At 11 a.m. on July 24, 2009, a man named Mark Kitchens approached a home in the historic section of Hyde Park.
The house is made of brick, with a tile roof. Mature sycamore trees stand at the base of the steeply sloping front lawn, which ends at a sidewalk lining Harrison Parkway. The neighborhood — home to a mayor during the age of Tom Pendergast — speaks of wealth and elegance.
Kitchens delivers court papers. He went to Hyde Park to serve Brent Lambi, a midtown developer, with a lawsuit. John Hodges, the man suing Lambi, used to live in the house. Hodges and Lambi had been romantic partners and bought the home together in 2000, before they broke up. Hodges filed the suit in an effort to force Lambi to sell the house they no longer shared.
Process servers are responsible for filling out paperwork; in his, Kitchens wrote that Lambi refused to accept the lawsuit. Lambi told Kitchens that he was not the man named as the defendant.
Technically, this was true. The summons ordered Brent Lambie to appear in court. Lambi does not spell his last name with an 'e' at the end.
Kitchens left the documents on the doorstep.
The unwelcome visitor had arrived at a time when Lambi was trying to acquire the old Katz Drug store at Westport Road and Main Street. Until it was shuttered in 2006, the building's most recent tenant had been an Osco Drug store. Lambi imagined that the Art Deco building — known for its clock tower and bold stripes — would anchor a redevelopment encompassing several blocks.
His plan was put on hold.
On December 2, 2009, a man named Brian Potter filed a lawsuit accusing Lambi, 49, of lying about his HIV status. Potter says Lambi told him that he was HIV-negative before they had unprotected sex, and that he contracted the virus from Lambi.
The document handlers working on Potter's behalf have not come as close to Lambi as Kitchens did. Five months after Potter's case was filed, Lambi has yet to be served with those papers.
Word around midtown is that Lambi left Kansas City for a place far from the reach of civil suits. Argentina, some people say. Or Chile.
Before his personal problems began to mount, Lambi was regarded as a bright and driven individual. David Scott, an entrepreneur and fellow Hyde Park resident, says Lambi seemed to move at blazing speed — somewhat atypical of Kansas City's landed class. "That's kind of refreshing, actually," Scott says.
But there was a dark side. He's on probation for an incident in 2008 that left a former boyfriend with scrapes on his hands and knees. The boyfriend told police that he and Lambi had been out drinking in Westport. They went their separate ways after a misunderstanding. Later that night, Lambi allegedly showed up at the boyfriend's house, kicked in a door and threw him to the ground.
At some point, he'll likely re-emerge. But in what condition? One person who has dealt with Lambi expects him to return "in a body bag or a changed person."
March 23, a Tuesday, begins with a short hearing in Jackson County Judge Joel May's courtroom.
Two lawyers sit at a table in front of May's bench. Chad Lamer is here on behalf of Hodges, Lambi's former lover and business partner. The other lawyer is Vince O'Flaherty.
O'Flaherty rents office space in a Lambi-owned building at West 39th Street and Main. Last summer, O'Flaherty helped Lambi apply for tax credits for his midtown redevelopment. Lambi was hoping to finance about half of the project's $27.7 million cost with credits available for developers who restore historic buildings and work in low-income areas.
O'Flaherty had agreed to represent Lambi in the Hodges case. But in February, O'Flaherty asked to be taken off the case.
In court papers, O'Flaherty says he hasn't been able to communicate with Lambi and has no knowledge of his whereabouts. He tells May that nothing has changed since he filed the motion to withdraw from the case.
"Where is he?" May asks.
"No idea. I'm sorry," O'Flaherty says.
May grants O'Flaherty's request. Meeting adjourned.
Before Lambi went into hiding, O'Flaherty filed an answer to Hodges' suit on Lambi's behalf. The response said Hodges no longer lived in the house at 3728 Holmes and that their business relationship ended in 2006.
Property records indicate that the relationship goes back several years. In 1996, Hodges and Lambi listed an Omaha address when they took out a mortgage on a piece of real estate in Kansas City.
Lambi is from Nebraska. He was admitted to the Nebraska State Bar Association in 1985. He ran a Spaghetti Works restaurant in downtown Omaha for several years.
An Omaha World-Herald story from 1995 describes testimony that Lambi gave to state lawmakers when he and others in the bar-and-restaurant industry spoke against lowering the blood-alcohol intoxication limit from 0.10 to 0.08.
Identifying himself as an alcoholic, Lambi told a legislative committee that a lower limit would not have kept him from getting behind the wheel. "I think you need to take away their cars," he said.
