Tony Rizzo, Kansas City Star, January 24, 2009
Behind every pull of the trigger there is a story.
In the Kansas City ZIP code 64130, there are a lot of stories to tell.
Its eight square miles, straddling Brush Creek downstream from the Country Club Plaza, is home to 101 convicted murderers incarcerated in Missouri prisons.
No other ZIP code in Kansas City, St. Louis or any other part of the state comes close. Though its 26,000 residents make up about 6 percent of the city’s population, it accounts for 20 percent of Kansas Citians in prison for murder or voluntary manslaughter.
If society set out to design an assembly line for producing killers, it’s hard to imagine a model any more efficient than what exists inside its boundaries, stretching from 39th to 63rd streets and bordered by Woodland and Topping avenues. It has become a murder factory that spans generations.
In an unprecedented effort to better understand the destructive paths these inmates chose, The Star sent surveys to all 101 killers who listed 64130 as their home ZIP code with the Missouri Department of Corrections. To compare their experiences with others, The Star also sent surveys to about 270 other convicted killers from across the state.
Although the majority of 64130’s residents live lawfully, few interviewed said their families have been untouched by the violence. Longtime residents can point out where someone was killed, where drugs are sold or where a neighbor’s kid lived before he went to prison.
Though each inmate has a unique story, many shared common experiences.
Born mostly into poor families, nearly 60 percent of survey respondents grew up without fathers. As young men they were thrust into a prevailing street mentality that demanded a violent response to any insult. Guns could be obtained as cheaply and easily as illegal drugs. Two-thirds of survey respondents possessed guns as teenagers and nearly three-fourths were regular users of drugs and alcohol.
At the time they killed, they ranged in age from 13 to 55. One-fifth committed murder as teenagers. Most already had criminal records when they killed in their 20s and 30s.
Many who became killers said they had few examples of legitimate success to follow in their neighborhoods.
Instead they were drawn to the fast life of hustling, stealing and dealing drugs. Jewelry, wads of cash and flashy cars, often displayed by older family members, lured them.
Again and again, 64130’s murderers said the area offers little in the way of positive alternatives.
Broken homes, domestic violence and absent or drug-addicted parents also affected their upbringing.
Mothers who tried to raise boys alone say the necessity to work and support their families prevented them from watching their children as closely as they wanted.
But even when two adults were in the home, many of the ZIP code’s killers experienced harmful influences. For example, more than half of the survey’s respondents said they witnessed domestic violence growing up.
At least 15 of the 64130 killers were convicted of domestic violence homicides.
“Growing up, you’re conditioned to think that a physical fight will at times take place between two people who love and care about each other, especially when you see them continue to stay together,” said inmate Benjamin Franklin Jr., who was 22 when he stabbed his estranged wife to death.
The home turf
Single-family residences dominate 64130, a ZIP code that many outsiders see only when they zoom through on Bruce R. Watkins Drive or Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard.
Pockets of middle-class stability–such as Sheraton Estates and the Citadel Center development–have the look and feel of typical Johnson County suburbs.
But vacant houses, trash-strewn lots and weed-choked yards plague many blocks. A large percentage of residents live in poverty. Decades of relentless violence have left too many feeling under siege and cut off from the wider community.