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."