Tone Death, first of two parts

Fat Tone’s rapper friend Priceless Diamonds; his mother, Angenette Wright; his girlfriend, Jameshia Spencer — each heard different stories from Tone (born Anthony Watkins) about his last days on Earth.

But that was Fat Tone: always the storyteller, always the exaggerator, always the braggart. He wasn’t going to kill you with one bullet. He was going to cut you in half with a hail of gunfire. He didn’t drink the cheap stuff. Only cognac would do. He was large, but he lived large. And it was hard to tell how much of his boasting was based on truth and how much was pure bullshit.

At least the stories were generally consistent — the Kansas City rapper was rolling in dough in Las Vegas.

“He went out balling like a boss,” says Priceless, whose cherubic looks belie her to-the-point attitude. She called herself Tone’s “boss bitch,” and she had planned to fly to Vegas to join him on his May excursion.

Tone told Priceless he was staying at the MGM Grand, the hotel where his idol Tupac Shakur had attended a boxing match the night he was shot in 1996. And Tone had taken with him a pretty young thing who was supposed to be turning tricks. Even if it was small-time, Fat Tone had started pimpin’.

He was up — way up — at the craps table, the only gambling he ever did, just like Tupac. Tone told Priceless he’d taken $17,000 off the craps table in one session, and then, later, another $3,000.

He told his mother a different amount: $7,000. “He was very happy, very happy,” Wright says.

Spencer, his girlfriend, heard another figure. Tone told her he’d turned the $4,000 he took with him into $13,000. “He said he was going to wire me some money, but he never did,” she says.

He also told her he was hoping to meet rappers Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent. To his mother, he said he’d actually be opening for Snoop’s Vegas concert.

But Spencer says the boasting and balling were only cover for a more serious quest that had taken Fat Tone to Nevada.

“Half of it was related to music, because this guy Mac Minister was supposedly hooking him up with a lot of different rappers,” she says.

The other half of the real mission?

“I can’t really be specific,” she says. “All I know is, he went out and he was going to handle some business out in Vegas.”

But he was having second thoughts, she remembers. Sometime after 2 a.m. on Monday, May 23 — after midnight in Las Vegas — he called her.

“He told me he wasn’t going to do the particular thing he went down there for. ‘I’m not going through with it. I’m going to come home,'” Spencer recalls. “I was still kind of asleep. He was like, ‘I’m sitting here waiting on this guy. I’m going to call you as soon as I get to the hotel.'”

Shortly after the call, Fat Tone and a Kansas City companion, 22-year-old Jermaine Akins, were shot multiple times and killed. Tone’s body was found inside a car by a security guard who noticed that the car’s lights were on. The car was parked in a deserted housing subdivision still under construction. Akins’ body was on the ground a few feet away.

Meanwhile, back at the hotel, Tone’s escort was asleep in the doorway outside his room, apparently finished with her night’s work.

Las Vegas police soon announced that they wanted to speak to three people in connection with the crime but stressed that none of them were suspects. Police also were on the lookout for a 2000 Pontiac Sunbird convertible.

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That all three people were from California’s Bay Area — and that the convertible showed up torched and abandoned in Vallejo, California, two days after the killing — said plenty, at least in the court of the streets.

Fat Tone, after all, had been tried and convicted by the Bay Area’s underground in the killing of one of their own, Vallejo’s Andre “Mac Dre” Hicks, 34, who was gunned down in Kansas City last November.

Police here seemed satisfied with Tone’s alibi in the Mac Dre killing, and he was never named as a suspect. Investigators haven’t arrested suspects in either crime. But such legal niceties mean little to some.

KC and Bay Area MCs don’t need police to tell them that the shooting deaths of Mac Dre and Fat Tone bring to a fiery end — an inevitable end, perhaps — an unlikely connection between two very different areas of the country that, for a while anyway, found a lucrative way to collaborate: in the bad-ass beats of a music drenched in blood.

Take the politically charged fuck-you of NWA — Compton’s ur-gangsta rappers, Niggas With Attitude — and leech out all the social commentary. What’s left is a concentrated solution of sex, drugs and violence. Now lay that over a beat track relying heavily on rib-rattling 808 bass and pump it all through a lowered Impala’s subwoofers with enough rumble to set off car alarms down the street, and you have some idea of what defines the Bay Area sound.

