Can a high school dropout with no law enforcement training run for Jackson County Sheriff? County officials say no.

Urban Cowboy 

Can a high school dropout with no law enforcement training run for Jackson County Sheriff? County officials say no.

The usual cast of characters, the regulars, shuffle into an Express Mart in southeast Kansas City on a warm Tuesday night. A sweating, barrel-chested guy who looks like he belongs on a Harley-Davidson, with his full beard and long, frizzy hair pulled back into a ponytail, swaggers in to buy some Skoal. A small grandmotherly woman with gray hair purchases a pack of Kools and two lottery tickets, sizing up the possibly fortuitous numbers through round wire-rim glasses. A chubby guy with dark eyes and a Mexican accent stops to ask how to get to I-70 before roaring off in a beat-up, brown Chevy. A thin, pale woman in a baggy McDonald's T-shirt walks out lugging a case of Busch beer.

John Wayne Speakman Jr. knows most of them. And they all know him, that's for sure. Some call him "Cowboy," others "Wyatt Earp" and "The Duke," in reference to actor John Wayne's nickname. A woman in a black sleeveless dress teasingly calls him "Sheriff" after hearing about his law enforcement aspirations.

Standing outside under the stars in his worn, brown cowboy hat, blue western-style shirt with fake mother-of-pearl snaps, and broken-in boots, Speakman leans against a post, smoking a Marlboro. He looks out over the parking lot at customers pumping gas or shouting to one another from their cars.

"They get a kick out of me," he says slowly, with a raspy laugh. "It's not too often they see a real gunslinger."

Speakman looks down at the Colt .45 that rides at his side in an embossed leather holster, slung down around his hips. The prominently displayed gun does a pretty good job of keeping out the criminal element. Before Speakman left his 10-year gig as a tow truck driver last year to become assistant manager at Express Mart, shoplifters would walk in and brazenly steal cases of beer or bottles of alcohol. Drug dealers would go car to car pushing their wares -- pot, coke, PCP. Garishly made-up prostitutes would hang out, scoping for potential johns. But Speakman's gun fixed all of that in a hurry.

"When they see the bullets, that's definitely enough. It makes 'em think." Speakman laughs sardonically and takes one bullet from a row on his holster. He holds up the bullet and squints at it.

"This bullet right here, it goes in the size of that." He makes a circle with his thumb and forefinger, about the size of a dime. "It comes out the size of that." That has the girth of a coffee can. "It'll literally rip a person apart."

He wears his gun low for a quick, easy draw.

"It's what I like. Most people wear their guns up higher, so when they go to lift 'em, their shoulder's lifted. You ever watch a cop or a security guard, he goes toward his gun, he's usin' his shoulder. Mine's always arm length. It comes straight out, the old western-style way."

The smoke from Speakman's cigarette curls in the air as friends shout to one another and rusty boats of cars drive up, pulsating bass. "The Ghetto Boys will rock you!" and "I'm livin' PHAT!" blast from car stereos. A woman in a slim brown suit with faux leopard trim steps out of a car, followed by the syrupy notes of an R&B song about somebody's lover.

The guy who looks like a biker emerges from the store with his chew. He lives about a mile down the road and says he has been coming in to buy chew three times a day for 20 years. ("If I buy it all at once, I'll chew it all at once," he explains.) His name is Paul Meents, and he knows Speakman well.

"The Duke?" he bellows, smiling broadly, when asked about Speakman. "He seems to be keepin' things in order down here." He turns to Speakman.

"Now if you could just get that crap turned down!" Meents roars, gesturing to the throbbing Ghetto Boys car.

"I'm workin' on it," Speakman retorts, suddenly surly.

Then Meents puffs out his chest, glances around, and asks why in the hell Speakman doesn't run off a suspicious figure in fatigues who is loitering by the pay phone.

"Oh, he ain't never caused me an ounce of trouble," Speakman says with a low growl. "But if he does, I'll set a fire under his ass! I'll cuff him and have him dragged out of here!"

It's easy for Speakman to talk tough at the Express Mart. He's got his gun, a bullwhip, Mace, and a nightstick to back up his words. He walks back into the store, where he pretty much has free rein to do what he wants to do. It's his territory. And he's right at home keeping an eye on racks of Slim Jims, cases of Budweiser and Busch, and shelves of Boone's strawberry wine, Trojan condoms, and insulated foam can-holders with yellow smiley faces that bear the message "Have a Shitty Day."

