Sinner and saint

My inspiration to be a journalist and writer came from a convicted murderer.

The first time I saw J.J. Maloney was in Dave’s Stagecoach Inn on Westport Road. He was hunched over a bourbon and Coke at the bar. To most, Dave’s was — and remains — a dive, full of people pushing a cheap hustle or nursing a pain of some sort. It also was a place crammed with stories, a place where Maloney felt comfortable.

Maloney was not a big guy, maybe 5 feet 9 inches or so. He had coal-black hair — a little grayer when he got older — and dark eyes, sometimes ringed with black circles like some sort of a raccoon mask. His skin was olive tinted. Maloney was sometimes mistaken for being of Italian or Mexican descent.

He always dressed well, a fit one almost could place in the late 1950s or early 1960s — slacks, dress shirt, jacket, rarely a tie. Only in the early 1980s, during the release of his first book, I Speak for the Dead, did Maloney give in to the current fashion. He got a his hair permed and wore brighter colored clothes.

But then, in Dave’s, it was the late 1970s, a few years after Maloney had left The Kansas City Star. The buzz about his reporting on the Mafia and their infiltration of the River Quay (the River Market area) earlier in the decade still was loud. Yet more people knew of him than had read his stuff. He knew that.

A woman named Harriette, in whom we both had a romantic interest, introduced me to Maloney. I was still a wannabe writer, full of nothing more than talk, without discipline or drive. I’d rather party. When I gave that away to Maloney, he was quickly bored by me. After that, I learned to be satisfied with only a nod of recognition from him. A few years later Maloney would tell me how he once didn’t say one word to a guy for the year they shared a cell together at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Obviously, Maloney didn’t like him.

Maloney was born in St. Louis. He never knew his natural father. In 1944, his mother married Julius “Dutch” Gruender, an ex-con who had done a 16-year stretch in prison. That same year, Maloney’s brother Bob was killed by a hit and run driver just before his 7th birthday. Maloney was 4 1/2 years old at the time. His mother had a nervous breakdown. Maloney went to live with his stepfather’s brother. They wanted to keep the boy. It ended up a dispute and the court sent Maloney to a Catholic boys’ home. Gruender then contacted Buster Workman, an East St. Louis gangster for help. Within a year Maloney was out of the Catholic home.

Gruender drank and he could be cruel. “Dutch was capable of actual brutality,” Maloney told me during a series of interviews I had with him in 1982. “But he didn’t see it that way — he was just punishing me, that’s how he was raised…. He’d stomp ya, had an enormous temper, a very dangerous man in the short run.”

When Maloney was 11, the family moved to a 50-acre farm south of St. Louis. Gruender painted houses for a living, kept his criminal friends, and drank. At 14, Maloney stole a car and headed for the Ozarks. He had with him a .38 revolver. He was caught, kicked out of school, and sent to the Missouri Training School for Boys in Boonville for an indeterminate sentence. “I don’t think I was particularly afraid,” Maloney said. “I wasn’t Superman but I had my share of guts.”

For the most part, Maloney behaved, even developing a good relationship with the superintendent, a man named Sweeney. Maloney cleaned Sweeney’s office, and he told Maloney that he would be going home soon. Maloney believed him. But Gruender got in the way, though not on purpose. He contacted Workman, who used some leverage with the St. Louis sheriff’s department, to help get Maloney released from Boonville. Sweeney didn’t like an East St. Louis mobster butting in. So the day Maloney’s mother and Gruender came to pick him up, Sweeney said Maloney would have to stay at Boonville. The times gave the superintendent that power. Maloney felt Sweeney had betrayed him.

After that, Maloney escaped four times from Boonville. By the time he was captured after the final escape, Boonville authorities were tired of the insult. It was payback time.

“I got a beating that night; it was impressive,” said Maloney. “They took one of those damn highway patrol gun belts — it was one state trooper, a couple of guards, and a couple of deputy sheriffs — and handcuffed me to the bumper of a car (parked) under a Missouri River bridge.

“(They) took all the stuff off a brown belt and beat me, like, almost two hours. And it didn’t even hurt, that’s the worst part — the belt was so heavy, it couldn’t really hurt. It just bruised you and fucked you up … from my neck to my ankles. What they wanted me to say was that I wouldn’t run away, and I wouldn’t say it, you know.”

