No one really knew Yuri Ives — including his killer
The dead man’s house was a museum.
The house had stood for more than 100 years. If Yuri Ives had lived to have his way, it would have remained for at least 100 more. The Victorian, with room enough to shelter a dozen people, overflowed with antiques that Ives had spent much of his 48 years collecting. Clutter made it impossible to count each painting, each figurine. The kitchen seemed to be missing its refrigerator, but a telltale hum emanating from a hand-built wood and glass cabinet gave it away. This was the kind of appliance that the house would have had in 1910. Tracking down, refurbishing and installing a refrigerator built before World War I was the kind of thing he made time to do.
Crime is common enough in Northeast Kansas City, but the gunshots late the night of February 28 weren’t sounds anyone expected to hear from that house. The neighborhood was filled with people he knew, having rented apartments to them or sold houses to them.
When police arrived, they found Ives’ body on the hardwood floor. His cell phone was missing, along with his wallet and his silver .44-caliber revolver. Near the corpse was a phone that didn’t belong to him.
In the backyard, they found an empty knife sheath and a set of footprints. The trail of steps led to the missing knife. There was blood on the blade. The footsteps continued over a fence and out of the yard.
The news vans started making camp, and the neighborhood woke up to see broadcasters on their block, reporting on an as-yet-unidentified homicide victim.
This is how Ron Megee found out: by watching news footage of a familiar house where he’d been to so many parties. An actor known for gender-bending satire, Megee rented his first place in the Northeast from Ives and later bought a house from him. When his Late Night Theatre was on the verge of going under in 2005, Ives wrote him a $5,000 check to keep it going.
“Everyone was calling each other, just telling their neighbors to turn on the news,” he says. “We all knew it had to be Yuri, but we were praying it wasn’t.”
Ives’ partner, Mui Chin, was in Malaysia. He’d left a month earlier to attend his brother-in-law’s funeral. A neighbor found Chin’s number and called him.
“Yuri’s been shot.”
“Is he all right?”
“No. He’s gone.”
Chin hung up the phone. His sister was in the room with him. “Now your burden is heavier than mine,” she told him.
At the offices of Northeast News, owner and editor Michael Bushnell was figuring out how to cover the death of one of his beat’s most prominent and controversial citizens.
“You want a list of suspects?” Bushnell asked his staff later that morning. “Open a phone book.”
The name in Yuri Ives’ obituary wasn’t the one he was born with.
The man who became Yuri Ives started life with that most anonymous American name: John Smith. That was the name he gave Mui Chin when they met, in 1987.
Chin was born in Malaysia. His family was poor, and his father died when he was young, leaving his brother to raise him. He immigrated to the United States because he had heard that you could make good money as a chef here. By the late 1980s, he had established himself at the Wrightwood, California, restaurant where Ives was a regular.
“He was studying to be a hairdresser,” Chin says. “He liked my cooking and he kept asking the managers about me, and finally he got back to meet me. Right away, he asked me to leave and go into business with him running our own restaurant.”
Ives was persistent. After a few months, Chin left the restaurant, and the two began a personal and professional relationship that would last until Ives’ death. Their first business was a restaurant called Crystal Island. Chin stayed in the kitchen, and Ives managed the books.
The restaurant flourished, providing enough capital for the two men to branch out. Ives found that he liked real estate, and over the next few years, he built up a broad portfolio of properties around California.
As his holdings increased, Chin says, Ives grew tired of being “one of 1,000 John Smiths in the California DMV records.” If there was any deep meaning behind the name Yuri Ives, which the former Smith legally assumed in the 1990s, Chin never knew it. Chin says his Ives maintained little contact with anyone in his family. Ives told Chin that his parents had been dead for years.
In 1998, Ives visited Kansas City on one of his regular expeditions hunting for antiques. During his stay, he saw the Northeast and saw the kind of old, rambling houses that he’d always hoped to live in.
“He called me on the phone, and he’s telling me this is where we belong,” Chin says. “He tells me this is where there is space, and so many old homes you can buy for practically nothing. It’s nothing to buy here compared to California. As long as I’d known him, he’d point them out to me and tell me how we were going to live in one. So we come here. And I see it and tell myself, ‘Oh, no, what are we getting into now.'”
There’s something sturdy about Northeast News editor Bushnell. He has the sloping build of a man who spends more time typing than at the gym. He keeps his hair in an efficient crew cut that he could probably do himself with an electric razor, and he looks comfortable in a faded denim button-down with the paper’s name stitched on it.
Bushnell remembers meeting Ives and thinking that he was a dreamer who talked big and made a lot of promises.
“My thing is that a lot of people like to talk a lot about what they’re going to do for you,” he says. “With Ives, it was like, OK, you want to change things. Do it and then we can work together. I found out pretty quick he was more than just talk.”
