Man was traveling country, ‘trying to find peace.’ Then he was killed in Kansas City

Growing up, Brittany Goldman spent every Sunday morning in a church pew.

Her father, James Perry, always settled in beside her. Then, as the trills of the choir swelled and covered the sanctuary, Perry stretched his hands high above the congregants.

He also sang along to rock ‘n’ roll – the likes of ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd – but there was something special about those church songs, Goldman remembered. In the moment, he seemed wholly unaware of whether anyone was watching or approved, and neither did he care.

One of Goldman’s sweetest memories is turning to see Perry with his palms raised in the air, praising like he was the only one in the room.

Son of a Baptist preacher, Perry made sure he raised his kids with faith, never failing to remind Goldman, “Make sure you bring my grandbabies to church.”

And Goldman did.

“He would always tell me that he wanted to be just like his father,” Goldman said. “He felt like he just failed at that.”

Perry was unhoused during his later years after suffering a traumatic loss, but Goldman called her father a “rolling stone,” saying he chose to live on the road. He was running from the pain of his past, she said.

“He kept rolling around to these different states trying to find peace,” Goldman said.

Born and raised in Mississippi, Perry would traverse into Louisiana, snake across Florida, and eventually make his way up into Missouri.

It was in a shack at an encampment near Kansas City’s Berkley Riverfront where Perry was killed at the age of 59 in February.

Despite Perry’s complicated journey, Goldman said the path was finally beginning to clear. He had never fully healed, but he was finding his way back before his life was cut short.

James Perry, born and raised in Mississippi, was killed in a Kansas City homeless encampment in February.
James Perry, born and raised in Mississippi, was killed in a Kansas City homeless encampment in February.

A killing in an encampment

On Feb. 25, a man walked into a dog-grooming business and told employees his friend had been killed in an encampment nearby, according to documents filed in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Police responded to a wooded area near the 1000 block of East 1st Street and found Perry in a shack made of tarp and wood near a set of railroad tracks and the Heart of America Bridge. He was covered in cuts and showed no signs of life.

Witnesses told detectives they saw another unhoused man, 58-year-old Tracy McKee, enter Perry’s makeshift tent the day before Perry was found. Prosecutors say he attacked Perry with a bladed instrument and told the witnesses to leave.

Court documents indicate that on Feb. 23, the morning before the killing, there was another call for service involving Perry and McKee. Perry allegedly identified himself to police during the call.

McKee was allegedly located by police, injured and hallucinating, before being taken to the hospital. Authorities determined that, at that point, no crime had occurred, according to court documents.

The next day, surveillance footage captured McKee and two others walking toward Perry’s camp. The trio was seen leaving the area 10 minutes later, according to prosecutors.

McKee was arrested Feb. 28 and charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action. His arraignment is set for April 3.

‘Off on another adventure’

Before Perry was without a home, he was the father who would rush to the shaved ice stand at the start of each summer, making sure his kids were first in line. While he kept busy with his painting business, Goldman said he always made time for family.

Perry, called “Kirt” or even “Big ‘Ole Kirt” by those who knew him well, spent his free time fishing and trekking across the Carolinas with his longtime friend, Fredrick Seal. The two would spend their time outside, discussing everything from family life to pressing philosophical questions.

James Perry, who was 59 when he died, poses in an old photograph. His daughter, Brittany Goldman, said his difficult past led to him becoming unhoused.
James Perry, who was 59 when he died, poses in an old photograph. His daughter, Brittany Goldman, said his difficult past led to him becoming unhoused.

Seal said Perry craved new experiences, always wanting to travel and explore new places. Now, he feels certain he’s at peace.

“He’s off on another adventure,” he said.

Most of all, family and friends said, Perry loved his wife, Melissa Ann.

In 2010, Perry’s life shifted dramatically when Melissa Ann died in a house fire.

Reeling from the passing of his wife and feeling guilty he couldn’t save her, Perry lost everything, Goldman said. His heartache spiraled into addiction, and Perry became homeless. Goldman said she begged him to come home, but Perry felt like he couldn’t face his loved ones.

“He had dealt with a lot,” Goldman said. “He just felt like he didn’t deserve to be around his family.”

Things were never the same after that, but Goldman still remembers her father as the man who brought her to church every Sunday, who took her to dance classes and called her his “Tiny Dancer,” just like the Elton John song.

His cousin, Debbie Aaron, said Perry sought to make her laugh, even in the midst of his grief. The two would chat on Messenger after he became homeless. He’d ask her how his favorite cousin was doing, and she’d ask him if he was warm.

“Kirt was such a fun-loving guy, from his childhood till his tragic death,” she said. “Everybody who ever knew him liked him.”

Perry lived a full life before he became unhoused, Goldman said, and even after, loved ones were eager to help him. She remembers him as an adventurous, spirited father who loved his family, and she hopes he’ll be memorialized that way.

“He was more than a homeless man,” she said. “He had all this going for him, and then it was just all taken away at once.”

Just before his death, things seemed like they were improving. Goldman said her father had been paired with a social worker and was seriously considering coming back home.

But Perry never got that chance.

In the wake of his death, Perry’s loved ones believe he is finally at peace. For his memorial, Goldman said she chose to play a ballad he loved from Lynyrd Skynyrd. The guitar wails transition into the first lyrics:

If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me? For I must be traveling on now, ‘cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see.”