What for anyone else would be a relaxing visit to the Plaza is anything but for Markus D. Lee. Before Lee enters the Barnes & Noble bookstore, he circles the block, surveying the street. Couples walk hand in hand, shoppers swing J. Crew bags, panhandlers jingle their change cups. Nothing out of the ordinary. Most importantly: no cops.
Lee rides the escalator up, scanning each floor, and lingers at the top to wait for a reporter he has agreed to meet. Though he's partial to books on revolutionary black history — he regularly quotes passages from The Autobiography of Malcolm X — he waits, by coincidence, in front of the True Crime shelves.
Lee is 26 but looks younger. He's small, around 5 feet 7 inches, and his black Royals hat is several sizes too big, sitting low enough to cover the tips of his ears. He wears black jeans and a black-and-white flannel shirt, with long sleeves that cover up the words "Killa City" inked on his arm.
When he's confident that his meeting isn't an elaborate police sting, he chooses a seat on a footstool in a quiet corner — he never sits with his back to the door — and settles into easy conversation. Cool nonchalance is his hallmark. Cautious, yes. Jumpy? Never.
He explains his behavior by saying he has "trust issues," but it's deeper than that. He has two sets of enemies, and both are armed. The more formidable of the two, depending on whom you ask, is the Kansas City Police Department. There are officers who, along with their brethren at the City Prosecutor's Office, believe that Lee has gotten away with three murders this decade.
It started in 2002, when prosecutors charged Lee, then just 18, with killing a man at a block party — and, later, with executing a witness in the case. A jury found him not guilty, but five years later, police pinned him again, this time for a drive-by that ended one life but seemed designed to end several. That case ended in a mistrial and is currently under appeal.
More recently, his alleged crimes have been less violent, but police nonetheless have rekindled their familiarity with Lee. This summer, he was charged with resisting arrest after he led police on a chase at 3:30 a.m. And last month, his name showed up in a federal agent's report regarding a former suspect on the FBI's Most Wanted list of fugitives. The report indicated that investigators are actively watching Lee.
"They're in the trees," he says. It's hard to tell if he's joking.
As for his other set of enemies, Lee won't discuss them in detail, but his neighborhood, around 24th Street and Norton, is the nexus of several gang territories. East Side gangs — 24th Street, NBG and Twampside — rule the blocks from Truman Road to 29th Street and from Cleveland to Topping avenues. The Tre-Wall, Click-Clack and 33rd Street gangs claim the area from Troost to Cypress and from 30th to 43rd streets. Members of Five Ace Deuce are scattered throughout the East Side, and allegiances change like moon phases.
Kansas City's street gangs are said to lack strict hierarchies, and their members engage mostly in crimes of opportunity, like carjackings and robberies. But Lee is considered by police to be an influential leader somewhere in the mix. So it's safe to say there are people whose profiles would be raised by taking out "Neph" — short for "nephew" — as Lee is known on the streets.
Lee is here, speaking with a reporter in a corner of Barnes & Noble, against the advice of four public defenders who have represented him over the years. They all refused to speak on the record, a caution that belies a fondness for Lee that goes beyond the requirements of the attorney-client relationship.