He worked nights as female impersonator Belle Starr, a big-haired blonde whose performances produced a dependable income and raised tens of thousands of dollars for children with AIDS and for Kansas City's AIDS Walk. Belting out Gloria Gaynor's "Don't Leave Me This Way" and teasing straight girls into climbing onstage to dance, Belle Starr seemed carefree. Offstage, Buddy Taylor paced.
Taylor lit a cigarette, exhaled white smoke into the room. "You can't say anything to J.D. O'Neal," the police had warned him. "You can't let on that you know."
A burglar had slipped into Missie B's one night in May 1999 and stolen money and checks from the safe. The thief left no shattered glass, no broken locks. By October 1999, though, detectives had followed the stolen checks to a clandestine bank account across town under the name of "Mistress B Bar Ranch." J.D. O'Neal, Taylor's business neighbor and friend, was the account's sole signer.
Jerry Dow O'Neal II owned The Current News, a small gay magazine with headquarters in the same building as Missie B's. O'Neal and Taylor met often for breakfast or dinner. Over pancakes or steaks, they chatted about the magazine, the bar, former boyfriends. Some nights, O'Neal dozed on the sofa in Taylor's upstairs dressing room or watched television until Taylor got off work. The two partied late at night at casinos.
"J.D. was a lot of fun back then," recalls Taylor. "I thought he was a good friend." But after investigators revealed O'Neal's crimes to Taylor, he concealed his anger and pretended their friendship was intact while detectives built a case against O'Neal.
By last month, when J.D. O'Neal committed suicide to avoid prosecution and shame, hardly anyone in Kansas City considered him a good friend. The 37-year-old white-collar crook and gay-rights opportunist had created enemies throughout the community that he and his magazine had purportedly represented. And dozens of Jackson County lawsuits bearing the gay businessman's name reveal that he victimized mainstream businesses as well.
O'Neal had spent years trying to impress people with his business holdings and the influence in the gay and lesbian community that owning The Current News implied. To a man for whom appearances were everything, driving a Cadillac and living in a big house near the Country Club Plaza ensured that he exuded status. But O'Neal was neither prosperous nor community-minded.
From a cramped office at 39th Street and Southwest Trafficway, behind Nichols Lunch, O'Neal ran several businesses: Snappy Quickpay, a service that accepted bill payments for department stores, utilities and finance companies; Metcalfe Lock and Key; In-Touch Cellular & Paging; 39th Street Copies & Printing; Snappy Phone; and The Current News, known at his death as CN Magazine.
"It was important for [J.D.] to appear successful," says Greg Beach, a Chicago gay-rights activist who befriended O'Neal a couple of years ago. "If he had anything, whether it was a home, jewelry or the businesses he owned, he constantly told people about these things. He wanted people to know."
O'Neal's entire sense of self-worth was based on how other people perceived him, but his prestigious image was largely his own delusion.
When O'Neal purchased The Current News in 1996, the small magazine had been a presence in Kansas City's gay community for five years. Plenty of skimpily financed gay-themed magazines come and go in Kansas City. Some are flashier than others; some try to enlighten and unite the gay community. Most are short-lived. The Current News, a cheaper-quality publication that focused mainly on the gay-bar scene, managed to hang on, even through a name change.
Although O'Neal liked to think otherwise, his magazine was never respected for its news. Photographs of grinning, tipsy bar patrons wielding longneck bottles filled its pages. What news O'Neal did include was often reprinted verbatim from national publications. The magazine was mainly a "bar rag," something to peruse while sipping a cocktail alone at a nightclub.
O'Neal had little regard for editorial propriety. If he wanted to publish a nationally syndicated column for The Current News, he'd copy the article from a Web site and paste it into his magazine's layout. He ran Alison Bechdel's "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic strip without permission. He used "Quote, Unquote," by gay syndicated columnist Rex Wockner, without paying for the rights.
