The Blight King

The weeds that grow in the vacant lot at 5311 Bellefontaine Avenue aren’t slowed by this summer’s 100-degree days. They are mammoth. Like a mini rainforest, they trap humid air, each leaf like a shower curtain, belching hot mist and bugs. It’s impressive how quickly nature moves back in after people move out.

The Kansas City, Missouri, Dangerous Buildings Demolition and Preservation Division’s records don’t show what 5311 Bellefontaine looked like before it was demolished, but chances are it was a single-family, one-story residence like the rest of the houses on the block. Now, it’s just another example of the unofficial parkland in the city’s ailing east side.

Like 1512 Lawn.

Like 5601 College.

Like 1521 East 39th Street.

Like 3846, 3811 and 3813 Prospect.

Like another dozen dilapidated properties allowed to rot until the city ordered them demolished. All of them owned by Richard Tolbert.

Tolbert has lots of spaces to mow, but he hasn’t owned a lawn mower in over two years. “Neighbors get upset, but then, they’re the ones egging the city on to tear the houses down. So let ’em live with it,” Tolbert says of his many east side turf gardens. “At one of my houses [at 20th and Agnes], the neighbors are very vociferous in claiming that the weeds on my property are hurting their property values. And I tell them, you have my permission to cut my weeds if you think they’re hurting your property values.”

At 61 years old, Tolbert is in good enough health to run a lawn mower. Instead, he starts most mornings off early at the McDonald’s on 14th Street and Prospect, holding court with other older patrons who gather to discuss the news of the day. Tolbert usually shows up in a navy-blue collared shirt, his appointment book and a pen stuffed into the breast pocket. His jeans look worn, but if they’re worn from working, it’s work that his neighbors rarely see.

At these meetings and elsewhere at his regular public appearances, Tolbert claims to be an anti-establishment advocate for the east side. He often lands in the media as a spokesman for anti-tax campaigns; he gave regular sound bites earlier this year against the new stadium tax. He’s also a chronically unsuccessful candidate for office — most recently for county executive.

But, in fact, Tolbert has done more to contribute to the east side’s blight than to help the neighborhood. He has amassed $100,000 in unpaid taxes and fines from the city’s office of codes enforcement. He has allowed at least 16 of his houses to deteriorate enough that the city took the drastic step of demolishing them. He has filed numerous frivolous lawsuits and bankruptcies and has cost the government incalculable legal bills. Tolbert even spent four months in jail after arguing with code inspectors. He alleges he intended to fix up the properties, but neighbors have watched as Tolbert turned his land into weed-filled junkyards.

In his defense, Tolbert talks of a conspiracy against him. When asked about the city’s efforts to fine him and tear down houses he refuses to fix, he sounds like a rebellious teenager. “Their attitude is, they’re gonna make me do it,” Tolbert chuckles, in regard to mowing. “They don’t know me very well. You want me to do something, you gotta lead me with a carrot and stick and whisper and lick my ear and tell me you love me. I don’t let anyone beat me into doing anything.”

At the beginning of his political career, many looked to Tolbert to be this city’s first black mayor. He has a pair of degrees from Yale University and is widely regarded as a skilled orator with a brilliant mind. But like the properties he has amassed, his grand ideas become overrun with weeds.


The Northeast Candidate’s forum takes place in late June at the Melrose United Methodist Church, which resembles a gray castle of solemn-looking stone blocks. About half of those who have showed up after work to hear candidates for the Democratic primary remain as the hour approaches 9 p.m. Only the contenders for county executive have yet to speak.

Jackson County Prosecutor Mike Sanders speaks first. He arrived just in time for his chance behind the microphone, shaking hands and shooting enthusiastic finger-guns at members of the crowd before taking his seat. During his allotted three minutes, he leans on the crime lab’s successes in solving cold cases with new DNA evidence.

For his turn, state Sen. Charles Wheeler grips the microphone with both hands and promises to bring more civility to government. He complains that political dialogue has become too “rancorous.”

Then it’s Tolbert’s turn.

“I’ve been a practicing politician for 42 years,” Tolbert begins. Sanders cracks a smile. Tolbert wears a gray suit and a red tie, his white-collared shirt clinging to his midsection.

“For the last 22 years, I’ve been practicing as an outsider,” Tolbert continues. “If all I knew about Richard Tolbert was what I read in The Kansas City Star, I wouldn’t vote for the S.O.B. either.” The newspaper, he says, fails to give equal time to minor candidates for political office. “We have a Pendergast machine today, and it operates in much the same way as it did back then. It’s called The Kansas City Star.”

