Investigation into south KC homeless camp leads to stolen equipment and other interesting findings
By Jill Draper
This story has been updated since its original December 22 print date.
Major Darren Ivey has seen plenty of homeless camps in his 28 years with the Kansas City Police Department, and this was one of the larger ones. Some 20 tents and popup structures that held probably 30 to 35 people were scattered throughout a heavily wooded area not far from Dos de Oros Restaurant, near the northeast corner of Holmes Road and Blue Ridge Boulevard.
He discovered the camp on October 29 after one of his officers noticed a truck with a trailer backing down the boat ramp at Brown Recreation Area and turning left into the Blue River, fender-deep in water. The department was on the lookout for stolen trucks and construction equipment, and this was a good lead.
When Ivey and several others met the officer at the landing soon afterward, they found the truck abandoned with the engine still running beneath a railroad bridge. Then they noticed the camp.
A tall, older woman, probably in her 50s or 60s, walked over to greet them.
“She was the ringleader, like the mayor of the town,” Ivey says. “She claimed they had the landowner’s permission to camp there, but we knew that wasn’t necessarily true.”
The camp was filled with a jumble of tents in all colors and sizes. Some of the smaller ones were being used for storage, and one “humongous” one was for trash, he says. A generator had been acquired to charge cell phones and provide electricity to a tarp-draped treehouse with a deadbolted door where the “mayor” lived.
Scattered around the site were 75 to 100 bicycles and barbecue grills in various states of disrepair. Ivey doesn’t know if they were being resold or scrapped for metal. He also found seven to eight empty computer bags and iPad boxes. Although he later determined a few of the homeless campers were meth users, there was no evidence of drugs being produced.
After chatting with the “mayor,” the officers crossed the railroad bridge that spanned the river, and clambered down a steep bank with the help of a rope ladder someone had attached to the bridge supports. They followed a muddy makeshift road which led to a fire burning in a small clearing. On the ground was a chainsaw, extra blades and fuel. That’s when they noticed dozens of walnut trees had been ripped down and chopped up.
How many? “A lot,” says Ivey. “They had to be selling them to a mill.” Further into the woods they found a mid-sized excavator that had been stolen earlier in the month from the Forest Ridge Villas construction site behind Jack Stack Barbecue in Martin City. Jeff Ellis, the developer, says the excavator was locked, but someone with a set of universal keys was able to start the engine and load it onto a trailer.
He knows this because the theft was captured by surveillance cameras at Fishtech and Margarita’s Restaurant. “Those guys did some great community service,” he says. “They spent a lot of time going through their old videos to help us out.”
The excavator was returned to Ellis, but it’s still being repaired. Various attachments were damaged or missing. Ellis estimates the fix-up will cost tens of thousands of dollars. He doesn’t believe the homeless campers were stealing the walnut trees, though.
Ivey has similar thoughts. “It’s purely my guess, but I think the tree harvesting was a totally separate operation,” he says, adding the homeless may have been paid for labor.
What happened to the camp? “That’s where we get kind of hamstrung,” Ivey says, adding it took time to determine it was on Union Pacific Railroad land and not the Jackson County Park system or private property. After being notified, railroad security officials gave the campers a few weeks’ notice to leave with their belongings and posted “no trespassing” signs. Police later determined the walnut trees were on private land, and the truck abandoned in the river was indeed stolen by the same person who nabbed the excavator. The suspect has been identified but not yet arrested. He was not staying at the homeless camp, but knew some of the people there, Ivey says.
A KCPD social worker visited the site shortly after its discovery. “We did the same thing we do with all homeless camps,” Ivey says. “We tried to engage them in services for veterans’ benefits, shelters, rehab, medical. A couple said they were interested, but none showed up.” In his experience of working with the homeless, the majority have addiction problems or mental health issues.
Ivey says the campers probably scattered to other places in south KC. “The geography is right for small camps. There are lots of woods, ravines, rivers and tributaries. They use the riverbeds as highways.” He says officers have recognized a few of the homeless campers begging for money at stoplights along State Line Road.
“The weirdest thing, Jeff (Ellis) and I were talking about it, is they have some skills he could use in his business. Some of them are quite resourceful,” says Ivey. He suggests those wanting to help the homeless should direct funds toward reStart and other reputable charities.
Meanwhile, he plans to continue to meet with various groups like the Martin City Community Improvement District so both police and citizens keep communicating. “As you know,” he says, “there is no way we can do this by ourselves.”
And what exactly to do is a looming question. Ivey notes, “No one really knows how to deal with the homeless—it’s a problem across the country.”