"J.D. O'Neal was one of the bottom-feeders of the gay-press slime bucket," says David Bianco, a vice president of Q Syndicate, a national service specializing in gay newspaper content. "At one point, he bought content from me, paid with credit cards and then refuted the charges with the credit card company."
Many small-press editors and publishers don't understand the rules of reprinting published articles. "They'll run Associated Press articles and don't know it's not free," says Bianco. "But it's rare to have people like J.D., who knew it was wrong and did it anyway."
According to O'Neal's former employees at The Current News, his moods vacillated between highs, when he was at the office from open to close, and lows, during which he would arrive around noon and leave early. During such ebbs, "he was kind of mean and gruff, unreasonable and hard to get along with," recalls Robb Blackwell, who worked as managing editor for O'Neal for a year beginning in 1997.
Editors rarely stayed more than a few months, usually leaving because paychecks bounced. Other employees grew weary of fielding calls from irate customers of O'Neal's various businesses.
"People would call and want to know why there were charges on their credit cards," recalls Pam Bennett, who was editor at The Current News from late 1999 to early summer 2000 and now publishes The Midwest Times, a tabloid-style alternative newspaper.
Daniel Weaver, associate editor for five months last year, says that customers would call him about credit card debits that were double or triple what they should have been. "People would call with $800 charges. Then we started getting calls from the FBI," says Weaver, who left when his last three paychecks failed to clear. "If someone told J.D. not to run an ad, he would continue to run it and then send them an invoice. I finally told him, 'I can't take any more. You've got the FBI calling. You've got too many issues.'"
Gays and lesbians, long neglected by Kansas City's mainstream press, had come to accept The Current News as a better-than-nothing source of information. O'Neal promoted the magazine and himself as vital to the community, and he reached out to gay organizations repeatedly with promises to donate time and resources. But O'Neal gained a reputation as a big talker who rarely came through.
In 1998, O'Neal agreed to be a media sponsor for "Out in Westport," the annual fundraiser for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Greater Kansas City. As the event drew near, O'Neal's enthusiasm waned.
"He had a lot of difficulty getting things correct. There were misprints. We had agreed on poster-size heavyweight posters. Instead, he ran the posters off on a Xerox machine," recalls Deanna Andrew, board member for the community center. O'Neal arranged for a radio station to broadcast from the event without consulting the organizers, says Andrew -- and then billed the community center.
After being overbilled, the organization shunned O'Neal. But at a later Out in Westport benefit, O'Neal bounded onto the stage and made a show of presenting a check for $250, although he had never before donated a dime to the community center. "He represented himself as a promoter of Out in Westport anyway," says Andrew. "He had gone around and solicited advertising for a special section, but we didn't do business with him."
When Jamie Rich, managing director of the Kansas City Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, went to CN Magazine for promotional assistance in October 2000, O'Neal agreed a month in advance to promote The Broken Hearts Club, the event's closing film. "I went to J.D. and told him, 'I have absolutely no money, but I have this great film,'" says Rich, who arranged for O'Neal to promote an after-movie party with CN Magazine as sponsor.
"I was expecting him to follow through," says Rich. "Then the week before, he says, 'I'll need about $1,500 to pull off this party.' I had told him upfront I had no money." At the last minute on the night of the movie, one of O'Neal's employees showed up and slapped down a stack of fliers promoting The Current News as sponsor of an after-movie party at Missie B's.
After O'Neal botched a printing order for the Gay World Series softball tournament, held in Kansas City in 1999, he took Terri Goddard, Kansas City director of the series, to small-claims court when her organization refused to pay. "You couldn't even read the writing on the cover. He had reversed out all the color; all the red was yellow. The ad for our $50,000 sponsor, Miller Lite, was wrong," Goddard says. The inside of the program, printed on cheap paper rather than the expensive stock for which the organization had paid a deposit, contained 32 errors.
"I was ballistic. I told him, 'These are completely unacceptable,'" says Goddard, who anticipated 3,000 out-of-town guests for the national event.
