Paul Sloan sits on a courtroom bench on a November morning, waiting for a clerk to call his name. The 63-year-old's considerable girth stretches the fabric of an olive-green sweater.
Sloan is here, at the Cass County Justice Center, on charges that he stole $51,000 from the Airline History Museum, an homage to flight that occupies a hangar at Kansas City's downtown airport. The museum arose out of an effort to restore a Constellation, a piston-driven plane that recalls a more glamorous age of passenger aviation. Over several years, Sloan wormed his way into positions of authority, his hands greedy for what little cash the museum had. He collected a lavish salary as the museum's director, and what he didn't take home in salary he stole, embezzling from an event headlined by John Travolta. His handprints can also be found on a clumsy attempt to cash in on the museum's insurance policy.
His 9 a.m. court appearance plays to a nearly full house. He crossed a lot people during his time at the museum, and most of them are retired. Their mornings free, they fill two benches in the courtroom. One of them pushes a walker down the aisle to get there.
Sloan approaches the judge to enter his plea: guilty. He agrees to a sentence of five years of probation and $10,000 in restitution. When it's over, the museum's supporters file out. Some head for their cars, but others wait in the hall.
"Bye, Paul," a man says, like a sports fan taunting a vanquished opponent.
"Bye, Paul," a woman says.
"Bye, Paul," says another man.
Sloan doesn't respond to the sarcastic farewells. Instead, he turns toward the county clerk's office, where he'll arrange to pay his restitution in $200 monthly installments.
As con men do, Sloan used people as his instruments, and his power to persuade was aided by an ability to remain calm, to be the voice of reason. He had an answer for everything and never hesitated in delivering it.
"He talks a really good game," says one woman who dealt with him. "You find yourself getting sucked in."
Though his punishment is light, Sloan's attempts to loot the Airline History Museum — which is subsidized by the city with free rent and occasional grants — went on for years. He lasted that long by creating divisions and exploiting rivalries. He was always meeting with someone in a corner, says one former board member.
Sloan's was the only name in the indictment. But if bad judgment were a crime, the judge would have been in for a long morning. Sloan's enablers at the Airline History Museum included an ex-cop with ties to a trigger-happy law firm and a city councilman with a soft spot for airplanes. And while Sloan was forced to resign, the ex-cop and the councilman remain in charge at the struggling museum.
She was lying in the desert when they found her.
It was the summer of 1985. At Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base in south Kansas City, Larry Brown, a corporate pilot, and Dick McMahon, retired Air Force, got to talking about planes. Brown reached for a picture of a military version of a Constellation. Admiring its triple-tail design, the two men wondered if they could find one, fix it up and fly it around to air shows.
The Constellation was developed by Lockheed at the suggestion of Howard Hughes, who acquired a controlling interest in TWA in 1944. Hughes wanted a plane that made passenger air travel seem safe and sophisticated. With a sexy design and the ability to fly above the clouds, the Constellation delivered both.
Brown and McMahon found a "Connie" stashed at an airport in Mesa, Arizona. Prior to its sun-baked retirement, it had hauled racehorses and sprayed pesticides. A Phoenix businessman bought it for $4,000 and then donated it to Save-a-Connie Inc., a nonprofit that the men organized in 1986.
Save-a-Connie grew quickly, drawing dues-paying members from pilots, mechanics and flight attendants who had worked at TWA during its Kansas City glory years. To get the Connie fit enough to fly, a dozen TWA mechanics spent nine weeks in Mesa. The plane touched down at the downtown airport 3,600 man-hours later. The crew, wearing powder-blue jumpsuits, beamed as they descended the stairs. The aviation buffs and ex-TWA workers who watched the landing formed a circle around the plane, as if it were a religious artifact.
The overhaul of the Connie continued on a ramp on the east side of the airport, and the plane appeared at its first air show in 1989. The Save-a-Connie museum opened a year later, stocked with old TWA "hostess" uniforms and other artifacts culled from members' closets.
Over the next decade, the organization expanded its fleet, acquiring a DC-3 that flew for TWA in the 1940s. And in 2000, Save-a-Connie became known as the Airline History Museum. Today, the museum and its main attractions — the Connie, the DC-3 and a Martin 404 — reside in Hangar No. 9 at Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport.
The museum has always been a member-driven organization — a club, more or less. The yearly dues are $110, but some members have paid 100 times that in labor, whether with a wrench or as a tour guide. "I was so happy to go down there," says John Comley, who put his woodworking skills to use at the museum. "I felt like I was accomplishing things."
