Published March 4th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Frank McGonigle had been dead 12 years, his murdered body identified for three years, when a man most Kansas Citians know as a punchy children’s entertainer got on the case.
The stage moniker “Mr. Stinky Feet” doesn’t naturally align with the violence that killed the free-spirited Frank, who was 26 years old at the time of his death.
And yet, it does.
If the rest of the world has six degrees of separation, the distance between Kansas Citians seems much shorter. Stir in connections of faith, family and shared grief, and you’ll understand how easily seemingly disparate lives link.
All are part of this story.
Jim Cosgrove is the real name of Mr. Stinky Feet. His energetic persona is widely known for commanding stages, singing upbeat tunes for young audiences.
Until now, his books have been an offshoot of his performances for children – “Sullen Sally,” “Hark! It’s Harold The Angel” and “Bop Bop Dinosaur,” a lovable creature who wears polka dot boxers and gets his groove on dancing with a crowd of animals.
Cosgrove’s book about Frank’s murder, “Ripple: A Long Strange Search for a Killer,” is due out April 5 (published by Steerforth Press and distributed by Penguin Random House).
The title is a reference to a Grateful Dead song, one of Frank’s favorites.
True crime might seem a jarring diversion for a children’s performer, but only until you ask about Cosgrove’s childhood. Frankly, you don’t even have to ask.
Cosgrove is open about aligning his own life with that of the McGonigle family, widely known for operating an extraordinarily popular small grocery store and meat market on Ward Parkway.
Both families were among the large Irish, Catholic community that dominated Brookside during his youth. He considers his book a memoir as much as a true crime book. Much of it is written first-person.
Cosgrove never knew Frank well, but he knew of his 1982 disappearance. Cosgrove’s elder siblings were closer to Frank’s brothers and sisters. Their friendships were stoked by being in the same grade, attending classes together at the nearby St. Peter’s School.
In 1994, Cosgrove began studying the story, initially as his master’s thesis, which he completed the following year.
But the full journey would take 27 years. He’s reached some conclusions for himself about the possible culprit in Frank’s death. Multiple reporting trips were made to the low country of South Carolina, the inlet where Frank died, the last visit in 2019.
One McGonigle brother, Mike, accompanied Cosgrove that time.
“It’s one thing to lose a brother, it is another thing to get up close and personal with the people who you believe are responsible for it,” McGonigle said of the trip.
The book, McGonigle said, is primarily about Cosgrove’s journey.
Twenty-six-year-old Frank was found slumped against a tree, shot, in a wooded area in June 1982. His body was discovered mere days after he’d emptied his bank account, and left Brookside.
He had no identification on him. And he was 1,200 miles from home.
Hence, the moniker “the boy in the woods.” The tag was used by media in the South and for years by locals, people living in what was then a somewhat isolated oyster-shucking community. Today, it’s a well-developed tourist area, not too far from Myrtle Beach.
The mystery of the boy in the woods wouldn’t be solved for another nine years. Frank’s body spent five years unidentified in a morgue before being buried in a grave marked with all that was known about him at the time: “WHITE MALE DIED JUNE 1982 MURRELLS INLET, S.C.”
Eventually, a breakthrough came thanks largely to the work of an inquisitive detective in Kansas City, Kansas, using the then new science of DNA.
“The thing that was unique about Frank was his kind and gentle nature,” said Mike McGonigle. “And that made him a very tragic target for that violence. The fact that he was missing for nine years just kind of amplified the impact of that.”
For Kansas Citians, the name is synonymous with the quality meat and seafood of McGonigle’s Market.
The family’s beloved small butcher shop and grocery stood for nearly seven decades at West 79th Street and Ward Parkway, before it was sold to an Iowa grocery chain in 2020.
Frank’s great grandfather founded the family business in 1882, a wholesale meat company in the West Bottoms. His father, Bill McGonigle, founded the popular market.
A neighborly vibe radiated from the narrow, carefully curated aisles of fresh fruits, vegetables, canned staples and the cold cases.
And in the 1960s and ‘70s, there was generally a younger McGonigle or two.
Growing up, all of the children worked there, including Frank. He was the sixth child of nine, part of Bill and Joan McGonigle’s bustling, rambunctious family.
He was also, often the quieter child.
In a way, he’s emblematic of so many other struggling people, born before society began to gain deeper understandings of mental health, Cosgrove said. Terms that are commonplace today hadn’t entered regular discourse, but could be used to describe some of his behaviors. Self-medicating. Addiction. Depression.
His brother, Mike, doesn’t feel qualified to fairly diagnose his brother, but does comment:
“I guess Frank was a troubled soul,” he said. “He was a lost sailor, and he met a really hideous violent end.”
Like a lot of young men, Frank liked road trips, the feeling of adventure. At first, it didn’t seem that odd that he’d take off in his four-door Plymouth Horizon.
