Frank Ancona, the imperial wizard of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, smelled like cat piss.
The stench clung to the 51-year-old's graying hair and mustache. It seeped into the fabric of his clothes and hung on him like a blanket. He was unhappy about it, but he did not seem to know what to do. He lived in a small, beat-looking house in the rural southeast Missouri town of Leadwood. The windows of the front porch had been pulled out and the wood frames wrapped in chicken wire — a project his wife had undertaken one evening after he headed off to his job as an overnight courier for a St. Louis-based shipping company.
Malissa Ancona, 44, seemed intent on turning their home into a giant kennel. It was well-known that the bleach blonde ran an off-the-books — some would say infamous — animal rescue. Dozens of cats and two dogs shared 1,000 square feet with the Klansman and his wife. They nested in piles of dirty clothes, pawed through open garbage and kicked litter across the floors. A neighbor estimates as many as 70 cats lived there during peak times.
"My dad said sometimes he had to sleep on the couch because the bedroom was so trashed," says Frank's son from a previous marriage, Frank Ancona Jr.
There's not much money in Leadwood. Set in the hills about 70 miles south of St. Louis, the median household income is about $31,000, nearly $20,000 less than the statewide figure. The population of 1,282 is 99 percent white. For diversity, residents identifying as American Indian outnumbered African-Americans two to one. That's not a ratio: Census workers counted a total of two Native Americans and one black person in the 2010 tally.
Leadwood is the kind of place where people might not agree with the KKK, but they also don't get too worked up about a Klan leader living next door. The Anconas moved in five or six years ago. Frank's dad lived one house over to the south, and the local fire station was across the street. The younger Ancona seemed intent on settling in after years spent bouncing around Missouri and Illinois. The Leadwood house was a lease, but Frank had worked out a rent-to-own arrangement with the homeowners, relatives say. Shortly after moving in, he hung a red flag with the KKK's "blood drop" cross to the left of the front door and a replica of the Klan's historical flying dragon pennant to the right.
His only real problem was Malissa.
Neighbor James Russell says he could hear her hollering at Frank night and day.
"Well, they're into it again," Russell would tell his wife.
He and Frank were friends, but he kept his distance from Malissa after they quarreled over the way she let her growing herd of felines roam the neighborhood, terrorizing his orange-haired cat, Kitty, and eating pet food off his porch. She seemed unhinged.
"I just knew she was going to do something one of these days," Russell says. "I just knew it."
Animal rescue workers were also leery of Malissa and had begun reporting her to the state Department of Agriculture, which oversees animal rescue organizations and shelters. Lucretia Skaggs of the Midwest Community Cat Alliance says a number of animal nonprofits had at first tried to help Malissa.
"We stopped doing so when we realized what a con artist Malissa was," Skaggs says.
She scammed them out of free veterinary care and grew evasive or combative when challenged, Skaggs says. Malissa came to be seen not as someone who helped animals, but as someone who hoarded them. The feeling among the tight-knit network of rescues, shelters and fosters was that it was only a matter of time before they were called in to pick up the pieces when Malissa's charade finally shattered.
No one knew exactly what would happen, but they figured it would be ugly. Kym McNulty, a veteran animal rescue worker, says she grew fed up with Malissa a year or two ago and called her out as a fraud. She still remembers her reaction.
"Do you know who my husband is?" Malissa asked, according to McNulty.
Malissa's neighbor, Russell, recalls her approaching his son one day with a sob story about a suffering cat that needed to be put down. She said the vet was closed and then, startlingly, asked him to wring the cat's neck, Russell says.
"He told her no, he wouldn't have nothing to do with it," Russell says. "She was just crazy. That's the honest truth. She was just crazy, dude."
When word spread that Frank had gone missing February 9, no one seemed too surprised. His son, Frank Jr., knew something was wrong when his father's employer called to say he had not shown up for work for the first time in nearly a decade. The son called police and headed over to the house.
He and the officers were just about to go inside when Malissa returned home with her son from a previous relationship and barred their way. Frank Jr. remembered a feeling of dread sweep over him.
