I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children ... Exodus 20:5
Id already written about the infamous shotgun.
This 12-gauge Remington Wingmaster was one elusive weapon.
It disappeared from the police property room, took a side trip to a local gun shop, then somehow landed right back in police hands. They just didnt know it.
This remains an odd and troubling provenance for the weapon used in Kansas Citys most enduring murder mystery, the July 15, 1970, killing of Leon Jordan. He was one of the most dynamic and complex politicians the city ever produced.
In early 2010, I got the original police investigative file in the case as part of my research for a story about the 40th anniversary of Jordans unsolved murder and, mostly on a lark, I also asked to see the murder weapon.
It fell to Capt. Rich Lockhart, the police spokesman at the time, to call me with the news that they had uh lost it.
Local civil rights activist Alvin Sykes had been pushing the cops to re-investigate the Jordan murder, but I think their embarrassment over losing track of the murder weapon was part of the reason they ultimately decided to take a second look.
Yet, while the mystery of the missing Wingmaster may have helped get the case reopened, it was the selfless sacrifice of a sweet, deeply troubled man who had the courage to purge long-held demons that actually helped get it solved.
That man was Danny Centimano, who died two years ago, and its hard not to speculate that the eviction of those malignant spirits, the disgorgement of the sins of the father, is what finally set him free.
The gift of grace
Given the upcoming anniversary of Jordans murder and this newfound interest by cold case cops, I wanted to pursue tips I had been hearing about the killing for years. It was time to reach out to Danny.
Knowing Dannys lifestyle, I was fairly certain hed be hard to find.
Danny was charming, earnest and endearing. He would hang on your every word. He was a little guy with a sweet disposition, and there was a genuine kindness about him.
He had charisma. What the ancient Greeks called a gift of grace.
Hed been a drug addict, a thief, a wise-guy wannabe and the son of a real one. And somewhere along his tortured way, hed acquired hepatitis C.
I had first met Danny at a hep C support group meeting in 2003, as I was helping research a series of stories on the illness.
Its a mean disease that replicates itself a trillionfold into new cells cloaked as healthy ones to evade the policing of the immune system just as Dannys dad had done. In Dannys case the hep C was aggressive, and it was adding to the damage hed been doing to his liver for years.
But there were worse demons inside Dannys head. Memories that had deeply scarred the 12-year-old psyche they were visited upon. And there were foggy memories about his father and a murder and Leon Jordan.
I visited homeless shelters and detox centers where I knew Danny would briefly take up residence. Everybody who had met Danny took a shine to him, and they all remembered him. Yeah, Danny was here for a while, but we havent seen him lately.
Finally, more out of frustration than anything else, I mentioned Danny to the cold case cops who were just getting started on the Jordan case. My phone rang early the next morning.
Mike, this is Danny Centimano. How you been, man? Hey, the cops pounded on my door real early this morning and asked me a bunch of stuff about my dad and Leon Jordan. You know anything about that?
I admitted that I did and begged Dannys forgiveness, which, as always, he freely gave.
He seemed to be in a good place, so I suggested it might be time to unburden himself. And he seemed good with that.
Danny had always told me that the name Centimano one of the few things he shared with his father was Italian for a hundred hands.
And the story that unfolded from then on seemed to bear that out.
Call the Law and then McGraw
I knew the midtown neighborhoods where Danny and his father and Leon Jordan had lived and worked.
In the late 1950s, during summer vacations, Id climb into the passenger seat of my fathers Rambler Rebel station wagon, and wed share most of a hot July day as he collected monthly insurance premiums from service station proprietors, tavern and liquor store owners, and restaurateurs.
He sold fire, hold-up, burglary and liability insurance, and his territory stretched from the state line east, through downtown and midtown, well into the neighborhoods where Jordan would soon rise to challenge absolute white political and economic power.
Those neighborhoods were exciting for a kid, partly because they were a long way from the quiet, all-white Independence neighborhood where I grew up.
My fathers business attire was a narrow tie and short-sleeved shirt, topped off with a brown straw fedora. He sucked on an endless chain of Winston reds that shared a pocket with business cards that featured a drawing of a menacing-looking fellow wearing a Gatsby cap and gripping a handgun.
