Anyone who’s ever faced hard times – like Anderson’s Hereford House did – can maybe relate to the feeling of despair this otherwise model Kansas City citizen was experiencing and the temptation to opt for a seemingly easy out in the form of an insurance fire.
There’s no doubt arson was the wrong way to go, of course.
Yet despite continuing to proclaim his innocence, as Anderson has, it was clear at yesterday’s sentencing that both he and lawyer J.R. Hobbs were quite shamed and apologetic for what Anderson had done.
Yet five years after the fact, there we all sat in a courtroom packed with friends, family and former associates and civic leader Anderson braced for the worst. A 15 year sentence was awarded with restitution to be determined.
And there was Anderson, the always impeccably dressed, well coiffed businessman / restaurateur, beat down and forlorn in a faded orange jumpsuit with the word “Inmate” stenciled across the back. Adorned in chains that ran from his ankles to his wrists, then around his waist.
There would be no courtroom antics, outbursts or rough housing on this sad day, Anderson was in full lockdown.
This was a very sad day for a very sad man.
And there they all were, Anderson’s sorrowful friends, family and business associates, a sorrowful judge and a sorrowful, apologetic defense lawyer. The only one in the courtroom still up for hammering Anderson was the prosecutor, U.S. attorney Jess Michaelson.
Michaelson had a job to do which was to sternly remind a courtroom full of Anderson sympathizers that but for the kindness of fate, any number of people might have lost their lives or been badly injured as a result of Anderson’s $2.4 million insurance fire in 2008.
Harry Murphy the owner of Harry’s Country Club in the River market and a former Hereford House Leawood employee was on hand for the glum affair.
It’s difficult to describe Anderson’s look in the courtroom.
But it was somewhere between wildly fallen and humbled with equal parts despair and resignation. It was as if the worst bad dream imaginable for Rod Anderson had become unbelievably and horribly true.
Except possibly lie.
There’s little doubt that Anderson’s gone over this entire misadventure in his head a thousand times. Yet now, at age 60, he’s going to jail broke, stranding his family with expensive private school tuition and college fees and a very uncertain future. And when Anderson finally does get out of jail, he’ll be at an age and in a financial condition that won’t make it easy to break back into the business scene, pay his restitution and maybe get his arms around a final few golden years.
Yeah, Rod Anderson’s a model citizen alright, but in the sense that we should all model our futures so as not to follow his footsteps to a life of ruin.
It’s almost impossible to imagine a worse fate befalling such an esteemed member of the community.
It was a far cry from the dapper, outgoing Rod Anderson I once knew.
The affable accountant who breezed into town a few decades back and took over a losing proposition called the Hereford House at 20th and Main. It was old school to a fault and was losing ground fast to the new breed of steakhouse chains ranging from Outback on the lower end to Capitol Grill on the higher.
Anderson made the most of it though by keeping his comfort food style steak prices low and using restaurant trade to barter for advertising to help promote the joint. And with a vaunted name like the Hereford House, clearly Anderson had a Kansas City institution to sell and sell it he did.
Somehow it all worked, but then he tried to go King Midas opening additional eateries helter skelter, all over the area. Including a financially ruinous one in Lawrence, another that tanked in Westport and lots of fumbling about in Union Station.
But back to the sentencing…
Anderson’s lawyer did his best to try and shame the judge into going light on his client based upon the nobility of Anderson’s many good deeds and civic contributions.
“He’s now 60 years-old and he has no criminal history,” Hobbs pleaded. “And he has demonstrated throughout his life that he can be a productive member of this community.”
We learned that Anderson had worked with the Boy Scouts, his son was an Eagle Scout, that he’d provided food for the homeless, student loans for needy college kids – good deeds galore all across the city. Tossing Treads & Threads into the mix seemed a bit of a stretch, but the bottom line was – and everyone but the prosecutor seemed to agree – that Anderson was a jolly good fellow and a jive mellow farmer.
His lawyer boasted to the court that the letters of support he’d filed on Anderson’s behalf were the best he’d ever seen and the judge later agreed.
And while you’d never know it by the end result or looking at Anderson, his sentencing was about as close to a love fest as you’ll ever probably see in a court of law. For the guilty party, no less.
Know what though? It worked.
The judge all but apologized to Anderson for having to sentence him and then let him off the hook by following the minimum sentencing guidelines instead of sticking it to him as the prosecutor had asked.
Anderson tripped on his chains as he rose to address the judge and the court.
“I want to thank you for the opportunity to speak today,” he began. “I’ve always taken pride…”
Then he began to cry before quickly composing himself and adding that he was glad there were no injuries to the firefighters. He thanked his family and friends and then – without so much as gazing up or looking in the direction of his family and friends – Anderson returned to his seat, head bowed in shame, wearing the look of a man walking to his execution.
By this time of course, prosecutor Michaelson had had more than enough.
Michaelson was pisssed and chastized Anderson for not taking one of the plea deals and saving taxpayers the time and expense of trying him. He then hammered Anderson because he had still not accepted his guilt and continued to profess his innocence.
“He used dangerous men to destroy the restaurant and endanger the lives of others,” Michaelson advised the judge. “He was fully aware of the consequences of his actions…He says he’s glad no one was injured, but I say he was lucky…He was lucky one of his hired thugs didn’t kill one of themselves, otherwise he’d be facing life in prison…He wanted that old dog destroyed.”
It was truly a massive and very unpleasant trip up Shit Creek for Anderson.
And screw all of Anderson’s good deeds, Michaelson argued forcefully.
They were “just in the past.”
Five years to yesterday’s court date and “He’s still denying his involvement in the arson,” Michaelson ripped. “These are not the actions of someone who deserves leniency, your honor.”
Which brings us to U.S. District Judge David Gregory Kays.
Like Hobbs, Kays said he’d reviewed the many testimonial letters and couldn’t remember anyone ever getting a better batch.
“My job today is to fashion an appropriate punishment,” Kays continued.
And while Kays was more than willing to kill Anderson with kindness, he also added – ominously I might add – that “I feel the evidence is very strong” against Anderson.
Not a good sign for Anderson where a possible appeal is concerned.
“Then we look at your history,” Kays continued. “And frankly, Mr. Anderson you make this difficult. People like you who have a lot to give the community make it very difficult for a judge.”
Having familiarizing himself with Anderson via the many letters of support, Kays characterized him as “the type of person anybody would like to have as a friend.”
“Here we have this really good guy, a part of the Kansas City community who did something very wrong,” Kays said. “And it’s very important that people know that no matter who you are, you’re not above the law. I’d be surprised if you don’t get out of prison and do good things. I hope you do.”
Anderson has 14 days to appeal.
Following the sentencing Anderson rose and turned to his wife in the front row, reaching out for a farewell embrace. But it was not to be as the guard pulled him away and ushered him to the exit door and on to a life of uncertainty, frustration, fear and loneliness. Like I said, it was as sad a sight as could be imagined.
I’ve never known a man to fall that hard and that far – that ruinously and that patheticly – and that needlessly.
Let Rod Anderson be a model for us all in the hope that when our time comes and everythings on the line…we somehow know better.