When the trio returned to the stolen SUV, they began dressing for the job. Platt watched as his two partners slid into Kevlar vests and armed themselves with handguns. Then they handed him a hammer and a pillowcase held open with a clothes hanger. All three men wore ensembles of dark clothing, gloves, masks and hooded sweatshirts to tighten over their heads.
At 11 a.m., the SUV pulled into the strip mall's parking lot. Lightfoot stormed through the door at Malashock's first, followed by Peoples, then Platt. Together, they ordered employees and customers to the floor while shattering display cases and shoveling handfuls of gold chains and loose diamonds into the pillowcases. Then they fled in the SUV and drove straight back to the stowed Cutlass. Peoples and Platt raced from the SUV to the car. Lightfoot ditched the SUV, then caught up with Peoples and Platt on foot for the 200-mile drive back to Kansas City. Back home, Lightfoot called a pawnshop owner whom he knew would fence the stolen jewels and deliver their money a few days later. Platt expected to make more than $1,000 for less than half a day's work.
Three weeks later, on November 28, 1997, the group made another trip to Omaha. Again, they stole a bulky getaway car, this time a blue conversion van, parked it, then cased their target. Again, they donned gloves and dressed in dark clothes with masks and hoods pulled over their heads. This time, shortly before noon, they knocked over a bank -- Educator's Credit Union in the south part of the city. Instead of jewels, they made off with thousands of dollars in cash and nearly $100,000 in travelers' checks and money orders.
Again, they ditched the stolen car and sped back to Kansas City.
They didn't know they were driving toward trouble, not away from it. Back in Kansas City, Lightfoot's abused lover was hurt and upset and ready to talk about her boyfriend's criminal enterprise. Her disclosure would provoke an ill-conceived murder conspiracy that continues to confound prosecutors nearly five years later.
Lightfoot's live-in girlfriend was born John Wayne Hogsett but had since assembled a feminine wardrobe and renamed himself Jovan Jackson and then later Jovan Ross. Ross' physical transformation was strictly cosmetic, not surgical, but Lightfoot's confederates played along, routinely referring to Ross as a woman. Later, witnesses and lawyers, in volumes of documents stored at the federal courthouse in Kansas City, Missouri, would do the same.
Lightfoot and Ross had lived together for just a few months. They shared a boxy, flat-roofed, stone rental home in a wooded cul de sac south of Brush Creek Boulevard at East 56th Street.
On December 2, 1997, the 33-year-old Ross crossed the state line and spoke with Overland Park Police Department officers, with whom she apparently felt comfortable. She talked about Lightfoot's violent abuse but then offered police something more interesting: She knew of at least one robbery Lightfoot had committed that fall.
Three days later, Ross again met with police, but this time she also told her story to Special Agent Joan Neal, an eleven-year FBI veteran assigned to the Educator's Credit Union robbery. A week after that interview, investigators searched the couple's home. They found $92,000 in bank notes in a crawl space below the house, just as Ross had reported. Authorities arrested Lightfoot the following day and charged him with armed bank robbery. He was sent to a privately owned Leavenworth jail to await a federal trial in Nebraska.
In the weeks that followed, Ross played amateur cop, telling Neal that she could fetch more information on Lightfoot's partners. She eventually turned over nicknames and phone numbers, information the FBI agent used to identify Peoples and Platt as suspects. But Neal uncovered no further evidence of their involvement, and both men remained free.
By early 1998, the Omaha U.S. Attorney's office revealed to Lightfoot's lawyers the evidence Neal had amassed. For the first time, Lightfoot learned that Ross had sold him out. Soon thereafter he sent copies of the government's argument to Peoples.
Worried that Ross' involvement could lead to his own arrest, Peoples called a meeting at his Kansas City, Kansas, home to discuss the problem with his live-in girlfriend, Karen Cockrell, and four criminal associates, including Larry Platt and a 26-year-old named Vincent "Devil" Irvin.
