Still Life Among the Klan

[Note: This is a short excerpt from a longer piece published in marie claire International.]

The single most memorable thing about Frank Ancona, his neighbors would all agree in the weeks after his brutal murder, was not his membership with the notorious Ku Klux Klan.

Nor was the most memorable thing about him his lofty position as Grand Wizard in the same. It wasn’t the frequent, vicious fights he had with his wife and co-murderer, Malissa Ancona, which were often so loud that neighbors several houses away could hear the shouting from their own living rooms. It wasn’t even the strange circumstances of his murder, which was carried out by Malissa and Frank’s stepson after months of comically poor planning, and which will almost certainly lead to the conviction of both later this fall.

No, the most single memorable thing about Frank Ancona, his neighbors agree, was that he always smelled like cat urine.

“He just reeked of piss,” explained Marty, who lives down the block from Frank and Malissa’s home in the tiny rural town of Leadwood, Missouri. “You knew he was coming from a block away just by the odor. I couldn’t talk to him for more than two minutes without needing to gag.”

Frank Ancona’s noxiously feline eau de parfum was just one of the mysteries local law enforcement officials were able to quickly explain after Malissa Ancona’s arrest. According to the Washington County sheriffs, 44 year-old Malissa was a pathological hoarder who had collected years of newspaper, trash, and cats. Lots of cats. Neighbors estimate there were upwards of a hundred inside and around the Ancona’s 900 square-foot home at the time of Frank’s murder. Long before she decided to murder her husband, Malissa had removed all of the home’s windows, and wrapped the dilapidated house in chicken wire in a futile attempt to air out the place while keeping the cats from escaping.

Piecing together that it was Malissa Ancona and her son who murdered Frank, as it turned out, was not that much more difficult to figure out than why he always smelled like a filthy litter box.

The Anconas were well known for their tumultuous, hostile relationship. Neighbors say that each stole pills to pop from one another, and would unleash a torrent of obscenities about the other spouse with little or no provocation. Neighbors also said that Frank had been talking for months about divorcing his wife. Malissa perceived this talk as such an insult, authorities say, that it drove her to make the decision to have him killed in cold blood. Police contend that before Frank could file to terminate their marriage in divorce, Malissa convinced her son from a previous marriage, Paul Jinkerson, to shoot his stepfather in the couple’s bedroom. Jinkerson did so, then drove the body miles away and dumped it in Missouri’s Big River. Though the murder itself seems to have gone off without a hitch, Malissa and Jinkerson’s attempt to get away with the crime was notable mainly for its ineptness.

Court records show that Paul Jinkerson casually told friends and family alike in public settings that he and his mother were planning kill Frank. Not to be outdone by her son’s bungling, Malissa seemed to go out of her way to make herself look as suspicious as possible to the authorities. Worried about rent after killing her household’s sole breadwinner, she put out an ad looking for a new roommate the day Frank was killed. Later, after Frank was reported missing to the authorities, she told police that her husband was merely on an extended business trip, not guessing that the police might contact Frank’s employer to verify this story. (In fact, it was Frank’s employer who had reported him missing.) She lied to the press, claiming that law enforcement officials had deputized her to investigate the murder, not dreaming that the press might actually report that she said this, or that law enforcement officers might read it. Finally, though she had wiped up most of the blood on her bedroom floor, she left quite a bit for the police to find during their investigation. In quick order, authorities were able to get Paul Jinkerson to confess to the conspiracy. Malissa, it should be noted, still maintains her innocence, but the amount of evidence against her is so staggering it’s difficult to understand why she does.

“The reason she thinks she can still get away with it is that she’s a complete loony toon, the craziest person I’ve ever met,” insisted Sherry, another Ancona neighbor. Then, after reflection, Sherry added, “Of course, Frank was no prize either.”

“Did you know,” Sherry continued, lowering her voice to a whisper as if imparting a great secret, “that Frank Ancona was a KKK Grand Wizard?”

Of course I knew. It was why I’d spent a better part of my winter talking to Frank. It was, as best I could tell, the only reason anyone ever talked to him at all, be they white supremacist allies or media foes. Everyone who knew anything about Frank knew he was a Grand Wizard, and therein lied the rub.

Being a KKK Grand Wizard in 2017 America makes you a villain, hated by almost everyone. But for Frank — and indeed for most other modern KKK members that I would meet with in the weeks following the election of one Donald J. Trump — that villain-hood was all he had.

*     *     *

Around the time Malissa and Paul Jinkerson were first plotting to murder Frank Ancona, I was one thousand miles away in the town of Pelham, North Carolina, waiting for the official Ku Klux Klan Donald Trump Victory Parade to begin. Pelham is in many ways remarkably similar to Ancona’s own hometown of Leadwood. Each are small, rural, and shockingly poor. The entire business district of Pelham that the parade was scheduled to go through consists of one church, one community center, and a car junkyard.

The parade had been announced on a local KKK website immediately after Donald Trump’s victory in November. Klan members estimated that thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of KKK leaders, foot soldiers, and supporters from around the country would participate. The press caught wind of it shortly thereafter, and hyped it for weeks; as a result I was one of about fifty reporters from all around the globe there to cover it. There were also several hundred anti-KKK protesters, some carrying signs promoting racial harmony but others ominously wielding baseball bats. I asked one of the latter, a young woman sporting aviators and black kerchief tied into a mask, why she brought a bat, and she glared at me.