These days, however, Speakman's got his sights set on something bigger: Jackson County. He wants to be sheriff. The problem is, the county charter requires the sheriff to have 600 hours of law enforcement training, which Speakman doesn't have, so the county clerk took his name off the ballot. But Speakman has vowed to take it to court.

Although Speakman declared his candidacy for county sheriff on Feb. 29, he says he decided 10 years ago to run because he didn't like the way the law was operating -- too many cops sitting by the side of the road with radar guns while drug houses kept on with business right in Speakman's neighborhood, about a mile from the store. But Speakman wanted to get a firm grasp of the law before taking on the big boys. So he'd copy down laws and court cases by day at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Law Library and read them in the cab of his tow truck when things were slow at night. He studied the U.S. Supreme Court Reporter, the Missouri Supreme Court Reporter, the U.S. Constitution, state constitutions, and law texts. He says he spent 40 hours a week for 10 years learning the law. But then, with Speakman, it's hard to tell where the truth leaves off and the exaggeration begins. He's given to flights of fancy and tall tales but then gets tight-lipped when questioned on the specifics. However, he does have a file box full of Missouri Supreme Court cases and another of U.S. Supreme Court cases, all copied in his own handwriting. His dad, John Wayne Speakman Sr., who lives in northeast Kansas City, says his son has been talking about his law studies for seven, eight years -- maybe more.

"Junior spends quite a bit of time on it," says his dad, a man of few words.

But Junior has a different way of putting it.

"I done made me a god of law," he crows.

Speakman's self-aggrandizement, along with the fact that he's never even been so much as a rent-a-cop, may be one reason some of his opponents don't see him as much of a threat despite his quirky saloon-and-shootout appeal.

Over at the Jackson County Sheriff's Department Headquarters, which sits at the end of a winding road in Lake Jacomo and is surrounded by woods on all sides, 22-year sheriff's department veteran Col. Thomas Phillips also has his eye on the top job. A slightly stocky, friendly faced 46-year-old with clear blue eyes and short, wavy silver-gray hair, he says he's running for sheriff because colleagues and citizens have asked him to. He says Sheriff Jim Anderson, who is retiring after 38 years in law enforcement, called him into his office several months back and told him to consider running. Phillips has held every rank except sheriff, so it seemed to be the next step.

Phillips' good-size office is sparsely decorated, with a large painting of a Bengal tiger -- which he likes because its regal green eyes stare at you no matter where you stand -- and studio photographs of his redheaded son and daughter from his first marriage, both in college, and the pretty blonde stepdaughter he legally adopted, a senior in high school. Wearing a pinstriped blue dress shirt, a pale yellow patterned tie, and wire-rim glasses, he has the easy mannerisms and soft-spoken confidence of a professional who works hard, then goes home to his family.

At first glance, it's easy to miss the deadly .40-caliber Glock semiautomatic pistol tucked into a sleek black holster on his belt. A pager and a small cellular phone are attached to the other side of his belt. As the man who oversees operations of the department's four divisions -- patrol, investigations, staff services, and general assignment, which handles warrants and Jackson County Courthouse security -- he has to be ready to respond at any time if something big, such as a homicide, occurs.

Phillips rose through the ranks at the department -- from sheriff's deputy to detective, sergeant, and captain -- before he was promoted to colonel two years ago. He's seen quite a bit, but he's quick to note that he's never worked on any famous homicides or glitzy cases. He doesn't even mention his television debut in the early '90s -- on the Fox network television show COPS -- when going down the laundry list of exciting or unusual moments in his career. He does mention, though, that he was shot at once but that his bulletproof vest saved him from injury or death.

The shooting happened when Phillips, then captain, commanded the SWAT team during a bust on a meth house at the far eastern end of Jackson County. As the team surrounded the house, the suspect shot through the front door with an M-80 rifle, and Phillips felt the concussion. The bullet grazed the back of his vest, tearing the lining. At the moment, he didn't even realize he'd been hit.

"It was only later when I went to put my vest up that I saw the hole," he says.

When Phillips was head of the Eastern Jackson County Drug Task Force, the team rounded up a big Kansas City dealer after an 18-month investigation. That arrest led to the capture of 20 others in the ring and the discovery of ties with a Colombian drug cartel.

