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Archive for December, 2017

“Stunning.”

That’s how Fox4 News is describing The Star’s big story, which went up online yesterday afternoon, about former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders’ alleged involvement in a kickback scheme that supposedly went on for at least three years.

Indeed, it is a stunning story…And, by the way, Fox4 is the only one of the four local TV stations, as far as I can tell, to have followed up on it — which tells me how useless the other three stations are.

Just reading this 44-column-inch-long story, it would appear the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have the goods on Sanders. Somehow, reporters Mike Hendricks and Steve Vockrodt got the central figure in the drama, a Northland resident named Steve Hill, to open up about how the scheme worked. It went like this: Sanders would have checks drawn on the account of a political committee he controlled, then would give the checks to Hill, who would cash them, keep some of the proceeds and give the rest to Sanders.

It looks cut and dried…But you can bet it won’t be. Seldom is it easy to prove a kickback scheme against prominent and influential political figures. They usually have money, and they always get top-notch attorneys.

But that’s not the only reason this is unlikely to be a prosecutorial slam dunk. The Star’s story contains two direct suggestions of the difficulty the government is facing, and there are other signals between the lines.

Take a look.

Four years

That’s how long the FBI has been investigating this case. It’s right there in black and white: “The arrangement is the subject of a federal investigation that may be coming to a close after more than four years, The Star has learned.”

If that is correct, it tells you one of two things: The FBI has been moving at an absolute snail’s pace or it’s a lot more complicated than Sanders giving a guy checks and divvying up the proceeds between himself and the stooge. For the FBI’s sake I’m going to assume the latter — more complicated than it appears — and suggest that authorities do not have an iron-clad case.

While we’re on the subject of the length of the investigation, I want to add a journalistic comment: If The Star still had a reporter going to U.S. District Court every day, checking with officials and working sources, it would not have taken four years to discover that a former county executive was being investigated. Hendricks and Vockrodt are two of the best reporters The Star has, but they function primarily as at-large troubleshooters, responding to whatever they hear, wherever. Because of staff cutbacks, The Star has largely abandoned the longstanding, tried-and-true “beat” system, where reporters are assigned to narrow coverage areas and work those areas relentlessly. As a result, The Star doesn’t break nearly as many stories as it did before it started laying off editorial staff members in 2008.

Sanders might not be the only target

Two other people who conceivably could be in trouble are named in the story. One is Calvin Williford, Sanders’ former chief of staff. The other is J. Martin Kerr, an Independence attorney and friend of Sanders, who was treasurer of the political committee that was being used as the cash conduit. Interestingly, Kerr was an assistant Jackson County prosecutor in the 1970s. Both Williford and Kerr have hired attorneys. (I love it when an attorney has to hire his own attorney.) The possibility that at least four people were involved in some manner could lead to a lot of finger-pointing and messiness.

Main witness credibility

The Star’s story does not tell us a lot about Steve Hill, except that he lives north of the river, has been a friend of Sanders since high school, and has used a wheelchair since he suffered a broken neck during an assault 30 years ago. The dearth of information about Hill raises questions, including whether he has ever been convicted of a crime and why he decided to tell The Star his story before charges have even been filed.

If he has been convicted of a crime, or has a history of lying, it would damage his credibility. That’s a given, and I wish Hendricks and Vockrodt would have addressed that.

Regarding his decision to talk to Hendricks and Vockrodt, the story says he came forward “because he wanted the truth to be known and discovered.” I seriously doubt that is the sole reason. I suspect self-preservation is also a major factor. I don’t think he would have gone to The Star unless he felt it would benefit him in some way.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office cannot be happy with this turn of events. Investigators and prosecutors strongly encourage witnesses to keep their mouths shut until charges are filed and cases go to trial. They want the damning testimony to come from the witness stand, not from the front page of the daily paper.

A final, significant complicating factor for the government is that unless Hill’s account in the newspaper coincides perfectly — step by step, offense by offense — with what he testifies to in court, a defense attorney will be able to use any disparities to “impeach” his testimony.

In any event, Steve Hill’s credibility is going to be called into question. The easy part was talking to The Star and its very receptive reporters. It’s going to be a whole different story if and when a defense attorney pounces on him like a junkyard dog.

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I don’t know what the editors are thinking about down at The Kansas City Star these days, but they certainly appear to be losing their grip on timely news.

At 1:15 p.m. today, The Star posted on its website a headline “Ozarks man used racial slur, tried to run over black traveler at Wal-Mart, police say.”

Not all stories The Star carries under the “Latest News” category are local, but when stories are written by Star staff members, I think it’s reasonable to expect them to be local.

