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.
"I've never had a chance to speak. It's always been what they said about me," he says, referring to authorities. "I really want to open people's eyes to their rights, and what they need to be more inquisitive about in dealing with the police and the judicial system."
"Also, I wanted to give you a good story."
For all the villainy they've attributed to Lee, authorities will say little about him. Captain Jeff Emery answered the phone for the KCPD Homicide Unit, and he agreed to ask patrol cops and homicide detectives about Lee. But Emery called back the same day. Plenty of officers were familiar with Lee, Emery said, but none of them would talk. Nor would the federal investigators tracking Lee or the prosecutors trying to convict him.
But stories surfaced anyway. One involves a kid named Porky.
Terry Hutton is Porky's real name, and in 2003, when he was 15, he was convicted of second-degree murder. Porky did some wheeling and dealing with the prosecutor's office to avoid a life sentence. For that, the streets branded him a snitch.
Porky is serving a 10-year sentence at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri. But in the fall of 2009, Porky, then 21, was temporarily sent back to the Jackson County Jail while he faced more charges. He arrived to learn that Lee was also being held there. At Lee's direction, other inmates terrorized Porky, sources say. It got so bad that Porky contacted Kevin Harrell, Jackson County deputy prosecuting attorney, and asked to change his plea to "guilty," hoping to hasten his return to state prison.
Lee denies having the ability to pull such strings. "I've never considered myself a mob boss, none of that. I've always seen myself as weak," he says. If he wielded that sort of power, Lee says, he would "have more control of a lot of the things that go on, and I don't have power and control."
Or, according to prosecutor Harrell, that's what Lee wants people to believe. "I'm not putting him in the same category as these people," Harrell says, "but I'll say this: John Gotti and Al Capone probably said the same thing."
Lee grew up around 24th Street and Norton, in a neighborhood of solidly built single-family homes. Many of them are empty now. Over the last two decades, families have deserted them, fed up with the waves of violence that have washed over the East Side every summer.
Lee moved out of his mom's house at age 12.
"I felt grown," Lee says. "I adored her, but she had a man in her life, and I felt he wasn't right for her. And I gave her an ultimatum: It was either going to be me or him. He wasn't a good dude, so I left, and when I left, I was just out there."
Sometimes he stayed at his grandmother's house in the same neighborhood. She wasn't much of a disciplinarian. Neither was his dad. "We were close as father and son," Lee says. "We respected each other, but also we were close like bros — like, we'd kick it together."
To retain his independence, Lee tried mowing lawns with his best friend, Keith, whose father owned a lawn service. They'd shovel snow, cut down trees, put up sheetrock. "But it wasn't my thing," he says. "Plus, there wasn't money in it."
Outside of mowing lawns, there aren't many legal ways for a 12-year-old to make a fast buck. "The choices were selling dope," Lee says.
"Everybody ended up getting into the streets from my neighborhood," he adds. That included Keith, who was killed in the streets. "I'd really have to think about who made it out, you know, as far as who made it to be successful. Growing up in your neighborhood, it becomes territorial to a degree because you don't feel really accepted outside."
As for the police: "I never trusted them from the gate," Lee says. Officers tried to win over kids in his neighborhood by handing out baseball cards. "My brother and his friends went off on us," Lee remembers. "'That's the same motherfucker that's trying to lock me up.... What are y'all doing talking to them?' After that, there was no more baseball cards for me."
Lee lasted less than three months at Van Horn High School. He was hanging out on corners with people twice his age, he says, and could no longer relate to his classmates. He learned plenty on Independence Avenue, but it often came not from fellow drug dealers but from prostitutes. They taught him to read faces, to distinguish an undercover cop from someone looking for a sale or looking to steal.
"They'd say, 'Baby, you smarter than that. Don't hang with them boys,'" Lee recalls. "They'd be seeing potential in me."
By the time Lee was 16, he had racked up a handful of juvenile charges, including a rape charge. (A jury acquitted him; the court records are sealed.) Lee was charged with selling crack in 2000, at age 16, and Jackson County prosecutors certified him as an adult. He was convicted and sentenced to probation.
If the criminal justice system has rehabilitative qualities, Lee says he has never seen them. "To say that someone can be rehabilitated, that means they had to be in tune with society at some point," Lee says. "But I was never habilitated."