The members of this brain trust would later recall that evening for prosecutors. Peoples, who feared the police were watching him from a vacant house across the street, cranked the volume on his stereo. Then Peoples told the group about Ross -- how she could put Lightfoot away and implicate others. She needed to die. The group then turned to Anthony Lee Hunter, whom it was thought might be able to take care of the problem.
Several days later, Peoples met with Hunter again and asked him to take the job. Hunter hesitated, and Peoples got nervous. Lightfoot's trial was just a few months away, and the police could come calling at any time. On May 16, 1998, Peoples spoke with Lightfoot by phone. That afternoon, he broke into Ross' home and ransacked the place.
The next day, Peoples received a phone call from someone asking to speak with C, his nickname. It was Ross, unwisely annoying the man who was trying to intimidate her.
"Who's calling?" he asked.
Ross hung up. But less than thirty minutes later, she called back. "Can I speak to C?" she asked.
"Who's calling?" Peoples answered.
Again, Ross hung up, then recounted the exchange to Neal.
Peoples couldn't believe her nerve and said so the next time he spoke with Lightfoot. "That motherfucker called over here," he said.
"When?" Lightfoot asked.
"Shit, the next day. It was fucking Sunday morning. The motherfucker called over here twice, talking about, 'Can I speak to a C?'"
The hit needed to come soon. Finally, some good news came from Hunter. He wouldn't commit the murder himself, but he'd find someone who would.
"Big Curtis" Barfield owned a car lot on 10th Street in Kansas City, Kansas, but area gang members knew him more as a crack peddler than an auto dealer. He and Hunter were cousins and known occasional associates in the drug trade.
Hunter needed a favor. He told Barfield about the Ross situation and Peoples' contract on her life. Barfield said he had just the man for the job, but he wanted $5,000 himself to set up the deal.
Satisfied with the business proposal, Peoples organized a field trip with Platt, Hunter and Barfield. Driving around Kansas City, the group scouted Ross' routine the way they might case a jewelry store. They drove to Ross' workplace, Embassy Suites on the Plaza. They rolled through the hotel's parking garage, where Ross parked her red Geo Metro. They drove by her home. At the end of the trip, Peoples handed Hunter a slip of paper with Ross' address written down.
Days later, Hunter and Barfield returned to Ross' home, this time with 21-year-old Carl Haskell. They relayed the details to Haskell, whom they knew as an "enforcer" for a Kansas City gang called the Wrecking Crew, and offered to pay him $10,000 for the hit. According to witnesses who later testified against him, Haskell agreed and began looking for a partner to carry out the crime.
After at least one refusal, from a fellow gang member called Freaky, Haskell persuaded Quinton "Q" Jones to help him with the job.
Peoples had his killers. The issue now was money.
To Lightfoot, the issue was always money. That's why, in the midst of the conspiracy to kill Ross, he kept himself occupied in prison with other enterprises.
In less than a year, Lightfoot had earned a reputation as a brutal, sexually violent, HIV-stricken inmate. Cellmates hated him. One of them persuaded prison officials to reassign him elsewhere after a clash with Lightfoot left him fearful of contracting the disease. Another of Lightfoot's cellmates, an older man weighing just 140 pounds, didn't fare so well. He eventually complained that Lightfoot had raped him.
Shortly after arriving in Leavenworth, Lightfoot arranged for a prison guard to receive a $300 money order on the outside. The guard used a portion of that money to funnel cigarettes to the inmate. In the no-smoking prison, inmates had two primary forms of currency: postage stamps and contraband cigarettes. Because Lightfoot didn't need cigarettes, he traded for books of stamps other prisoners had bought from the prison commissary. A typical barter might get him a $6.40 book for a $3 pack of cigarettes. Over the course of several transactions, Lightfoot stockpiled hundreds of dollars in stamps.
He believed he could then pass the stamps out to his family. His family could take the stamps to the post office. The post office would then accept the returned stamps and dish out hundreds of dollars in cash.
The neat little scheme turned out to be rooted in a misunderstanding of the U.S. Postal Service's return policy, which deems all stamp sales nonrefundable.
