In his national television debut, Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders doesn’t look half-bad.
Sanders doesn’t exactly have a movie-star face, but on this March episode of Dr. Phil, his normally limp hair has a nice lift — especially compared with his bald host.
Dr. Phil — psychologist Phil McGraw — is trying to help track down the missing children of Independence woman Tina Porter, whose husband sits in jail, claiming to have taken them but refusing to reveal where they are.
As the video montages have summarized, Sam and Lindsey Porter were last seen leaving Tina Porter’s Independence home with their father, Daniel Porter, who was estranged from his wife but had always
been good to the children. Or had been until June 6, 2004, when he kept them beyond his weekend visitation and left a cryptic note for Tina in a tree near Missouri highways 291 and 210. The note indicated that the children were with another person or family.
Within the week, police caught up with Daniel Porter alone in rural Missouri and arrested him. Since then, he has told multiple stories about what happened to the children, but he has apparently never told the truth.
After Porter’s arrest, he pleaded guilty to a firearms charge; he is now serving a ten-year sentence. He also faces kidnapping charges — charges that Sanders says will go away if Porter just tells him where the children are.
“What we’ve always said is, Dan Porter has the keys to his jail cell,” Sanders tells Dr. Phil, who has been doing his best to aggravate — and moderate — the conflict between his two main guests.
Tina Porter has spent the two-show series veering between apparent numbness and rage. Her face is like a mask, even as she confronts a friend of Daniel Porter’s identified only as Lisa.
As Dr. Phil reveals, Lisa (whose last name is Atkins) has been exchanging letters and phone calls with the jail-bound Porter. After the first episode, Lisa failed a polygraph test. This prompted Dr. Phil’s last-minute invitation for Sanders and Independence Police Sgt. Dennis Green to appear on the second show. Lisa says she agreed to appear on Dr. Phil in hopes of helping find the children. Now she’s been accused of facilitating their disappearance and withholding key information from investigators. Her demeanor alternates, too, swinging from angry and confrontational to simpering and messy.
Eventually, Sanders takes over and interrogates Atkins on the air.
“How many times did you try to talk about the kids?” Sanders asks (to a drum-beat accompaniment that the show’s producers have dubbed in).
“Anytime I try to bring up the kids, he [Daniel] just shuts me off,” Atkins says. “I’m afraid if I just keep at it that he will just quit trusting me and won’t tell me anything at all.”
“Do you know him to be a fairly violent guy and have a temper?”
Soon, the screen shows Sanders in another room, reassuring Tina Porter and telling her that Daniel Porter and Lisa Atkins had a relationship “that weighs on her current husband.”
“I think she wants to minimize the amount of contact she’s had with Dan in front of her husband, for obvious reasons,” Sanders says.
Tina Porter tells Sanders that her husband plans to plead guilty and say nothing.
“He’s rolling some pretty big dice here, and I think he’s looking at quite a bit of time in the Missouri Department of Corrections,” Sanders responds.
“So we might not ever find them, huh?”
“We’re going to be there for you, and we’re going to bring them home together,” he says.
Cut to their hug.
Dr. Phil shows Sanders’ best side: intelligent and authoritative yet caring and compassionate.
But his appearance on the show is unprecedented. The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office has produced at least one big-name politician in Claire McCaskill (who moved from that office to become Missouri auditor before running last year for governor; she recently launched a bid for the U.S. Senate). Despite the visibility of the office, it’s hard to imagine McCaskill or her successor, Bob Beaird, racing off to join the circus of daytime television.
In doing so, Sanders draws some criticism at home. A story in The Kansas City Star quotes two university professors who wonder whether the show damaged the case against Daniel Porter; interviews that might become part of a criminal case should take place in private, they argue.
But Sanders tells the Pitch that, by and large, his ratings were high.
“When I talked to real people, when I talked to her, the mother, when I talked to law enforcement, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.” He says he’d do it again.
The media exposure generated leads on the case, he says.
“We got tips from all across the country. I’ll leave it at that, about the potential whereabouts for the kids,” he says.
Tina Porter’s children are still missing, though. Sanders’ national TV debut proved only one thing: how fast his own star has risen over a very short time.