Despite his claims of a conspiracy, the media often quote Tolbert without mention of his blighted properties, his criminal record or his frivolous lawsuits. A search of the Star‘s electronic archives, which go back to 1995, reveals 201 articles that contain mention of Tolbert. There are many more on microfiche in the public library’s files dating back to 1970.

Much of the attention Tolbert grabs for himself in the news comes from opposing tax increases. When the anti-drug tax COMBAT came up for renewal in 2003, Tolbert appeared on TV, unsuccessfully campaigning against it. When a tax increase for Truman Medical Center was up for a vote in the spring of 2005, right after Missouri’s huge Medicaid cuts threatened the hospital’s ability to serve the poorest members of the community, Tolbert spoke out against it. (That increase also passed.) And most recently, Tolbert landed in the Star and regularly on the nightly news, just before voters approved a tax to improve the Truman Sports Complex.

“I was active in the opposition to the stadium tax,” Tolbert tells the forum crowd. “They had a $2 million war chest to bamboozle the public. We had $500 in our war chest, and we whipped ’em on one part of their proposal — the rolling-roof tax. Maybe if we’d had another $500, we’d have whipped ’em on both of them.”

Steve Glorioso, the veteran political consultant who worked for the Save Our Stadiums campaign, laughs when he hears Tolbert’s claim of having single-handedly stopped the rolling roof proposition. “Nah, that failed for reasons [Tolbert] would never even understand,” Glorioso tells the Pitch. “On one hand, Richard’s articulate, but on the other hand, he brings so much baggage that he’s pretty easy to marginalize in a campaign, an issue campaign, because you start by saying, You’re not very credible because you’re against everything.”


The baggage that Glorioso mentions can be found in any cursory records search. Tolbert’s name turns up in dozens of court cases in everything from city municipal court to federal appeals court.

On August 11, Tolbert filed for bankruptcy for the 11th time, according to federal court records. The previous bankruptcy filings have been dismissed or withdrawn because Tolbert has refused to file a plan to reorganize his debts. Tolbert seems to use bankruptcy filings as a delay to prevent the city from seizing his dilapidated properties. Once that purpose is served, the cases languish. Tolbert filed his most recent bankruptcy on August 19, 2005, but he withdrew it eight months later.

Documents that Tolbert has filed in the bankruptcy cases illuminate his fragile way of life. He lists his only income as $56 a month from pay phones he owns. He also has claimed income from twice-weekly plasma donations. Documents filed in 2004 state that he made no payments to creditors, even though he owed $34,713 for mortgages on 20 pieces of real estate. He also owed $102,566 to Jackson County and Kansas City, Missouri, for back taxes and judgments.

Unsuccessful lawsuits that Tolbert has filed since 1990 reveal that he is no model employee. In 1990, he worked for three months at the U.S. Census Bureau as a supervisor before being fired; he sued unsuccessfully for discrimination. After he was dropped from his guest-role gig at KPHN 1340, Tolbert sued the station and talk-show host Mike Shanin, accusing them of employment discrimination. He lost that case and the appeal. In 2001, Tolbert sued an organization called the Center for Inquiry Midwest, where he’d worked as a “director of special projects,” claiming he was fired because of his race, age and religious views. Tolbert withdrew the case in February 2002.

While Tolbert doesn’t have a job, he’s got a steady hobby. He runs regularly for assorted state and local offices. His only recent victory landed him an unpaid position in 2004 as trustee on the board of Metropolitan Community College. This year, he filed as a Democrat for county executive. But early on, Tolbert came up with a plan to be sure that he could continue campaigning even if he lost last week’s primary. (He did, coming in third with 4 percent of the vote.) Earlier this year, he had his brother, Ellsworth Tolbert Jr., file as a Reform Party candidate for county executive. His brother plans to withdraw from the race so that Tolbert can take his place on the Reform Party ticket.

It gives him something to do until the next election.

Tolbert attended Central High School just after the desegregation of the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. Central had a long history of sending students to Yale, and the college counselor at Central treated Tolbert just as she had her previous students. Tolbert says he had high test scores but low grades because he didn’t do his homework; nonetheless, he became one of seven African-American men to enroll at Yale in 1962. He graduated in 1966 with the likes of FedEx founder Fred Smith and Sen. John Kerry.