A few months later, Lambi and Hodges bought their first property in Jackson County: a piece of ground near the Uptown Theater. In 1996, they bought an apartment building near Paseo High School.
Hodges and Lambi steadily added to their inventory. In 2003, they formed L&H Midtown Investments, which today controls several properties near 39th Street and Main, including the building that houses the Unicorn Theatre.
In 2007, Lambi, now working and living without Hodges, bought Westport Square, the strip of buildings at the southwest corner of Broadway and Westport Road. He also acquired the building that's leased by Harry's Bar and Tables.
Lambi was not a passive investor. He tried to evict the struggling Papa Kenos Pizzeria. He sued Starbucks Corp. after the coffee giant closed its store at 401 Westport Road. Lambi accused Starbucks of breaking an agreement to leave behind furniture and equipment that did not bear the company's mermaid trademark.
The end of Starbucks in Westport made national news. The New York Times used the event to illustrate the perils of rapid expansion. The Westport location was noteworthy because the independently owned Broadway Café, just one door south, had survived the incursion from its national-chain competitor.
Lambi's heart was with Broadway Café. He told The Kansas City Star that he hoped to replace Starbucks with a local business. "I will go so far to say I don't think we should have chains in Westport," he said.
Lambi established a reputation in midtown for being a man of action.
"When he wants to do something, it's 'Katy, bar the door!'" says Greg Patterson, a Kansas City real-estate broker.
Patterson had helped the community radio station KKFI 90.1 in its search for a new space. For years, the station wanted to escape its location at Westport and Roanoke roads — up a rickety flight of wooden stairs in the back lot of the Bluestem restaurant — for a space with more parking and greater accessibility for the disabled.
Lambi offered KKFI a space at 3901 Main, what is commonly known as the bank building. Patterson says Lambi made an effort to create a functional space that KKFI could afford. "Brent really met all their needs," Patterson says, adding that before he had a signed lease in hand, Lambi began working on the KKFI radio-tower sign that now hangs from the bank building's second story.
Lambi also rents office space to the Main Street Corridor Development Corporation. MainCor uses one of Lambi's buildings as a base for its team of street sweepers and "awareness officers." In a letter that accompanied Lambi's application to the city for what are called new-market tax credits, MainCor Executive Director Diane Burnette called Lambi "a man of determination and vision."
Lambi's reach extended beyond midtown. Last summer, he made a $10,000 donation enabling the Kansas City Police Department to buy training equipment for the SWAT unit.
But at some point, people in midtown began to question Lambi's state of mind.
The old Starbucks remains vacant.
Lambi did manage to place a tenant in the storefront adjacent to the former Starbucks location. Blanc Burgers + Bottles quickly built a following, but then Blanc's owners jumped at an opportunity to move to the Country Club Plaza, where they reopened in February of this year.
Lambi also didn't have much luck with a building at 3935 Main, which he bought on January 15, 2009. A few days after completing the sale, he went to court to get rid of one of the occupants, a bar and restaurant called Embassy. Embassy's replacement, Jubal's Manner Coffee House, quickly disappeared.
Patterson is disappointed that Lambi hasn't done more with his buildings. He says for a time, calls to a phone number that Lambi posted at his vacant properties went to voice mail, which was too full to accept new messages. (A recent call to the number listed on the sign at the former Starbucks was answered by a service and forwarded to a property-management company that Lambi owns. The voice mail accepted a message, which was not returned.)
Lambi had seemed poised to do great things in midtown. "When Brent's on, he's awesome," says one person who has had dealings with him.
But another midtown source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says Lambi's volatility scares people away.
Add the lawsuit accusing Lambi of spreading the virus that causes AIDS, and Lambi's notoriety has only increased in his absence.
Says Patterson: "He's created as much gossip as anyone I've seen in midtown in years."
Lambi shows a playful side.
He named one of his companies Easy Bake Oven. One day last summer, he incorporated two businesses: Shocking Electric and S Happens Plumbing.
When he set his sights on the former Osco Drug store, Lambi formed a business called Krazy Katz Investments.
The name pays homage to Isaac and Michael Katz, the sons of Polish immigrants, who parlayed a cigar store at Eighth Street and Grand into a successful chain. Their confectionary business became known as the Katz Drug Co. during World War I. The brothers hired a pharmacist upon the edict that only drugstores could stay open past 6 p.m.
The Katz Drug store at 3948 Main opened in 1934. The black-cat sign posted above the entrance welcomed shoppers to a superstore, where a lower level contained grocery items and the pet department featured monkeys, parrots and an aviary filled with parakeets.