"I had a gut feeling right then and there she'd done something bad."
The week of Frank Ancona's disappearance unfolded strangely.
On Wednesday, February 8, the last day Frank was seen alive, his wife posted an ad on Facebook, seeking a new roommate.
"Looking for a roommate in leadwood...I have three dogs and a cat rescue so u must love animals..All bills and rent split..Message me for details," Malissa Ancona wrote.
That caught the attention of investigators.
That Thursday, Frank did not report to work, triggering his employer's call. But when police stopped by the house with Frank Jr. on Friday, Malissa was reluctant to let them enter. She had not filed a missing person report, she explained, because she thought Frank was leaving her. The last time she had seen him was about 6 a.m. on Wednesday, she said.
Leadwood police Chief William Dickey eventually talked her into letting them take a quick look around the house. Inside, they found a safe that looked like it had been pried open, but nothing else stood out among the mess. Malissa claimed the home may have been burglarized, but she had not bothered to report it.
Dickey also questioned her about the roommate ad.
"She stated she did it because when he said he was leaving to go out of state on this job, he took a bag of clothes with him and said when he got back he was filing for divorce," Dickey told the local paper, the Park Hills Daily Journal. "She told us she figured she would need help to pay the rent, so she put an ad out looking for a roommate."
It maybe seemed a little strange, but Dickey figured all they had for the time being was a missing person case. Frank was a grown man. Maybe he really had just walked out.
"It got suspicious later on Friday evening when the vehicle was located," Dickey tells the Riverfront Times.
A U.S. Forest Service worker had spotted Frank's Ford Fusion off an access road in a wooded stretch of Washington County. Nearby, investigators found a pile of burned clothes. Frank was still missing, but that too would soon change.
The next day, Saturday, a family planning to fish the Big River wandered down a footpath toward the water's edge. As they reached the gravel, they spotted the body. Frank had been stripped to his underwear and socks. He had been shot in the head.
Investigators from the St. Francois Sheriff's Department headed to the house in Leadwood — this time, armed with a search warrant. Inside the dimly lit rooms, they picked their way past a swirl of Malissa's cats and through a kitchen littered with trash and dirty dishes. They found what they were looking for at the back of the house in the master bedroom: blood splatter on the ceiling, blood soaked deep into the mattress.
Meanwhile, Washington County sheriff's detectives were serving more warrants at the home of Malissa's 24-year-old son, Paul Jinkerson Jr., in the small town of Belgrade. They found bloody clothes at his residence and blood inside his car, authorities say. Jinkerson, who had previously been convicted for possessing meth and was awaiting trial on charges he had helped break into car wash coin machines, was taken into custody on a probation violation.
As the investigation began to come into focus, detectives also discovered some interesting video from a Belgrade gas station situated near both the Big River and the wooded access road where they had found Frank's car. They scrolled through the surveillance camera footage from Thursday morning and spotted Malissa and Jinkerson driving past, Washington County Sheriff Zach Jacobsen says. They were in different vehicles — Frank's Ford Fusion and Jinkerson's Chevy Impala.
The cameras recorded them again a little while later. This time, mother and son were both in Jinkerson's car.
The KKK imperial wizard had grown desperate during the last months of his life.
Frank confided in friends and family members that his wife was addicted to prescription pills and had grown erratic. He had taken to locking his medications and valuables in a safe or hiding them in the trunk of his car. When he slept, he tucked the car keys into his pillowcase.
Publicly, Frank portrayed himself as the powerful leader of a clandestine, but righteous, organization, a representative of a silent majority of decent Americans who were fed up with the chaos they saw on the nightly news. His followers adopted "I am Darren Wilson" profile pictures on Facebook after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and scattered fliers in north St. Louis County that threatened "lethal force" should protesters take things too far.
"You have awakened a sleeping giant," the fliers warned.
No matter that hate group experts estimate Frank's Traditionalist American Knights, the KKK faction he founded in 2009, had maybe 40 members across the country at the height of its influence.
