It wasn't his idea to knock over the QuikTrip. Nelson Hopkins and a buddy had been drinking, and now that friend was driving Hopkins' car. He pulled into the parking lot of the Shawnee convenience store and explained the plan to Hopkins. He was going to buy a soda and give the cashier a dollar. When she opened the register, he'd hit her in the head with the bottle and grab the cash drawer.
Hopkins wasn't feeling nostalgic for the pair's prior days of purse snatching and petty theft. He was 20 years old that July of 1990, and he had just returned home from training with a special unit of the Marines. He had enlisted in the reserves and was counting on a military career to pay for college.
He reminded his friend of all this as they got out of the car and went inside. Hopkins thought he'd talked him out of it. Then he heard the cashier shriek and looked up to see his friend sprawled over the counter, pulling bills out of the register.
"If you gonna do it, do it right!" Hopkins yelled. Hopkins pulled the drawer free, and the pair ran out of the store as police arrived.
Police cruisers chased Hopkins' car north along Interstate 35. His friend believed that they could escape if they reached the West Side. Hopkins cracked his door and prepared to bail out. As his friend steered sharply around the off-ramp, Hopkins fell out of the car. His friend got away. Hopkins got arrested.
Hopkins' son, Nelson Jr., was 11 days old.
Growing up near 37th Street and Highland, Hopkins was one of the reckless young men eroding the inner city. In the 20 years since that night, he has been a soldier, a prison inmate, a teacher, an ex-con, a businessman, and a father to his namesake. That last role, he says, has been the most rewarding — and the most painful.
In December, 17-year-old Nelson Jr. was shot dead as he was walking home from a bus stop with his college application in his pocket. Nelson Jr.'s 21-year-old cousin, Randy Wilson, was shot and killed less than a month later as he left a convenience store. Police have made no arrests in either case.
Now, Hopkins finds himself back on the streets with a new purpose, armed with wisdom gleaned from his tumultuous life.
Is this city big enough for another anti-violence activist?
The existing efforts aren't working. This much was obvious to Hopkins from the moment that word of his son's death hit the media. Representatives from two anti-crime organizations called him to ask which prayer vigil he would attend. "I said, 'My son is dead. Do you think I care where it's gonna be at? What y'all want is the press. What I want to do is grieve my son.'"
Since then, Hopkins has been brainstorming ways to shake up a population that's numbed by violent death after violent death. His solution is called Operation Promise Land.
Its debut isn't perfect, but it's a start.
On a bleak February afternoon, a crowd gathers along the edge of Oak Park at 44th Street and Agnes. The Kansas City Star has dubbed this area the Murder Factory because of its body count and the many former residents who are incarcerated. Camera crews from at least five news outlets set up their tripods. A couple of reporters admit that they're not sure what they're here to cover.
One of Hopkins' biggest advocates, Bill Kostar, arrives early. The former mayor of Westwood met with Hopkins after seeing him on the news and began introducing him to political contacts. One is Sly James, a lawyer running for Kansas City, Missouri, mayor next year. James arrives at the park with a broad smile and exits an SUV with his young campaign manager. Janay Reliford, of the AdHoc Group Against Crime, and activist Ron McMillan are here. So are Deputy Chief Kevin Masters and Maj. Randall Hundley of the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department.