After his first year at Yale, Tolbert was introduced to Leon Jordan, co-founder of Freedom Inc., which was registering Kansas City’s black voters and mobilizing them as a united political force. Tolbert says he immediately took to Jordan in a father-son kind of relationship, “much to the annoyance of my biological father, with whom I was living.” Jordan mentored Tolbert through college, and in the summer of 1970, Tolbert says Jordan pressured him to return to Yale for a master’s degree in sociology.


In 1964, Jordan was elected to the Missouri House. Tolbert likes to say that the plan was that he would be Jordan’s successor when Jordan was ready to retire.

The following July, Jordan was locking up for the night at the Green Duck tavern he owned on 26th Street and Prospect when he was gunned down. Tolbert says that if Jordan hadn’t been assassinated, “I’d be a former president of the United States right now … at least a sitting United States senator.”

In 1971, Tolbert ran for City Council against an incumbent. He won by nearly 46,000 votes.

Tolbert thrived in the book-smart world of academia, but when it came to working with fellow members of the Council, Tolbert came off like a crybaby. He was shushed by then-Mayor Charles Wheeler for initiating long, fruitless debates in the council chambers. He responded by calling the mayor “out of order.”

Then came Tolbert’s demands. He wanted a personal aide. He insisted on an office. When he didn’t get it, he commandeered a meeting room in City Hall as his own.

When Tolbert’s car broke down, he seized a city-owned car that was supposed to be shared by all Council members. Tolbert refused to give the car back when pressed by other Council members and dared them to repossess it. The issue played out in the press, right up until a City Works employee towed the car from a store that Tolbert owned on Swope Parkway called Bargain Boutiques. Tolbert accused the Council of racism.

The Bargain Boutiques store led to another public embarrassment. When Tolbert wrote a bad check to buy $400 in store fixtures from a Wichita company, police charged him with a felony. The case was dismissed, but subsequent newspaper articles reported that Tolbert also hadn’t been paying rent for his storefront.

Tolbert began missing Council meetings without explanation. After the 12th consecutive absence, the Star reported that he was “seen entering City Hall late this morning and was found clearing papers from the drawers of his desk in the Council offices on the 24th floor of the building.” Tolbert resigned in late 1974, telling reporters that his future plans included “working out personal problems.”

Tolbert fled to Los Angeles for 10 years of what he likes to call “exile.” It was familiar territory; he had spent half a year in the 8th grade there with his mother, until she suffered a nervous breakdown. He worked as a textbook salesman and as a personnel manager for a security guard company.

Tolbert flirted with the idea of buying a house, but found the Los Angeles housing market too expensive. So he returned to Kansas City, where he was pleased to find plenty of cheap houses for sale east of Troost. He bought up 20-some “fixer-uppers.” If he had good intentions with the properties, his plans never materialized.

Debra Higgs bought her home near Woodland Avenue on East 36th Street two years ago. She was thrilled after years of saving to finally be able to call herself a homeowner. One of the first things she did to fix up her new place was to pull out the old, “pissy smelling” carpet and take it to the curb.

The carpet didn’t disappear with the trash. Instead, it ended up draped over the weed-filled lawn of the property next door. Tolbert had incorporated her trash as part of the patchwork quilt of carpet scraps that lead up to the front steps of a property he owns at 1806 East 36th Street.


“So he won’t have to cut it,” Higgs says. “Right now it’s that same stinking-ass carpet, laid out there across the grass. And he’ll come move it over if he sees something growing.”

Tolbert’s property is the worst-looking house on the block. The back yard is littered with junk. There are old boards, pipes, animal cages, fencing and, literally, a kitchen sink. A van and a broken-down car rust in the backyard. His front porch is used for more storage — he keeps large boards up to obscure its contents from the street. One empty green planter hangs from the porch eaves.

Higgs has faced Tolbert in housing court so often that she used up her vacation time from her job as a mail carrier. “Since he was on the City Council, he knows how many times he can appeal, how to change judges,” Higgs says.

Joe Wheeler, a retired firefighter, lives across the street in a well-kept two-story with blue siding. He says that Tolbert’s father, Ellsworth, lived at 1806 until he passed away. That’s when Tolbert began using the property as a junkyard, Wheeler says from his seat on his front porch. “When the garage got full, he started filling up the porch. People put out stuff for the trash, and he picks it right up. One time a lady from the tax assessor came, and she told me that house was unfit for human habitation.”