The gun looked just like the one I knew my father later kept under the drivers seat in a purple velvet Crown Royal bag: a loaded, .32 caliber snub-nosed revolver. Printed across the bottom of the cards was his personal appeal to potential new customers, which was everyone he met: Call the Law and then McGraw.
Many of his insureds were first- and second-generation Italian and Greek immigrants who sold liquor and groceries and car repairs. And their multi-syllabic names would roll off his Irish tongue like sweet little songs.
In a dead-on Greek or Italian accent, hed say, Were going to see Mr. Demopoulis at his gas station, or Mr. Nigro at his liquor store, or Mr. Cammisano who I later learned had another name, Willie the Rat at his garage.
Their customers were the neighborhood blacks, many of whom had moved to Kansas City to escape the abject poverty and even more absolute racism of the Deep South.
And they all knew, as did I because these things were at my eye level back then that under every counter and beside every cash register was a black-handled billy club or a handgun.
Order must be maintained. Blacks were to be kept in their place, and, other than in these business transactions, the races must remain separate.
I didnt realize it until decades later, but on occasion wed pass by what would soon become Joes Liquors, at 1520 E. 19th St., now a forgotten corner behind the Historic 18th and Vine Jazz District.
It was here that Dannys father, Joe Centimano aka Cokey Joe, aka Crazy Joe, aka Shotgun Joe, aka The Mayor of Vine Street ruled through intimidation and, occasionally, murder. And it was here that Dannys most fearsome demons climbed aboard for a lifelong journey through a tortured mind.
I seen him run swords through people. I seen him shoot people, Danny would later tell the cops.
If Joe caught you stealing you never did it again. My dad was only robbed twice, Danny told me. The first time five people got shot.
It occurs to me now that my fathers insurance customers could have hired Joe for protection instead of paying monthly premiums to Dad and the Great Central Insurance Co. of Peoria, Ill.
Four strikes and youre dead
Joe was closely aligned with white mobsters and their pals in the north end Democratic political clubs.
The clubs were remnants of the old Pendergast machine, which had built a legendary political patronage system that included controlling black votes in these neighborhoods.
By the 1960s, the clubs were splintering into bickering factions, and good government groups were emerging. The remnants of the machine were being picked over.
Leon Jordan and a few other brave souls in search of racial justice and political power had been among those gathering gleefully around the carcass.
Jordan and his colleagues had brazenly and courageously been stealing the last gasps of life from tough white ward bosses and were putting blacks and what always had been their own people into what had always been white-owned patronage jobs.
The clubs had exerted total political control in these neighborhoods, often through black neighborhood thugs, who were also called political leaders.
The mob also had ties, again through Joe Centimano, to a third group a thriving criminal organization run by brazen killers, thieves and drug dealers called the black mafia.
Jordan had angered one of the black mafias leaders, James Doc Dearborn later identified as one of his killers by refusing to ask a friendly judge to go easy on Dearborn at a drug sentencing hearing.
One of the keys to Jordans slaying lies in the fact that he had become a serious irritant to all three camps.
By the time he was killed, walking out of his Green Duck Tavern on Prospect Avenue, Jordan was 65 and had spent the last 15 years earning a reputation as a dynamic, larger-than-life civil rights pioneer who was also the one-time head of the Liberian national police force.
It was at the Green Duck that Jordan would occasionally cater to some of the criminals who later turned on him, including men like Dearborn, who was murdered in 1985.
Like his competitors in the north end, Jordan would occasionally help out friends such as Dearborn who had criminal cases pending before judges backed by Jordans political club, Freedom, Inc.
Jordan was also challenging the power that mafia-connected north end Democratic groups had among inner-city black voters.
Eventually, he took over the important all-black 11th Ward, once a north end stronghold, and won three terms in the Missouri General Assembly.
An incident in May 1965, during Jordans tenure there, may have sealed his fate. Jordan took a swing at fellow legislator Frank Mazzuca, with whom he had been feuding.
Mazzuca was a north end guy and was known to support the outfits interests in Jefferson City, according to former colleagues.
Jordan eventually apologized to Mazzuca, but many think that nothing could atone for such a brazen act.