It was one of many regional rap styles that developed in the late 1980s and early ’90s — the slow chop-and-screw out of Houston, the cerebral poetry of New York, the pop gloss of St. Louis, the bounce of Miami. But the beats of Too Short, E-40 and Mac Dre, designed with automobile speakers in mind, not headphones on subways, found a second home in car-loving Kansas City.

“The stuff Bay Area rappers talked about, a lot of Kansas City people were living and talking about,” says Ben E. Lewis, who put out a regional magazine about the hip-hop scene called Mo Cheez from 1998 to 2001. He now promotes his younger brother, a rapper called Young Kev, and writes for the underground rap magazine Murder Dog. “New York rapping was about the moon and stars. It was too deep for us to really understand.”

The Bay Area sound also evoked memories of home, at least to Kansas City’s gangbangers, many of whom were refugees of California’s Bloods and Crips.

“They brought their music with them,” says party host DJ Kool Wayne.

Bay Area rappers found that they had a ready audience for their CDs and could sell out concerts in Kansas City. And while they were here, they found lucrative work on the side in visiting local studios to record verses for aspiring Kansas City rappers.

“All these Kansas City dope dealers, they started paying Bay Area rappers to get on albums — $500 to $1,500 a verse,” Priceless explains.

The locals were convinced that having a California rapper cut tracks on their CDs would give them credibility and an instant audience. But Wayne remains unconvinced that the arrangement was doing much for Kansas City artists. He says he always thought the Kansas City rappers were being used.

“Kansas City was a cash box for Bay Area rappers,” Wayne says.

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But there was at least one local MC who turned the tables and made the connection work in his favor.

According to legend, Richard Johnson took $10,000 to California in 1992 and came back a different man.

Johnson gave the money to a Bay Area rapper named J.T. the Bigga Figga, who helped him produce a CD and transform himself into Rich the Factor.

Rich came back with a California glow about him. He came back The Man.

Nowhere is Rich’s fortune more on display than at 7th Heaven, the community record store on Troost that is a mecca for local music. Of the 20-foot display rack devoted to local hip-hop, Rich the Factor CDs take up about 3 feet. But that doesn’t do justice to his success.

Rich the Factor, with his 20 titles, is the best-selling artist in the store by far, says Jan Fichman, 7th Heaven president. The store also sells Rich’s music wholesale to other record stores, particularly on the West Coast.

“Rich kind of opened the door because he physically got out of town,” Fichman says.

Tech N9ne may be Kansas City’s most successful rap export and he remains popular among suburban fans, but in Kansas City, Rich is King.

Central to his success is the story his lyrics tell — of a man who has turned the drug trade into a gold mine. Rich didn’t return calls to his cell phone, but Lewis, who has known Rich since they were adolescents, says the rapper has never gone out of his way to deny the connection between his personal wealth and the rise of a crack epidemic that swept through parts of Kansas City as they were growing up.

It was only natural, Lewis says, that a young Anthony Watkins would look to Rich the Factor as a model. When Rich was making his historic trip to see the Bigga Figga, Anthony was in grade school.

“He loved to rap, loved to write,” Angenette Wright says of her son. “He never really liked to go out and play hardly. He just wanted to sit home and write.”

As a young boy, Watkins went by the name Big Bank. “He was so big, and he loved to have change in his pocket,” Wright says.

Anthony’s dreams were big, too. He told his mother he’d support her with his music. “We are not going to have nobody helping us. I’m going to help us,” Wright remembers her son saying.

Anthony’s mother lived in south Kansas City, but as a single parent, she dropped Anthony at his grandparents’ house near 50th Street and Euclid while she worked.

“He always loved to go to grandmother’s,” Wright says. Grandfather Fred Jones logged more than 30 years as a chef at Crown Center. Grandmother Louise Jones earned attention more recently as the victim of a Taser zapping by Kansas City, Missouri, police. The officers said the 66-year-old woman honked her horn at their cruiser when it was stopped in front of her house. When the officers tried to ticket her, she struggled and police fired the 50,000-volt Taser before handcuffing both Fred and Louise Jones and taking them to jail. The officers later received a written reprimand from the department.