“I brought it just in case one of those racist fuckers tries to talk any shit to me,” she finally growled, in a tone that suggested that the bat might work just as well with reporters asking stupid questions.

Anti- KKK Protesters in Pelham, NC

The KKK, however, never bothered to show up.

A few straggling Klan leaders, foot soldiers, and family had indeed gathered in North Carolina, but nowhere near the scale advertised. The exact number is hazy, since the Klan is not known for either its honesty or its openness, but estimates seem to range from between ten and thirty people total. The night before the parade, they went on an ill-advised drinking bender, which likely contributed to the fact that one Klan member was arrested that night by local sheriffs for stabbing another. The next day, hung over and faced with an embarrassing small turnout, they chose to hold the parade not in Pelham but in Roxboro, a town some forty miles to the west. Though, really, “parade” is somewhat misleading: the Klan supporters drove though town in a single-file line, at about 50 kilometers per hour, occasionally yelling “White Power!” out of their rolled-down windows. It lasted a couple of minutes.

An actual photograph of the entire Foxboro KKK Parade.

As paltry as that sounds, the truth is that most experts who follow the Klan were surprised they could even get that many people together. Though the KKK is often reported as a large, menacing force in American rural politics, the truth is that it’s dying, and has been for decades.

“People think the KKK is this huge, dangerous organization,” explained Heidi Beirich, who tracks the KKK for the hate-group watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center. “It used to big, and I suppose if you arm even one racist they can be dangerous? But really, in 2017 the Klan is just a few bottom-barrel losers who mostly fight amongst themselves.”

Race is a complicated topic everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more so than in America. The US was the first country to be based on the premise that “all men are created equal,” yet it continued the practice of a slave system based almost entirely race until 1865. For over a century after slavery was abolished, black Americans were largely segregated out of affluent society. State laws limited black American’s voting rights, outlawed blacks marrying whites, and dictated where blacks could live.

The Ku Klux Klan was formed in this environment, shortly after the end of the Civil War, initially as a joke. At the time, Victorian secret societies — with their arcane names, rules, and ceremonies — were all the rage with the Boston and New York upper classes. The KKK was originally meant to poke fun at those coastal Yankee elites; in fact the very name “Ku Klux Klan” was chosen because it was utter gibberish. As time went on, however, the joke faded, and the ceremonies went from being satire to Holy to its members — and Holy things eventually need a cause to rally behind. It chose perpetrating violence against blacks, since ex-slaveholders were terrified of what freed blacks might do to them in revenge. For over a century, the KKK’s Grand Wizards were also their communities’ political and business leaders, considered gentlemen by polite society.

Now, however, the Klan has become associated with “poor white trash,” even to other racist organizations. Those still attached to the Klan are, like Frank and Malissa Ancona, amongst the most impoverished citizens in America. They tend to live in squalor, many suffering from addiction and chronic illness. They are, in short, a most pathetic and ugly lot.

And the irony is that the KKK, America’s undisputed symbol of racism, is dying out in what might well be the biggest resurgence of US white nationalism in over a century. There is a rising new class of American business and political gentlemen who refer to themselves as the alt-right. Like the Klan, the alt-right began as a sort of joke, a thumbing of the nose to politically correct coastal elites — until it evolved into something darker. Donald Trump lionized many of these alt-righters when he ran for President, which is in no small part why the Klan supported him. With Trump’s victory, alt-righters such as ex-Klansman David Duke and anti-Muslim provocateur Milo Yiannopoulis believe they have achieved a new-found respectability. Trump’s own staff includes Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who previously edited a news website known for publishing what critics call racist and anti-Semitic content. And with all of this, incidents of race and religion-based hate crimes are skyrocketing in the United States.

“In some ways,” Beirich says, “the KKK’s days in America are numbered. But in another way, right now it looks like they may have won anyway. Open, unhidden white supremacy is slowly becoming mainstream again.”

*     *     *

It’s late on a Sunday evening as I talk to Karen, another neighbor of the Anconas, who asks that I not use her real name.

“Partially, I guess,” she answers, when I ask her if she wants anonymity to protect her from possible reprisals from the Klan. “Mostly, though, I don’t want anyone to know I was talking to a reporter on the Lord’s day.” Like most everyone in Leadwood, Karen is very big on religion, and considerably less so on the media.

Karen tells me she doesn’t condone what Malissa did to her husband, saying that the judgment for Frank’s murder is “between her and Jesus Christ, but it’s surely gonna come.” She does say that she feels sorry for Malissa, though. Karen asks if I’ve seen “that picture of Malissa in the news,” by which she means the mug shot, where Malissa’s dyed blond hair and 44 years look weathered and hard-worn. “That picture is so sad. It tells you the whole story of Malissa and Frank Ancona. So poor, so full of hate.”

I’ve seen the mug shot, of course. But there’s another photo in the news of Malissa and Frank, one that I think captures their story better: their wedding photo.


In this photo, Frank is dressed is his ceremonial KKK robe and hood. He’s beaming, blissfully unaware of what lies ahead. Malissa’s expression is grim, determined. If the look on her face is any judge, she appears to know exactly how violently and senselessly her new marriage will end. But the most haunting part of this picture to me is Malissa’s bridal gown. It’s a KKK robe with a bit of veil sewn onto the tell-tale white hood. It’s been altered at the chest to suggest just a hint of cleavage — because what bride doesn’t want to feel like a beautiful, sexy woman on her wedding day?

Even in this old photo, their fate seems sealed. You can only send out so much hate into the world, after all, before that hate comes back around looking for you.