By most accounts, Sanders is ready to run for Jackson County executive, an office that’s long been a stronghold of the Democratic Party in Missouri but seems increasingly vulnerable as the FBI continues to investigate the awarding of contracts by current executive Katheryn Shields.
Two months ago, Sanders told the Pitch he wouldn’t pursue the job; last week, he was reconsidering.
“There are a lot of people who have asked me to run whose opinions I respect,” he says.
With Shields’ power at what Sanders calls “a fairly historic low,” party insiders fear that a Republican candidate could win Jackson County’s top job. “If we stay with the current leadership we have, I think we run a very, very real risk of the Republican Party seizing control of county government for the first time in history,” Sanders says.
Sanders has shown he can win a countywide election. The Independence resident who graduated from a high school north of the river has done a good job of appealing to interest groups on both of the distinctly different eastern and western sides of Jackson County.
But county executive isn’t the job Sanders has wanted since he was a kid. His dream job, he says, is the one he holds now.
He remembers, as a teenager in the mid-1980s, hearing then-Prosecutor Albert Riederer on a Mike Murphy radio show. Something about the discussion moved him.
Sanders practically worshipped his uncle, who was a detective. Sanders says public service was in his blood — his father worked for the U.S. Postal Service — and in listening to Riederer, it sounded as if being county prosecutor was a good way to live out that destiny.
“I remember calling him [Riederer] and saying, ‘How do you get to be prosecutor?'”
Riederer doesn’t recall talking to the eager Winnetonka High School student, but there’s no reason to doubt Sanders’ story. His background lent itself to such surprising initiative.
One of Sanders’ earliest memories is of his father, Bruce Sanders, putting him through a Descartesian quiz.
“What is this?” his father asked.
“An apple,” Sanders responded.
“But how do you know it’s an apple?”
Such intellectual challenges at home didn’t result in superior schoolwork, though. The self-described “metal head” was more devoted to Motley Crue and AC/DC than to studying. He managed to graduate in the middle of Winnetonka’s 1985 class, though he had excelled at debate.
Sanders financed his University of Missouri-Kansas City philosophy degree through Army ROTC and did well at Ohio State University’s law school before returning to apply for a job as an assistant prosecutor under McCaskill. He remembers the interview: “Mike, where do you see yourself in ten years?” McCaskill asked him. “I was honest,” he recalls. “‘Claire, to be frank with you, sitting in your chair.'”
McCaskill remembers the conversation the same way. She hired him.
Sanders’ first day working for McCaskill, in October 1994, was also the first day for a new administrative assistant named Georgia Cardwell.
McCaskill had around 200 employees; Sanders worked at the Independence office, and Cardwell worked downtown. They didn’t know each other, but Cardwell heard about Sanders when McCaskill named him rookie of the year.
“I remember him walking up and getting the award,” she says.
They met when Sanders moved downtown to head the Drug Abatement Response Team and had their first date in July 1996. On October 25, 1997, they were married in a big ceremony at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Independence.
Sanders calls her “one of the sweetest, kindest women I’ve ever met in my life.”
But she was also the daughter of Jack and Nicki Cardwell of Independence. Jack Cardwell has long been politically active, particularly in eastern Jackson County. His ex-wife, Nicki (Georgia’s mother), later worked for Congresswoman Karen McCarthy and now handles veterans’ affairs for U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver.
Their kitchen table wasn’t exactly a political hotbed, Georgia says. But, she adds, “My parents believed in being involved.”
By the time she and Sanders were married, McCaskill had left the prosecutor’s office. Beaird had taken over, and Georgia had become Beaird’s director of public affairs.
After the wedding, Sanders quit the county to try working for his own clients.
Martin Kerr, an Independence lawyer who leased office space to Sanders, says Sanders quickly earned a reputation as someone willing to take any case.
Kerr remembers a man with a long record of drug convictions who had been nabbed again, charged with four counts of manufacturing narcotics. He had been unable to find an attorney, but Sanders took the case to trial. There, he got a state chemist to admit that he’d never tested the evidence to determine whether the drugs were the legal or illegal form of methamphetamine. The jury found Sanders’ client guilty, but only of possessing a controlled substance.