"I didn't even hire an attorney," recalls Goddard. "I took a copy of my receipts, the program covers, and the inside program with all the mistakes circled. The judge kicked [O'Neal] out and told him we had every right not to pay him and not to bother him with such nonsense again." Goddard left the courtroom, eager to put the unpleasant experience with O'Neal out of her mind. Two days later, she received another summons. O'Neal had sued under another business alias, Grey Matters. That case was dismissed after O'Neal didn't bother to show up for a hearing.
Word quickly circulated that O'Neal had wronged the Gay World Series, which had donated $32,000 from its Kansas City event to AIDS Walk and Newhouse, a battered-women's shelter. "When he sued me, literally every one of the bars advertising in his paper pulled their ads," says Goddard.
Jamie Rich, who tried to get O'Neal to sponsor a movie at last year's film festival, says that many gays and lesbians would have been ashamed to appear in CN Magazine. "We look at people like J.D. O'Neal and cluck our tongues, not realizing that his publication is what people look at and think we're all about," says Rich.
But O'Neal didn't limit his misdeeds to the gay community. When Metcalfe Lock and Key, a longtime fixture at Westport Road and Main, went out of business in November 1999, O'Neal quickly began to use the company's name, says the former owner (who asked not to be identified in this article). "As soon as our phone was turned off, he grabbed the number. The way I found out about it was when I saw one of his Current News advertisements a few months later," she says. "He claimed he had registered to get that name, but we were incorporated. He couldn't use that name.
"I didn't know what to think, except, 'Wow, he's got balls.' He just told me I didn't have deep enough pockets to stop him," she says. The locksmith business had been in her family for several decades, yet O'Neal took credit for the company's longevity: His advertisements proclaimed that the fraudulently cloned business had been "serving the Kansas City metro since 1928."
Since 1999, the crimes against female-impersonator Buddy Taylor and Missie B's had kept O'Neal under police scrutiny. A burglar struck the bar for the second time in two months, bashing in the door and stealing safes containing cash and checks (some of which had been collected to benefit the Kansas City AIDS Walk) as well as stock certificates. After that theft, Taylor's boss and Missie B's owner, Michael Burnes, received a call from a bank. Had he submitted an application for a credit card? No, Burnes told the caller, who held in his hands an application with Burnes' private information. Burnes called a credit bureau and learned that another Visa account had already been opened in his name by someone. He owed $17,000.
Taylor also called and listened in disbelief as a credit bureau staffer listed the credit cards in his name. The female impersonator's real identity had been stolen: Like Burnes, Taylor owed money on a Visa card for which he had never applied. "J.D. charged $13,000 in cash withdrawals in a couple of months," Taylor says. "He'd gotten information from Michael's and my stock certificates and gotten credit card accounts in our names." Investigators traced the cards to a post office box in O'Neal's name.
Until late October 1999, when police arrested O'Neal for the robberies at Missie B's, he continued to drop by the bar regularly to chat with his wary victims. "Police told me I should not act different around him, so I stayed friends with him," recalls Taylor. Still, Taylor became too busy to go to the boats with O'Neal or accept his dinner invitations. When the two socialized, "I just gritted my teeth," Taylor says. Taylor's pretense of friendship became nearly unbearable. "It became all-encompassing, all-consuming because I couldn't say anything to him," Taylor says.
In November 2000, O'Neal pleaded guilty to felony charges of stealing by deceit in connection with the Missie B's burglaries and the fraudulent bank account. He was placed on probation for one year and ordered to perform forty hours of community service.
On September 26 of this year, a federal grand jury indicted O'Neal on six counts of credit card fraud after the FBI investigated the accounts he'd created in the names of Burnes, Taylor and another man.