The Katzes had asked their nephew, Clarence Kivett, to work on a design for the midtown store. Kivett was a fairly recent graduate of the University of Kansas when he got the commission, and he went on to leave an indelible mark on Kansas City. His firm, Kivett and Myers, designed the Truman Sports Complex, Kansas City International Airport, Mission Hills Country Club, and Temple B'nai Jehudah (which resembled a modernist take on a conquistadors helmet).
The temple was demolished in 2003. Preservationists, not wanting to see the Katz Drug store on Main meet the same fate, asked the City Council to place the building on the Kansas City Register of Historic Places.
The designation was less important than the emergence of a buyer with ambitions greater than leasing to a payday lender.
The property consists of three parcels, which Lambi acquired between June and October of last year. He convinced one of the sellers, a woman named Eleanor Colby Zue, that he wanted to recapture Main Street as it was in the 1920s and '30s, according to a report in the Star.
The same newspaper story described Lambi's intention to put a bakery and café into the Katz Drug building. The tenant he had in mind was Farm to Market Bread Co., which began in Westport before moving to Waldo.
Farm to Market ultimately decided against a move back to midtown. Margi Swords, the bakery's vice president of operations, tells The Pitch that the Katz space was too big.
After Farm to Market dropped out, BNIM Architects showed interest.
BNIM's interest in the Katz building is easy to understand. Bob Berkebile, the 'B' in BNIM, worked for Kivett and Myers before striking out on his own.
Berkebile is also an industry leader in environmentally friendly design. He helped create the U.S. Green Building Council, which encourages developers to retrofit existing buildings.
BNIM and the Katz building seem like a good fit. Whatever the reason, a deal remains elusive. "No decision has been made," says Erin Gehle, BNIM's communications director.
Lambi's inability to secure a tenant in a timely manner stopped his application for new-market tax credits. Ruben Alonso III works in the city's Finance Department and administers the New Markets Tax Credit program. He says Lambi's application was effectively withdrawn when the tenants failed to materialize. Alonso was unhappy to put aside the proposal. "It was perfect for this," he says.
A few days after Potter filed his HIV lawsuit against Lambi, The Daily Record published a story that described in detail Potter's claim of negligence and battery and the legal questions at stake.
The allegation became public fodder. Court records, however, indicate that a process server wasn't hired until January 5, a month after Potter filed his suit. Lambi, it would appear, had sufficient time to become hard to find, if such an idea occurred to him.
According to Potter's petition, he and Lambi met in July 2008. By September, they were thinking about having sex. Lambi told Potter that he'd been tested for HIV and the result was negative, according to the suit, which states that Potter tested positive two months after the relationship became sexual.
But Lambi could not be made to answer the allegation that he'd acted recklessly. On January 27, Michael Ketchmark, Potter's lawyer, told the court that his process server "was informed the defendant is out of the country."
The judge handling the case has postponed hearings until Lambi turns up. The next hearing is scheduled for June 1.
The attorney working for John Hodges has asked for a judgment ordering the sale of the house. Judge May set a hearing date for May 3. (Hodges had no comment.)
Lambi did not respond to repeated phone messages. E-mails sent to an account he used when he applied for the tax credits were not returned.
Chad Eikermann, who works for Lambi at one of his property-management companies, declined to comment, saying the civil suits were "not a company issue."
Lambi's real-estate holdings, it should be noted, are not completely inactive. Westport Square has a new tenant. Aaron Confessori, formerly of Sol Cantina and Kona Grill, was recently spotted at the Blanc space, handling pieces of plywood. Confessori did not return a call seeking more information about the concept he's planning.
The Katz Drug redevelopment plan shows signs of life, as well. On Friday, April 16, O'Flaherty, the lawyer who said he had lost contact with Lambi, appeared before the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, a city agency that grants tax breaks. O'Flaherty spoke on behalf of Westport and Main Development, the corporate entity that Lambi used when he applied for new-market tax credits.
The PIEA board approved a blight study and a development plan, according to a report in the Kansas City Business Journal. O'Flaherty did not respond to requests for comment.
At Lambi's home in Hyde Park, a Pitch reporter knocked on the front door on two occasions. No one answered.
Through the glass in the door, an antique table was visible inside. Books on the table — a Benjamin Franklin biography, an account of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco — appeared undisturbed in the weeks that passed between the two visits.
But someone is paying attention to Lambi's house in his absence. The grass in the front yard is long but in no condition to alarm codes inspectors. A newspaper in the driveway is the current edition, not a yellowing description of what happened two weeks ago.
There are, however, signs of neglect. One of Lambi's cars, a silver 2006 BMW M5, is parked outside the detached garage behind his home. Property records indicate that he's delinquent on the $1,650.59 in taxes he owes on it and two trucks.