Wright knows that the place where she dropped off Anthony each day is the heart of territory claimed by several notorious street gangs who call 51st Street home. But she says a boy in a housing development near her south Kansas City home was actually a worse influence on him.

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Still, she acknowledges that Anthony gravitated toward a group of boys in his grandparents’ neighborhood who claimed to be gangsters.

Anthony went so far as to tattoo an elongated 5 on one beefy forearm and a 1 on the other.

“The gang, they started when Anthony first started rapping,” she says.

Again and again, Tone would break the Dr. Dre rule of gangsta rap: Never do what you sing about. But for Tone, lyrics and life were linked.

“He raps real life,” Wright says. “Every rap Anthony has made is real. This is the way we live.”

In 2001, as he was turning 20, Tone scraped together some cash and went to California. What the Bigga Figga had done for Rich, a Sacramento rapper named Daniel “Killa Tay” Curtis would do for Fat Tone.

Tone came back with his first CD: Killa Tay Presents Fat Tone, The Vett. Now Tone had that California glow and the status and burden that came with it.

“That gave him immediate credibility,” Lewis says.

But what Rich had made look so easy was actually hard work. Now Tone had a reputation to live up to, and he had to earn money to look the part.

“Rich the Factor was more of a John Gotti,” Priceless Diamonds says. “Tone was more live wire … more flamboyant. Tone would rub it in your face.”

“He had money, and he liked to show you he had money,” Jameshia Spencer says.

She says the two of them hustled to distribute Tone’s first CD. They went on road trips to Wichita, Columbia and other nearby cities and towns to promote his music, passing out posters and selling CDs from the trunk.

Tone’s reputation preceded him, and Spencer’s friends questioned her choice. “People were like, ‘Why you messing with him?'” Spencer says. “I’d say, ‘He’s good to me.’ Then I found I was pregnant. I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I just stayed with him.”

Spencer says Tone supported her and the baby, Anthony, who is now 2. “He didn’t even want me to work,” she says. “I’ve never worked at all.”

But devoted family man wasn’t quite the image Tone cultivated. His lyrics were a degree more violent than Rich’s.

I’m a Vett! frothed Tone to start “Natural Born Killa,” the first song on his first CD. Two two threes to the chest/Should have worn your vest/That’s how it is when you fuckin’ with a killa from the Midwest.

The “veteran” of the streets suffused his albums with stories of violence. Track after track recited tales of shootings and vengeance. He vowed that his enemies would be ran over, walked on for fuckin’ with Fat Tone.

“He’s a street guy,” Lewis says. “Fat Tone was into robbing drug dealers.”

Some of his former associates say he wasn’t as tough as he claimed in his music. They say his rap personality was stolen from the likes of other 51st Street gangsters.

One of them, Rashawn Long, who is serving time for murder, tells the Pitch that he resents the way Fat Tone made himself sound tougher than he was.

“Loud-mouth, cry-baby ass,” Long says, describing the young kid who first began showing up at his grandmother’s house. “He was a shit starter. His mouth got him in a lot of shit, so he was always getting ran up out of the neighborhood and [would] go lay low [at his mother’s house]. He ran [to her], let the shit die down, came back and apologized.”

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Fat Tone wasn’t hard-core enough for Long and some other 51st Street members — particularly its leader, Steven Wright Jr. (no relation to Fat Tone’s mother, Angenette Wright), who police accuse of being a one-man crime wave in 2000 and 2001. He faces multiple charges of murder and street crime in an upcoming trial.

Still, Tone gained a reputation. He boasted arrests for arson, weapons and robbery.

In 2001, shortly after his trip to California, Tone was arrested and charged with double homicide in connection with a drive-by shooting that killed a pregnant woman and her unborn baby.

He spent nine months in jail before the charges were dismissed. Jackson County prosecutors complained that the witnesses refused to cooperate.

Tone’s second album, also produced by Killa Tay, was titled Tha Stick Up Kid.

Its first song sums up his thoughts on the arrest:

Fuck Jackson County, the feds and their bounties/They got the wrong man, that’s what I told them when they found me/Slam me down on the motherfuckin’ ground/Talking about, ‘Fat Tone we got your fat ass now/You’re wanted for two murders, I guess you already know’/I’m thinkin’ to myself, ‘Like yeah, so?’

