St. Louis Jewish community leaders express grief, security concerns after K.C. shootings

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The arrest of a white supremacist in connection with a shooting spree that left three 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.”

Authorities say there is enough evidence to warrant a hate-crimes prosecution against Frazier Glenn Cross of Aurora, Mo., 73, who is being is jailed in Johnson County, Kan., according to the Associated Press. He has not been formally charged in the killings, but officials said more information about charges was expected Tuesday.

Police say Cross, who sometimes goes 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, then drove to a retirement community where he shot a third person. He was arrested in an elementary school parking lot.

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The dead have been identified as Reat Griffin Underwood, 14, and his grandfather Dr. William Lewis Corporon, 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 lives in Kansas City. She was killed outside of Village Shalom assisted living facility in nearby Leawood, Kan., where her mother resides, according to the Kansas City Star. None of the victims was Jewish.

Abramson-Goldstein said the JCRC had no immediate plans to do any programming on the issue but 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.

She said the violence emphasized 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 alleged shooter. 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.”

She said the accused perpetrator had a history in racist publications, newspapers and websites, though 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,” said Aroesty.

She noted that 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.

“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,” said Aroesty. “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 noted. “White supremacists do have a pattern of behavior of using symbolic dates to highlight activity.”

Aroesty also noted that it may be important to understand whether security measures prevented the shooter from accessing the inside of the JCC building or whether 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 she speaks with law enforcement at both the state and federal level regularly regarding the topic 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 on security among agency executives organized by the Jewish Federation in reaction to the incident though she could not 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, echoed those sentiments.

“Our condolences go out to that community,” she said. “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 considered on a daily basis 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 incident,” she 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, issued an email statement noting 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 individuals to maintain a heightened alert over the next few days.

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