In the first half-hour of Sunday, September 15, 2002, 19-year-old Traron Logan was shot to death at a block party at 25th and Norton.
Lee was arrested the same night. He wasn't hard to find.
"I never left [the block party]," Lee says. "I didn't have no reason to leave."
Lee was charged with second-degree murder. He posted bond and was released from the county jail shortly after.
A couple of weeks later, 20-year-old Lester Gunn was arrested for driving a stolen car. As police questioned him, Gunn said he knew the identity of the shooter at the block party.
As a prosecutor later related it, Gunn told the cops that a fight broke out between some local kids and a guy who wasn't from that block. Lee walked up with a gun, shouldered people aside and said, "Watch out — lemme show you how we do it," before shooting Logan in the head.
But Gunn refused to sign his statement. At the interview's end, he told police that he didn't want to be known as a rat.
He would never get a chance. The night before Lee's trial, Gunn was shot to death as he sat in a car with his girlfriend. One murder charge against Lee became two, and he spent the next two years awaiting trial in a maximum-security prison in Jefferson City.
In hearings leading up to the November 2006 trial, Jackson County prosecutors painted Lee as the leader of a hyper-violent neighborhood gang. Not surprisingly, they had a hard time finding witnesses to say so on the stand.
One witness, Gunn's girlfriend, had attended the block party. Under Missouri's public-records laws, the records of trials ending in acquittals are sealed, and the prosecutor on the case, Michael Hunt, declined to comment. But according to Lee, Gunn's girlfriend testified that authorities had threatened to prosecute her "like Lil Kim" if she refused to cooperate.
The other witness, Michael Wooden, had to be forced to give his testimony. He initially told police that Lee shot Logan at the block party. But at the trial, Wooden said he had never seen the shooter's face, The Kansas City Star reported.
In his closing arguments, Hunt tried to convince the jury that the witnesses were changing their stories out of fear. "The man, Lester Gunn, who was at the first homicide, where is he today?" Hunt said. "Six feet under."
Lee's lawyer, a public defender named Tim Burdick, countered by poking holes in the witnesses' original statements. Gunn's girlfriend had initially identified another man as the shooter, he told jurors, and she was an admitted PCP user. The prosecutors were the ones using intimidation, he said, to motivate witnesses who weren't credible.
The jurors found Lee not guilty on all counts.
"It was really crazy," Lee says. "I'm just sitting here and I'm watching all this unfold, thinking, Why'd I have to sit in jail all this time."
One would expect Lee to keep a low profile after his head-to-head collision with the county's top prosecutors. Instead, not long after his acquittal, Lee was in the news again. This time, a Star article described him marching with the 23rd Street PAC, a neighborhood anti-violence organization.
It's hard to imagine Rachel Riley, the PAC founder, being charmed by an accused killer. She has been one of the city's loudest voices decrying unsolved murders since 2003, a year when 19 young black men were gunned down in the neighborhood. Her son, Larry, was among them, shot to death in front of Truman Medical Center. If Larry had lived, he would be one year younger than Lee. Prosecutors never charged a suspect in her son's death.
When she met Lee at the PAC march, she had certain expectations. "The streets talk," she says, and she had heard that Lee was "deadly." But the kid standing before her that day, she remembers, was "a little bitty thing, just cute and humble as a kitten."
Riley recalls teasing Lee: "'You the big, bad wolf everybody talking about?' I looked at him, like, 'When are you gonna get yourself together?' And he said, 'Oh, Miss Riley, I'm going to.'" Her voice takes on a maternal tone. "Me condemning him or judging him would be like judging a baby."
The day Lee marched with Riley was a Tuesday in the spring of 2007. Less than a week later, police arrested him in connection with one of the decade's most publicized East Side shootings.
It was a Monday afternoon. Tierro Wates, 22, was eating Gates barbecue with his best friend, Eliseo Thomas, outside a tire shop at 31st Street and Agnes. Wates, Thomas and three other men, all in their early 20s, were waiting in Thomas' blue Yukon Denali for the attendant to put new tires on.
A silver Acura idling at the nearest cross street caught Wates' eye. When it rolled closer, Wates would later testify, he saw a flash of black, "like people raised up out of the car." Then came the sounds of gunshots, shattering glass and bullets tearing through metal.