Meanwhile, Peoples had leaped one hurdle only to find another straight ahead. For all the criminal sophistication required to kill Ross, all the planning and deal making, Lightfoot had instructed Peoples to pay off the killers with loot he'd supposedly buried near a doghouse shortly before his arrest. But when it came time to dig up the booty, Peoples couldn't find the stash.
Peoples' first arrest had come young, at age fifteen, when police booked him for involuntary manslaughter after he out-gunned a would-be killer. That time, Peoples was sent to a youth center. But when he got out, police nabbed him again for opening fire on what he thought was a rival gang's car. That won him an extended prison sentence, during which he met Larry Platt.
Now, according to federal prosecutors, Peoples found himself masterminding the murder of an FBI witness, a task that required careful planning and cash -- lots of cash. Haskell alone needed $10,000. Barfield demanded $5,000. Hunter, the middleman who got the whole operation up and moving, wanted $2,500. Now, with less then two months before the Lightfoot trial, Peoples needed to score some funds.
So with the help of his girlfriend, Peoples scoped out Halbert Jewellers in St. Joseph, Missouri. Days later, he went back with Vincent "Devil" Irvin and checked the shop again.
On the morning of June 3, 1998, Peoples made a final trip to Halbert, this time accompanied by Platt, Irvin and his cousin, Howard Peoples. The group pulled into the parking lot of a nearby Wal-Mart, where Platt broke into and stole a 1989 gray Chevrolet Astrovan. The four men reconvened at an apartment complex across the street from the jewelry store and got ready.
At 10 a.m., they blasted through Halbert's front door and screamed at everyone to get on the floor. As they had in Nebraska, they smashed open display cases and grabbed handfuls of jewels. Several minutes later, with as much as $200,000 in stones, they bounded out the door and into Platt's waiting Astrovan.
Then things got rough. As Platt sped away, the men noticed a car following them and panicked. Peoples, a premature triggerman, leaned back and shot at the driver, putting a hole through the Astrovan's back window.
The commotion apparently confused Platt, who suddenly couldn't find Peoples' Cutlass. Irvin and the Peoples cousins tore into him for detouring the getaway. After Platt regained his bearings and found the Cutlass, the car wouldn't start. There was more yelling at Platt, who stood accused of inviting the car's failure through his sloppy getaway work.
Eventually the Cutlass started, and the four men sped back to Peoples' house, where Karen Cockrell waited with a scale to weigh the jewels. Out of danger, their moods softened. Peoples made jokes about their pursuer. He laughed about the gunshots.
The next day, Peoples and Platt took the jewels to a pawnshop at 80th and Wornall Road. They spoke with Lightfoot's fence, 45-year-old Joseph Speck, who told them he'd deal the jewels around and have their money later.
Now Peoples had nothing to do but wait -- wait for cash to come from Speck and wait for word of Ross' death.
Late the night of June 8, 1998, a standard-issue brown station wagon pulled onto a tree-shrouded street in east Kansas City, passing a yellow street sign that read Dead End.
The station wagon stopped near the house where Jovan Ross lived with her Brittany spaniel, Speckles. When the car stopped, Carl Haskell and Quinton Jones stepped into the rain and headed for a rear entrance. Jones kicked in the back door.
Ross, wrapped in a quilt, walked into the kitchen. Speckles followed.
When Ross appeared, Haskell shot her once in the stomach, prosecutors say. Ross collapsed. Haskell ordered Ross to her knees. He waited more than a minute, letting the pain in Ross' abdomen swell. Then he shot her in the face.
A few days after the murder, according to federal prosecutors, Peoples spoke with Lightfoot by phone and warily assured him that Ross was no longer a concern. He tried to explain what had happened without being too specific, relaying the qualifications of the men who had performed the hit. "That's all they do," Peoples said. "They don't sell dope. They don't do nothing. They just get paid to put the move on."
He added, "It's a done deal, 'cause they explained everything to me in the crib. They wouldn't know, because I didn't tell them. They knew about the little, the little fluffy. I didn't even discuss that with them."
But Lightfoot wanted more proof than a vague reference to Speckles the dog. A news story. Word from his lawyer. When nothing of the sort came, he began to get nervous.