One police source in the cold case investigation, longtime Kansas City drug dealer Milton Terry Kelton, now in federal prison, told the cops that the incident led the mob to put a $25,000 contract out on Jordan.
Joe Centimano was extremely close to Mazzuca, and Danny would later tell the cold case cops that his father didnt much care for Jordan anyway.
All I know is that there was some meddling (by Jordan) that was going on and my dad didnt like it, Danny told them.
Joe was the conduit between the white mob and black mafia, according to one former captain in the black mafia, who would discuss the issue even a half century later only if he could do so anonymously.
When the north end needed something done in the black community, the black mafia did it. It was business, nothing personal. And the north end wanted Jordan eliminated for political reasons and because he disrespected people in the north end.
Thou shalt not steal
The night of Nov. 29, 1968, burned a hole in Dannys 12-year-old psyche and an even deeper one in the skull of Richard DeLeon Hill.
It was less than two years before Jordan would be gunned down, and America was in turmoil.
Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were fresh in their graves. Rolling riots were erupting in city after city, and boys were dying in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew had trounced Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, portraying themselves as a calming force at a time when everything seemed to be spinning apart.
The riots arrived in Kansas City that spring on April 9, the day of Kings funeral in Atlanta. Hundreds were arrested.
Display windows in downtown department stores were broken, the police unleashed tear gas on marchers at City Hall, and firefighters ducked under sniper fire along Prospect Avenue, not far from the Green Duck.
Danny felt the uneasiness of it all. For years, his dad had lorded over the all-black neighborhood around Joes Liquors.
But all that was changing. The civil rights movement was bloodied but advancing on one front, while on another, angry young blacks were robbing and looting.
And, as if things werent edgy enough, the black community itself was splintering. Young black activists were demanding more and quicker civil rights action, challenging Jordan and other elders as Uncle Toms.
It was against this tense tableau that Hill walked into Joes Liquors on a snowy night the day after Thanksgiving to buy a six-pack of Bud.
He was neither a freedom fighter nor a politician, just a man tired from his labors and thirsty for a few brews.
A 38-year-old Korean War veteran with a drinking problem and rap sheet with 27 minor arrests, Hill was separated from his wife and kids and living with a girlfriend just a few blocks from Joes store.
He worked earlier that evening at his job as an attendant at the Mutual Garage at 10th and Wyandotte streets.
It was just after midnight and hovering around freezing when Hill made his way to Joes. It would be his next-to-last stop on Earth.
Danny was in the store that night with his father, Dearborn and Dearborns wife, Rita.
Dearborn was a fixture at Joes and a regular at the Green Duck.
At one point Danny told the police he was sure Doc and his associates were good for 25 or 30 murders, easy.
But whatever else Doc may have been, he was good to Danny. And Danny loved Rita, a beautiful woman he often wished had been his mother.
Danny was counting out change from Hills $20 bill when he saw a look come over Joes face that he remembered clearly 40 years later.
Joe grabbed his long-barreled .38, pushed it against Hills head and accused him of stealing something from the liquor store and from two women who lived across the street.
Hill tried to deny it, but Joe, as always, was calling the shots. Nigger, shut up Im gonna put you where theyll never find you.
Danny froze, but he jumped up when Joe ordered him to grab the .410 shotgun from on top of the safe. Hill was begging for his life. If you run, Joe told him, Ill shoot you down in the street.
Doc and Joe put Hill in the front passenger seat of Joes Cadillac, with Doc behind the wheel. Joe got in the back with the .410 pointing at Hill.
As they pulled away, Danny and Rita locked the store and flipped off the lights, just as Joe had ordered.
Inside the darkened store, Danny turned to Rita. I guess theyre taking him to jail. To the police, Danny said hopefully.
Joe and Doc were back in 45 minutes.
There was blood on Joes hands and all over the .410.
Is that his blood? Danny asked his father. Shut up, Joe told his son.
Joe pumped the .410, and a hot spent shell clattered on the floor. Joe and Doc went to the back, disassembled the .410 and sawed it into pieces. Joe took the bolt. Doc took the rest.
Danny was crying by then. Joe took him to his sisters house and dropped him off, saying nothing.
Danny saw the picture on the front page of the newspaper the next afternoon.