I got a surprise on that front when I clicked on the Ozarks story, which was under the by-line of Star staff member Max Londberg. As I started reading the story, I immediately had questions. The first sentence was, “An Ozarks man targeted an out-of-town truck driver in a racially fueled attack, police records indicate.”

What town? Kansas City? Independence?

The second sentence didn’t help much: “Steve Pennington of Conway, Mo., allegedly tried to run over a black man multiple times with his SUV and then pulled out a knife and pursued him on foot, Lebanon police and several witnesses reported.”

The Lebanon reference was the first indication this was not a local story. Londberg didn’t say where either Conway or Lebanon is, but I checked and they are northeast of Springfield.

So, this incident occurred a long way from Kansas City.

Londberg then went on to describe what happened — Pennington, an obvious racist and loon, tried to run down the black man, whom he’d never met, in a Wal-Mart parking lot after accusing him of stealing some items from the store.

The biggest surprise in this story, however, came in the 12th paragraph — third from the end — when I found the incident occurred in September!

Actually, it occurred on Sept. 3, but Londberg didn’t report that because, I assume, he realized people would quickly compute that the story was more than three months old. In “breaking news” time, that’s synonymous with antiquity.

Not only was Londberg writing about history, then, he was also writing about an incident that occurred 175 miles from Kansas City!

Another galling aspect of this misadventure is that Londberg put his byline on the story, as if he did the original reporting and writing. Not so. A quick Google search showed that Londberg merely rewrote a Springfield News-Leader story from Sept. 7. No way he deserved a by-line. The whole thing is a sham.

**

The ultimate wonder about all this, obviously, is why the hell is The Star wasting time on an outdated, downstate story when there aren’t nearly enough reporters to cover what’s going on in the Kansas City area?

Besides City Hall, The Star has stopped covering other local governments regularly, and its coverage of local school districts is just about zilch. (I can’t remember the last time I saw a story about the Kansas City School Board, which used to be covered religiously.) Crime coverage is haphazard and, for the most part, superficial, and the paper seldom covers appearances by noteworthy authors and national newsmakers.

The focus now is on targeted, in-depth stories, like the secrecy in Kansas series. That’s certainly a valid way to go in the absence of a hefty reporting staff, but it makes it especially curious that editors gave one of their precious few local reporters — Londberg — a couple of hours to waste on a story so old it should be on parchment.

If The Star plans on continuing to dredge up old news and try to pass it off as current, it should at least come clean and put it under a new heading. I suggest this: “Old News, Perhaps of Passing Interest.”

**

Note: Minutes after I published this post, The Star removed the Ozarks story from the “latest news” category and put it under the more general “News” heading.

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Why did they have to kill him?

For God’s sake, why did they have to kill him?

He and a companion had handed over their cell phones and wallets Sunday night, and one of the robbers shot him anyway.

I am both angry and heartsick about the senseless death of 24-year-old Zach Pearce, who was accosted while walking to his apartment at 40th and Walnut after a night in Westport.

Zach Pearce

Zach and his friend were within several yards of his building when they were accosted by three occupants of a maroon SUV. A woman was driving. One of the robbers got out of the vehicle and, after the victims had handed over their possessions, the robber who was outside the vehicle shot Pearce. Bang! Down he went…and died on the street.

He had his life ahead of him. I’m guessing he had moved into the city, and out of Blue Springs, to be closer to the urban “action.” But in the blink of an eye, on Kansas City’s mean streets, his parents, Joe and Cora Pearce of Blue Springs, lost a son. He had an older brother. He had a lot of close friends, many of whom attended a candlelight vigil Monday night outside his apartment building, where friends have left candles and flowers in a makeshift memorial.

Attached to a dozen yellow roses in the memorial is a handwritten note from women named Ashley and Hannah. It says: “Zach — I hope these serve as a little reminder of the bright beautiful person that you were. We love you & always will.”

**

The heart of a big city has a special allure for many young people. When I moved here in 1969 from Louisville, I wanted to be in the city. I remember looking at an apartment way out south, somewhere in the Red Bridge area, and thinking, “No way.” I ended up renting a sparsely furnished apartment at Armour and Cherry and being thrilled to be close to The Star and close to singles bars like the Red Apple and Sneaky Pete’s (both long gone) on Broadway.

