

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Rev. Glen Miles

The church, which holds about 1,000 people, was packed, and I was sitting in the front row because I didn’t want to miss a word. At one point, Miles was talking about the courage of Moses and how he went to Pharaoh and demanded, “Let my people go.” Eyes burning, Miles leaned forward in the pulpit and repeated, this time with a hard edge in his voice, “Let…my…people…go!”

And then, straightening up and preparing to take the sermon in a different direction, he glancingly and softly added, “Today he might be saying, ‘Let my people in.’ “

It took a second or two for that to register with me; it was so subtly done. But there it was…The pastor had cast Trump ignominiously in the long shadow of Moses. And it smacked of truth to me.

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