The city has been forced to tear down most of Tolbert’s houses — 16 out of about 23 that he has owned. It’s a severe remedy that’s taken in only 15 percent of cases in housing court, and only after the property owner refuses to fix up seriously damaged property that would be more expensive to repair than the property is worth, says Nathan Pare, manager of the city’s Dangerous Buildings Demolition and Preservation Division. Pare calls Tolbert a chronic code violator. “The plans he has for his property never seem to come around,” Pare says, “and he always has a reason for why he doesn’t finish them.”

In 2004, two of Tolbert’s properties were slated for demolition. One was at 3811 Prospect, which was cited for a deteriorated foundation, leaning walls and columns, a leaky roof, broken windows and open holes. It was unsafe for habitation. The cost of repair was estimated at $136,500. In housing court, Judge K. Preston Dean II denied Tolbert’s request for time to fix it up because Tolbert had shown no evidence that he’d done any work on the place since he’d bought it.

The other was his home at 4154 Troost, which the city’s code inspectors had repeatedly cited for damaged shingles, eaves, plywood, siding and a falling porch ceiling. Inspectors valued the property at $6,500 but estimated that it would cost $85,000 to repair, so they ordered it demolished on September 26, 2004.

Tolbert filed a restraining order against the city to stall the wrecking ball. Judge Dean granted a 10-day restraining order, but it expired. Pare, head of the Department of Dangerous Buildings, says Tolbert was allowed to make repairs while the home was under demolition orders, which might have saved the structure. Tolbert didn’t lift a finger. “It makes no sense to do repair work they’re going to tear down,” Tolbert says. The city demolished the home on November 16, 2004.

The same Troost house was the site of Tolbert’s most dramatic run-in with the city on August 23, 2000. Inspectors showed up to 4154 Troost, where Tolbert was living at the time, with a search warrant that allowed them to inspect the interior to determine if it was structurally unsound. They brought along two policemen and two firefighters. When the firefighters emerged gasping, they discussed the need for masks to shield them from the house’s stench. Meanwhile, Tolbert showed up. Inspectors said he walked to the front porch and locked the front door, barring their way. He was arrested and charged with refusing to allow authorized personnel inside his property with a search warrant.


“They made a big spectacle of handcuffing me in front of my neighbors and shaming and embarrassing me,” he says.

Tolbert fought his case all the way to a circuit court trial. The jury found him guilty and imposed a harsh sentence: a $500 fine and six months in jail. He served four months of the sentence. Michael Dailey, a lawyer in private practice who was the city prosecutor on the case, says of Tolbert: “I’d say he’s not persecuted by the city. He is prosecuted by the city for continuing and flagrant violations of codes to which all citizens are held accountable.”

Tolbert shrugs off his time in jail. He compares himself to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. “In the black community, my having joined the brotherhood, the fraternity, of ex-offenders made me politically stronger.”

Jail didn’t teach Tolbert much about keeping up his properties.

Higgs sees Tolbert drop by to get his mail from the house on 36th Street every day, before returning to the apartment he lives in at 39th Street and Olive. “He tells me, ‘If you guys would quit taking me to court, I’d have time to clean this mess up.’ I said, ‘Richard, this has been going on for three years. How much time do you need?'” Higgs adds, “He graduated from Yale, sure enough. I applaud him for that. I wouldn’t take that from him. But he’s an educated fool, is what he is.”

Meanwhile, Tolbert has transferred ownership of the house on 36th Street and 16 other properties to a church he says he founded called All-Denominational New Church. He won’t say when the church holds services or how many members are in its congregation. “You can have a church of one,” he says. “But there are more than one.” The church, he admits, was created to protect him from the city’s scrutiny of his properties.

Code inspectors came by recently and asked Tolbert’s neighbor, Joe Wheeler, if he knew Pastor Tolbert. “I’ve called him a lot of things in my day,” Wheeler told them, “but ‘pastor’ wasn’t one of them.”

Tolbert counts the city’s establishment among his enemies, but the truth is, many members of the establishment have plenty of good things to say about him. Despite the damage Tolbert has done to the city’s east side, Kansas City keeps welcoming Tolbert back to the political arena in typical, friendly Midwestern fashion.

When reminded that he used to admonish Tolbert publicly, Charles Wheeler tells the Pitch: “That applied to any Council member. If I thought they weren’t keeping up, I thought it was my job as mayor to chide them.”

Like Wheeler, most people choose their words carefully when asked about Tolbert. David Buie, who serves as trustee of Metropolitan Community College, says: “I think he’s had some real sane things to say on the subject of African-American education and the development of things we need to have a diverse system.”