Few members were as accomplished as Foe Geldersma, who had worked his way up at TWA from flight engineer to captain. He joined the museum in 1996 and became president in 2000. But things really accelerated three years later, in 2003.
Geldersma was at an air show in Dayton, Ohio. As he sat on the stairs of the Constellation, a van pulled up. A man emerged and called to Geldersma. John Travolta wants a tour, the man said.
Travolta, a noted plane geek who once owned a Constellation, climbed into the airline museum's Connie and reclined in a sleeping berth. His stay, if fleeting, left an impression. Later that year, Geldersma received a call from Travolta's wife, actress Kelly Preston. She wanted to know if the Connie could chauffeur Travolta to his 50th birthday party in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Under rules of the Federal Aviation Administration, the museum couldn't operate as a charter service. So the museum's leaders decided that the Connie would appear at an "air show" in Cabo and give Travolta a ride on its way. Actor Dan Aykroyd paid the cash deposit.
On February 6, 2004, Travolta and his three-man entourage arrived at the downtown airport in a Gulfstream. He took a quick tour of the museum, then boarded the Connie. The plane took off at 11:35 a.m. and landed in Cabo six and a half hours later.
A few days after the Connie returned to Kansas City, officials at the FAA received an anonymous complaint: The Cabo air show wasn't legitimate, the tipster alleged, and the weather that day wasn't suitable for takeoff.
Though he says he didn't tip off the FAA, an ex-cop named Jim Dickerson was troubled by the Cabo trip. A licensed pilot, Dickerson volunteered as the museum's PR man. He'd left the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department in 2004 to work in development for a local law firm.
Geldersma had kept Dickerson in the dark about the Cabo trip; he later told The Kansas City Star that Travolta's people had insisted on silence. "It was kind of kept a secret," Dickerson tells The Pitch. "Nobody told anybody. So I thought we lost a PR opportunity out of it."
The FAA complaint didn't amount to anything, and the Cabo trip forged a bond between Travolta and the museum. In 2005, when he was in town for a benefit for the Boys & Girls Clubs, Travolta told museum officials that he'd be happy to appear at a fundraiser. The offer represented a huge opportunity. But the museum's leadership knew more about flight systems than fundraising.
Paul Sloan stepped into the void.
The members knew little about him at the time that he ran for a position on the board in early 2004. When people asked what he did for a living, he mentioned something about a cleaning business. (According to records, he owned Luxury Carpet Cleaning from 1985 to 1993.) But while Sloan wasn't a TWA guy, he knew how to fly. He once took Geldersma and other museum leaders to a meeting in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in a Beech Baron.
Elected to a seat on the board, he seemed to have a feel for raising money that the more technical-minded members lacked. "Sloan was a hell of a salesman," one former board member says. "He would promise you anything."
Sloan urged the board to get serious and hire a fundraiser. Eventually, he found just the guy: himself. He presented the board an employment agreement in 2006, asking to be named executive director. His proposed salary to run the small nonprofit: $120,000 a year, almost half of the museum's revenue that year.
It was an audacious request. David Nachman, the museum's lawyer, sent a letter to Geldersma, taking issue with the salary and questioning how much power the contract gave the director.
The board passed on Sloan's offer. Sloan sensed that Geldersma, who liked to do things by the book, was an impediment. A few weeks later, he tried to topple Geldersma in the board election. He lost again.
Sloan wasn't shut out completely, however. Around this time, the board designated him as the museum's chief fundraiser. The position was unpaid, but later, multiple witnesses would tell police that Sloan waved around a document indicating that he was entitled to 40 percent of all the money the museum raised.
In early 2007, as Sloan began wearing his Official Fundraiser sash, museum members learned of a plan to build up the organization's coffers.
Meetings took place away from the museum, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kansas City, Kansas. Sloan was there. Dick McMahon, one of the museum's founders, spoke. Other times, Dickerson took the lead. But the message was always the same: The members needed to sue Geldersma — the museum's longest tenured president — for breach of duty.
Geldersma wasn't a universally beloved figure. He could be brusque and "woodenheaded," as one former member describes him. There was also that dark day in 2005, when an engine on the Connie caught fire during a maintenance check. Geldersma received the blame from those who wanted to assign it. The plane hasn't made it to an air show since.
But while the proposed lawsuit would demand that Geldersma and his allies step aside, they weren't really the target. An insurance policy was.
Like most nonprofits, the museum insured its board of directors against claims of wrongdoing. If a jury decided, or Geldersma admitted, that he cost the museum money, the insurance company would be on the hook for damages. The museum could quickly restock its meager reserves.