"We took off one of their runners at the airport with five kilos," he says.

He's worked his share of homicides too, and some were particularly hard to solve. A few years ago, a 60-year-old construction worker was found dead atop his bulldozer off Highway 50 in Lone Jack. He had been shot, and detectives were stumped. With the help of some citizen tips and a trace on the ammo, they apprehended and got convictions on two local teenagers.

"Solving that was very satisfying," Phillips says. "It was difficult because there wasn't any motive for it. These kids had just been driving around and they'd shot at some signs, and something happened and they just decided to shoot this man. He was one of those types, a grandfather type -- goes to work every day, hard worker, pays his bills, gets along with everybody ... and these two kids just decided they wanted to take somebody out."

Phillips says his years of experience have made him more sensitive -- both to what law enforcement officials go through and to the emotions of victims and their families. He says that experience -- coupled with years of supervising divisions -- and training are what make a good sheriff. He received a bachelor's degree from Missouri Western State College in St. Joseph, where he studied psychology and sociology, and he attended the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., and the Central States Law Enforcement Executive Development School in Lawrence, Kan. He doesn't feel that even the 600 hours of law enforcement training the county charter requires is enough to run a department with more than 100 employees and a $6 million annual budget.

So what does Phillips think of Speakman?

"Actually, I find it kind of humorous," Phillips says, mildly amused. "I don't take him very seriously, nor does anyone else in Jackson County, from what I hear. Obviously he's not qualified."

Sheriff Anderson, a tall man of 59 with sparkling eyes, a ruddy complexion, and a layer of downy fuzz atop his balding head, gives Phillips a ringing endorsement in his down-home style.

"Tom has held every rank out here in the department except that of sheriff, and every assignment he's been given, he's excelled at. He's well-educated, well-rounded, easy to talk to, and I think he'd work well with the public."

With a slow shake of his head, Speakman dismisses Anderson's endorsement of Phillips. He chalks all that up to cushy good-old-boy politics set up to maintain the status quo. And Speakman is an outsider in that world. He doesn't care who anyone is or what title a person boasts -- "I don't care if it's the governor that does something illegal. Arrest his butt and haul him to jail!" -- and as far as he's concerned, what it's about is "knowin' the law and enforcin' the law." Being a country boy from the hills, Speakman doesn't care much for Anderson and has a few words to say about him even though he's never met the sheriff.

"I think he's a gutless wonder," Speakman says, smirking. "He don't have a backbone to 'im. He'd rather play golf and drink beer than enforce the law."

Why? Because Anderson won't come into the incorporated cities to enforce the law. (Anderson and Phillips explain that the sheriff's department has its hands full with the unincorporated areas of Jackson County because of staffing problems and budget shortages. And, they say, there's no need to duplicate services. Speakman disagrees.)

Speakman also complains about the fact that he can never get past the sheriff's secretary when he calls.

"I think the sheriff should be available to talk to the citizens. If I get elected, I'll be the first sheriff in the history of Jackson County that the citizens will have my home phone number. They'll be able to contact me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year," Speakman boasts.

Anderson, however, resists the temptation to attack Speakman's character or qualifications.

"I've never met him, so I really don't know anything about him," the sheriff says.

While Phillips calls himself a "people person" and pontificates about the importance of boosting the department's image through seat-belt campaigns and antidrug partnerships, and by having a good relationship with city and state officials, Speakman proudly rattles off stories of all the different folks he's "chewed out," including elected officials on all levels -- city, county, state, and federal. He's even chewed out the people down at the sheriff's department for "not enforcin' the law" and legislators for "tryin' to pass laws that didn't make no sense." And he doesn't hesitate to say what he thinks.

Speakman claims a state representative once asked him what he would think of police officers' carrying rubber bullets instead of real ones. Speakman laughs.

"I says, 'That's pretty doggone stupid,'" Speakman recalls. "He says, 'Well, don't you think it's better -- you just stun 'em more than you hurt 'em?' and I says, 'Why don't I make you a deal? You and I will get out in the street and you take that gun with them rubber bullets, and I'll take the gun of my choice, and we'll start firin' at each other.' He says, 'Well, that ain't fair!' And I says, 'Well, that ain't fair for our police officers. You think criminals are gonna be shootin' at them with rubber bullets? No, they're gonna be shootin' at them with live ammo!' That'd almost be like goin' to a gunfight with a knife." He chuckles at his analogy.