“He used to wear his murder charge like a badge of honor,” Lewis says.

His next album cover featured a picture of a tombstone with the name of a man he accuses on the disc of ratting him out.

Another marketing opportunity presented itself when, in the early morning hours of October 17, 2003, Tone was himself the victim of a shooting.

He was scheduled to appear that night at the Millennium Club as the local talent onstage with a clutch of California rappers, including his Sacramento mentor, Killa Tay. It would have been a rare live performance for Fat Tone.

As a promotional advance, the men were being interviewed on KKFI 90.1 as part of DJ Kool Wayne’s After Spot Hip-Hop show.

Lewis happened to be there that night, trying to get airplay for his own act on one of the few radio programs that plays local rap. Lewis says he saw a car circling outside, but didn’t think much of it.

Shortly after 3 a.m., Tone, Tay and three other men climbed into a Ford Excursion and drove away from the station’s Westport studio.

Concert promoter Charles Littlejohn would tell Siccness.net, a hip-hop Web site, that he was driving and had turned south on Main Street from Westport Road when a Black Ford F-150 pickup pulled up beside him. The two people in the truck opened fire with a handgun and an assault rifle.

Littlejohn said he gunned the engine and raced down Main Street, bullets and glass flying.

“Niggas handled everything like soldiers. There wasn’t no hollering like bitches,” Littlejohn was quoted as saying. “Niggas just like, ‘Go, cuz! Go!’ We was just getting out of the way of the gunfire and shit, that was that…. If we had guns, ain’t no way in hell we woulda been running. We woulda pulled over and we woulda got down…. We was naked, man.”

Littlejohn stopped at 61st Street and Main, and the pickup sped away with its headlights off. Tone, who had been sitting behind Littlejohn, was the only one hurt. He had been shot in the leg and the back and was taken to Research Medical Center.

Kansas City police were unable to solve the crime.

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“A lot of people from here and there claim it,” Lewis says. “It’s personal.”

The attack changed Tone. “It made him more leery to watch his back more and always be looking out for people,” Spencer says.

Tone, however, didn’t miss a trick. His next album included a photo of him in his hospital bed flipping the bird.

“It’s called keeping it real,” Wayne explains. “If you’re rapping about it, you have to be about it.”

The streets will quickly out a rapper who doesn’t live the life he riffs about, he says. “In underground music, what the streets say goes,” Wayne says. “But I don’t want you to get the idea you have to be a robber to sell CDs.”

But it helps.

The success of both Rich and Tone went gun and holster with their reputations as legitimate gangsters.

“People are more interested in somebody that has a name,” says Walter Zelnick of City Hall Records, a Bay Area distributor that handled Mac Dre’s CDs. “Who’s ever heard of Fat Tom? Nobody.”

Byron Robinson, owner of Much Music and More, an urban music store at 12th Street and Brooklyn, says 108 rappers put out albums in Kansas City last year.

“One hundred eight rappers, but you only got, honestly, two rappers people are really into,” Robinson says.

And Tone may have been on the verge of something great. He had traveled much more often over the past year. He’d been to Dallas, New York and Las Vegas.

“It was getting ready to go,” Wright says. “He was happy about it. He was worn out, but he was happy.”

Whatever his street life entailed, Tone had shown an ability to switch gears when he was talking business.

And he was eager to learn about the music business. “He paid attention to what you said,” 7th Heaven’s Fichman says.

“Always to me, he was professional,” Wayne says. “I think Fat Tone could have been the person to catapult Kansas City to a major deal…. If he could put that other shit behind him, his heart and mind were going toward making it in music.”

Then Mac Dre came to town.

He’d been here often. Mac Dre had gotten as much out of the Bay Area-Kansas City connection as anyone. He even rapped about it on Tone’s first CD. KC niggas like me, he says over and over in his high-pitched whine.

“He had a great time out there. People loved him out there,” Zelnick says. “KC outsold Seattle or Portland.”

In the early 1990s, Mac Dre did time for conspiracy to commit bank robbery. But his rapping persona was not as hard-core as his gangsta-rapping colleagues.

Mac Dre injected humor into the art. He parodied the politics of the 1980s on a CD titled Ronald Dregan — Dreganomics. On the cover art of his latest CD, Da U.S. Open, Mac Dre, his thin legs poking from tennis togs, poses as Andre Macassi.