At 15, Maloney was sent to Algoa, 8 miles downriver from Jefferson City. He was the youngest inmate there. It was May 1956. It was a place of “indescribable brutality,” Maloney remembered. “I escaped twice from Algoa trying to get sent to the penitentiary so I could do some easy time.”

After the second escape, Maloney got real personal with Looper and Queen, two bloodhounds the Algoa guards used to track escaped convicts. Maloney said the guards had to kick the dogs to get them in the mood. “They turned me into hamburger, chewed the clothes completely off me,” Maloney said.

Expecting to be taken to the hospital, instead, Maloney said, he was punched and taken to the hole. His clothes were bloody and tattered; a fellow inmate passed along to him a shirt and blanket. Sentenced for 30 days, Maloney was quickly returned to the hole for another 10 days because guards had accused him of destruction of state property — the inmate clothing that Looper and Queen had shredded.

After 31 months at Algoa, Maloney was paroled. He was sent to Fulton for a psychiatric evaluation, and then a sympathetic parole officer got him accepted into the Army. Maloney quickly went AWOL and headed back to St. Louis. He was becoming institutionalized but not to the military.

“A person who goes to prison at an older age has trouble adjusting to it. But if you start at age 14, you’ve got some critical years there. By the age of 16, you don’t have any outside friends and most normal people wouldn’t let you associate with their kids anyway. So you’re becoming locked into this.

“There’s some very intense relationships in there (prison),” Maloney continued, “Friendships are very, very intense. You’ll fight, you’ll die for your friends, which, uh … you don’t have those kinds of friends out here.”

Such friends told Maloney about a south St. Louis shopkeeper who kept a lot a money on Saturdays with which to cash payroll checks. A couple of earlier robberies hadn’t netted much. Edith, a girl he had met at Fulton, was with him now and knew he was sought for being AWOL, maybe for the robberies too. Maloney needed money. The store owner was supposed to be good for five or 10 grand.

“I had been assured by these friends of mine that he doesn’t carry a gun,” said Maloney, who was carrying a knife to use in the robbery. “He does carry a gun, see, and pulls the gun out and he shoots at me and misses my head and shoots the window out behind me. And it’s just like a reflex — that fast — he was stabbed.”

But the old man continued to fight and held on to Maloney. Another employee walked out from the store’s back room and saw the struggle. The old shopkeeper hollered for him to get the shotgun.

“So now I got a guy going for the shotgun and this guy is going to hold me until he gets back. So I started to shoot him in the head, and I said no, okay, ’cause I knew I already stabbed him, you know. So I shoot him through the leg. That didn’t even faze him, nothing, just like it didn’t happen. So then, I really didn’t want to shoot him again because now he’s been shot and stabbed, so I started pistol-whipping. I hit him one time and the gun went off. He thought he was shot in the head — he wasn’t — but that stopped him. He turned me loose and I got away.”

It was late 1959; Maloney was 19.

A few hours later he heard on the radio that the shopkeeper had died. Four days later Maloney was captured. He confessed, for Edith’s sake.

“I was really crazy about this girl. I agreed to confess to this murder on the sole grounds they leave her out of it,” he said. Edith was killed in 1961 by another boyfriend, another ex-con.

Maloney got four life sentences for murder and three armed robberies. His stretch began. There were attempted escapes, then solitary confinement. Rehabilitation was just a word.

“(There) may be a change in your thought method but not in your values,” Maloney said. “That’s where you have to deal with that yourself. Prison can’t do it. If anything, it’s more like a change to the negative. Can be a positive change, but the thing is, it’s not the system doing it. With me, the personal characteristics that helped me were those from my mother, who was basically a very decent woman.”

In 1962, Maloney started writing to Thorpe Menn, book review editor for The Kansas City Star. Five years later, the paper published Maloney’s first book review. “I think what he did was he actually set higher standards for me than he would for someone else,” Maloney said. Menn also encouraged Maloney’s poetry writing. In 1972, Maloney’s Beyond the Wall, a chapbook of poems, was published.