Former Councilwoman Carol Coe has had a seat from which to watch Tolbert in action for years, attending meetings for Freedom Inc. “He is a voice for the voiceless. These people have something to say. I don’t think they have the right attitude, but it is a constituency.”

Even Steve Mirakian, who was the attorney representing radio station 1340 when Tolbert sued the station for firing him in 1999, found some good words for Tolbert. “Richard is a bright guy,” Mirakian told the Kansas City Business Journal at the time. “If only he could put his talents to good use.”

Those who know Tolbert best have tried to talk him into cleaning up his act. Sonny Gibson, a local historian who has known Tolbert since the ’70s, doesn’t understand why Tolbert’s properties remain in such disarray. “I’m a friend of his, and he doesn’t make sense to me, and I’m on him all the time! Mark [Esping] is on him all the time. He’s on his ass all the time, stronger than I am about everything, shit, not just about the properties.”

Esping, a neighborhood leader, often offers Tolbert advice on how to avoid the city’s wrath. He remembers offering Tolbert contact information for painters who work cheap and could at least spruce up the front facades of his houses just so they’d look better from the street. Tolbert declined.

When Tolbert’s not focused on campaigning — which involves showing up at forums and tooling around town in his maroon Buick Century with an “Elect Richard Tolbert” cardboard sign in the back window — he’s thinking up big ideas. Tolbert’s newest dream involves creating a “Wal-Mart-like” store in the black community. Preferably, on Prospect.

He announces this plan recently to the group that meets every Friday morning at the McDonald’s on 14th and Prospect. Tolbert can be found here most mornings, but Fridays are special. The group, called “Eggs and Enlightenment,” is chaired by his friend Gibson, who holds a gavel and allows 15 minutes for presentations. The regulars include Esping; Marlon Hammons, an activist and president of the Washington-Wheatley Neighborhood Association; Archie Williams, a social worker; and Salahaddin Mausulah and Murad Karriem, both Muslim prayer leaders.

A typical meeting features plenty of impassioned yelling. Often, Gibson has to bang the gavel and remind the group to be respectful of one another’s opinions.

Tolbert loves the Eggs and Enlightenment meetings. The discussions remind him of the time when he was happiest — debating with peers at Yale. “It’s the only place in town you can go to talk politics and religion. Those are my favorite topics. The topics your mother said it wasn’t polite to talk about in public,” Tolbert says with a laugh.

Williams puts it differently. “The more you talk to Richard, the more you will see, he enjoys the debate more than the solution.”

Some of the regulars have had run-ins with Tolbert. The Washington-Wheatley Neighborhood Association encompasses a Tolbert property at 2012 Agnes. Since the little blue home has been in Tolbert’s possession, termites have eaten through the back wall, and a tree in the front yard is wildly overgrown. Hammons says he has tried to work with Tolbert to clean up the problems with the house. Tolbert ignores Hammons’ suggestions.

“We talk about how we want our neighborhood to look the same as the best neighborhoods in Kansas City,” Hammons says. “We talk about what people do on Ward Parkway. Those people act. They don’t play. So don’t get mad at us when we want to act. This would never happen on Ward Parkway.”


Hammons says Tolbert gets more credit than he deserves. “He’s not a genius,” he says, then repeats it, in a sing-song voice, “not a genius!”

While explaining the “black Wal-Mart” idea, Tolbert gets off track and starts talking about pawnshops. Black people should go to pawnshops for money instead of banks, Tolbert declares. Hammons looks at him in disbelief, shaking his head.

“People understand that if they want to go to a pawnshop and walk out with money, they have to bring something as collateral,” Tolbert says. “People understand that from pawnshops but not from banks. Nobody in his right mind should loan money to someone who doesn’t have any, or any hard, assets.”

Hammons pushes back from the table in disgust and walks off.

Tolbert doesn’t mention that his idea is one that he has recycled over the years. In 1971, following his election to the City Council, Tolbert spoke of creating a shopping and recreation center. And in 1990, Tolbert told the Star of his plans to build a minimall at 45th Street and Troost. The Wal-Mart plan is just the newest name for another of Tolbert’s perpetually incomplete ideas.

But why let a little reality get in the way of empty boasting? “I think I’m better at economics than politics. And this [black Wal-Mart] idea will probably make me rich. But we’re gonna find out. It’s all political when you’re dealing with the affairs of people.”

Tell it to the weeds.

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