“I don’t recall him rapping about killing or shooting anybody,” Wayne says. “He rapped about partying and having fun.”

The Thizz Man, they called him, after the slang term for Ecstasy, his psychoactive drug of choice.

His last weekend in Kansas City was a nonstop party.

On Friday, October 29, he made an appearance at Much Music in advance of an evening concert. He was signing autographs and selling CDs and DVDs.

“There was a line from this door wrapping around my building,” Robinson says.

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Late in the afternoon, Robinson suggested shutting down, but Mac Dre petitioned for more time. “‘I’d really appreciate it if you’d let me sign autographs for the kids,'” Robinson recalls the rapper saying. “He gave out 100 DVDs for free.”

The evening concert was held at the National Guard Armory in Kansas City, Kansas. Wayne was the host.

There were a dozen acts on the card, but Mac Dre was the clear headliner. Wayne remembers looking out over the auditorium floor and seeing nothing but people, maybe 1,500 of them.

Before the night was over, a good number of them would clamber up to join Mac Dre onstage. It made the security crew nervous, but not Mac Dre. “He didn’t mind,” Wayne says. “He didn’t mind at all.”

Hip-hop concerts have earned a reputation for trouble. Many Kansas City venues won’t book them. A concert this big seemed bound to spark trouble, but it didn’t.

“There were no fights, no pushing, no anything,” Wayne says. “It was crazy … like, crazy fun.”

When closing time came at 1:30 a.m., the audience dispersed peacefully.

“This is KC, and that was Mac Dre from the Bay,” Wayne says, as if that mutual love caused the audience members to put aside their differences for a night.

Dre was part of the underground rap scene. He had no big-label contract. He got no airplay on major radio stations. He had no videos in rotation on MTV or BET. But he had Kansas City.

The next night, Mac Dre was riding in a van on Bruce R. Watkins Drive when gunmen in another car shot it up, killing Mac Dre.

Overnight, Dre was lionized as a throwback to the early days of hip-hop. Murder Dog magazine eulogized him as a confidant of Tupac, a legend who went to prison for bank robbery rather than snitch out his boys. And the Murder Dog coverage included plenty of references to KC. Bay Area MC J. Diggs predicted revenge. “The dudes hit a boss and it shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “It’s going to get dealt with one way or another.”

Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department Detective Everett Babcock heard a lot of rumors in the days after Mac Dre’s death. Tech N9ne did it. Rich the Factor did it. “Every rapper,” Babcock says.

Being suspected was not necessarily a bad thing. One aspiring rapper Babcock interviewed in the Wyandotte County Jail gave an alibi for the shooting, then begged Babcock not to tell the world he hadn’t done it. The rumor would sell CDs, he explained.

But no name came up more often than Fat Tone’s.

Tone’s alibi checked out, though. He was home with Spencer, his girlfriend.

“He didn’t have nothing to do with that,” Spencer says. “He was at home with me that night. They had a party that night, but he didn’t go.”

Tone’s mother says she was talking to him on the phone when he found out about the shooting. She says Tone was playing part of his new CD for her when the other call came in.

The crime could have been solved quickly if a few people had talked, Babcock says. But Babcock had trouble even getting Mac Dre’s traveling companions to speak about what happened. None of them would talk to him at the hotel, Babcock says.

So the Tone rumor grew wings.

“Fat Tone actually called here and talked to me and said it wasn’t him,” says Mac Dre distributor Zelnick. “Dre was my homie. I always showed him a good time,” Zelnick says Tone told him.

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Tone went so far as to deny the slaying in a song. But in the retelling, the song became a confession.

Fat Tone killed Mac Dre/Fat Tone killed Mac Dre, Tone whined, impersonating a grade school tattletale on “My Hood Betrayed Me.” You stupid ass bitch/Nigga, that’s my nigga/I really knew the nigga/You niggas just groupies.

“Every boss in town knew Tone didn’t kill Mac Dre,” Priceless says. But she says few doubted that would count for much out west.

“Someone would die for Dre. We knew it was going to be Rich or Tone,” Priceless says.

Andre “Mac Minister” Dow started cozying up to Tone several months after Mac Dre’s fateful trip.