“What I loved was the impossible client,” Sanders says. “It was a challenge.”
In courtrooms, Sanders didn’t try to wow judges and juries. “He’s not a preacher. He’s not a guy who uses a lot of puff and embellishment,” Kerr says.
The subdued style apparently worked. Though he had started from scratch, Sanders’ practice grew quickly and profitably.
“I know he was making strong six figures,” Kerr says. “He already established a top-flight reputation. He left the comfort of that to get into politics.”
Sanders estimates that he grossed more than $300,000 his last year in private practice.
In early 2002, midway through his term, Beaird left the prosecutor’s office for a circuit-court judgeship. Beaird’s departure triggered a storm of conjecture about how he would be replaced. Some politicos thought that Shields should be able to appoint a replacement until Beaird’s term ended, just as she had appointed Beaird when McCaskill left. The alternative was a special election.
Ultimately, Shields turned to Judge John R. O’Malley, who ruled in favor of a special election in which each party would put up its own candidate. That meant the 92 members of the Jackson County Democratic Committee would determine their candidate. And they were already getting to know Sanders.
From the moment word leaked about Beaird’s possible judgeship, Sanders had been hard at work, contacting each of the committee members. Party matriarch Dutch Newman served as his chaperone, introducing him around at party functions and giving him phone numbers.
Sanders also screened with interest groups ranging from construction workers in the building and trade unions to the gay activists in the Four Freedoms Democratic Club.
Others were vying for the job as well, though, including state Rep. Ralph Monaco and assistant prosecutors David Fry, Kathy Finnell and David Baker. But they all dropped out when Sanders emerged as the favorite. The Democratic committee unanimously chose him to run for the seat, and Republicans failed to find a candidate of their own, which allowed Shields to appoint Sanders as the county’s top law enforcer in November 2002.
Sanders successfully courted every one of the often contentious factions of the county’s Democratic Party. It’s too soon to know, though, whether he has been equally skillful at fighting crime.
During Sanders’ term as prosecutor, Kansas City has seen serial killings, soaring murder rates and the horrifying mystery of a headless girl in a park.
And over the past three years, Sanders himself has been a mystery — sometimes taking a Draconian approach to lawbreakers, other times appearing soft on crime.
During his first summer on the job, Sanders instituted a policy requiring offenders to submit DNA samples whenever they pleaded guilty to felonies.
Missouri already required killers and rapists to provide DNA samples, but after the state Legislature failed to pass a bill demanding DNA samples from all convicted felons, Sanders imposed his own version of the rule on the county’s car thieves, arsonists and wife beaters.
Sanders’ plea requirement — which, legal observers say, is unique in the country — drew fire from defense lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union, which castigated the prosecutor for overriding the state Legislature and using the power of his office to invade people’s privacy.
But even as Sanders was taking that hard line, he was de-escalating the drug war in Jackson County.
Early on, he informed the Kansas City Police Department that he would no longer prosecute cases generated by its fake-drug-house operations. Police investigators had periodically set up shop in vacant buildings, selling soap as if it were crack and arresting the people who showed up to make buys. Sanders says the effort was dangerously close to entrapment.
Further, he began deferring minor drug-possession cases to municipal courts throughout the county. Last year, his office filed 1,882 drug cases, down from 2,333 in 2002.
With fewer drug cases came fewer referrals to the county’s oft-touted drug court, which allows first-time offenders to avoid criminal convictions by getting clean, finding jobs and going to counseling. McCaskill started the innovative program in 1993 and passed it to Beaird in 1997. Beaird’s office referred 635 offenders to the special court in 2000; Sanders’ office sent only 430 in 2004.
This summer, Sanders told the Pitch he was prosecuting fewer drug cases overall, including the minor possession cases brought against people who would qualify for drug court. He said the change was part of a general trend away from “zero tolerance” enforcement as the main tool in fighting drug abuse. Aggressive treatment, he said, was more effective in getting people out of the drug culture. “I think our society is beginning to take a serious look at the war on drugs,” Sanders said (“Crack Down,” June 16).