Gun control is Speakman's pet topic.

"I wouldn't enforce any gun laws.... Anybody who wants to buy a gun, he's gonna get one. The average citizen who wants a gun, put in his application, come in, sign it, and he can come back and pick up his gun that same day."

And lawmakers who want to pass stricter gun control laws? Speakman "chews 'em out." "Anybody out there can strap a gun on their hip as long as it's in plain sight and go anywheres in the country, and there ain't nothin' they can do about it. Now they're tryin' to abolish the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, preventing people from owning guns. It's not gonna happen. We're not gonna let it happen. You're trying to abolish the Constitution," Speakman says angrily. "You can't take a gun on with a baseball bat. I don't care how many times they outlaw guns, the criminals are still gonna get 'em."

Speakman also says he has raised hell -- "every judge in Jackson County knows this hat" -- over his own personal problems with courts' going too easy on an ex-wife who kept violating court orders regarding Speakman's visitation with his 13-year-old daughter.

"Most of the government know me," Speakman says proudly. "I call 'em up and I chew 'em out and I tell 'em they're the lowlife scum of the earth. I don't care who they are."

As much as Speakman boasts about antagonizing officials, he is the picture of joviality with his customers, cracking jokes, mouthing off, and calling the gals "darlin'."

A trio fresh from church walks in one night singing gospel music in rich voices, the man in a pinstriped suit and the women in little black dresses.

"Whoo! Way to go! Sing it, man, sing it! Get down and boo-gie!" Speakman shouts, slapping his knee. He and the singers burst into raucous laughter.

"Hi, Cowboy!" shouts a middle-age man. Another customer shuffles up to the counter, holding a package of Charmin.

"Is this squeezably soft?" Speakman asks, laughing, as he rings it up. Speakman spots another regular waving a wad of cash.

"Gimme $25. My horse is hungry. He wants to eat," Speakman jokes. He is talking about the tan mustang he is buying from a woman down the road -- a rambunctious horse he works with in his spare time. It looks just like the horse in the Marlboro ads, he says. Some of his customers tell him he looks like the Marlboro man.

Speakman claims that most of the people in the neighborhood know him and that he'd win the sheriff's race with a 90 percent vote in this neighborhood. Most of the customers rave about him.

"He's a good guy," says a gray-haired woman who is too modest to give her name. "I feel safer with him out here. I like him to get those criminals!"

A young woman hurrying out the door pauses to glance back at Speakman.

"I think he's a nice guy. I think he's pretty cool, myself," she says with a coy smile.

Most of the customers say they don't mind Speakman's packing a gun -- some say it's necessary.

"He just be doin' his job. I talk to him all the time," says Keith Coates, a 47-year-old regular customer with a thin face and glasses. "They need security up here because these youngsters nowadays are doin' drugs; they might rob you or grab your wife out of your car."

But now and then, Speakman runs across someone who has a problem with his six-shooter. "I think it's scary as hell," a long-haired forty-something woman says in a pack-a-day voice. "It's just scary as hell -- that's all I have to say about it."

Speakman just shrugs.

"Some of 'em like it. Some don't."

The criminals and shoplifters were among those who didn't like it, it seems. Many got tired of confrontations with Speakman and now take their business elsewhere.

A shift manager at the Express Mart, 25-year-old Jeremy Box, who has lived in the neighborhood for years, says he used to go out of his way to the Phillips 66 or Amoco stations in Grandview just to avoid the pimping and dealing crowds at the Express Mart.

"I'd just take my family down the street. Some things you don't want your kids to see," Box says.

He noticed a difference after Speakman showed up.

"My first few weeks here was a nightmare," Speakman says. "Since it started to calm down, I rarely have to take anybody down. Very seldom, anymore. But I started out with a real hateful attitude. I've had to change as the type of customers changed. That's been tough."

At first, Speakman didn't know how far he would need to go to keep order in the store.

"I started off with nothin' but a set of handcuffs on me. The tougher the crowds got, the more I started bringing in. I started bringing in Mace, then I got a nightstick, the bullwhip ... then the gun. The gun was my last resort. They started walkin' inside the store with guns tucked behind their shirts; I decided, 'We gonna play, we gonna play. And they ain't gonna like the outcome.'"