Dow’s claim to fame was twofold. He’d recorded a verse for Bay Area rapper E-40 that laid out the ten commandments of hip-hop. And he’d gotten into a fight with E-40 during the nationally televised Source Awards in 2000. E-40 said he’d lost a $30,000 gold chain in the melée.

Tone met Dow in March during a trip to Las Vegas. Dow seemed to have good connections. He made enough of an impression on Tone that the two of them traveled to New York together.

“He [Tone] was supposed to give a demo to a guy named HOV that was hooked up with G Unit and 50 Cent to let him listen to it,” says Tone’s girlfriend, Spencer. “They said that a lot of people down in New York were feeling his music. … He met T.I.. He met Lil Scrappy and Young Buck. He really had fun.”

Tone rewarded Dow by letting him record a skit on the album he was putting together.

The only downside to the new friendship was that Dow was constantly asking Tone for money. “I would always say that I don’t actually think he needs to give you no money,” Spencer recalls.

The Las Vegas trip in May to meet Dow seemed no different from the others, Spencer says. This time, Dow was promising an audience with Snoop Dogg.

But the two were not getting along as well as they had before, Spencer says. “He felt like Mac Minister was hating on him. Mac Minister kept asking him for some money, and he wouldn’t give Mac Minister money.”

Dow also had asked Tone if he could wear Tone’s $20,000 gold chain, Spencer says.

By the weekend, Tone was fed up and wanted to come back to Kansas City, Spencer says.

“Mac Minister told him Snoop Dog was having a concert that Tuesday,” she says. “There wasn’t no need of flying here for a day and then flying back down there.”

Spencer says she started getting calls from the Las Vegas police the next day.

Every time they called, she hung up before they could tell her more than that her number was the last one called in Fat Tone’s cell phone.

“I thought maybe he had did something,” Spencer says.

Not knowing Tone had been killed, Priceless flew out to visit him the next morning as planned. She says he had invited her and had promised to introduce her around.

Instead, she collected Tone’s escort and came back home.

Two weeks later, Tone was buried on a clear Kansas City Saturday. A small, green tent had been erected to shade his white casket. The 150 people who had followed from the funeral chapel prayed and hung on to one another for support. Police officers watched quietly from a nearby hill. As the procession pulled away, hip-hop boomed from several of the cars.

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Police announced soon after the killing that Dow was one of three Bay Area figures they wanted to speak to. But Dow lawyered up; so far, he has refused to talk to Las Vegas detectives.

Tone’s mother has taken over his career. “I am Fat Tone,” she insists. She’s been printing up more CDs and plans to release an album of previously unreleased music in October.

Wayne, meanwhile, has lost business.

No one from the Bay Area visits Kansas City anymore, he says.

Rashawn Long, the gang member and convicted murderer, laughs as he remembers dodging bullets fired at him by a young Anthony Watkins.

It was 1997, and the two young teenagers had got crosswise over a dice game. The argument escalated; finally, Long told Watkins he wouldn’t have anything to do with the young rapper anymore.

Long remembers sitting on his grandmother’s porch with a friend a few days later when a car drove past and someone inside opened fire. Long chuckles, saying he knew it was Watkins trying to act tough.

“He was running from me,” Long says. “I was going to fuck him up.”

Long portrays Fat Tone as a coward only tangentially involved in 51st Street gang affairs. But police sources tell the Pitch that Fat Tone’s involvement was deeper than that — particularly after Long was convicted of murder in 2001 and 51st Street’s leader, Steven Wright, was arrested in 2003.

Fat Tone filled the void after Wright was in custody, police believe, consolidating his grip on the gang.

In the weeks since Fat Tone’s death, the streets of Kansas City have seen a frightening rise in violent street crime: shootings, assaults and seemingly random attacks. One of the victims was an aunt of Fat Tone’s, Jerry Watkins, who was killed just 18 days after Tone in a shooting at 1200 East Linwood.

Local media have recently begun reporting that some sort of tie might exist between Fat Tone’s death and the rash of killings. The Kansas City Star has gone so far as to blame “gangs” for a new cycle of violence, as if there weren’t particular figures or gangs that police believe are principally involved.

Next week, the Pitch presents a deeper look at how Steven Wright set the standard for violence in Kansas City’s gangland that today rocks the city’s core.

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