I never walked to those bars, but scores of times I parked my car on Armour or a side street late at night and made the short walk to my apartment. I was never particularly worried about my safety, but I knew I was vulnerable. Sometimes I was drunk. I would have been an easy target. But I was lucky…

After several months, I moved into a house in Brookside with four other guys. We split the $250-a-month rent five ways. And it was a much safer area. By then I was going to Westport regularly, and I never had a problem. I do remember one night when I was with Patty, probably in the mid-’80s, crossing paths with a couple of men in the Westport Bank parking lot and being very relieved when we were well past them. One of those guys, his eyes…mean, threatening, narrowly focused.

Just as the city called to me, it called to Zach Pearce. Joe Pearce, his father, told a KSHB reporter: “My wife was repeatedly…riding him to move out of the city. She was begging for him to move out of the city, and he would say that he felt safe there and it would be fine if anyone wanted to rob him, he would cooperate fully so he would be fine.”

He should have been fine. He should have been able to feel safe in the city. But American society is fucked up, has been for a long time, and very few of us are safe. Maybe if you’re in Loch Lloyd or Hallbrook and you never leave home…but I don’t know.

Zach Pearce’s apartment building on 40th Street, a block east of Main

I believe the perpetrators will get caught in fairly short order. They may well run their mouths. Maybe the plan was never to fire the weapon, and one of the two who did not shoot will come forward in order to save his or her own skin. If just one of the two comes forward, I would bet on the woman. She, particularly, must be scared to death. Maybe she has told, or will tell, her mother.

It’s just a crying shame, heartbreaking, that Zach will never be able to talk to his mother or father again. And that they will never be able to talk to him again, to hold him, to tell him they love him. God, it’s awful.

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You need a scorecard to keep track of the four legal cases pending against David Jungerman, and I’ve decided to give you one.

There is, of course, the pending criminal case in Barton County — attempted burglary and harassment — that could go to trial yet this year, but more likely early next year. Then there are three civil damage cases, including the one in which the murdered attorney Thomas Pickert represented a homeless man whom Jungerman shot and badly injured in September 2012.

In the Pickert murder, Jungerman is famously “not a suspect at this time” in the official lingo of the KCPD. That wording has scared off much of the local media, including The Kansas City Star, which has not written a word about the case in more than three weeks.

But I’m on it, as you know, and here’s the lineup of cases and their current status:

State of Missouri vs. David Jungerman

Jungerman is charged with a felony count of attempted burglary and one or two misdemeanor harassment counts for barging into a tenant’s home near Nevada, MO, last year and demanding to know — while brandishing a handgun in his waistband — when his tenant was going to vacate the premises. (His exact words were, “When are you getting out of here, you mother fucker?”)

A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Dec. 14 in Lamar, MO, the seat of Barton County. The case was originally filed in Vernon County but was transferred to Barton County last year. At different times, two different attorneys have represented Jungerman in this case. His first lawyer withdrew earlier this year, and the second withdrew six days after after Pickert was shot to death outside his Brookside home on Oct. 25.

Since early last month, Jungerman, a multi-millionaire, has been representing himself, but he has told the judge he has been attempting to hire a lawyer. Judge David Munton effectively told Jungerman he would be better off with just about any lawyer than representing himself.

Another interesting development in this case is that on Nov. 22, Vernon County Prosecutor Brandi McInroy filed a motion to endorse as a witness in the case KCPD Detective Nicholas Sola. In her motion, McInroy said she wanted Sola to testify “for sentencing purposes,” that is, assuming a jury convicts Jungerman. Sola is assigned to missing persons and cold cases, and I don’t know if he has played any role in the Pickert investigation. In any event, it would be interesting to hear what he has to say, if Jungerman is convicted. He could be sentenced, upon conviction, to seven years in prison for attempted burglary, and I have every reason to believe McInroy will be doing everything she can to get the maximum sentence. She’s already told the Judge Munton she doesn’t want Jungerman standing near her in the courtroom.

Jeffery Harris vs. David Jungerman

This is the case in which Pickert gained a $5.75 million verdict in favor of his client, a homeless man whom Jungerman shot with an assault rifle on Sept. 25, 2012, at a building he owns in northeast Kansas City. Harris was hit in the leg and had to have it amputated above the knee.

Jungerman represented himself in this case, but a lawyer named Jonathan Sternberg filed an appeal on his behalf on Sept. 22. Jungerman did not post an appeal bond, however, which allowed court officials to begin taking steps to seize enough of Jungerman’s property to satisfy the $5.75 million judgment.

Unwisely, Jungerman represented himself in the Harris case, and after the jury returned the verdict, he directed an “angry outburst” at Pickert and other court officials. I don’t know if he threatened Pickert, but I’m sure police know exactly what was said.

