James “Doc” Dearborn hit the pavement outside a liquor store near the Kansas City Airport on Jan. 14, 1985 with a thud.
The onetime pooh bah of Kansas City’s so-called Black Mafia was 53 years old. And quite dead.
Thirty-five years after hitters punched him a one-way ticket to the morgue, Dearborn remains an enigmatic figure. As recently as 2011, detectives were still linking him to long ago gangland murders.
Crime has been the ladder to the mainstream for generations of immigrants — and chronic outsiders.
Irish, Jews, Italians and countless others who found doors closed in their faces when it came to jobs, housing and opportunities, did what they had to do to survive. Cutting corners was a way to get on the ladder.
Far worse off than any ethnic group were African-Americans. For many, slavery wasn’t just a memory — they had lived it, kept on living it and keep on living it.
And they too turned to racketeering, vice and a myriad other crimes to make ends meet and provide a better life for their families
The new season of Fargo, starring Chris Rock, takes aim at the history of racism and discrimination that drove men like James “Doc” Dearborn, Bumpy Johnson and Leroy Barnes into the underworld. Rock plays Loy Cannon, who is believed to be based on Dearborn.
The action takes place in Kansas City in the 1950s where an uneasy peace existed between men like Dearborn and the long-established Italian mob family run for decades by Nick Civella.
It was the Kansas City mob that oversaw the pillaging of the Teamster’s Midwest Pension Fund using the cash of hardworking truckers for schemes in the desert gambling mecca of Las Vegas.
In many ways, the underworld was multicultural before the rest of society caught up. It was business. Crime has only one colour — and it’s green. The Chicago Outfit remains a testament to prematurely woke gangsters.
While the fourth season of Fargo shows the two underworld entities at war, in reality they worked closely together.
Dearborn’s crew was called the Purple Capsule Gang — or PCG — because that was the colour their capsules of heroin came in. The go-between was gangster Joseph (Shotgun Joe) Centimano.
The rotund mobster operated out of Joe’s Liquors, which was in one of K.C.’s Black neighbourhoods near the famed Vine Jazz District. Many of the residents had moved from the south looking for opportunities and a better life in the city’s stockyards and factories.
Shotgun Joe was Dearborn’s conduit to the Mafia.
Between them, the two mobs joined forces to rake in boffo bucks from prostitution, drugs, gambling and extortion. And they didn’t like it when people got in their way.
In the past decade, cold case detectives have cleared several unsolved homicides dating to the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The murders were pinned on Dearborn and his gangland benefactor, Shotgun Joe.
Most prominent among the slayings was the 1970 murder of activist and Missouri politician Leon Jordan, who had a storied career as one of the first Black detectives on the Kansas City PD. He was also a civil rights activist and politician.
Mob boss Nick Civella ordered Jordan taken off the board, the Kansas City Star reported, and assigned Dearborn and Shotgun Joe to do the job.
Jordan was shot to death on July 15, 1970, outside his popular Green Duck Tavern. He reportedly had a run-in with mob-connected state legislator Frank Mazzuca and was engulfed in a love triangle with a woman Dearborn had his sights set on.
Dearborn was charged with the slaying in 1971 but the case was dropped before it went to trial.
In 2011, detectives also closed the 1968 slaying of K.C. criminal Ricky Hill over an alleged dope theft. He was found with a single bullet to the head underneath a local bridge.
Again, Dearborn and Shotgun Joe did the deed.
“I was shocked that they finally found somebody after all these years,” Hill’s widow, Lena (Hill) Bruster told the Kansas City Star. “He was a nice father and loved his children. Thank God we were able to get real closure.”
It was Shotgun Joe’s son who decades of silence and told detectives everything he knew.
Hill’s widow said after Ricky was murdered, Doc Dearborn would come into the diner where she worked as a waitress and leave her $100 tips.