For a few weeks during the summer of 1989 in the Kansas City area, things were tense. Very tense. Three young women were missing, and a 28-year-old man named Richard Grissom was on the run from the law.
I remember this case very distinctly for a few reasons. The crimes occurred very close to where I lived in Overland Park, Kansas at the time (I was 11). Bank receipts and other things belonging to the victims were found near an abandoned farmhouse in our neighborhood that my friends and I used to explore and ride our bikes past almost every day. For years afterward, we referred to that farmhouse as “the Grissom shack.”
The final reason I remember the case so well is because one of my sisters was home alone during the manhunt while the rest of us were on a family vacation in Florida. She’d call us every day to give us updates and let us know she was okay. Helicopters flew over our neighborhood day and night looking for Grissom and the missing women. The manhunt scarred the local psyche, and the case still lingers in the public consciousness in the Kansas City area.
At first glance, Richard Grissom seemed like the kind of guy women would love to talk to. He was good looking, charming, and charismatic. In fact, a detective later referred to him as “a Don Juan with an athletic build.” But Grissom had a dark past that most people didn’t know about. When he was only 16-years-old, Grissom murdered an elderly woman in Lansing, Kansas. The crime was particularly gruesome – the teenaged Grissom tied 72-year-old Hazel Meeker to a chair and stabbed her with a railroad spike.
Police followed footsteps in the snow leading away from the crime scene and quickly arrested Grissom. He was sent away to the Kansas Juvenile Detention Facility for three years, eventually getting out in 1980.
Fast forward to the summer of 1989. Grissom was 28 years old and running his own painting and maintenance company in the Kansas City area. He was also on parole; he had been released from prison just the previous summer after serving time for burglary and theft. Like many con men, Grissom could talk his way into or out of just about anything, and he had many aliases. His new job painting and doing maintenance was strategic – it gave him access to master keys and apartment complexes all over Kansas City.
On June 18, 1989, Joan Butler went out for a night on the town in Kansas City before she returned to her apartment in suburban Overland Park. The 24-year-old Butler was never seen again. In the early morning hours of June 19, Butler’s ATM card was used to make several withdrawals at different banks in the area. Her rental car had also gone missing. Both Butler’s family and the police were baffled by her disappearance.
A week later, on June 25, Butler’s rental car was spotted in Lawrence, Kansas, about 35 miles from Overland Park. A Lawrence police officer kept an eye on the car until a man approached and opened the trunk of the vehicle. The man was Richard Grissom. When the officer asked for ID, Grissom ran, escaping the officer. Grissom’s prints were all over the vehicle, and he had left his wallet and checkbook inside. And, in the trunk of the car, police found a drop of Joan Butler’s blood.
Grissom, now on the run, got a friend to give him a ride back to the Kansas City area. The next morning, two more women disappeared: 22-year-old roommates Theresa Brown and Christine Rusch. Brown and Rusch lived together in an apartment complex in Lenexa, Kansas where Grissom had done some work. As in the Joan Butler case, Brown and Rusch’s bank accounts were drained. A haunting photograph from a security camera showed Rusch, looking disheveled, wearing sunglasses, and with a large bruise on her forehead, withdrawing money from an ATM. It was the last known sighting of any of the missing women. Grissom was immediately suspected in these disappearances as well.
Two days later, a maintenance man at an apartment complex just over the state line in Grandview, Missouri saw someone lurking under a stairwell. It was Grissom, and he fled when the worker tried to confront him. But, in fleeing, Grissom left his car behind in the apartment complex’s parking lot. Police searched the car and found a treasure trove of evidence linking Grissom to the missing women, including IDs and keys. The car also contained 5 fake birth certificates and official government seals.
Soon after, a massive manhunt went underway all over the Kansas City area for Grissom and the women, but none of them were anywhere to be found. Based on Grissom’s violent past and his cunning nature, police knew they were up against an experienced career criminal.
Nearly two weeks passed, and there was still no trace of Grissom or the missing women. Then, on July 7, Grissom was arrested in Texas at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. He was supposed to meet a young woman from his past at the airport that day, but she tipped off police, leading to Grissom’s capture. People in the Kansas City area breathed a collective sigh of relief, but one huge question remained: Where were Joan Butler, Theresa Brown, and Christine Rusch?
Grissom offered vague answers about the women during his interrogation. He told officers “they’re not dead,” and then later said, “well, they probably are by now.” Grissom also said, “you will dig them up.” He added, “everything happened in Kansas and nothing would be found in Missouri.” Grissom knew that Missouri had the death penalty, while, at the time, Kansas did not. Paul Morrison, the man who ended up prosecuting Grissom, called the killer extremely intelligent, “the type who could sell ice to Eskimos.” In the end, Grissom admitted to no specifics.
Authorities searched farmland and woods, even draining ponds all over Kansas City in hopes of finding the missing women. No trace of Butler, Brown, or Rusch ever turned up.
In the fall of 1990, Richard Grissom was tried in what was the first murder trial in the history of Johnson County to take place without a body. Despite the missing bodies, the mountain of evidence resulted in a guilty verdict and a life sentence for Grissom. Today, he is 55-years-old and will remain in prison for the rest of his days.
“The Grissom shack” is long gone, torn down and replaced by new apartment complexes, but the memory of Richard Grissom and his victims, Joan Butler, Theresa Brown, and Christine Rusch, still looms large for the people who lived in Kansas City in 1989.