But then he didn’t call to let the family know that he was safe. Days would pass.
Left to follow her own instincts, Frank’s mother might have found her son within two months of his death.
A bit of Joan McGonigle’s fortitude is captured in her 2011 obituary. Her husband died in 2002.
“Raising nine children was a Herculean task, with daily diaper loads for 18 straight years, approximately 13,500 family dinners, 21,600 school sack lunches, 50 family Christmases, 500 birthday parties and innumerable sleepless nights of worry,” read the obit. “She attended every baptism, confirmation, graduation, wedding, musical or dance recital, theatrical production, or other special occasion offered to her.”
When Frank’s car turned up abandoned in North Carolina a few months after his disappearance, his mother swung into action.
She was prepared to distribute flyers with her son’s photo and other pertinent information to every county law enforcement in those surrounding Southern states.
But she was dissuaded by those who had faith in national crime systems, where law enforcement agencies and coroners input information on unidentified bodies.
She had no way of knowing that the identifying elements of Frank’s body fell victim to human error. The data wasn’t entered into that system, not until years after the body was discovered.
The family had struggled to get Kansas City police to begin a missing person’s case because Frank was an adult, and there hadn’t been reason to suspect foul play. Eventually, as a favor, an officer in the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department created a missing person’s case on Frank.
That act of kindness left a trail for an earnest detective to follow, nearly ten years later.
In the early 1990s, former KCK police detective Kenneth Allen was assigned to the missing person’s unit. Allen began combing through cold case files and saw Frank’s.
“I just kept thinking, ‘Well, there has to be something with this case,’” Allen said. “It just didn’t seem right that his car would come up, but not him.”
The technology of DNA evidence was just coming into use, said Allen, 77. He retired in 1998, after 30 years with the department.
Back then, the process involved putting together a large packet of information, fingerprints, hair samples etc. He worked with Bill and Joan McGonigle, who readily complied.
“We got a hit out of South Carolina,” Allen said. “I got ahold of the detectives there, and sure enough, it was him.”
Frank’s parents were pacifists, a position that was even more firmly held after Frank’s murder, their son Mike said. They were very active in social justice movements, often through their faith as Catholics.
No charges were ever brought. Allen said that detectives in the county where Frank was found assured him that “they knew who did it, they just couldn’t prove it.”
He stayed in touch with Joan McGonigle for years, as she’d call to check in.
“She always said that she was just relieved to know,” Allen said. “She always said that she had just been so worried.”
“Ripple” is being pitched by publicists as a murder mystery, a true crime story.
The genre doesn’t quite fit how Cosgrove sees it.
“I didn’t expect to get pulled into the story,” he said. “When I started it, it was just intended to be about the McGonigle family and what they went through in their journey.”
But then it also became his own.
Cosgrove was a feature writer at the Albuquerque Journal. He’s also worked for Hallmark as a writer.
But it’s also through his wife, with whom he has two daughters, that his understanding of violent crime and its impact on families formed.
Jeni Cosgrove is the younger sister of Stephanie Schmidt, a 19-year-old Pittsburg State University student who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered in 1993. The case was solved relatively fast, but Schmidt’s parents then became active in getting laws changed. The murderer had a prior record of sexual violence and had been out on parole.
Among the quotes promoting the book is praise from criminal profiler and author John Douglas, who has written about the Schmidt murder.
Cosgrove remembers discussing the McGonigle case with his future wife early in their relationship.
After they married, everyday life and his busy performing schedule filled Cosgrove’s days. But there were always lingering threads from Frank’s story.
Three men are implicated in the murder in Cosgrove’s book. None were ever charged. All are dead.
Each man suffered an early death. One was felled by cancer. Another died after being beaten, stabbed and then his body burned. The third, the one that law enforcement long suspected of pulling the trigger, died of complications from AIDS. He spent his last days chained to a medical bed, incarcerated on other charges, Cosgrove said.
Cosgrove has his own beliefs about which one was responsible, in part through his friendship with a woman he met during his travels to South Carolina.
Carol Williams is an “energy reader” – she shuns the term psychic. At one point in his travels, Williams went to the site where the body was found and believes that Frank was present, with messages for his family.
“I’ll never forget that one,” said Williams, who still lives in South Carolina. “He said that he loved them. And that it was lonely where he was, but that he loved them, and he was so sorry.”
Through the years, Williams grew close to Cosgrove. She said that his sensitive nature, his desire to be a peacemaker drove much of his quest.
And indeed, Cosgrove said that because the book took years to complete, he’s now able to see his own trajectory, the growth in his levels of compassion over time.
Initially, Frank’s mother did not want it published, past the thesis. But she later gave permission for the book, Cosgrove said.
“I did end in a place of real compassion,” he said of his work. “Compassion for almost everyone involved.”
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.