From the heartwarming return of three missing Harrisonville children who were taken to Canada illegally, to the heartbreaking loss of an Archie family of five killed in a motor vehicle crash, Cass County was full of headlines in 2013.
It was difficult to come up with only 10 stories that shaped our year.
Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen our courts prosecute and convict murderers of horrific crimes, along with the rise and fall of our elected officials based on the decisions they made.
There have also been some happy stories in the making – a lifelong county resident finding fame in his talent for performing – and improvements county government is making to fix bad decisions made by previous leadership.
Some of the headlines in the news coming out of Cass County even reached the national and international level, but here at the Cass County Democrat Missourian, our commitment to providing professional, community journalism has been unaltered. We’ve stood next to the national media, reporting the same story to those who have put their trust in their local newspaper of record.
Jeffrey Moreland sentenced to life in prison for murdering Cara Roberts
Perhaps the biggest story of the year in Cass County was the justice being sought in the murder of Cara Jo Roberts, a 30-year-old Harrisonville mother who was shot and killed Nov. 5, 2008.
The investigation of Robert’s murder went cold within two years after detectives looked into more than 180 leads with no solid answers. Evidence showed that an “unknown man” had sexual intercourse with Roberts before he put a bullet into the back of her head.
The “unknown man” then became a suspect in the case of another murder in Kansas City in Oct. 2010 when the DNA found on Roberts matched the DNA left on the second victim. Detectives still didn’t know the DNA from both murders were that of Moreland’s until a woman from Harrisonville went to police after Moreland allegedly raped her at his home in June 2011.
Nearly five years since the crime was committed, a jury found Moreland guilty of first degree murder, punishable by life in prison, and armed criminal action, which carries a 50 year sentence, following a trial in September.
Moreland is currently serving his sentence at the Missouri Department of Corrections facility in St. Joseph. He is scheduled to stand trial for the sexual assault charges in Cass County in March.
Tate Stevens becomes Cass County icon
Returning to the list for the second year in a row, a Belton street worker turned country rock star, continues to woo fans.
Tate Stevens watched from a short distance on Easter Sunday as a painting crew finished painting the words, “Home of Tate Stevens: Live the Dream!” on a Belton water tower just as the sun was setting on the evening of March 31, following his win on the FOX TV show, The X Factor, last December.
The water tower is located just south of the Highway 58 interchange, on the west side of Interstate 49.
The intention of painting the water tower was unveiled by former Belton Mayor Jim Odom on national television during a watch party the night before Stevens won the reality TV show Dec. 19, 2012.
Stevens’ 2013 highlights included producing his first big-time album, a self-titled recording featuring three songs he had time to co-write in about a month and a half, which was released in April.
The album released just two days after Stevens publicly came back to Kansas City to perform for his hometown fans at the Midland Theater.
The Cass County native’s scheduled concert in the metro, marking the start of his U.S. tour, sold out in just 30 minutes after tickets went on sale. Event organizers would later announce that Stevens agreed to do a second show the following day at the same venue.
Last summer, Stevens was asked to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, and has since returned three more times.
He’s now working on his second album. In a recent interview, Stevens indicated his sophomore project with his label might not come out until late 2014. He has recorded six songs already, one of which should be released as a single soon, maybe January, Stevens’ noted.
Archie family killed in Fourth of July crash
On the Fourth of July, the Rittermeyer family was headed west on Missouri Route B, just east of Archie, after they had left their home to go purchase fireworks, when they swerved into the path of an eastbound pick-up truck.
The wreck was the deadliest car crash in the county this year.
Jason Rittermeyer, 32, was driving a 2000 Hyundai Elantra when he traveled off the right side of the road and lost control. He tried to regain control as the vehicle returned to the road, but skidded sideways across the highway, investigators said.
An oncoming 2007 Dodge Ram, driven Jimmy W. Crust, 52, Archie, collided with the Rittermeyer’s vehicle near Cantrell Road at about 5:30 p.m.
In the crash, Rittermeyer, three of his children, 8-year-old Anna, 10-year-old Noah and 9-year-old Sage, along with his girlfriend, Aleah Lucas, 22, were killed upon impact.
The siblings’ 15-year-old brother, Jonas Rittermeyer, did not accompany them on their trip into town.
Jason Rittermeyer and Noah were wearing seat belts. Sage, Lucas, and Crust, were not wearing seat belts. Troopers were unable to determine if Anna had been wearing a seat belt. Both Sage and Lucas were ejected from the vehicle.
All five passengers in the Elantra were pronounced dead at the scene by a Jackson County medical examiner.
Crust was taken to Cass Regional Medical Center for treatment of minor injuries.