One particular customer drove Speakman to start carrying a gun, a guy who bragged about having a gun hidden under his shirt.

"He said, 'I got a gun,' and I said, 'I don't care. I'm gonna take it and shove it up your butt so far you won't ever pull it out again.' He didn't know whether I was crazy enough to try it or whether he wanted to challenge me. So he got up and left."

Speakman sneers as he thinks back to some of the conflicts he's had with customers. There were guys who came in and tried to steal bottles of wine or cases of beer, a guy who tried to assault Speakman, another who came in high on PCP and tried to run behind the counter to shut off the cash register -- it took two employees to tackle and subdue him. One customer came in and asked how much cash was in the register. Speakman told him $50.

"I said, 'I'm willing to die to keep it. Are you willing to die to take it?' Changed 'is whole outlook."

The bullwhip is an unusual touch, but it has been Speakman's weapon of choice for ridding the property of drug dealers.

"Once I had it poppin' at some drug dealer's heels. They were standing over by the phone trying to deal drugs. I told them to get off the lot and they smarted off to me and I just took the bullwhip out and had it poppin' at their heels." He shakes with laughter. "Had 'em runnin' off the lot that way."

But there's a softer side to Speakman, says his wife of four years, Janet.

"There are a lot of apartments over near the store, and some of the parents will send their kids to the convenience store to get them out of their hair for a while. John'll walk outside and watch to make sure they get back home okay," she says. "And the kids love watchin' him play with the bullwhip. He'll make them stand off to the side and he'll start swingin' it around and snappin' it.... They just think it's the coolest thing."

One thing about Speakman, he stands out in the city. His well-worn cowboy hat fits exactly right on his head, as if it's been there for years, and his dusty boots look as though they've been around the block. He has a big silver belt buckle. When he talks with his thick Ozark twang, he clenches his jaw and only his bottom lip moves. He punctuates his sentences with rusty, chain-rattling laughter. When he laughs, you can see only his bottom teeth, except when he laughs really loud. Then he throws back his head and opens his mouth, and you can see that one of his front teeth is yellow.

"This is the real McCoy," he says. "I've been western ever since I can remember."

John Wayne Speakman Jr. was born -- 100 years too late, by his own accounts -- during a family trek to Montana to visit his grandfather's ranch in 1959. His mother went into labor as they were driving through Mercer County, Mo., and there was a hospital there, so they figured it was as good a place as any for the birth of their first child. The baby was named after his dad, who was named after John Wayne the actor. Speakman figures if the more famous John Wayne had ever appeared in front of his grandma, his grandpa would've lost her for sure.

"I figure if I ever had a boy he'd probably come up with the name of John Wayne too ... keep my grandma's tradition in line."

Of course, Speakman doesn't remember his first trip to the family ranch as a newborn. And he didn't grow up riding horses there, either. The ranch was about a mile square, and his grandpa ended up losing it in a poker game.

After that unlucky gamble, his grandparents moved to Branson for a few years, then to Bates City. His parents lived with his grandparents off and on, and one day, when he was 5, he just stayed. He lived there until he was 13.

Speakman grew up wearing cowboy hats and cowboy boots -- he hates sneakers -- and he was always around guns. He still has photos of himself as a toddler, dressed in a western shirt and carrying a tiny toy gun in a holster. He soon learned how to use a real gun. It was a way of life, hunting rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, and deer for supper.

"You learn to shoot. It might be your dinner runnin' through there one day." He laughs.

Speakman's parents divorced, and his dad disappeared around the time little John turned 5 and didn't come back into his life until years later.

"His mother didn't want to let me around the kids too much," says his father, who had moved to Independence at the time. That's where he met his longtime love -- John Jr. considers her a stepmom -- Velva Hall. They met at Herbert's Grill on Independence Avenue, and they've been together "20-some-odd years."

Speakman says he thought Velva Lee, as he calls her, was trying to replace his mother, so he did everything he could think of to get rid of her, even baking her a going-away cake one day when she had her bags packed. She decided to stay after all. He didn't start to feel guilty about being so mean to her until he was 17 or so, but somewhere in there, she introduced him to performing country music, and he fell in love with it.

"She put me on my first stage at age 12," he says, beaming.