Ives began buying properties, starting with his own hulking Victorian, at 511 Gladstone. A previous owner had carved the house into eight apartments. He and Chin gutted it and started to make it into the home they wanted.
“He wanted everything to be period-appropriate,” Chin says. “Everything right for the time” — except for the big, modern gas range that was Chin’s one demand. “I wanted a big enough stove to be able to cook well. Once he got that for me, I let him do what he needed to.”
As Chin recalls these details, he’s sitting at his and Ives’ kitchen table, near that stove. On this day, it has been just a week since Ives’ funeral, at a KCK Buddhist temple that looks less like a spiritual center than it does a ranch house. Ives’ service was so filled with mourners, including Mayor Mark Funkhouser, that every room in the building was needed for the overflow. Chin attempted a eulogy but collapsed only a few sentences in and had to be revived in the temple’s foyer.
“All this house is Yuri,” Chin says. “I come back to this and I have no more strength for this burden. … He knew how to find the things that needed to be brought back to make this house right. I know none of this. I work in the garden.”
The house remains distinctly Ives’. He chose period-correct colors, not paint that other Missourians much like: canary yellow, Kelly green. There’s a waterfall in the front lawn.
As he refurbished his and Chin’s house, Ives also set about establishing himself in the community. He was invited to sit on boards and to speak with neighborhood organizations to talk about building up the Northeast. He had a gift for finding tenants who would leave their homes better than they found them. He especially liked artists.
Megee was one of Ives’ first finds. When he moved into his Northeast apartment 10 years ago, Megee was running his satirical Late Night Theatre on Grand, near the Crossroads District.
“Every tenant he brought in, he’d tell them how to fight back against the crime that was going on,” Megee recalls. “People would find ways to mark cars, so if you knew a hooker or a pimp or someone was using a car, you could mark it and call the police. One guy used to throw eggs. Another one had a crossbow, and he’d shoot arrows into the tires of these hookers’ cars. Yuri loved it. He very much wanted to bring in gays and artists and musicians because, he told me, those are the people that will care about their homes and are going to make them better on their own.”
He invited tenants to his parties, legendary blowouts with endless plates of Chin’s food. The guests were a who’s-who of the metro’s arts and theater scene. Ives worked on them, telling them they could have houses as big as his for $30,000.
By 2006, Ives was receiving civic awards. Northeast News gave him a community-leadership plaque.
Then something changed.
“I don’t know if it was an accumulation of things or what it was,” Megee says. “I just know, at some point, he decided we weren’t getting the attention we deserved. He’d done so much to turn the neighborhood around, but he still couldn’t get City Hall to put any money into the place. He told me, ‘We have to stop trying to do this the nice way. We have to start forcing them to pay attention.'”
At the same time, Ives was also fighting an insurance dispute. A Sedalia warehouse that Ives owned burned down in 2004. The insurance company challenged Ives, who eventually won a reported $2 million settlement.
Convinced that city leaders and even some of his neighbors were ignoring him, Ives began to behave erratically. If a property he was after went to another bidder, he circled the building endlessly, taking photos from behind his steering wheel.
“One day, everyone on the 3800 block of Windsor woke up with a notice of code violation from the city,” Bushnell says. “I mean, every single house. These were people he’d brought into the neighborhood, and he was reporting them for code violations. Minor stuff, and on a lot of people that weren’t even breaking any laws. The inspector who came to my house tore my letter up, turned around and walked to the next one. Then the next day, after the 3800 block was done, everyone on the 3900 block got a notice, and it went on like that for a while. I could never understand why he was doing it. They were people who supported him.”
Bushnell, who only a few years ago was presenting Ives with awards, found himself on Ives’ bad side. One morning in 2008, an anonymous caller told him that every copy of his newspaper had been taken from Gladstone and thrown onto then-Mayor Kay Barnes’ block.
“I didn’t know who the hell was doing it,” Bushnell says. “We thought maybe it was a one-time prank. You could tell he was targeting Barnes because most of them [papers] were at her house — it was the one that always had an unmarked police car parked in front.” He spent that day walking down the block with a laundry bag, picking up battered and bent copies of Northeast News.
This continued for four weeks, every time a new issue came out. Finally, one of Bushnell’s unwitting new subscribers took down a description of the vehicle that was throwing the papers: a yellow SUV.
“I took pictures of Yuri’s car and showed them to this guy, and he tells me, ‘Yeah that’s the one,'” Bushnell says. He claps his palms together and throws his hands apart in the air. “What the hell!”
For two weeks, Bushnell staked out Gladstone. On the sixth night, he saw the yellow SUV moving slowly down the road. Two boys walked behind it, throwing newspapers into the back.
