GRAND LAKE – Most people who move into the Grand Lake area hear the whispers of mafia activity.
While Jimmy Hoffa’s body will likely not turn up in the area, 50 years ago the Kansas City mafia had infiltrated the area with the goal of bribing law enforcement officials so they could bring gambling and prostitution through the back door of an established Grove nightclub.
The Mr. Yuk Club, with its red and black shag carpet, that covered not only the floors but also the walls, was considered “groovy” at the time. It was a swinging nightclub and the go-to place on Grand Lake in the 1970s.
Jess Roberts opened the 300-seat swanky Grove nightclub in August 1971 at a price tag of $150,000 according to published reports.
The luxury club, with its stone and rock building, stood out like bright red lipstick in the rural resort town of flip flops and fishing gear. Images of a smoke-filled pleasure house come to mind, with people dancing, playing pool, drinking, and cavorting in private booths. And back in the day, everyone smoked indoors so they had a top-of-the-line ventilation system installed.
It was raided by the Delaware County Sheriff’s Department six times in seven months for operating “an open saloon,” according to published reports.
Oklahoma was a “dry state” until 1984. That meant customers would bring their own bottles of alcohol to the nightclub. Roberts was also selling liquor by the drink across the bar.
All that partying at the Mr. Yuk Club came to a screeching halt on March 16, 1972, when Roberts was lured to a secluded location by a “friend” where he was robbed and shot three times, once in the stomach and twice from behind. Roberts said he was then stuffed into the trunk of a car and “played dead.” His attackers dumped his body on the side of a road north of Cowskin Bridge. With blood gushing from his “gut wound,” Roberts crawled out of a ravine to the roadside where he was picked up by a local farmer. He put the injured nightclub owner in his vehicle and drove him straight to a Grove hospital.
In an interview with the Tulsa Tribune in August 1972, Roberts said he spent six-and-half hours in surgery and was released from a Joplin hospital weeks later.
Roberts not only owned the Grove nightclub, but he was also the owner of a Lawrence, Kansas club by the same name.
He was also at the center of a federal investigation into the workings of Kansas City mobster, James S. “Jimmy” Duardi. The mafia’s plan was to bribe law enforcement officials in order to bring in gambling and prostitution, according to published reports.
Roberts’s testimony of corrupted politicians and law enforcement officers was corroborated by other employees who testified, according to court records.
The multiple liquor raids on the Mr. Yuk Club had taken a toll on Roberts’ wallet. Within seven months from its opening, the club was padlocked shut.
Roberts testified that for $1,000, law enforcement would look the other way when it came to his club, according to published reports. Roberts also testified George Husong, an Ottawa County District Attorney investigator said: “for a certain price” he and District Attorney Frank Grayson could get the raids on the Mr. Yuk Club stopped, according to published reports.
The deal would put a stop to the raids and allow gambling. In return, Husong and Grayson would get 20 percent of the gambling proceeds, a car for the local sheriff, Loyd Rosell, while keeping other law enforcement officers away from the club, according to court records.
Roberts wanted an additional room added to the club for gambling. He also wanted to add a motel, an amusement park and gambling at the Show Boat, a Wyandotte nightclub owned by Jack King and Duardi, and rather than giving 20 percent of the gambling proceeds he would pay 5 percent of the profits of the entire operation.
The deal went south after Roberts failed to secure financing.
Husong told Roberts that Grayson and himself were going forward with all the agreements in place concerning the notification of raids, allowing gambling in the club, and they were going to keep the 1972 Chevrolet Impala car, but would make the payments on the car and they would expect no percentage out of the gambling, according to court records.
Roberts’ testimony was that “once this was started, we had to stick to it, there was too much money had been spent to back out at this time,” according to published reports.
In February 1972 Roberts learned that IRS agents were in Grove, and it was agreed they “would let things lay quiet for a while until this simmered down.”
Sheriff Rosell appeared before a federal grand jury and denied that he was the target of a bribe, according to published reports.
Duardi and others wanted to take over the Mr. Yuk Club and use it as a playground for wealthy Kansas City businessmen who “wanted to get away from their wives and businesses and have a good time,” according to a 1972 Associated Press story.
“We were to have girls come down from Kansas City and dress them real sharp,” according to Roberts’s testimony. Roberts would dress the women as waitresses and if men wanted “their companionship for the night” it could be arranged at their expense, according to published reports.
When this plan backfired, Duardi’s minions, Clifford Bishop and King, attempted to kill Roberts. In fact, several people associated with the case were threatened including a Grove Sun newspaper editor and a Grove banker.
When all the dust settled, Grayson and Husong were convicted of conspiring with Kansas City mob members to bring gambling and prostitution to Grand Lake. The four Kansas City men, including Nathaniel J. Brancato were also convicted.
Grayson and Husong denied any wrongdoing saying they acted like corrupted politicians to infiltrate the mob’s activities, according to published reports.
Their claims fell on deaf ears and the pair spent two years in federal prison.
Olivia Mae Pitts and Roberts were indicted as co-conspirators but not defendants, court records show.
The Mr. Yuk Club was later reopened as a Chinese restaurant and was eventually demolished.