The daughter of a minister, Hall grew up playing the piano in church and then switched to tickling out country tunes on the keyboard. When John Jr. was a kid, she had a band called the Question Marks. Her band members and other musician friends would come over for jam sessions and fill the house with country music. Music was a job for her -- six nights a week she'd play at local honky tonks and opries, places with such names as Jackson Hole and The Hitching Post.

"John (Jr.) would come over by the piano and sing, and I found out he had a good voice," Hall remembers. "He used to sing this song 'Don't Squeeze My Sharmon' -- I remember he did that one a lot. It was cute."

Looking back, Speakman remembers every word of that 1967 Charlie Walker song. He'll still sing it if you ask him to:

Did you hear what happened last Saturday night ...

While dancin' and drinkin', we all got half tight.

This sweet thing named Sharmon was dancin' with me ...

When up jumped her boyfriend, and he hollered at me.

Please don't squeeze my Sharmon ... don't hold her so tight.

You'd best heed my warnin' ... it's the last one tonight.

She's soft and she's gentle ... and as sweet as can be.

And if Sharmon needs squeezin' ... then leave that to me.

His low, velvety voice tinged with nostalgia and a bit of humor evokes smoky country-western bars, real ones with real cowboys and truck drivers and bar brawls -- places where you wouldn't find line dancers in brand-spanking-new boots. Janet Speakman says that when she was pregnant with their carrot-haired daughter, Catherine, five years ago, his songs would calm the restless baby-to-be.

"He has a very gentle, calming voice.... She'd be kicking me and he'd start singing and she'd stop. He does a lot of the old country songs -- Conway Twitty ... Merle Haggard.... He even does Elvis -- 'In the Ghetto.' But I think my favorite song he does is 'He Stopped Lovin' Her Today.'" She gets a distant look in her eyes and her voice turns soft. "Yeah, 'He Stopped Lovin' Her Today.'"

Speakman describes his wife, Janet, as the love of his life. "First girlfriend ... third wife," he chuckles. It was just by chance that they found each other again after losing touch for 30 years.

The two met when Speakman moved in with his mother and stepfather, who lived next door to Janet's family in Independence. She was 14, and he was 16. She says that when they first met, they had no interest in each other.

"He was like 'Oh, she's too much of a tomboy.' I was raised by two brothers. And I was like, 'Oh, I could hurt him.' But then we got to talking and we just really liked each other."

They'd sit on the brick retaining wall outside her family's house and talk for hours. Speakman describes his boyhood self as "rowdy" and Janet as "wild" -- a perfect match. Even then, he wore cowboy clothes. Speakman loves to tell stories about his teenage years. Once, he and his friends stole a soda machine from in front of the sheriff's department -- hooked it to a truck and drove it right down the middle of the street in broad daylight. He loved to go out hunting and drink white lightnin' -- moonshine that would take down any city person in two or three sips.

John and Janet dated for about a year under her dad's watchful eye.

"Her dad has this 12-gauge shotgun, and he'd be sittin' outside cleanin' it all the time. You'd take one of his daughters out on a date and he'd say, 'You will have her in by 10 o'clock.' Yessir. Not once did his daughters ever came in past 10. I'd be sittin' out there on that wall and he'd walk out and see me sittin' there with her and he'd walk back in his house and grab his shotgun. I was gone! That man had the cleanest shotgun in three counties." He laughs.

Speakman had dropped out of school in the 10th grade to help his mother, whose husband had left, take care of his eight younger brothers and sisters. He ended up enlisting in the U.S. Army and became a member of the demolition squad. That's when he and Janet lost track of each other.

"His family was supposed to tell me how to get in touch with him, but they didn't," she says. "I thought he just up and disappeared. Then they moved away."

Speakman ended up ditching the Army -- "When I don't like a job, I quit. I told them they could shove it up their butts!" -- when his superiors refused to give him leave after he found out that his grandmother, the one who raised him, had died three months before he got the news. After the Army, Speakman married and divorced twice, and all the while he'd think about his first girlfriend and wonder what she was up to. He was single and in his late 30s when the tow truck company he worked for in Grandview got a call that a U-Haul had accidentally backed into the Amoco Station on Blue Ridge and Red Bridge. It wouldn't start and needed to be towed. Speakman and his boss headed over, and when he walked in, he came face to face with his first love. She was working at the station -- where she also used a tough approach and had gangbangers calling her "Mom." They were both so stunned that they just looked at each other, and he told her they were about to take away the U-Haul.