Also in line for a payday would be the law firm that handled the case — a bonus for Dickerson because it was his employer, Barnes Law Firm, that filed the suit in Clay County in April 2007. In it, McMahon and two other museum members accused Geldersma and three other board members of misappropriating assets, overspending and botching fundraising opportunities.
But in a letter to the museum's members, the law firm made no secret of its priorities.
"Our clients began this litigation with one goal in mind," wrote Ken Barnes, the founding member of Barnes Law Firm. "To improve the financial position of the Airline History Museum."
Several weeks after the suit was filed, the plaintiffs proposed a windfall settlement: Geldersma would admit that he breached his duties as president. He wouldn't be held personally liable, but he would "acknowledge" a judgment of $2.4 million, which the museum could then seek from the insurance company.
By then, Geldersma had already stepped down as president. But he refused to admit that he'd done anything wrong.
A few months later, on October 6, 2007, luxury cars pulled into the downtown airport at around 6 p.m. Travolta arrived around 7, landing in a jet provided by Garmin, a corporate sponsor of an event that had been billed as "Return to First Class."
Travolta entered Hangar No. 9 looking cool and casual, in a dark suit and loosened tie. Flashbulbs and a swarm of women in cocktail dresses tracked his movements. He paid the Connie a visit before finding his place at a roped-off table. After dinner, an anesthesiologist's wife paid $20,000 for a dance with him.
Laurie Ingram watched the evening unfold with a mix of satisfaction and regret. Ingram publishes The Independent, a Kansas City society magazine. She had been asked to co-chair the event and had worked to transform the hangar into a place where Kansas City's party-minded philanthropists could dance, drink and gawk. The price of elegance was staggering: $37,543 for flowers, $46,851 for catering, $111,059 for equipment rental.
"You can't bring in John Travolta and serve coffee and doughnuts and call it a day," Ingram says.
But the luxury devoured the $150 ticket receipts and other donations. More than 85 percent of the $359,201 of the night's revenue went toward expenses, according to a balance sheet obtained by The Pitch. The museum's once-in-a-lifetime fundraising opportunity produced a profit not much larger than the food bill.
The planning committee was made up mostly of society matrons, but the museum did have a representative: Paul Sloan. It wasn't clear to Ingram at the time, but Sloan was using the event as a way to further his campaign against Geldersma. During the planning, Sloan had written a letter to the museum's founders, complaining that potential donors were withholding their money because of Geldersma and his "rubber stamp" board.
The letter was signed by the planning committee. But Ingram claims no memory of it. "I have never seen a letter like that," she says.
After Travolta danced to "Come Fly With Me," Sloan plotted his next move: installing a board that he could control.
One of the individuals Sloan recruited was Bill Skaggs, a Kansas City councilman. The two men had spoken once about the museum getting its rent reduced further at the city-owned airport. (The city first cut the museum a break in 2003.) Skaggs was open to helping the museum: He'd served in the Air Force before becoming an autoworker and, later, a politician. "I just love to hear those ol' engines run," he tells The Pitch.
The election was held on January 5, 2008. Skaggs won a seat on the board and was later named president. Sloan became vice president.
Some museum members, meanwhile, remained troubled by the Travolta event and its paltry return. Two members wrote letters to the board and fellow supporters, complaining about the planning committee's lack of transparency.
Sloan, the man who knew the most about the event, swatted away the inquiries. Then, in April, he stepped down from the board when it finally gave him what he wanted: a full-time job. He was named the executive director, at his requested salary of $120,000.
As Sloan settled into his new role, then-Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon started asking questions. Acting on complaints from members, Nixon's office asked museum officials for documents related to the Travolta event.
Skaggs claims that he snapped to attention when the demand letter arrived. He gathered up records, he tells The Pitch, and delivered them to Jefferson City. "It's like I told 'em: I said if I'm going to be involved in this thing, I want to know," he says.
In fact, Skaggs seemed uninterested in learning anything. In his initial response to Nixon's demand letter, the councilman dismissed concerns about the Travolta event, calling them "frivolous" and arguing that they stemmed from "hurt feelings" and "personal grudges."
Translation: nothing to see here.
The museum sent a four-page response to the Attorney General's Office. The letter was signed by Skaggs, but it was obviously Sloan's version of events. The planning committee, which he'd managed, was the hero in this telling, overcoming the obstacle of the "unusual and, at times, difficult" relationship with Geldersma and his band of grumps. The "tremendous publicity" the museum received from the event was "just partial evidence of the success of the evening," the letter boasted.