O'Neal posted $10,000 bond on the federal charges but was arrested again October 15 on state charges of unlawful merchandising. The Missouri attorney general's office said O'Neal had put fliers for Metcalfe Lock and Key on the doors of several midtown businesses in September, then returned a couple of weeks later and squirted glue into their locks after hours in an attempt to drum up business from clients desperate to get inside their own stores. Video surveillance cameras captured O'Neal in the act, and his bizarre story made the evening television news October 16.
The next morning, a friend found O'Neal in the upstairs bedroom of his home east of the Plaza, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, lying faceup crossways on his bed, his feet flat on the floor. A .38-caliber revolver lay nearby. O'Neal had loaded the gun with five other bullets. Handwritten notes lay on top of the television. Police ruled the death a suicide, and a coroner's report verified that O'Neal had taken his own life. He was buried a week later in Oklahoma.
Many in the gay and lesbian community insisted O'Neal had somehow faked his own death to avoid going to prison. A rumor circulated that he had ratted out an unknown accomplice and was actually hiding somewhere in a witness protection program.
"I'll believe he's dead when I see the body," several people told the Pitch. O'Neal rarely disclosed much about his past or personal life to those who knew him. He made friends easily but rarely kept them long. "He kind of went through friends. Every year or two, he'd have a whole new set of friends," says former employee Robb Blackwell.
According to Beach, the Chicago activist who considered O'Neal a friend, the publisher had a good heart but simply didn't know how to get along with other people. "J.D. was high-maintenance -- sensitive -- and his feelings were easily hurt," says Beach. "If there was something he didn't know or understand, he took it personally and pouted. I saw a person who wanted to grow, but he didn't trust people." O'Neal put people off by trying too hard to impress them, Beach says.
Beach doesn't excuse O'Neal's criminal actions. "I did care about J.D., and I definitely care about his family, but I also care about every member of the community." Beach says he worked with O'Neal for seven months in 1999, meeting with Kansas City gay and lesbian organizations, attempting to build trust among them. The groups were sharply divided by gender, race and income status. "J.D. told me that in his heart, he believed that this project was good for the community. He wanted to bring people together," says Beach. Coincidentally, the period during which O'Neal funded much of Beach's Kansas City community work includes the months when O'Neal ran up $30,000 in cash withdrawals on credit cards he'd opened in Burnes' and Taylor's names. But Beach had no idea until after O'Neal's death that his friend had orchestrated the credit card schemes.
"J.D. told me one time that if he were ever arrested, he'd kill himself. I didn't ask him why he might be arrested," says Beach. "You have no idea how many nights I called J.D. because he said he was going to kill himself."
One night at the Cabaret, a gay nightclub, O'Neal was depressed over a troubled dating relationship.
"He was really wiped out about this guy, and he was going to kill himself," recalls Beach. "I told him, 'I'll call you later; you're not going to kill yourself.' Another guy at the bar stopped me and said, 'As long as J.D. has still got a little bit of money, he won't do it.'"
By October of this year, O'Neal faced losing what little money remained. He'd been embarrassed in the daily newspaper and on television. He faced up to seventy years in prison for the credit card fraud and unlawful merchandising charges. Ironically, taking his own life was one of the few promises O'Neal managed to keep.
"I don't think he knew what to do," says Beach. "He couldn't say to the community, 'Look at me, my paper folded,' or, 'Look at me, I'm living in a crappy house.'"
A dozen or so mourners attended a belated memorial service in Kansas City for J.D. O'Neal a couple of weeks ago. O'Neal's victims continue their lives, feeling not so much saddened as cheated once again. Missie B's owner, Michael Burnes, doesn't have much to say about O'Neal.
"He could have done a lot for the community," says Burnes. "We never know why people choose the road he chose. The sad thing about it is, at one time, a lot of people really did care about and love him."
Buddy Taylor had hoped that O'Neal would face the consequences of his other illegal deeds. "Dealing with this scenario has been the most violating thing in my life," says Taylor. "This is a small community, and to have one person out there go behind people's backs and hurt them is a travesty. He didn't just steal from me, he stole from all of us."