One thing that’s been consistent, though, is Sanders’ use of TV cameras — and the criticism of him afterward.
Last year, he called a press conference to announce that police had solved a high-profile case. But when he didn’t invite the police, insulted Kansas City Police Department officials crashed the event.
Two dead women had been found over the summer around Prospect Avenue. As the months passed, bodies literally piled up — two more women were found on top of each other on September 2, shoved through a garage window. The next day, a tipster directed police to two more bodies, one near 29th Street and Park Avenue and another near 27th Street and Olive.
Investigators had linked several victims to drugs or prostitution, but Prospect corridor residents were no less outraged because the women had lived dangerous lives.
Acting Police Chief Rachel Whipple gathered a task force of officers to pursue leads night and day. By mid-September, Whipple’s officers presented Sanders’ office with evidence implicating a paroled murderer named Terry A. Blair.
Officers were justifiably proud of their police work and eager to put the public at ease.
But cops aren’t exactly known for their public-relations skills.
“We would not have been presumptuous enough to have called a press conference ourselves … to say we have concluded this case and we’re now handing it over to the prosecutor,” says Greg Mills, who was acting head of investigations for the Kansas City Police Department. (He is now the police chief in Riverside.)
Typically, it’s the prosecutor’s job to announce criminal indictments. But Mills had reason to expect that he’d be invited to Sanders’ announcement — often, the law-enforcement lineup is a show of force and cooperation during such press conferences. (Recently, U.S. Attorney Todd Graves called a press conference that involved no fewer than 10 people, including Sanders, to announce that he had filed civil rights charges against two Jackson County murder suspects.)
Not when Blair was indicted back on September 14, though.
“We found out about the press conference because one of the detectives on the squad investigating those murders was approached by a television reporter asking if we were going to be at the press conference,” Mills says.
Mills, Whipple and a couple of detectives crossed the street at 5 p.m. to find a podium set up on the north side of the Jackson County Courthouse. A group of black ministers had assembled to help spread the good news.
Like the police, Mayor Kay Barnes also hurried over uninvited, Mills says. He also recalls that Whipple made a beeline for Sanders and chewed him out for the snub. “You would not have wanted to have chatted with her in that way,” Mills says.
Sanders tells the Pitch that he’d planned to hold a traditional press conference the next day at 9:30 a.m. to announce that Blair had been indicted in connection with one of the six killings, but he was forced to change his plans when a TV reporter found out about the indictment. The resulting news coverage, predictably, focused on the lifestyles of the dead women. Sanders says he rescheduled the press conference at the last minute to ensure the accuracy of the news coverage and to be sensitive to the women’s families. He adds that he called the mayor, the police chief and Mills to let them know. (Mills says he doesn’t remember receiving a call from Sanders.)
Overall, Sanders says, his use of the media has helped make Jackson County safer. He cites several examples when a media call for witnesses or a warning about an offender on the loose has led to tips and arrests.
“With one exception, we’ve been very successful,” he says. That one exception is the Porter case. Despite Sanders’ coastal junket and the help of Dr. Phil, the children are still missing.
However, to the city’s great relief, one other long-standing mystery has now been solved and is winding its way through the legal system.
One of the most serious decisions Sanders now faces is whether to seek the death penalty in the case of Harrell L. Johnson, who is accused of kicking 3-year-old Erica Green in the head, allowing her to lie unconscious in a Kansas City house for 10 hours until she died, and then cutting off her head and abandoning her remains in Hibbs Park.
This will be Sanders’ fifth death-penalty decision. He has formalized the process, breaking it into two parts. First, a team of senior assistant prosecutors gathers to discuss whether the law supports prosecuting the case as a capital offense. Then, a group of mostly nonlawyers working in the office discusses whether it’s ethical to seek the death penalty. Sanders also invites defense attorneys to make their cases.
“We want to be sure there is nothing overlooked,” Sanders says.