Several cops were standing around on a spattering of snow just upriver from the south end of the old ASB Bridge. You could barely make out the corpse, lying on its right side. Crumpled, as though the life had rushed out of it in a split second.
The cops found $65 in Hills wallet and $2 in change in his gray slacks. He was still wearing his watch. Hed been shot from about three feet away. With a .410-gauge shotgun.
The cops didnt solve it at the time.
You know, Im purging myself, Danny told me more than 40 years later. That murder they did it really affected me. I still have nightmares. I was 12 years old. My dad made me hand him the shotgun.
Perhaps Danny was hoping it had never happened, that it was all a bad dream. A few years after we met, Danny started asking me to look for the picture in the paper, just in case.
Then if it really had happened he could take it to the cops.
But by then, the drugs and the years had erased the date and other key details from Dannys memory.
I scanned reel after reel of microfilm in the dusty back room of The Stars morgue in my spare time but never found the picture or the story.
After the cops banged on Dannys door that morning decades later, he told as much of the story as he could remember to Detective Danny Phillips.
Phillips pulled the police files for unsolved murders around that time, and eventually Danny recognized mug shots of Hill.
Then Phillips pulled from that same file the picture Danny had seen in the paper that afternoon in 1968 the picture I had failed to find.
There it was in grainy black and white, the photo by Star photographer Paul Renshaw. It was a wide, long shot of a white patrol car, three cops and a crumpled, covered body.
After more than 40 years, Hills family would finally know who killed their father and husband.
The long-awaited identity of his killers jolted something unexpected from Hills widow during my interview with her later.
We had heard stories for years, said Lena (Hill) Bruster, that the same people who killed Leon Jordan may have also killed Richard.
Hocus Pocus, 12th and Locust
Among the many things Danny and I talked about over the years were stories that could have linked his father to Jordans murder.
One of the guns Danny thought he saw at his dads house was a Winchester pump-action shotgun much like the one used to kill Jordan. He said he thought he saw Doc Dearborn come into the store with it.
Whether it was the same gun is anyones guess, but the rest of what weve come to know about the Jordan murder weapon is worth noting.
After it was found in a weed-covered field near the Green Duck, the shotgun went to the Kansas City Police Department property room but disappeared sometime after it was logged in until 40 years later, when I asked to see it.
After The Stars request in 2010 forced the police to acknowledge they had lost it, the department embarked on an intense search. They found the gun a few days later. They had unknowingly been using it for years in one of their own patrol cars.
As far as they could tell, they said, the gun had been transferred from the property room to persons unknown sometime in 1976. The following year, the police department had bought a used shotgun at a local gun shop to be used in one of its patrol cars.
They could only assume, they said later, that they had unknowingly purchased the very same gun that had earlier been transferred to persons unknown.
That still seems to me to be beyond serendipity. In fact, this odd turn of events brings to mind a saying that was popular among cops for years when weird things would happen at police headquarters on Locust Street: Hocus Pocus, 12th and Locust.
That gun and its troubling history got even more interesting with new information that Detective Richard Sharp and his fellow cold case detectives dug up in their 2010 re-investigation of the Jordan case.
Shortly after Jordans murder, police traced the gun to a Dec. 1, 1965, burglary at the Coast to Coast Hardware Store in Independence.
A confidential informant told Independence police at the time that the Coast to Coast guns had been stolen by two extremely active burglars. The two had taken to calling themselves Burglar, Inc.
They often stashed their cache in a house at 7001 Chestnut.
The cold case cops tracked them down. Amazingly, they said they didnt remember anything about the Coast to Coast heist.
But one of them acknowledged that he had pulled off a few burglaries years ago and that when he did, he often stashed his haul at the house on Chestnut.
He also told them that the house was owned by James Harvey Junior Bradley, who at the time was a well-known fence with mob connections and a close associate of Joe Centimano. He and Joe were so close, in fact, Danny called him Uncle Junior.
Bradley, now in his 80s, agreed to talk to the cold case cops but warned them at the outset that he would not speak of organized crime figures during this interview.
He told them he remembered doing business with the Burglar, Inc. fellows and acknowledged he knew both Nick Civella, the one-time leader of the Kansas City mob, and Centimano. Bradley said he and Centimano fenced stolen goods out of their businesses.