Meanwhile, Skaggs assured the members that nothing would come of the investigation. "I'll take care of it," he bragged, according to former members, leaving them with the impression that his personal relationship with Nixon would help bring a quick end to the inquiry. (The men served together in the General Assembly in the 1980s, and in 2007, Skaggs' campaign committee gave $10,000 to Nixon's.)
The investigation made a soft landing, just as Skaggs predicted, with Nixon's office dubbing the museum's response "satisfactory."
Nixon's staff did call the expenses on the Travolta event "exorbitant" and raised questions about Sloan's employment contract. But Skaggs insisted that Sloan was "qualified" — an interesting way to describe someone who never finished high school. The AG agreed again, finding no "bad faith" in Sloan's hiring.
Later that year, the board members received an anonymous letter that plainly accused Sloan of running a con. ("His plan was simple: get the money.") But at the city-supported and tax-exempt Airline History Museum, governance seemed to amount to one guy shooting a thumbs-up to another.
"I didn't think there was anything wrong," Skaggs tells The Pitch, "because Paul told me there was nothing wrong."
In May 2009, the Star raised the first public questions about Sloan's salary. He argued that his pay was on a par with the salaries of other nonprofit heads. But leaders of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Liberty Memorial Association made less while managing larger budgets, the Star found.
Skaggs continued to defend his executive director. But suspicions about Sloan were becoming hard to ignore. A few months before the Star reporters called, a volunteer had complained to Skaggs about money missing from the vending machine. And eventually, Skaggs learned that Sloan was griping to people that a board member, Meg Conger, had sicced the Star on him. He went to the museum and confronted Sloan.
"He resigned the next day," Skaggs says, "and I haven't had a conversation with him since."
Things continued to unravel after Sloan's departure. Conger learned that a $35,000 tourism grant from the city never made it into the museum's account. Looking through records at City Hall, she found that Sloan had deposited the money into a museum checking account that no one else knew about. Sloan, it was later discovered, had been withdrawing money from the account by writing checks to PDS, a company that took its name from his initials.
Cass County prosecutors filed charges against Sloan on October 15, 2010. He admitted only to stealing a partial sum — $10,000. (He refused to speak to The Pitch.) But if the thefts happened as Conger described to police, they started a month after the 2007 Travolta event and continued until August 2008 — before, during and after the attorney general's investigation that Skaggs thought was a waste of time.
The first thing visitors see when walking up to the Airline History Museum is an L-1011 jet that sits outside the hangar. Its engines removed, the plane looks as if it has been pawed by some creature of science fiction. Dickerson says the jet will help the museum tell a more complete story of passenger aviation. But as it sits on the tarmac, it looks more like somebody's tax write-off than a thoughtful acquisition.
A month after Sloan's guilty plea, Skaggs says his main goal for the museum is to put its signature planes — the Connie and the DC-3 — back in the air.
"I don't really want to get into all the petty fighting," he says, sitting around a table with Conger and Dickerson in his corner office at City Hall. "That's not my deal."
Skaggs, however, hasn't always had his vision trained on the horizon. In 2009, when the members' lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality, he and the museum's new board tried to revive the case against Geldersma. Dickerson's law firm, continuing to reach for the insurance money, filed a new claim against Geldersma on the board's behalf.
Ultimately the scheme collapsed. The museum never got its payday, and it agreed to pay the legal fees of Geldersma and his co-defendants, according to sources with knowledge of the case. (Geldersma declined to comment.)
Dickerson refuses to discuss the lawsuit, but his role in it cost him the respect of some museum supporters. Ingram recalls meeting a potential donor, a retired TWA executive, who withheld a $25,000 donation. "Until you get the lawsuit cleaned up, I'm not giving you a dime," he told her.
The museum could have used the money. A $750,000 donation from a former TWA captain has dwindled. So has membership, which is about half of what it was at the museum's peak.
The museum endures only because of the dedication of the volunteers. On a recent Saturday, a white-haired, soft-spoken man named Charles leads a tour group of four, which includes a woman who donated some belongings of her father, a former TWA mechanic.
The tour takes guests through the cabins of the Martin and the Connie. "She's our pride and glory," Charles explains when the group reaches the latter aircraft.
At the DC-3, Charles explains that the fuselage arrived in Kansas City on the bed of a truck that set out from Roswell, New Mexico. The museum has one engine and hopes to buy another. In fact, not long ago, tour guides were telling visitors that the DC-3 might be ready to fly in a month or two.
"Now we don't ever say numbers," Charles says, "because things keep popping up."