Grief, security concerns follow violence in Kansas City

An Overland Park police vehicle sitting in front of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, Kan., following shootings there and later at a nearby assisted-living complex that killed three people on Sunday. Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images 

By David Baugher,Special to the Jewish Light

The arrest of a white supremacist in connection with a shooting spree that left three people dead at Jewish facilities in the Kansas City area Sunday is prompting a mixture of grief and attention to security among Jews in St. Louis.

“Whether it is Kansas City or anyplace else in the world, the reaction is, of course, one of overwhelming sadness at this tragic loss of life, and a reminder that there are forces of hatred out there,” said Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council. “We cannot blind ourselves to the fact that that still is a reality.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Kansas said Tuesday that it will file federal hate crime charges against the suspect, Frazier Glenn Cross  Jr. of Aurora, Mo., 73, who is being held in Johnson County, Kan. The Kansas City Star reported that Johnson County prosecutors filed one count of capital murder and one count of first-degree murder against Cross on Tuesday. 

Police say Cross, who is better known by the name Frazier Glenn Miller, fatally shot two people Sunday afternoon in the parking lot behind the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kan., then drove to a nearby retirement community where he shot a third person. Cross was arrested on an elementary school parking lot, where police say he was armed with a shotgun, a handgun and other weapons in his vehicle, according to several news sources.

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The dead have been identified as Reat Griffin Underwood, 14, and his grandfather Dr. William Lewis Corporon, 69, who had taken Reat to the JCC to audition for the Kansas City SuperStar competition. The third victim was identified as Terri LaManno, 53, a mother of three who lived in Kansas City, Mo. She was killed outside of the Village Shalom assisted living facility in nearby Leawood, Kan., where her mother lives. None of the victims was Jewish.

Abramson-Goldstein said that the JCRC had no immediate plans to do any programming on the issue but that it was reaching out to interfaith and other community partners to start conversations during this difficult time.

“All the more so, it reinforces a commitment to the kind of work that brings individuals and communities together, and the need to keep countering these forces of hatred,” she said.

Abramson-Goldstein said the violence emphasizes the importance of anti-bias education and helping the next generation develop skills to combat intolerance.

“We do know that one person armed with hatred and a gun can cause much damage,” she said.

Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of Missouri and Southern Illinois, said she wasn’t surprised by the identity of the shooting suspect. She said Frazier Glenn Cross was a longtime white supremacist.

“We’ve been following Miller for 30 years,” she said. “I literally became aware of him the day I started this job.”

Aroesty said Cross/Miller has a history in racist publications, newspapers and websites, although he’d recently assumed a much lower profile in the movement and had been quiet for some time.

“The nature of his peripheral status over the last few years makes us wonder what the trigger was,”  Aroesty said. 

Cross was considered a traitor by some in the white supremacy movement after he testified against others in exchange for a lighter sentence on federal weapons charges decades ago, she said.

“It is sort of ridiculous to say that someone involved in anti-Semitism is over the top, and yet Miller’s anti-Semitism is kind of like that,” Aroesty said. “The idea that he would commit violence I’m not sure is a surprise.”

Aroesty wondered about the timing of the shootings, which occurred just as Passover was about to get underway. There may be a connection, however spring is always an active time for extremists, she said.

“That’s why we issue our security alerts when we do around this time of year because of the dates — Hitler’s birthday, the events in Waco — all mid-April dates,” she said, referring to a siege at a cult compound in Waco, Texas, in 1993 that ended in the fiery deaths of 76 people. “White supremacists do have a pattern of behavior of using symbolic dates to highlight activity.”

Aroesty said it may be important to understand whether security measures prevented the shooter from entering the JCC building or he simply planned to shoot people outside.

“Security is not something that people want to think about, and yet this is exactly why we think about it, not for things that you anticipate dealing with on a daily basis,” she said.

Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, said that security is never far from her thoughts and that she speaks regularly about it with state and federal law enforcement officials, including during construction of the Staenberg Complex on the Millstone campus in Creve Coeur.

“In fact, just two weeks ago, we had a conversation about this very kind of situation,” she said. “It is something that is always on our mind, as are all kinds of safety and security issues.”

Wittels said she had just been on a conference call about security among agency executives organized by the Jewish Federation in reaction to the Kansas City shootings, but she declined to comment on the specifics of the meeting. She said she also placed a call to her counterparts on the other side of the state.

“I have extended our help if there is ever anything we can do,” she said. “We just hope the entire Kansas City community can deal with this tragedy knowing that people from St. Louis are thinking about them.”

Joan Denison, executive director of the senior facility Covenant Place, said: “Our condolences go out to that community. This is a tragic incident and certainly it highlights the need for all Jewish organizations to be vigilant in their security procedures.”

Denison said security is a daily consideration at Covenant, where cameras are installed at entrances, staff is trained for contingencies and written procedures are in place. She said security has also been bolstered during the holidays in response to this weekend’s violence.

“This is a reminder that, unfortunately, all Jewish organizations are vulnerable to these types of incidents,” Denison said. “We all need to be aware of our surroundings and thoughtful about who we give access to at any of our buildings.”

Andrew Rehfeld, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Louis, said in an email statement that his organization has been in close contact with the JCC, Covenant Place, JCRC and ADL, as well as the St. Louis County and Chesterfield police forces.

He asked people to maintain a heightened alert over the next few days.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims of this tragedy,” he said in the statement. “We will continue to monitor the situation as it develops.”