That same year, Maloney was paroled after serving 13 years on the murder and robbery convictions. Menn was instrumental in helping Maloney get out. Within a few months, Maloney was hired by The Star. A prison series he wrote with Harry Jones Jr. won the American Bar Association Silver Gavel and the Kansas Bar/Media Award. In 1974, Maloney and then-Jackson County Executive George Lehr took the place of guards being held at the jail during an inmate takeover. In those years, Maloney became the newspaper’s top investigative reporter. His most noted achievement was uncovering murder, extortion, and other crimes committed by underworld associates in their takeover of the River Quay area downtown.

In the late ’70s, Maloney left The Star. For a year or two, he freelanced and was a regular contributor to City magazine, a local monthly slick published by former Star employee and university instructor Joyce Wagner. City was where I was first published. I got Wagner’s attention in a query letter by using Maloney’s name, either saying I knew and admired his work or alluding to the fact that I thought I had, at least, a smidgen of Maloney’s talent. I can’t remember which. Maloney laughed when a few years later I told him I had dropped his name to get a shot at freelance writing.

Just as I was beginning to freelance for City, Maloney was in California breaking the Freeway Killer case for The Register in Orange County. Never one to doubt his talent or attempt to smooth over rough relations with editors or fellow reporters, Maloney came back to Kansas City in 1982. His third marriage was on the rocks and Maloney, for the first time, was living by himself. He didn’t like it.

That same year I Speak for the Dead was published. It was a thinly veiled fictional account of the Mafia’s influence and control of the nightclub scene in Kansas City. The reviews were good and Maloney began working on getting a movie deal, an effort that went on for years. It never happened. A few years later The Chain was published, an even better book than I Speak for the Dead.

In the late 1980s, I began freelancing for The View, a biweekly alternative newspaper that would later become The New Times. I brought Maloney to the paper and he began doing a few articles. Around that time, he got an advance for a book on serial killer Robert Berdella, who had been sentenced in December 1988 to life in prison without parole for six murders. Maloney was convinced Berdella had killed more than six.

I was his gofer for a few months, helping him with research on Berdella. Maloney was sharing a place with a woman named Paula, ironically, in a house just behind the Flea Market Bar & Grill where Berdella had once had a retail stall. I shared the tapes I had of an interview with Berdella that was published in The View. I’d conducted the interview during one of his trips to Kansas City from prison to appear in a civil court proceeding brought against him by his victims’ family members. And I had gone to Jefferson City to interview an inmate at the penitentiary regarding rumors about additional Berdella victims. It was a bum lead.

Maloney’s primary source for the book began to get antsy and eventually stopped talking to him. Progress on the book stalled. By the time of Berdella’s death in October 1992, Maloney had stopped working on the book. But that same year his book The Pariah’s Handbook, A Literary Guide to the Underworld was published.

By this time, I was father to a young boy, keeping my wanderings to a minimum. Maloney was still the nighthawk, staying alive by contributing to The New Times and doing paralegal and investigative work for criminal defense attorney Willard Bunch. Every once in a while, Maloney would call me on the fly, coaxing me out for a drink and asking to borrow money. I always reminded him that I had a kid. He understood the priorities.

At some point Maloney met Amy, a teacher. He married again — fourth time. He even, to the surprise of many, went on the wagon but he still chain-smoked three to four packs a day. Maloney went off to California for a while with his new wife and soon came back resigned that it wouldn’t work. He was still married when he died on New Year’s Eve.

Michelle Markowitz was a friend of Maloney’s. Her family owns Davey’s Uptown Ramblers Club on Main. As he did in many Midtown joints — Milton’s, Dave’s Stagecoach Inn, Kenny’s News Room, Chez Charlie’s, Buzzard Beach, Fric & Frac — Maloney hung out there on and off. Davey’s was part of a list one went by when looking for Maloney.

“J.J., if anything, had class,” says Markowitz, “whether he had money or not.” She remembers Maloney sitting up at a booth in the bar writing longhand on legal pads with the bar lights turned up. If a customer complained about the lights, Maloney, says Michelle, would holler, “Buy that guy a drink, Michelle, on me, and leave the lights up.”

Friends of Maloney knew that he was always working on something. “He was a fighter for justice, a born-again law and order guy,” says Jerry Wyatt, owner of Harling’s Upstairs Bar & Grill. “Journalism wasn’t a job, it was a purpose, part of what he could do to correct his past misdeeds.”

