by Matt Pearce
Beyond East Front Street where it crosses North Kansas Avenue, and across a levee that runs along the Missouri River, four deer bound through a clearing between two thickets. They are not the only ones who live here. A subtle footpath runs through the woods to the east. Follow the trail, and it takes you past the remains of abandoned homeless camps that called this flood plain home. The path ends at a hidden encampment of two tents surrounded by a sea of trash, old bottles and discarded newspapers.
The man who lives here won’t give his name. There’s a warrant out for him, for possession, and he says he doesn’t want the cops’ attention, or to get kicked out. But he knew Loehr. It’s a Thursday morning in mid-September, and he smells a little boozed up. “He’s been around here for a while,” the man says of Loehr. “He used to fly.”
“Fly a sign to make his money,” he says, pantomiming holding one of those roadside brother-can-you-spare-a-buck signs. “I work,” he says. Odd jobs. He’s a little proud of that.
The man knows where Joe died but is afraid to lead a Pitch reporter there because the killer hasn’t been caught. But — aw, what the hell — he does anyway, crossing the clearing and heading back across to the opposite thicket. There’s another trail that starts just near the levee, and he points down to a clearing visible in the distance: “That’s where Joe died,” he says, and then points to the left. “There’s his tent.”
Joe Wesley Loehr, 52, was born in Kansas City in 1960 and died here Saturday night, September 8. He was likely beaten to death, given the severe injuries to his face. Down that path lives the man who found him dead — the man police still suspect may have killed him.
Mike Gullett, 56, wears a hoodie and denim shorts, his legs wiry and tough. He calls this “Camp Hope.” It’s a good, tidy spread. It’s less “drifter” than “free spirit.” There are two well-constructed huts and a tent, lawn chairs, a working radio. Pots and clotheslines hang from the trees. Seven people once lived here full time, he says. Now that Loehr is dead, Gullet is the only one who lives here, but regulars still wander in for a visit. Two men are hanging out with him on this Thursday.
One visitor, a man who calls himself Squirrel, is fixing a bike. Another, Gregory Kump, a sunny 47-year-old alcoholic wearing an O’Reilly hat, is relieving a bottle of McCormick’s whiskey of its contents. A blue tarp over Loehr's old tent, which is still standing, is visible through the trees from about 40 yards away. Loehr probably died here next to Gullett’s hut. “Even if I knew anything, I shouldn’t talk about it,” Gullett tells a Pitch reporter. The cops say he didn’t talk about it with them either, according to a brief about the killing in The Kansas City Star.
Then he talks about it.
“I think it happened right here,” Gullett says, pointing to the ground next to the door of his neatly kept sleeping hut, which is so well-built that there’s insulation on the ceiling and a waterproof skylight. “I was the cleanup man,” he says. “When the cops were finished, I had to clean up. From what I saw, it looked like it happened right here.”
At around 9:45 p.m. September 8, Gullett discovered his campmate dead, called the cops and waited for them at the top of the levee. When officers arrived, Gullett led them down to the camp. Detectives interrogated him and held him for 24 hours before releasing him, saying he remained a “person of interest” in the homicide.
“Of course I’m a suspect,” Gullett says, “but that’s pretty much automatic in an investigation.”
The cops haven’t been back to talk with him in the five days since.
“They know where to find me,” Gullett says.
Squirrel says the cops took him downtown for six hours, a day earlier, saying he knew something about the killing. He says he doesn’t and wasn’t around.
Gullett dodges a question about whether he was in the camp when the killing occurred. He says he can’t talk too much about the investigation.
Later, Gullett hangs his head and, with a little shame, admits that he was pretty drunk when he found Loehr’s body and can’t remember much. That’s why he says he “thinks” Loehr died by the hut. That’s where he cleaned up the blood.
The three men at the camp on this September Thursday don’t know much about Loehr. They just say he was a nice guy. Loehr’s nearby campsite still bears all the signs of living — his pants still hang where they'd been left to dry in front of his tent.
Inside, his tent is well-lived-in, filled with shoes and winter gloves, teabags on a bedside table along with a bottle of KC Masterpiece Marinade, a Bible, a can of bug spray, and two big candles burned down to waxen shells. His bed is covered with boxes for Symbicort, an asthma drug, and a property receipt from an arrest May 15. Whatever the KCPD had taken him in for, he arrived at the station with pills, a lighter, a broken watch, a knife and $1.11 on him. A search of Missouri court records reveals nothing on Loehr except a string of landlord lawsuits and a long-ago DWI.
“He was skinny, weighed about 100 pounds,” says Kump, the man in the O’Reilly cap. “He’d get drunk, fall over a tree. That’s about as bad as he would get.
“He was kind, nice, considerate — shit, he didn’t deserve that,” Kump says of the killing. He then apologizes for his language.
Nice guy or not, Gullett says Loehr sometimes got into scuffles with a large black man with glasses named Money Mike. Gullett adds that two or three weeks ago, a nearby drifter named Gary, a regular around these parts, hit Loehr with a rock and then beat his right leg with a baseball bat for taking away his girlfriend, Christal, who also happened to be an ex-girlfriend of Gullett’s. The attack left Loehr with a limp. The three men at the camp speak of Gary with fear and suspect him in the killing, though they’ve also heard that he was out of town. But Squirrel says he’s never known a time when Gary wasn’t in town.
Kump, who has never met Gary, decides to take a Pitch reporter to Gary’s nearby camp and has to be dissuaded from taking a long piece of rebar with him as a weapon.
“We’ll walk down there and look in his eyes,” Kump says. “Then we’ll know if he did it.”
On the road to Gary’s camp, Kump takes the whiskey with him instead of the rebar, which might as well be a 5-foot piece of a potential felony. He gulps the McCormick’s from the bottle. He begins to stagger. He's not going to make it to Gary's camp.
“Oh, Lord, I’m in trouble,” Kump says. “I’m in a tight spot.” He asks a Pitch reporter about staying at Camp Hope. “What do you think I should do?” he says. “I’m not going back there.”
“OK, you asked a question: 'Why?’ Would you?”
Kump falls down, coming to rest on a rock along the levee, and then falls sideways off the rock. He’s helped up, falls again, and then starts to fall asleep.
“What would you do if you were me?” Kump keeps asking. “What do I do?” He doesn’t want to go back to Camp Hope. He says he has an appointment at Truman Medical Center. He knows now he’s going to miss it.
Kump barely makes it back to Camp Hope, even with help. It’s 2 p.m., and he’s barely conscious. He sits and then lies down on the ground, on the dirt and the fallen leaves.
Gullett, a person of interest in a homicide, looks Kump over where he lies, a couple of feet from where he thinks he discovered Loehr’s mutilated body.
“Mike,” Kump says with the voice of a boy asking a question of his bigger brother right before bedtime. “Is it OK if I stay with you for a couple days, until I get sorted out? I got nowhere to go.”
“Yeah,” Gullett says, pausing for a moment. “I’d like to have somebody here to watch the camp.”
Rain begins to fall as Kump rests his body in the dirt. Moments later, he’s out.