What happened next, as described in court by a pair of KCPD officers who happened to be cruising the neighborhood that day, led the evening news. The Acura's occupants opened fire with such force that smoke from the guns' barrels poured out of the car windows. The officers, tailing the Acura as it zigzagged through residential streets, radioed for help. Someone stuck a semiautomatic rifle out the window of the Acura and began firing at the chasing cops. Bullets kicked up dirt and asphalt just ahead of the Crown Vic's front bumper.
The Acura sped up the northbound entrance ramp for Highway 71. Another dozen police cars and a KCPD helicopter joined in as the car weaved through rush-hour traffic. The spotter in the helicopter counted more than 40 police cars giving chase.
The Acura took an offramp and headed for a road under construction. The closest patrol car took a turn too fast and spun out, taking down a stop sign. When the Acura tore onward, onto eastbound Interstate 70, police drove parallel to the highway on Truman Road, hoping to anticipate the shooters' next exit. The Acura dipped off the highway at 18th Street and tore through neighborhood streets, at one point cutting dangerously close to a school bus. When the car finally slowed near 22nd Street and Chelsea, the three occupants bailed out of the passenger side of the car and ran in separate directions. The Acura kept rolling, eventually coming to rest against a fence.
When the suspects split up, the spotter in the police helicopter couldn't keep an eye on all three. He chose one man and directed police on the ground to follow him until he was apprehended. That suspect, Richard Cooper, admitted driving the car but wouldn't say anything else. Police found their second suspect, Rayshawn Taylor, hiding underneath a trailer in a gated backyard and wearing a bulletproof vest.
After Taylor was nabbed, police radios squawked with the news that all three suspects were in custody. It wasn't until 30 minutes later that they realized someone had miscounted. So they returned to the area of 20th and Chelsea and arrested Lee inside a house under construction.
Back at the tire shop, homicide detectives surveyed the carnage. One bullet nearly tore Thomas' lower jaw from his face. The shot that pierced just a few inches higher killed him instantly. One man was shot in the leg. The Yukon's other occupants suffered only minor injuries. Because they'd all ducked when the shooting started, no one had gotten a clear look at the shooters. None of the police in the chase had, either, the officers testified.
Lee was the first to go to trial, in November 2009. (Cooper is awaiting mental evaluation and has not been tried; Taylor was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.) Testimony from a parade of cops, crime-scene technicians and forensic experts offered little substance. DNA samples lifted from the guns positively matched one-fourth of the world's population, according to court documents.
The testimony of the dead victim's best friend, Wates, probably helped Lee's defense. Incredibly, police hadn't questioned Wates at the scene, so he left on his own and went to the hospital to check on his friends. Ten days after the drive-by, he was contacted by detectives. He showed up at police headquarters and picked photos of Cooper, Taylor and Lee from a lineup.
But on the witness stand, Wates claimed that he only recognized the men's faces from news reports. Wates said he had explained as much to Detective Robert Blehm, but the detective threatened him with charges if he didn't cooperate and coached Wates on the identities of the men in custody. Two and a half hours into the interview, the detective turned on a video camera and recorded Wates' statement.
(Blehm, now a property crimes investigator, is on leave. He did not respond to messages left by The Pitch.)
"Safe to say then, Mr. Wates," Lee's public defender, Molly Hastings, said in cross-examination, "the statement you ended up giving to the police at the end of the two and a half hours you were there was not exactly the same statement you gave when you walked in and started talking at the beginning?"
"Correct," Wates said.
No fingerprints, no DNA match, no positive ID by victims or eyewitnesses, and a 30- to 45-minute window between when the car chase ended and the time of Lee's arrest — these are the makings of reasonable doubt. Lee's odds of escaping his third murder charge were looking strong by the time Detective Danny Phillips took the stand on the final day of trial.
A 15-year veteran of the department, Phillips' only role in the case was taking a DNA swab from Lee's cheek at the county jail. His testimony should have been brief and uneventful. But court transcripts show where the state's case derailed.
"All right," Hastings said. "This was just collecting the DNA sample from him several days after this particular incident we're talking about?"
"Right," Phillips said. Then he inexplicably blurted, "I knew him prior."