"I started to walk out, and all of a sudden she got on the intercom and said, 'Come back and see me sometime, sweeeetie,'" he says in a booming voice, laughing. She was divorced from her second husband, and their romance picked up right where it had left off.

"I was thinking, 'It can't be this simple,'" she says. "He started coming up to the Amoco and even singing up there ... even the bangers would stop and listen when he would sing."

The couple now live in a simple aqua-color house in what was once a dangerous neighborhood. Janet Speakman stands outside the house one evening wearing turquoise scrubs -- she's now a receptionist at a doctor's office -- and smoking a cigarette. There's a small boat and an old tangerine-color Ford pickup in the front yard. "In this neighborhood you have to be tough. If you're scared, you die," she says.

The Speakmans' block has gotten a lot better, though, since the residents decided to have a "Take Back Our Neighborhood" meeting last year and work to push out a drug house down the street. The pusher was trying to "sew up" the neighborhood -- get all the local kids addicted so he'd have a steady stream of customers. With the help of the police department's Community Action Team, the residents finally got him arrested and put in jail.

Janet Speakman walks inside the house and sits down, Catherine on her lap. Portraits of her other three kids are on the wall -- a 10-year-old boy who wants to be a fireman, a 15-year-old daughter in her junior ROTC uniform, and a 21-year-old daughter who's pregnant with grandchild number three.

"We're not fancy folks. He collects eagles and cars. I collect angels." She gestures to their plaques, knickknacks, and memorabilia on shelves and walls. "We shop at the finer stores -- Kmart, Wal-Mart, Target, garage sales." Their living room is furnished with a couch from the Salvation Army and a $5 wooden desk from a garage sale. Catherine is watching a video of Snow White, wearing a cute 50-cent dress from Goodwill.

"We don't spend a lot of money, but we have fun," says Janet, who has thick, layered brown hair, warm brown eyes, and a no-nonsense wit. "John's a simple man, an honest man. I think he'd make a good sheriff. He couldn't be bought, that's for sure."

She points to their style of raising kids by encouraging the kids' dreams. They had a mural of firefighters on a burning building painted in the 10-year-old's room and then got a truckful of firefighters from the Kansas City Fire Department to come out and sign his wall and let him play with the hoses. But they also tell their kids that if they break the law and get caught, "Don't call here!"

Janet thinks that style of law enforcement would do the county some good. She says her husband would like to use money from the sale of confiscated goods to finance serious antidrug programs for kids, like Chuck Norris' "Kick Drugs Out of America," which involves teaching martial arts and kids' signing contracts with their sensei.

"He also wants to take things out of the county jail that don't belong there -- like big-screen TVs, cable, a gym that's better than Bally's." And he wants to go after corruption at all levels, she says. She points to all of her husband's law books.

"When I got together with the man, his reading level was pretty low. But he found something he loved and was interested in -- law. And, wow, has it improved. He has really pulled himself up. Think what an inspiration he'd be for the county."

But she thinks local officials are scared of him. Otherwise, they'd just leave his name on the ballot and let the voters decide.

"John has said he doesn't care who it is, if they're corrupt, he'll find out about it."

The controversy over Speakman's candidacy stems from the Constitutional Home Rule Charter of Jackson County, which says that, effective Jan. 1, 1979, a candidate for sheriff must meet certain qualifications before filing. In Jackson County, that means hours of training in such areas as "verbal judo" and "gangs, transients, and organized crime" -- according to the official training manual for the Western Missouri Regional Police Academy -- as well as domestic violence, crime prevention, crime scene searches, evidence collection, weapons, and self-defense.

Because Speakman has not had such formal training, the county clerk recently sent him a letter telling him his name would be taken off the ballot. Speakman also got a letter from Jay Haden, chief deputy county counselor, warning him to stop calling county officials about the matter.

"You (sic) repeated calls are not going to change anyone's views on this matter and are starting to constitute harassment," Haden wrote. He also said he had conferred with the Missouri Attorney General's Office on the issue, which "did not suggest in any way that our position is erroneous."

Speakman argues that by ordering him not to contact them, county officials made it impossible for him to pursue the matter in Jackson County courts. "They gave me permission for change of venue," Speakman crows about the cease-and-desist letter. "I'm taking this to Cole County, Jeff City, and to county court there. My name will be back on that ballot in time for (November) elections. I even told the county clerk, I said, 'I'm dangerous. I'm the one your mama warned you about. Or if she didn't, she should've!'"