Bushnell ran up to the car and demanded his property back.
“Come on, Yuri, just give me my papers,” he said.
“Fuck you, your paper’s trash! It’s garbage! It’s garbage on the street, and it ruins the way the street looks!” Ives shot back.
Bushnell made a grab through the window for the papers, and Ives hit the gas, running over the tip of the editor’s foot as he drove off.
“By the time I got everything cleaned up and back to my house, Yuri had slapped a restraining order on me,” Bushnell recalls. “It went to mediation…. The judge was like, ‘Just stay the hell away from each other.'”
Ives kept using the News to make his points. He managed to smuggle dozens of copies of the weekly paper past City Hall security guards, up to the building’s 29th floor and the Mayor’s Office, where he started scattering them on the floor.
Less than a year before he was shot to death, Ives sent an e-mail to more than two dozen people, including Funkhouser. Attached was a picture that Ives had snapped: an unidentified man, someone who Ives was convinced wanted to hurt him.
“I’m sending this email because I want to to (sic) be known if I’m killed or my house has been shot up with bullets in the middle of the night I believe (sic) the person who did this act is pictured,” Ives wrote.
But the man in the photo wasn’t Ives’ killer.
For all the reasons that Ives feared he would be murdered — politics, real-estate interests, muscling pimps and hookers out of his neighborhood — his life ended because he tried to get the wrong man into bed.
On Wednesday, March 2, police arrested 17-year-old Ali Cubba and 18-year-old Zachary Kimbrell. They were charged with second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and two felony counts of armed criminal action.
Ives didn’t suspect them the same way he suspected so many of his neighbors and business rivals. Until the last hours of his life, Ives had never even heard the name Ali Cubba. He would never know Zachary Kimbrell.
Police investigating the cell phone found near Ives’ body used call records to identify a phone number belonging to Cubba. On Ives’ computer, they found e-mails, discussing how Cubba would come to his home for sex. They’d met through a Craigslist personal ad.
Cops searched Cubba’s house, at 7216 North Jefferson Court, in Gladstone. On Cubba’s gray street are the same drug dealers and hookers who Ives spent the last 10 years fighting. Instead of historical Victorians, nondescript one-stories with cracked paint line the block. Ives’ missing revolver was in the boy’s bedroom.
Cubba kept his mouth shut during questioning, but Kimbrell was a talker. He said Cubba’s plan had been to rob Ives. Kimbrell was going to drive the getaway car. According to his story, he took Cubba to Gladstone Street, knowing that his friend was carrying a knife, then he waited with the engine idling. When Cubba came back to the car, he was covered in blood, the knife was gone, and he was carrying a gun. Before they split up, they burned Cubba’s clothes.
Ives had invited men into his home before. He used Craigslist regularly and kept profiles of himself on sites such as ThugsForSex.com, with instructions on how to properly dominate him in the bedroom.
“He would be upstairs on the computer, and I’d be downstairs watching television, and then he’d get off the computer, and we’d switch,” Chin says. “We gave each other our space.”
“It was nothing anyone knew about that I know,” Megee says. “It’s not the kind of thing you bring up.”
“It was an open secret,” Bushnell says. “If you Googled his name, it’d come up. It’s still there now, floating around the Internet, but you have to go through all the pages about his death first.”
The day that Megee signed his first lease for a Northeast apartment was the day he met Yuri Ives.
In 2001, Megee was already earning a reputation in Kansas City for his stagework, though he was still new to the city and far from making a profit. It was summer when he drove to the Northeast neighborhood for the first time. He’d found Ives’ property ad in The Pitch.
Megee was just the kind of renter Ives wanted, and he didn’t let him get away.
“He had a way of making you feel like you understood one another,” Megee says. “He was a good salesman that way. He had this big personality. I just loved to listen to him talk.”
The space that Ives showed Megee was shabby, but it was big, and its age gave it character. More important, Megee could afford it.
“Take a look at this,” Ives said to him. Ives was standing by the window, overlooking the street. On the street under the window were two women standing idle in too-tight clothing, their hips and breasts angled toward traffic. “You’ll see a lot of prostitutes in this neighborhood, but we’re going to get rid of them,” Ives told Megee. “Don’t let them intimidate you. If you see one, you tell them to get out or you’re going to call the cops, and then you go call the cops. If you keep doing it, they’ll leave.”
“No one had ever taught me how to talk to a hooker before,” Megee says.
Megee agreed to the lease, and as they walked from the house, Ives told him his plans. Megee would be one of the first, a pioneer, but he’d have company soon. And with the right people, everything would change.
“We can make this a great place again, I know it,” Ives told him. “All we need are people who believe in the past.”