Circuit Court Judge Robert Schieber, who had specifically barred witnesses from talking about Lee's history with police, threw his glasses on the desk in front of him. "Did he just say ..."
"He said he knew of my client prior to this," Hastings said.
"Why in the world?" Schieber said.
He declared a mistrial. A few weeks later, with Lee facing a retrial, his attorney, Hastings, asked the judge to dismiss the charges altogether, arguing that it would be double jeopardy to make him stand trial again for the same crime. A short hearing on the motion took place five days before the trial was scheduled to start.
"I have no doubt in my mind that Detective Phillips' conduct was intentional," Schieber said. The veteran detective threw the case on purpose, Schieber said, because a mistrial would allow the state more time to beef up its case. (Phillips wouldn't comment, but a KCPD spokesman told The Pitch that the detective's comment on the stand was accidental.)
Schieber had reason to believe that the trial's outcome would have gone in Lee's favor. The judge explained that he had talked with the jurors before dismissing them, and he found that all 15 (12, plus three alternates) would have voted to acquit Lee. The judge decided to dismiss the charges with prejudice, barring the state from refiling its case against Lee. The state is appealing Schieber's decision, and a ruling is expected at the end of the month. If the appellate courts side with prosecutors, then Lee can be charged again.
With more charges still possible, Lee won't discuss the case. But since the mistrial, he says, the police presence on his block has been stifling.
He tangled with "the pigs," as he calls them, once already this year. According to news reports, at 3:30 a.m. on a Sunday in July, officers heard gunshots in the area of 33rd and Prospect. Soon after, they tried to pull over a car near 30th and Lister, but the driver hit the gas. Police punctured the car's tires, but the car kept going, running a red light at 60 miles per hour. When the driver finally stopped, police pulled Lee from the driver's seat. No weapons were found in the vehicle. Lee is awaiting trial on charges of eluding police.
"They got something in store for me," Lee says, referring to police. "I've been in cells of all different sizes, from juvenile to the county to prison. I feel like I'm still inside."
Lee hasn't been arrested since the car chase, but in September, his name appeared in a federal agent's report connected with one of the city's most infamous criminals: Shauntay Henderson.
Henderson was introduced to the local media by KCPD Chief Jim Corwin in 2007, during a press conference in an East Side parking lot. The chief showed off a mug shot of Henderson, explaining that she was "right in the middle" of the surge of inner city violence and was wanted in a recent murder. The press event, a rarity for Corwin, took place right after the high-speed chase that ended in Lee's arrest.
Henderson eluded capture for months. Rumors that she had left town made the hunt go national, and her name was added to the FBI's Most Wanted list of fugitives. The police even released a digitally altered version of her mug shot, to show what she would look like if she shaved her head. Henderson was eventually caught — in Missouri, with a full head of hair — and found guilty of manslaughter. She served three years and was released a few months ago.
Not long after she got out, she was back in the news, when police and ATF agents conducted surveillance on a house at 23rd and Jackson "due to recent drug activity and gang violence," according to the September ATF report. They watched Lee emerge from a house and greet Henderson. They parted ways, and authorities tried to pull over the black SUV with Henderson inside. She got out, dropped a handgun and ran, but she was caught. She faces up to five years in prison for gun possession.
The allure of a Lee-Henderson meet-up is obvious to anyone whose remote control has ever stopped on a decent cop drama. Still, Lee maintains, the cops are wasting their time.
"I've been chilling," he says. "What is suspicious? What's the justification?"
Perhaps the pressure is on Henderson to exchange what she knows about the neighborhood for a lenient sentence on the gun charge. But "suicide before I snitch" is the code of these streets.
Given his relationship with local authorities, you would think that Lee might consider moving. He has a standing offer from a friend for a one-way train ticket out of Kansas City. He has always turned it down.
"I won't be doing anything illegal, but I will always be affiliated," he says, referring to his ties to his neighborhood. "I will never denounce that."
But he maintains that there's no reason for anyone to fear him. He adheres to the notion, however uncomfortable it might be for outside observers, that he has experienced due process and has come out the other side a free man.
"I'm not trying to tell you I have a halo and angel wings," Lee continues. He smiles. "I might have half a wing. I'm not disputing that I'm a street dude, but I'm not this monster they try to say I am. Does it make me a bad guy because I'm from where I'm from?"