Autopsy and toxicology results later revealed Jason Rittermeyer had been intoxicated at the time of the crash and the alcohol impairment was a contributing factor.
Missing Harrisonville children found in Canada
Three children went missing from their Harrisonville home in October after their non-custodial mother allegedly took the children from their father’s home.
Sherri O’Neal, 44, and her son from another relationship, Jacob Miers, 19, have been charged with interference with custody after they took the children from their home in the 26000 block of Skyline Drive on Oct. 11.
Tabitha Davis, 11, Jasper Davis, 14, and Jordan Davis, 15, were found unharmed six days later in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, with O’Neal and Miers.
The children had eaten lunch at home with their father, Jamie Davis, as it had been an early release day for the siblings.
Davis left the residence at 1:30 p.m. to go to work. When he returned home at 4 p.m., the children were not there. After calling neighbors and friends in search for his children, he contacted deputies.
The Cass County Sheriff’s Office entered the children as missing persons in local, state and national law enforcement databases.
O’Neal, who was last known to be living in Alaska, had not had any known contact with the children for more than three years.
A social worker contacted police Oct. 15 after O’Neal and one of the missing boys visited a Calgary shelter seeking financial assistance. O’Neal allegedly told the shelter that they had sneaked across the Canadian border to escape an abusive relationship.
The social worker who met with the mother and child reported the incident to the authorities after she thought the story the individuals gave seemed suspicious.
According to Cass County deputies, Calgary police did an Internet search and found the news reports that the individuals were missing.
Canadian police worked overnight in an effort to locate O’Neal and Cass County detectives confirmed with the children’s father that the surveillance video captured from the shelter revealed the images of mother and the older teen.
According to the Metro News article, O’Neal returned to the shelter the next day. Police authorities were contacted and found the children with their mother and Miers in a motor-home in the Calgary downtown core.
The children returned to their Harrisonville home within a couple of weeks.
Miers was extradited back the United States and is currently being held in the Cass County Jail. Deputies have yet been able to take O’Neal into custody on an outstanding arrest warrant.
County broadband project dies
One of the first orders of business for the newly-elected Cass County Commissioners who took office in January 2013 was to determine if there was any feasibility left in the highly-anticipated proposed county broadband project.
The project, conceived two years ago, looked to build a broadband fiber network in order to bring high-speed Internet access to 11,592 households and 701 businesses in rural areas of the county.
The Commission made the decision to ultimately disband the initiative in February after some lengthy discussion.
In a statement, Presiding Commissioner Jeff Cox cited a number of reasons for his decision after spending nearly two months studying the project, including USDA funding being frozen.
There were also issues with un-budgeted inspection, maintenance, make-ready and right-of-way costs.
Circuit Clerk Amy Bell ousted from office
Cass County Circuit Clerk Amy Bell was suspended from the duties of her elected office and placed on administrative leave with pay in August.
Circuit Judge William Collins removed the clerk from her position Aug. 20 after she hired a close friend to oversee several special projects.
According to court documents filed on Sept. 17, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster claimed that although Bell's friend was paid to do the work, the work was never completed and resulted in the loss of numerous court documents including original judgments, child support letters, exhibits, and in one case, an entire case file.
Koster also believes Bell also failed to pay the circuit court’s bills on time and did not properly file paperwork necessary for an insurance claim regarding funds allegedly stolen by a deputy clerk.
In response, Koster filed criminal charges against Bell, a civil petition was also drawn to permanently remove the circuit clerk from office.
Bell denied the allegations, believing employees in her office caused the accusations to remove her from office and make way for someone else preferred by the circuit court. Bell claims that she is “not guilty of a willful or fraudulent violation” or “willful neglect of the official duty.”
The court has granted Bell’s request to change the venue for the criminal charges to Lafayette County.
Cousins sentenced to prison for murdering infant
One of the cousins accused of causing the death of a 5-month-old baby girl from Peculiar in 2010 was sentenced to life in prison after he was found guilty of first degree murder Jan. 28.
A jury determined Moreno A. Salinas, 22, Greenwood, abused his infant daughter, Avee Salinas Hunter, over a period of weeks in April 2010, causing the seizures and multiple brain injuries, leading her death. Hunter was first taken to Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City April 5 for unexplained seizures.
After another hospital visit for a seizure less than two weeks later, the infant was brought to the hospital a third time April 20 unconscious. The baby was declared brain dead two days later.
Salinas, along with his 22-year-old cousin, Allen T. Green, Kansas City, were both charged after Cass County Sheriff’s Office detectives were contacted by Children’s Mercy Hospital on behalf of the infant for life-threatening injuries that were of a suspicious nature.