Bradley also told the cops that he had no idea who killed Jordan but that Centimano could have been involved without Bradleys knowledge.
Bradley went on to tell them that Centimano was violent and used a shotgun to shoot black males he perceived to be threats
The man with a hundred hands
Almost every Friday afternoon, a cab would roll up outside Knotts Elementary at 73rd and Jackson to pick up Danny for his weekends at 19th and Vine.
Sometimes Doc would be in the back.
Dannys mother, who was divorced from Joe by then, had reservations about Danny spending so much time with Joe, but she always packed him a bag. You didnt say no to Big Joe.
In many ways, Danny loved the weekends and the summers hed spend with his father at the store and his dads home.
He grew up in the rarified, privileged atmosphere of wise guys. There were nice cars, pretty women and expensive meals.
It was always an adventure, I couldnt wait, Danny told me.
Heres how Danny described it to Detective Phillips:
There would be a bunch of Italian guys and you know, I was a kid. So theyd take their overcoats and throw them in this booth and you know, wed eat whatever we wanted. You know, big meal.
The restaurant would be closed, but those guys would have all the waitresses in there, and they would put me to sleep in one of the booths. I mean, hey, I slept on slabs at (a local funeral home). Didnt know what it was, but theyd put their coats up there while they were playing cards and later I found out it was a mortuary slab.
Danny described one of his dads associates at one of those events. He was always there and I can remember him coming out from behind the bar, and he had on that wife beater shirt and white boxers, with his shoes and socks, with garters holding up his socks.
I never seen a man in garters, but he had his pistol in his underwear and the waitress come out in her bra and underwear and you know, Im a kid. They all partied and thats how I remember it.
Sundays at Joes house were always special, too. Our house on Sunday, you know, you might have any number of Italian guys and a few of the cops around too.
Joe was old school. He was intensely loyal, but he could quickly fly into a rage if he perceived some injustice directed at him or one of his friends.
My dad knew all them guys, Danny told me, not so much in a boastful way, but just as a matter of fact.
He knew Joe Filardo (who helped start Roma Bakery) and Civella. Both men had attended the infamous Cosa Nostra meeting in Apalachin, N.Y., in 1957. He knew the Speros and the Cammisanos, big names in Kansas Citys mob hierarchy.
Joe was definitely not a full-fledged member of the mob, according to retired FBI agent Bill Ouseley, who investigated the local mob for years.
My dad told me my whole life that he would never take an oath to where he was indebted to another man, Danny told me. The only organized crime that I saw happen around him was the crime he organized.
But Danny knew he was always safe in Joes presence. Joe doted on him and made sure he dressed well, often in clothing his associates boosted from high-dollar stores all over town.
Joe set Danny up with his own TV near the front of the store, near the candy. No one could see him, but it was a great vantage point to watch this strange, fascinating, high-energy world pass by.
There were guns everywhere. In the front, under the counters each covered neatly with white towels and all over the back of the store. When my dad bought bullets, Danny once told me, he didnt just buy a box
Danny was intimidated by his father and later told Phillips that he saw Joe assault people with bladed weapons and shotguns. He also said he believed his father committed at least one murder (Hills).
Danny saw far too much when he was around Joe at the liquor store, said Eddie David Cox, the only white leader of the black mafia, who is now serving a federal life sentence in Pekin, Ill. He was sentenced as a career offender after he was found to have been a felon in possession of a gun.
There was also a constant parade of smooth characters, Danny said, from pimps and thieves to the cops everyone from patrolmen to the chief of detectives to investigators for the county prosecutors office.
Every cop in my dads place hustled, Danny later told Phillips. His dad would make sure they left with a carton of cigarettes or a half pint.
Danny named several of those cops and, at least publicly, there had never been a hint of scandal on any of them. But its worth noting that the first investigation into Jordans death never got too close to Joe Centimano, even though the cops had been told of his possible involvement. Given all the mayhem that unfolded inside and nearby his liquor store, it might surprise some to learn that Joe Centimano never showed up on the FBIs radar. Joe kept a low profile and only one criminal charge is apparent. The file on the incident is buried deep in the millions of cubic feet of federal records at the National Archives here. In 1932, Joe and one Dale Elmore got caught with a cache of whiskey and bathtub beer. Joe was later pardoned, a favor that allowed him years later to open Joes Liquors.