To some of his observers, poetry, journalism, and novels were all transition points in Maloney’s life. Although he considered himself more a writer than a journalist, Maloney always came back to journalism. “One of the things about journalism is, as you look around, there’s a lot of things in the world that could be improved,” he said in the 1982 interview, “and journalism affords you the opportunity to jump in and work on that, to get involved.”

Through Bunch and his own curiosity, Maloney got involved in the Kansas City firefighters case. He was convinced the five people convicted of causing the deadly explosion in 1988 were innocent. Maloney’s two-part article in The New Times on the case won the Missouri Bar Association’s Excellence in Legal Journalism award. After publication of those articles, Maloney became editor and held that position until the paper folded in October 1997.

Pat O’Connor, publisher of The New Times, remembers being impressed by Maloney’s tight, powerful writing. In the firefighters piece, “it was this laying out of these facts, marshaling them” to a particular point. “It turned out to be the best piece of writing I had ever read,” says O’Connor.

Maloney’s friends all figured his accomplishments were a working out of past wrongs, a penance. But all those who knew Maloney in Kansas City knew him after he got out of prison. Any judgment on Maloney’s motives for keeping straight is, therefore, incomplete.

“He was always trying to do something,” says John Albertson, day bartender at the Grand Emporium. He shared a place with Maloney for almost a year. “He really didn’t want to live,” Albertson believes. “All the times I lived with him, I never saw him sleep in a bed. He never got a good night’s sleep. He’d just pass out or stay up.”

Wyatt says Maloney was “dealing with the demons of today and the past. He was never at rest but always comfortable with himself.”

Comfortable or not, Maloney also was confident in what he could know and find out, and he knew himself more than any person I’ve ever known. But I never heard him put anyone down without the facts, and he held on to friends. Maloney’s sense of loyalty to people, his lack of discrimination toward those who suffer mightily because of their own mistakes, kept people in admiration of him, no matter his faults and his past. To friends, he listened; to others, he didn’t care what they thought of him.

“I made my parole; they didn’t make it,” he said in 1982 when I asked about how close he was to other cons. “No one offered to do my time for me. I just don’t give a fuck about them, I really don’t. I’ll help some get a job but I don’t want to be burdened by knowing something they did. If they call me and tell me they’re innocent, I’ll look into it.

“I’m very choosy about my friends. Anybody who couldn’t accept the fact that I’m a reporter or the fact that I’m writing about the Mafia can just kiss my ass.”

I last saw Maloney in October. He had just gotten back from St. Louis, where he had been taking care of his mother and a sick aunt. The aunt had died and Maloney moved into an apartment on the Plaza, around the corner from JJ’s, an upscale bar and restaurant on West 48th. Appropriately, it was going to be his new hangout, at least for a while. Maloney, flush with a little inheritance money and backed by O’Connor, was busy working on a Web site, www.crimemagazine.com. He was closing in on 60 but finally was a little ahead again.

He called me at Pitch and wanted to meet at JJ’s. Despite the Friday night crowd, he had saved me a seat at the bar. He was in dapper dress — looked good but he still had that nasty cough. It had been about two years and I was glad to see him. He asked about my son and my ex-wife. He had known she never liked him. She knew, like me, he could be manipulative, he could have an agenda, but he had liked her anyway.

We talked about the recently announced sale of PitchWeekly and about the Internet and how the growing trend in journalism was online. I mentioned that with the climate of retribution and the death penalty, he probably never would have gotten parole today like he did in 1972, that he might have gone to the gas chamber. Maloney agreed, and I thought if anyone was ever an argument against the death penalty, I was looking at that man.

Breaks in such conversations had us looking at the women around the bar, then agreeing we didn’t quite have all that much of a spark like we once did. And we kept drinking; his presence was my own, and it was comfortable.

By 10:30, I was close to being shitfaced. Maloney wanted to buy me a steak dinner, then maybe go to the boats. As usual, even though he was nearly 10 years older, I knew I wouldn’t keep up. I put my arm around his shoulders and told him to take care. I was sure I would see him again. Maloney was fearless, brave — a guy who had to last awhile longer, and I believe he wanted to.

A few months later, on New Year’s Eve 1999, Joseph John Maloney died at his mom’s house. The world is a little more empty but J.J. is free again.

Contact Bruce Rodgers at 816-218-6776 or brodgers@pitch.com.

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