"We're basically going where we're being asked to," Frank told a Riverfront Times reporter in 2014. "We're being low-key. We're not trying to inflame any situation anywhere, but we're also letting it be known that we're here to help people if need be."
The Ferguson stunt earned Frank national attention, which was apparently the goal. Those who knew him say he cared deeply about crafting his public image and wanted everyone to know his name. He posted a video on his Klan website of him sparring on national television with MSNBC host Chris Hayes, and he told the New York Times, "We need to preserve the white race because we are the ones who keep civilization civilized."
Privately, he was literally living in shit.
"The house is so nasty it's not even fit for an animal to live in," he complained in an October message to his stepdaughter.
Malissa's ex-husband, Paul Jinkerson Sr., says Frank reached out to him for help several months ago. They used to see each other every once in a while at their kids' birthday parties and got along well. Jinkerson Sr. did not share Frank's racist ideology, but he considered him an otherwise decent, hardworking guy. He liked to tease his ex-wife and her new husband about the KKK, asking if it was like that scene in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? where a bunch of hooded Klansmen dance in unison by firelight.
"He knew I meant him no harm, so I was able to joke around with him," Jinkerson says.
Malissa and Jinkerson have been divorced more than twenty years. They were young when they married, and she had already begun to lean on prescription pills, he says. Malissa always had some kind of ailment that required a pile of medications. The explanations rarely checked out.
"Malissa is the kind of person who would tell you she had Lucky Charms for breakfast when she really had Cocoa Puffs," Jinkerson says.
The problems stemmed from childhood, he says. She was just four or five when her mother died suddenly after a hysterectomy went bad. Her late father was an alcoholic "piece of shit" who abused her, Jinkerson says. The trauma apparently left Malissa rootless and eager to fit in. (Jinkerson is sympathetic to a point, but says she's now old enough to be responsible for her actions.)
Malissa's new identity as a bigot amused her ex-husband. He says she had dated black men back in the 1990s in St. Louis but had apparently forgotten all that in her new role as a fervent Klan wife. She was a capable seamstress — her specialty was tutus for little girls — and she had begun sewing robes and patches for the KKK.
"You know that line in the Elton John song 'Tiny Dancer' — 'the seamstress for the band?'" Jinkerson asks, quoting the lyrics. "I would call her 'the Seamstress for the Klan.'"
But Frank was not joking around when he called Jinkerson on the phone about six months ago. The filth of the house, the pills and the stealing had become too much for Frank to bear. He wanted to know, would Jinkerson consider taking Malissa back?
"I was like, 'You're out of your mind,'" Jinkerson recalls. "I guess he thought for a brief, fleeting moment that I would alleviate his pain and take her off his hands."
Frank did not have any better luck with Malissa's grown children. He traded messages with her daughter, 25-year-old Lauren Jinkerson, in October.
"Is there anybody in your family that will let your mother [move] with them," he asked. "I cannot take her being around me another minute her life her drug-dealing her stealing... I can't take anymore of it and she needs a place to go ASAP."
Frank told Lauren he suspected Malissa slipped the blood pressure medicine Clonidine into his coffee, knocking him out so she could steal his medication.
"Really what she did could be considered attempted murder i think," he wrote. "I can barely move or think straight right now.....very weak dizzy and blurred vision."
Lauren advised Frank to throw Malissa out. The Klan wizard said he was ready, but he worried she would hurt herself, call the cops and frame him for spousal abuse. "It's like I'm a prisoner in my own home," he wrote.
Frank had said similar things in the past. He and Malissa were always threatening to split up or move out, relatives say, but it never seemed to happen. Even as he described being drugged and living with constant anxiety, he told his stepdaughter he loved his wife. Lauren, who has one child and a baby on the way, felt no such bond to her mother. During one of their last interactions, Malissa told Lauren she hoped she and her baby would die in childbirth.
Frank should be careful, Lauren warned her stepdad during their October exchange. "She's a huge drug addict, and you need to get rid of her or else she'll drug you one day and she'll kill you instead."