Haden scoffs at the idea that the letter was, as Speakman puts it, "permission for a change of venue."

"He can file anything he wants, wherever he wants, and we'll just deal with it," Haden snaps.

Speakman sent a hand-printed letter to the county counselor's office in early May, alleging that the county is violating his civil rights. He alleges that the Constitution of Missouri says charter counties' laws must comply with state law and the U.S. Constitution. He points to Section 18(b), which states, "The charter shall provide for its amendment, for the form of county government, the number, kinds, manner of selection, terms of office, and salaries of the county officers, and for the exercise of all powers and duties of counties and county officers prescribed by the constitution and laws of the state."

"That doesn't mean the charter can't override state law," Haden says. "In this case, the charter can override state law. It just means that the charter has to specify how Jackson County is going to do every job and perform every duty required by the state and constitution."

For example, he says, everywhere else in the state, the sheriff runs the county jail and serves civil papers, but Jackson County has assigned those duties to other employees.

A spokesman from the attorney general's office, Scott Holste, told PitchWeekly, "The State Constitution of Missouri does provide charter counties with the authority to regulate standards for elected office."

Speakman also points to the Missouri Election Laws, chapter 115, which specifies who may challenge a candidate's qualifications. It states that qualifications may be challenged by another candidate for the same office no later than 30 days after the final filing date. Speakman argues that the county officials' objection to his candidacy did not fall under those guidelines.

But Haden refers to a letter from the state attorney general's office supporting the county's right to pull Speakman's name, and he compares the situation with that of candidates who file to run for office but do not meet residency requirements.

"The county clerk has a duty to look at the qualifications of someone running for office on their face," Haden says.

The chair of the Jackson County Legislature, Victor Callahan, says he has spoken with Speakman several times and does not understand why Speakman does not attend police training and then run for office.

"The voters of Jackson County voted for the charter. I think the theory was that they wanted to bring a degree of professionalism to the office of sheriff. It wouldn't be that radically different from expecting the prosecutor to be a lawyer," Callahan says.

But Speakman is bullheaded and stubborn. He calls the removal of his name a breach of contract, since he paid a fee to file.

"I'm drawing up the paperwork (for a complaint) right now," he says.

Why is Speakman so set on becoming county sheriff? Well, he says, he has a vision for the county. He wants the sheriff's deputies to go into incorporated cities regardless of whether they are called by the local cops. He wants to run the sheriff's department with a strict hand -- pity the hypothetical deputy who gets caught goofing off.

"I'd keep tabs on them like a hawk," Speakman says, clenching his jaw. "I catch an officer just sittin' around by the side of the road just talkin' to another officer instead of doing their patrol, and after the second write-up on him, he's gonna be out of a job. As a taxpayer, I don't pay them guys to sit on the side of the road chit-chattin'. They're out there to protect the citizens."

Another odd aspect of Speakman's philosophy: not enforcing the laws he doesn't agree with.

"I'm a man that if a law's illegal, I'll challenge it to the hilt. I intend to stop the illegal laws," he says. "That includes seat-belt laws and laws that mandate insurance for drivers." He supports his ideas about insurance laws using the premise that driving is a right, not a privilege, using the state and federal court cases researched by a retired Arizona police officer, Jack McLamb. He found an article about McLamb in Media Bypass, a conservative magazine known for its conspiracy theories, and began looking up the cases.

"I beat tickets left and right that way," he says, laughing.

Another thing he'd do if he was elected sheriff is clean up drug houses and whorehouses.

"Take it off the streets," he growls about prostitution. "If they're doin' prostitution, that gives probable cause to obtain a search warrant, get a search warrant to get an HIV test. If they got HIV, or AIDS, knowin' they got it can be considered as attempted murder."

Speakman's wife thinks his tough-guy attitude would give the county a kick in the butt. She sees the Express Mart as a microcosm of the county. Why couldn't Speakman do for the county what he's done for the convenience store?

"Why are they fighting so hard to keep him off this ballot?" she wonders, shaking her head.

"Think about it. We have a governor in another state who used to be a pro wrestler, and we've had a few presidents that were movie stars. I almost think he'd have an easier time running for president of the United States."

Contact Allie Johnson at 816-218-6783 or allie.johnson@pitch.com.

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