At first, even Peoples wasn't certain his subcontractors had pulled off the murder. His girlfriend told him Ross' car had been moved. Later, it reappeared at the house on 56th Street. Was Ross still alive?
Peoples called on his team for confirmation. Within days, he spoke directly with Haskell, who persuaded him the hit had been completed. He visited Lightfoot it prison on July 21, thirteen days after the murder.
"How long has this been now?" Lightfoot asked him.
"Shit, it's about two weeks," Peoples said.
"Are we talking about the seventh or the eighth or something like that?"
"Yeah, it's been about two weeks."
Lightfoot still wanted proof that he could hold in his hands. But he sensed Peoples' confidence. Near the end of the conversation, Lightfoot seemed to mock the government's evidence against him.
"Ain't none of that shit no good," he said.
"Without the horse's mouth," Peoples added.
The FBI had failed to protect Ross, and agent Joan Neal must have known she'd blundered. Before her death, Ross told Neal that she suspected Peoples in the May 16 break-in at her home. Neal agreed with that suspicion, even taking it further: The FBI agent believed Peoples would have killed Ross had she been home at the time.
Neal, whose office did not return phone calls for this story, now had a murder investigation on her hands, and she began by calling the warden at the Leavenworth holding tank, William Graf.
As it turned out, Graf's security staff had begun recording the phone conversations and visitations of inmates just a few months earlier, in April 1998. Conversations were recorded to a hard drive; once the hard drive became full, it automatically recorded over itself. Graf told Neal she needed to hurry because the time periods she wanted to check were in danger of being erased.
Upon her arrival at the prison, Neal learned she wasn't the only person interested in Lightfoot's conversations. Prison brass had been paying close attention to Lightfoot's calls and visitors. They'd fired the cigarette-buying guard after hearing Lightfoot and his mother talk about arranging a payment in their money-for-cigarettes-for-stamps-for-money scam.
But the cigarette scheme was minor compared with what Neal hoped to find. She obtained tapes of nine conversations between Lightfoot and Peoples, dated from April 30 to June 21, 1998. She listened on headphones to Peoples and Lightfoot apparently discuss Ross' corpse: "It probably took two days for somebody to stumble upon it." Moments later, she heard Lightfoot say that someone had probably stumbled upon the "aroma."
Neal kept listening as Peoples assured Lightfoot that the deal had been done. "Then after a couple days, I kept going by the workplace, by the crib," Peoples said on tape. "Wasn't nothin' happenin', lights stayin' on all day and all night.... That gots to be a done deal unless somebody covered it up." The horse's mouth.
Eleven days after Jovan Ross' death, police officers and FBI agents arrested Cornelius Peoples in a neighborhood less than a mile east of Rockhurst University. The Kansas City U.S. Attorney's office charged Lightfoot and Peoples with plotting the murder of an FBI witness.
Their case centered on 900 pages of transcript taken from the prison tapes and Neal's expert testimony on the conversations therein. And while prosecutors prepared for the October 1999 trial, investigators searched for at least one turncoat who would guarantee convictions.
Carl Haskell still hadn't gotten his money. He'd agreed to take the job for $10,000. But all he had to show for his work was a $500 payment from Hunter and an ounce of crack from Barfield. Not surprisingly, Haskell was feeling jumpy.
Haskell and Quinton Jones took their gripe to Barfield's Wyandotte County car lot on several occasions. After hearing one too many excuses, Haskell told a friend that he was considering killing Big Curtis for screwing him over.
Things were going poorly.
Then everyone started going to jail.
For other crimes.
Haskell found himself in a Kansas state prison, convicted for an unrelated felony theft.
Barfield landed in federal prison, also on unrelated charges.
And in Kansas City, Kansas, Larry Platt faced a sentencing hearing after a conviction for burglary, assault and attempted robbery.
Among the Ross murder plot's cast of characters, Platt's role was fairly limited. Sure, he helped rob Halbert Jewellers to pay off the killers. He'd even set up the initial phone call between Peoples and Hunter. But in the grand scheme -- that is, next to Lightfoot and Peoples and Hunter and Barfield and Haskell and Jones -- Platt was hardly a middleman. He hadn't killed anyone, nor had he paid anyone to kill.