Malissa Ancona and Paul Jinkerson Jr. were charged February 13 with first-degree murder, armed criminal action, tampering with evidence and abandonment of a corpse.
After days of denying she knew anything about her husband's disappearance and sobbing dry-eyed on television news, Malissa had decided to talk to investigators, authorities say. She told detectives she and Jinkerson killed Frank during the early morning hours of February 9. Her son, she claimed, was the triggerman.
"Ms. Ancona admitted to me in an audio video recorded interview that her biological son Paul Edward Jinkerson Jr., shot and killed Frank Ancona while he was asleep in the master bedroom of the residence," St. Francois County Sheriff's Detective Matt Wampler wrote in a probable cause statement. "Ms. Ancona admitted that she failed to report the crime and additionally attempted to destroy blood evidence and altered the crime scene in an attempt to conceal the offense and was acting in concert with her son Paul Jinkerson Jr."
Malissa and her son entered pleas of not guilty last month during their initial court appearance.
Frank had been shot with a nine millimeter handgun and again with a shotgun, authorities say. Malissa told detectives they could find the handgun in the river near where Frank's body was discovered. The shotgun would be in a St. Francois County pond. Sure enough, the murder weapons were right where she'd promised, according to Jacobsen, the Washington County sheriff.
If she told the detective why they killed her husband, it is not mentioned in the court papers. But the neighbor, James Russell, recalls hearing a strange sound, like metal-on-metal banging, for hours on the morning Frank was murdered. He did not know what was going on. Later, when he heard police found the safe busted open, he figured he had his answer.
Malissa's attorney, Wayne Williams, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Some wonder if Malissa's rapid confession is an attempt to cover up an even darker reality. Paul Jinkerson Jr.'s father and siblings suspect he is being framed by his mother.
The 24-year-old was one of the few members of the family who had not completely cut ties with Malissa. A computer science student at Mineral Area College before he got hooked on meth and pills, Paul Jinkerson Jr. was into guitar and read books on creationism. He had probably never fired a gun in his life or even been in a fistfight, his father says.
"He was a geek," Paul Jinkerson Sr. says. "He wasn't somebody who would go out and do this."
There's no way he could be the triggerman, his family claims; he just did not have it in him. But they sound less certain when asked if it is possible he helped his mother try to cover up an act of violence on her part. Lauren Jinkerson says she does not think he would, partly because her brother liked Frank, who had once helped get him a job. Paul Jinkerson Sr. says the same, but he recalls a startling conversation with his son two weeks before the murder.
"He said kind of off-the-cuff that she [Malissa] wanted to kill Frank, and she wanted him to help her clean it up," the father says.
Paul Jinkerson Sr. flipped out when he heard that. He says his son assured him he flat-out refused to be involved in any way. They immediately drove to Malissa and Frank's house, where Paul Jinkerson Sr. told his son to grab a laptop he had left over there, because he was not going to be talking to his mother anymore.
Malissa was home, and it turned ugly once she realized what was happening. Everyone was yelling. She threatened to call her son's probation officer and get his probation revoked, according to her ex-husband.
"Fuck you," Paul Jinkerson Sr. screamed out the window of his car.
"Why don't you kill yourself?" his son added, directing it at his mom.
As they drove away, Paul Jinkerson Sr. warned his son that Malissa could be vindictive and he should stay the hell away from her. He thought that was the end of it until, two weeks later, he learned Frank had disappeared.
As the family searched for clues, they scanned Malissa's Facebook page and found she had posted a picture of Paul Jinkerson Jr. the night before Frank went missing. He had his eyes closed, and one of Malissa's cats was cuddled against his shoulder. He looks drugged, Lauren Jinkerson says later. Her father agrees. Malissa never posted pictures of her son on Facebook before. Paul Jinkerson Sr. thinks she was just trying to put their boy at the scene of the crime.
The family grew even more suspicious when Malissa's sister shared text messages Frank sent her on the last night of his life. He was at work, driving his route, when he suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to sleep and had to pull over. He blamed Malissa.
