As the owner of Denim & Diamonds, the popular country-and-western bar at 1725 Swift Avenue in North Kansas City, Dennis Hess was known for his hospitality. When he made the rounds and greeted his customers each night, he could make a patron feel like the most important person in the room.
But when Sgt. Chad Phillips of the Platte County Sheriff's Office walked into the bedroom of Hess' Platte City home, 64-year-old Hess was silent.
Hess was sitting upright on the bed, his mouth open and his head tipped back against the headboard. Thin streams of blood trickled down his chin and over his shirtless chest, soaking into the waistband of his jeans. In his lap was a small-caliber handgun. On the ground lay a black-scorched set of false teeth, blown out of Hess' mouth by the force of the gunshot.
Phillips touched the dead man's right shoulder. It was still a little warm.
When the emergency responders pulled up in the driveway of 19015 Humphrey Access Road moments earlier on June 15, 2009, Hess' 36-year-old wife, Lena Hess, was outside with her young daughter. "He blew his brains out," she told them.
He'd been talking about taking his own life for a couple of days, she said. "I didn't think he would do it. I should have known."
Outside, Lena asked Phillips whether the bullet had come out the back of her husband's head. She asked him again later, and a third time after that. Each time, Phillips told her that he wouldn't know until the medical examiners arrived to remove the body.
News of Hess' death made big waves in the small, tightknit community of bars lining Swift Avenue in North Kansas City. Denim & Diamonds was very successful. The owner and his much-younger wife had been having problems. North Kansas City gossips had no trouble connecting the dots.
Platte County Sheriff's Office investigators would soon find plenty of reading material on the Hesses' tortured relationship. Between the couple's 2005 wedding and this summer, the pair filed a dizzying number of legal actions against each other, including police reports, restraining orders and three petitions for divorce. There was more than enough on the public record to suggest that the marriage had been headed for a violent end. On Hess' request for a restraining order that he sought against Lena on February 8, 2008, for example: "She is buying a gun and has told me it [sic] for me to taste."
When Lena hears that the Hess family has planned a memorial for Dennis on June 25 — at Bar 12 on Swift Avenue — she schedules a separate event at the bar that once belonged to her husband. Regulars call the place "Denims." She makes sure that her memorial happens on the same night, at the same time.
At the Denims memorial, Lena sits alone at a cocktail table at the edge of the dance floor, a vast expanse of polished wood hemmed in by railings that give it the appearance of a livestock pen. She's slim, with high cheekbones. Her earrings, hammered-silver hoops, poke out from beneath her straight dark-brown hair. She has left a few of the topmost, mother-of-pearl snaps on her plaid shirt undone to reveal a hint of cleavage. She wears clear braces on her teeth.
Lena says she was married to Hess for "six amazing years." No one from Hess' large, Catholic family has joined her at this memorial. It's after 9 p.m., and the place is nearly empty.
Lena handled the funeral arrangements. Two of Hess' older daughters say Lena called from the funeral home 30 minutes before the body was cremated to tell them that, if they hurried, they could see their father one last time.