But the decision rests with Sanders. So far, he has split it evenly, seeking the death penalty for Blair and Lorenzo J. Gilyard (a former trash collector now charged with strangling three girls and nine women between 1977 and 1993) and pursuing life in prison for Givon Clemons, who is accused of killing two women in 2004, and Dawud Abdelmalik, who has been linked by DNA evidence to a 1980 murder.
Sanders has yet to try a case as prosecutor, but he says he will try the case against Johnson, as well as the cases against Blair and Gilyard.
Cleaning up Kansas City’s bloody streets may be only slightly more difficult than navigating Jackson County politics. But the way the office works, politics is a major part of the job that Sanders so actively sought.
The universal support he enjoyed at the beginning quickly dissipated.
Four months after Sanders took office, two long-tenured assistant prosecutors resigned. The departures of Kate Mahoney and Dave Fry fueled rumors of staff discontent with the new man.
Fry’s departure contributed to what looked like a stumble during Sanders’ first year, when his office had to drop murder charges against a man who had been accused of shooting his girlfriend in 2000. The prosecutor’s office failed to meet the legal requirements for a “speedy trial,” and a judge dismissed the case. But Sanders’ office argued that the case was not a strong one because the medical examiner initially had ruled the death a suicide.
Fry tells the Pitch that he was surprised to hear rumors about his departure; he says he didn’t leave angry and wasn’t fired. Instead, he says, he’d recently turned 50 and ushered his youngest child out of college. He figured it was time to try private practice.
Also within his first year, Sanders had to help in the campaign to get voters to renew the Community-Backed Anti-Drug Tax in August 2003. (First passed in 1989, the tax must be periodically extended.)
Sanders had much at stake in the election. The quarter-cent sales tax generates nearly $20 million a year; about $6 million of that goes toward Sanders’ $15.5 million annual budget.
Shields controls the remainder.
The COMBAT tax passed easily — but the campaign would be the last time that Sanders and Shields appeared to be allies.
Soon after, an argument over the COMBAT funds would undo their public relationship.
Though voters had just renewed the tax in August 2003, by January 2004, Shields was predicting doom for COMBAT-funded programs, saying cuts were inevitable because projected revenues from the tax were declining.
The news discouraged Mills, who was running the KCPD’s narcotics unit. COMBAT pays for its detectives and street-level narcotics officers, but over the previous five years, the dwindling budget had forced him to cut, he estimates, an average of one officer a year from the unit.
Shields’ gloomy picture stung more because Mills’ officers had played such an important role in getting the COMBAT tax renewed just five months earlier. “They relied upon us, on the police, to get that tax passed,” Mills says. “We told our story.”
Contrary to Shields’ assertions, Sanders told the COMBAT Commission that the tax had generated a $10 million surplus that Shields was unwilling to acknowledge. (Shields later pointed out that the $10 million was accounted for in the annual audit.)
Even Mills was surprised when Sanders raised the question of the surplus and announced he’d be doing his own audit of the program.
Within weeks, Shields said the FBI was investigating Sanders’ office and his handling of drug-treatment contracts connected to his drug court. The next day, in a highly unusual statement, U.S. Attorney Graves announced that he was not investigating Sanders. A week later, Shields acknowledged during a radio interview that she had been the one to call Graves about Sanders.
Sanders says he was warned not to cross Shields. “You are asking questions of one of the most powerful figures in the western half of the state of Missouri,” he says confidants told him.
“I thought he was a bit nuts at first,” echoes Kerr. “I thought it was a fight he probably couldn’t win because of the Star being very pro-Katheryn Shields.”
At home, Georgia echoed those concerns. She had resigned from the prosecutor’s office when Sanders took over and was caring for the couple’s first child, a 4-month-old boy who had been born prematurely and remained in the hospital for a month before he could go home. Her raw emotions were irritated by the mean-spirited nature of Jackson County politics.
But Sanders says he was worried about his budget, not politics. Had he been motivated by politics, he says, he would have waited two short months to question Shields’ numbers.
That’s because Beaird’s term — the one Sanders was finishing — would expire at the end of 2004. By January 2004, no other candidates had emerged to challenge Sanders. Maybe none would have.
“If this had been a political decision on my part, I would have waited until after the [March 30] filing deadline,” Sanders says.