"I'm thinking it was her Klonopin she dissolved in my food probably because that stuff knocks me out..." he wrote.
Malissa had cooked pasta that night, Frank said in the messages. His had a different sauce, and it tasted so salty he could only eat only a few bites.
"I had to seriously wonder if she isn't trying to kill me drug me up so I will have an accident and she can collect my social security," he wrote.
Paul Jinkerson Sr. heard about those messages, looked at the bizarre picture of his oldest boy passed out on Malissa's couch and thought back to the heated exchange with Malissa two weeks before Frank was killed. He used to think she was all talk, Jinkerson Sr. says.
"In retrospect, I should have done so much more," he says. "I should have called Frank. I should have told Malissa we knew."
After Frank Ancona was killed, animal rescuers teamed up to help relocate her cats and a pair of dogs to shelters, vets and rescues where they could be treated and eventually put up for adoption. They had predicted such activity years ago as they battled with Malissa and tried in vain to get the state to intervene. Now the day had finally come.
Lucretia Skaggs and her husband took two cats the first night, and she returned the next day with more than a dozen volunteers to start gathering the rest. A few of the cats were in awful shape, but most were well-fed and friendly enough. They combed through Malissa's recent Facebook pictures and counted furry faces to make sure they weren't missing any.
"We've always known we would have to go to that house and do a major rescue," Skaggs says. "We've known that for years. We had no inkling of how that would come about. This shocked all of us."
Over the course of a week, they rescued 42 cats. Eleven of them went to Open Door Animal Sanctuary in House Springs, where the staff gave them all check-ups, treated them for fleas and administered de-wormer medications. A little yellow guy they called Spencer was isolated upstairs while they treated him for a respiratory infection called feline calicivirus. An orange-and-white youngster renamed Sprocket rushes up to visitors' legs and then rubs against the bars of his pen, hoping to have his ears rubbed.
"They're all really friendly, actually," says Jeanette Curtin, who's worked for four years at Open Door. She was part of the rescue operation that convened in Leadwood. "It's kind of weirder and sadder in a way. You know she loved them and tried to take care of them — somewhat. It's the weird disconnect between caring for your cat and caring about your cat."
The animal rescue workers were able to load up most of the cats during the first couple of days. They left out traps for the stragglers but finally pulled them after about a week. Skaggs says they had an ominous feeling they were wearing out their welcome. Nothing was specifically said, but workers decided it was not a good idea to keep sending volunteers to Leadwood.
"You just don't get a good vibe," Skaggs says.
Frank's son let the rescuers do as they pleased. It was never his house, and it angers him to think about Malissa trashing his dad's home with all those cats.
About two weeks after his father's death, the place still reeks when Frank Jr. pushes open the door and walks inside.
By this time, the younger man has already cleared out a lot of his father's belongings. The room where Frank Sr. filmed YouTube videos in front of Klan flags and memorabilia was now mostly barren.
All that remains in the Leadwood house is rubble: furniture that should probably be burned, piles of filthy clothes scattered across the floor and overflowing litter boxes. His father's old mattress, stripped bare and stained red with blood, is still in the bedroom next to Malissa's abandoned Singer sewing machine, the one she used to sew Klan robes. Somewhere, hidden behind a stack of kitchen garbage, a forgotten alarm beeps over and over in the dim light.
"Even if you're a cat, that's a shit life," Frank Ancona Jr. says after looking around.
The son says he and his father did not see eye to eye on all the KKK theatrics — "I think it just brings more people to hate you" — but they usually talked about other things. When Frank Jr. is asked about the Klan, he says his dad was in a "certain organization" and emphasizes that was separate from family life. He remembers a father who liked the outdoors and trips to Branson. He was proud to learn his dad had not missed a day of work in eight years.
Reporters have been calling ever since the news broke that a prominent klansman had been killed. The story made international news. Frank Sr. was in the New York Times again. The son says his father's murder did not have anything to do with his work for the Klan. Still, he figures his dad has enjoyed the attention, even in death.
"He's definitely looking down from the heavens, saying, 'I got my name out there now.'"