City records show the store opened in the mid-1960s and was around until about the time Jordan was murdered, when Joe moved it to 55th and Troost. Danny didnt remember Doc or many of the others coming by much after the Jordan hit and the move.
The cold case cops finished their investigation of the Jordan murder in December 2010, producing 900 pages of interviews and background documents 73 pages of which were a single interview with Danny Centimano.
Doc Dearborn was the only person named in the probable cause statement, but police theorized that Joe Centimano, who died of cancer in 1972, was a key player who helped set the whole thing in motion, perhaps even getting approval from mob bosses to carry out the Jordan hit.
They also determined, based on Dannys statements, that Joe and Dearborn killed Hill two years earlier.
None of the suspects in either murder was still alive by then, and no charges were filed in either case.
There are still doubts in the black community, at least about the Jordan case. As some had feared, things emerged during the re-investigation that portrayed Jordan differently than many wanted to remember him.
While Jordan fought the scourge of drugs in the black community (which was likely one of the reasons he was killed), he also befriended ruthless leaders of the black mafia, he may have been involved in fencing stolen goods and he had numerous affairs.
Some continue to insist that Jordan was a victim of a much broader conspiracy involving the FBI and perhaps the Kansas City Police Department.
Danny never knew for sure what his fathers role was in the Jordan slaying, but he had no doubt of Joes role in Hills murder.
At one point during his interview with Phillips, Dannys mood turned uncharacteristically somber.
Lets face it, Im a heroin addict. Danny told Phillips that after his father died, Danny, who was about 16 at the time, found a large amount of heroin in his fathers safe. It was the only thing that took the pain away for me. And I never made no bones about it. Ive always told everybody Im a junkie.
Dannys brothers and a sister had seen much of the same kind of thing, but not as up close and personal as Danny.
They all have great successful lives, Danny told Phillips. Im the only one that turned out like this.
Phillips tried to keep it upbeat. If you straighten up you got a lot of time left. Quit living in the past and start living in the future.
No, Danny said, I want some closure.
On Feb. 9, 2011, after the cops turned their re-investigation of the Jordan case over to the Jackson County prosecutor, I got word that Danny had died the day before. He was 54.
He had been battling hepatitis C for years and suffered from end-stage liver disease and esophageal cancer. He told Phillips he had taken himself off the liver transplant waiting list.
There was no autopsy, but the family said it was his heart that finally gave out.
Its hard not to think that the real reason Danny died was simply because he could.
Im happy, Danny told me just weeks before. Does that make any sense? I got some peace. Mike, I told you the reason I wanted to do this is to get rid of this stuff. Ive talked to you about stuff I wouldnt tell a priest or a counselor.
Call the Law and then McGraw. My fathers old motto seemed to echo down in time.
I went to Dannys funeral and met his brothers, who shared a mother with Danny, but not a father. Danny was Joes only known child.
They asked not to be quoted here by name. One brother told me they still dont like to talk or even think about the things they saw and heard when Big Joe was around.
Danny never had a chance, the brother said. No one can choose who their parents are.
About this story
July 2010 was the 40th anniversary of the killing of local civil rights leader and politician Leon Jordan, who was gunned down outside his Green Duck Tavern at 2548 Prospect Ave.
In October that year, Kansas City Star reporters Mike McGraw and Glenn E. Rice used old investigative files and interviews with retired police officers, former suspects and others to suggest for the first time that the late Joe Centimano, a little-known mob associate, played a key role in Jordans unsolved murder.
The stories helped prompt a new investigation by the Kansas City Police Departments Cold Case Squad, which issued a 900-page report that mirrored many of the newspapers findings.
A few months later, the Jackson County prosecutor finally closed the case on one of Kansas Citys most enduring murder mysteries. There were no indictments, because the perpetrators were all dead.
The Stars stories won an award from the Kansas City Association of Black Journalists and won the National Association of Black Journalists Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism.
Centimanos son, Danny, played a key role in helping to solve Jordans murder and another decades-old unsolved killing. This is Danny Centimanos story. Its based on interviews with him and others and on documents from the original Jordan investigation and the more recent cold case file.