Plus he had a weak spot: an unrelated sentencing hearing that could put him back in prison. Investigators smelled opportunity. On Halloween 1999, as Platt stewed over his potential punishment, the FBI made its move.
Less than a week later, Platt sat in a Kansas City, Missouri, federal courtroom and told jurors that the men before them, Xavier Lightfoot and Cornelius Peoples, were guilty as charged.
This time, the FBI placed its star witness in protective custody, fearing a rumored contract on Platt's life. Platt had ratted out just about everybody. Even Cockrell (the girlfriend) and Speck (the fence, not the dog) were named. In the following months, police would arrest the entire hapless organization.
Meanwhile, the trial against Lightfoot and Peoples continued, and jurors heard the taped oblique conversations. Neal interpreted it all for them, everything from Lightfoot's expressions of uncertainty about the murder ("My stomach is hurting, you know what I mean?") to Peoples' description of Speckles the dog ("Mutt didn't say nothing, just like he's stunned, too").
After two days of deliberation, jurors convicted Lightfoot and Peoples of murder. Both men avoided the death penalty but received life sentences without chance of parole.
More than a year later, a similar scene unfolded at the downtown federal courthouse with different defendants as Barfield and Haskell sat before judge and jury. And they faced an even tougher challenge than Lightfoot and Peoples had. Many of the conspirators had signed deals with the prosecution. Anthony Lee Hunter told jurors that he had hired Barfield, who then hired Haskell. Vincent Irvin and Howard Peoples explained how they had helped commit the Halbert's jewelry robbery to pay the murderers. Quinton Jones admitted helping Haskell commit the murder.
Jurors gave Barfield five years in prison for his role in the conspiracy. They found Haskell guilty of murder. The 24-year-old would go to prison for the rest of his life.
Court records show that, all told, police had arrested more than ten people for conspiring to murder Lightfoot's transsexual lover. Besides the testimony of insiders such as Platt and Hunter, prosecutors came to depend on a host of sources to piece together the entire plot: Haskell's associate Freaky talked about how he had been recruited for the hit but declined; another Wrecking Crew member said Haskell had blabbed openly about the murder when he hadn't been paid; Barfield's ex-girlfriend said she had heard a phone conversation in which Big Curtis talked about the murder with Hunter; a shop owner talked about how Speck had offered to sell her some jewels, then returned later and told her to keep her mouth shut if the police came around. Aside from the dozen or so people involved, many others had some knowledge of the conspiracy. Altogether, they told the amazing tale of Lightfoot and Peoples' clumsy but lethal murder conspiracy.
But somehow, federal prosecutors had out-blundered the blunderers.
In May 2001, a federal appeals court overturned the convictions of Xavier Lightfoot and Cornelius Peoples. The court rejected the expert testimony of agent Joan Neal and her interpretation of the jailhouse tapes. Instead of playing the tapes and letting jurors come to their own conclusions, U.S. Attorney Mark Miller had put Neal on the stand to translate for them.
"Agent Neal lacked firsthand knowledge of the matters about which she testified," the court ruled. "Her opinions were based on her investigation after the fact, not on her perception of the facts. Accordingly, the district court erred in admitting Agent Neal's opinions about the recorded conversations."
Now, more than four years after Jovan Ross' murder -- nearly five years after the robbery at Educator's Credit Union in Omaha, Nebraska -- Xavier Lightfoot and Cornelius Peoples will get a second chance to dispute the charges against them. And prosecutors will have a chance to introduce information gathered during the later investigation of all the defendants, including witnesses not yet arrested at the time of the first trial, such as middleman Anthony Lee Hunter and Peoples' own girlfriend, Karen Cockrell.
The trial is scheduled for October, but prosecutors continue to postpone the main event with special hearings, arguing whether they can seek the death penalty. Lightfoot, however, is imprisoned at the federal medical camp in Springfield, Missouri, already dying of HIV-related illnesses.