Robert Wallace vs. David Jungerman

Wallace is the other man whom Jungerman shot on Sept. 25, 2012. A Kansas City lawyer named L. Benjamin Mook filed suit on behalf of Wallace on Sept. 22 of this year. The petition alleges that Jungerman “ambushed the men” and shot both with an assault rifle “from inside the building as they stood outside on or near a covered loading dock.”

On Nov. 8, exactly two weeks after Pickert was murdered, Mook filed a motion to withdraw from the case. No one else has entered an appearance on behalf of Wallace, and the future of this case in doubt.

Justin Baker vs. David Jungerman

You would think that after shooting two trespassers in September 2012, Jungerman would have learned it’s better to call police and let them deal with trespassers. But that’s not Jungerman’s style. Less than a month later, on Oct. 21, 2012, he came upon two more trespassers — this time they were apparently inside his building — and he unloaded on them with a shotgun. Kansas City attorney Jarrett A. Johnson filed suit on behalf of Baker, one of the men shot, on Oct. 20, five days before Pickert was murdered.

Justin Baker

Baker got some press early last month when he recounted his story to a Fox4 News reporter. Last week, the court clerk filed a motion to dismiss the case because some paperwork was not filed on a timely basis, but Johnson told me today the case is alive and well and that he continues to actively represent Baker.

I will be updating these cases as developments occur.

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I know you wouldn’t want me to forget about the irresponsible asshole who barreled down the 23rd Street ramp off I-435 in September, killed two people and left a third with a brain injury.

Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten. I’ve been waiting patiently for the case to go from the Kansas City Police Department to the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, and that has now happened.

The case was at the police department for more than two months — the crash occurred Sept. 17 — while investigators awaited the results of toxicology tests. The toxicology report came back recently, and police sent the case file on to Jean Peters Baker’s office.

Mike Mansur, spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, told me prosecutors would be reviewing the case as soon as this week.

The toxicology report is not a matter of public record at this point, but I will not be surprised if it shows the driver of the black pick-up truck that rammed an SUV and triggered a four-vehicle collision was under the influence of illegal drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol or a combination of those elements.

Investigators have not released the name of the driver, but he is 35-year-old Terry A. Gray of Independence.

Gray’s name appears in Jackson County Circuit Court records as the defendant in two civil damage suits filed recently by people apparently related to 3-year-old Ryan Hampel, who was killed in the chain-reaction crash.

Fox4 News has identified one of the plaintiffs, Jaime Hampel, as Ryan’s mother. The plaintiff in the other case is Matthew Hampel, who could be Ryan’s father. (Jaime and Matthew do not share the same address, so I presume if they were married, they no longer are.)

I expect the prosecutor’s office to bring some serious criminal charges against Gray soon. Usually, the maximum charge that can be brought against a reckless driver in a fatality case is involuntary manslaughter, but state law provides for second-degree murder charges when a driver is drunk or impaired.

That was the case with James Leroy Green, the drunk driver who killed David and Jennifer Beaird’s two children on Labor Day 2016 on I-70 at Adams Dairy Parkway. Green is now serving a 25-year prison term after pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree murder. (As regular readers know, I have followed that case closely and have stayed in contact with the Beairds, who were preparing to move from Warrenton, MO, to upper New York State the last time I was in contact.)

In the 23rd Street case, cell phone video taken by a bystander shows that after the crash, the driver — Gray — walked aimlessly around his truck, picking up pieces and finally kicking a piece that had come off. Fox4 reported that during the entirety of the 12-minute video, the driver never left the immediate vicinity of the truck, even though victims in nearby vehicles were dead or dying. It is a shocking and disgusting display of self-absorption and disregard for the welfare of others.

Witnesses said the pick-up had been speeding northbound on I-435, weaving in and out of traffic, before hurtling down the 23rd Street ramp. There it plowed into an SUV, which, in turn, hit two other vehicles as it flew into the intersection. Ryan Hampel was in one of the two vehicles struck by the SUV. Also killed was 16-year-old Samantha Raudales, a passenger in the SUV. Her father, Geovanny Raudales, suffered a serious brain injury.

The pick-up and the SUV continued through all four lanes of 23rd Street and ended up next to a rock wall on the north side of the intersection. The video shows vehicles strewn about and bystanders crowding around them, while Gray stews about the remains of his truck.

Samantha Raudales

I have exchanged Facebook messages with Evelyn Raudales, a daughter of Geovanny Raudales. The last time I heard from Evelyn, her father was in a rehab hospital in Johnson County and was making progress. She said she didn’t know if he would make a full recovery.

It’s frustrating to know that the Terry A. Gray has been free the last two and a half months, but I believe his days as a free man are soon coming to an end.

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