According to court documents, Green told investigators that Salinas planned to murder his daughter before Easter. He reportedly repeatedly threw her on the bed, hung her upside down, shook her and flipped her up and down by her feet, and squeezing the air out of her chest.
Green said Salinas was at one point performing CPR on the baby when she had her final seizure and squeezed her chest and stomach to take the air back out of her when no one was looking.
Green pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in February in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence.
Pleasant Hill Police find baby’s body encased in cement
In November, Pleasant Hill Police discovered the body of an infant encased in a bucket outside a home at 304 Cline St.
On Nov. 4, Cass County Sheriff deputies contacted the police after they received a report of a possible stolen vehicle and illegal drug activity at the residence of Matthew Scroggs, 28.
The report also made allegations that his wife had given birth to a child on Oct. 7 who had died, and that Scroggs had disposed of the baby’s body.
Police drove by the residence and identified a 1996 Mercury Grand Marquis missing from Kansas City. Officers took Scroggs into custody for possession of the stolen vehicle.
During questioning, Scroggs granted permission to police to search the residence and an outbuilding on the property for illegal drugs and paraphernalia. Police found an assortment of drug paraphernalia and a small amount of marijuana.
While searching the detached garage at the home, officers also observed a blue, plastic feeder bucket sitting on the floor of the garage near the door.
The bucket was filled to the top with hardened concrete that appeared to have been freshly poured.
The discovery of the bucket led officers to believe that it could contain evidence consistent with the allegations that Krystal Scroggs had delivered a baby and that he had disposed of the body.
Police then conducted another interview with Scroggs, who admitted that Krystal Scroggs had miscarried at five months gestation, and told investigators that he had helped deliver the stillborn male child, which he then put into the bucket and filled with concrete.
The suspect was later arrested and charged with the abandonment of a corpse and for tampering with a motor vehicle. He was booked into the Cass County Jail but was later released on bond.
Former newspaper publisher Bill James dies
Bill James, former publisher of the Cass County Democrat Missourian and the Warrensburg Daily Star-Journal, died Nov. 6 following a battle with lung cancer. He was 65.
James might best be remembered for his interest in newspapers.
A member of the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame, he was the publisher of the Democrat-Missourian in Harrisonville from 1985 to 2000, and had been the publisher of the Daily Star-Journal since November 2007.
During a career of 40 years, James served in a variety of leadership positions for the newspapers of Missouri. He was president of the Missouri Press Association (1998), president of the Northwest Missouri Press Association (1990), president of the Missouri Advertising Managers' Association (1986), and president of the Democratic Editors of Missouri (1981). He also served as a director of the National Newspaper Association (1999-2001).
James was inducted into the MPA Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2001.
Friends of the late publisher said James was also a mentor to many young newspaper publishers, editors, advertising sales representatives and reporters.
A few months before his death, the MPA Board of Directors named its annual Outstanding Young Journalists awards in honor of James, linking his name into the future of outstanding young newspaper men and women.
Commission looks to improve School Road
In late March, Cass County Presiding Commissioner Jeff Cox proposed a three-phase project to improve the safety on the route frequently traveled on by Raymore-Peculiar School District students, employees and families.
The plan outlined the work to be completed in such order: Phase 1, Hubach Hill to 195th Street, is estimated to cost $1.7 million; Phase 2, 195th to 203rd Street, at another $1.7 million; and the final leg from 203rd to 211th Street, estimated between $2.1-2.4 million.
Under Cox’s cooperative agreement plan, the county would have contributed 68 percent of the total cost of the project, using $1.6 million in quarter-cent road and bridge sales tax revenues and taking out approximately $2.2 million in additional bonds.
To cover the rest of the tab, the county was looking to Peculiar and Raymore to forego three years of their share of road and bridge proportions, with Peculiar chipping in an additional $1 million to cover the project’s total estimated $5.5 million cost.
But in April, Raymore City Council members voted 6-2 to disapprove the city’s involvement in making a contribution, shutting down the cooperative agreement plan. The county made a commitment to use their own funding to pay for Phase 1. The work is scheduled to start in the spring.
This month, Cox has started to bring up the School Road again with discussion on how the county could go on with completing a majority of the project using their own funding.
During a Dec. 12 meeting, the Commission unanimously approved a motion to issue $3 million in road bonds already approved by voters to pay for the improvements.
The primary use of the funds, Cox said, will be used to pay for Phases 2 and 3 of the project.
Cox said the county will also be looking to the city of Peculiar to go in together on a joint contract to also contribrute funds to complete the final phase.