But by publicly questioning Shields, Sanders virtually guaranteed that he’d have at least one Shields-backed challenger in the August 2004 primary.
He had two. Shields supported both Kathy Finnell and Cynthia Clark Campbell (she donated money to Campbell’s campaign) for the August 2004 primary election.
But Sanders won handily. (Adding insult to injury for Shields, the Committee for County Progress, a political organization Shields had long dominated, endorsed Sanders.)
By April, Shields would be in political — and perhaps legal — trouble when a federal grand jury began calling in witnesses to talk about an appointment to the Jackson County Sports Complex Authority that Shields had helped broker. By November, Shields’ political ally Bill Waris would be indicted for lying and obstruction of justice related to that appointment, and Shields would be outed as the subject of an FBI bribery investigation.
Sanders, meanwhile, continued to amass political power.
Over Shields’ objections, he was able to muscle through raises for his prosecutors and administrative staff, both of whom are represented by unions. By doing so, Sanders made good on his promises to the county’s labor groups.
“There is no question we [labor interests] haven’t always agreed on candidates, but Mike did bring unanimity,” says Bridgette Williams, president of the local AFL-CIO.
In the past, Williams says, candidates who asked for labor’s support didn’t always keep their promises once they were elected. “Mike, we’ve never had that problem,” she says. “He’s been willing to stand up and do what’s right for the betterment of his employees, not because of politics but because it’s the right thing.”
The deal also included provisions for domestic-partner benefits, something the Four Freedoms Democratic Club had all but given up on.
The victory stole a constituency from Shields, who had long championed equal protection for gays and lesbians.
But if the effort to secure domestic-partnership benefits earned Sanders gay and lesbian votes, the stance likely will hurt him in the socially conservative rural parts of the county. “Those who might accuse Mike of having self-serving motives on this issue don’t understand or appreciate how someone gets elected to a countywide office in Jackson County,” Four Freedoms vice president Jim MacDonald says.
When it comes to Jackson County’s elected officials, every move seems politically calculated.
Still, it’s not hard to believe Sanders when he does something that’s politically risky and claims to have done it for the right reasons. He says that comes from a bit of wisdom that McCaskill passed on during their shared days at the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office: “The best politics is running a good office.”
But running a good prosecutor’s office isn’t easy when Kansas Citians are killing one another at alarming rates.
As of press time, the city had tallied 108 homicides in 2005. And only late this summer did city leaders mount a coordinated effort to stop the bleeding.
Sanders admits that he thought the violent spring was an anomaly. “My attitude was, we’re going to do some things, but let’s see what happens by the end of the year,” he says.
As fall approached and the body count crept toward 100, Sanders could no longer deny that something had changed.
Last month, he announced a five-point plan to deal with the violence.
His strategy: recruit area officers to hunt for fugitives, spend $50,000 on detectives, focus the drug task force on street-level dealers, eliminate a cap on jail capacity, and start a public-relations campaign to encourage witnesses to come forward.
Sanders borrowed the plan’s points from similar initiatives in New York City and Baltimore — and in the process, he changed his mind about “zero tolerance.”
Reversing his earlier approach to the war on drugs, Sanders will hit the small crimes harder. He’ll pressure judges for higher bond amounts and stiffer sentences.
“There is no small crime,” Sanders says now. “When there is narcotic activity, when there is street-level crime, violent crime goes up…. The same people who are committing the violent crime are also committing the petty crime.”
Sanders has spent the past few weeks selling his program. He recruited suburban law-enforcement departments to help staff his “warrant wolf packs.” He defended the approach to the editorial board of The Kansas City Star.
He also took his proposal to a meeting of the Black Agenda Group, where he did a good job of explaining it, according to one neighborhood activist who attended the meeting. But more significant was the fact that he simply showed up. “Nobody has come to them with an idea to help curb crime,” the activist says of the Black Agenda Group members. “He has their support.”
That support will come in handy if he runs for county executive.
He says he will decide in the next few weeks whether to seek that office. And by the November 2006 election, he’ll have a better idea of which is harder: living a life in Jackson County politics or fighting crime in Kansas City.