In wake of stolen Jackie Robinson statue, Wichita responds

Onlookers gather at McAdams Park in Wichita, Kansas, on Jan. 27, two days after the bronze statue of baseball legend Jackie Robinson was cut down and stolen from this spot. Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle via AP

WICHITA, KAN. -- At noon, when Bob Lutz left the old mechanic's garage that had been turned into the gleaming headquarters of the youth baseball league he founded, he liked to look across the street at the statue of Jackie Robinson.

There, in a pavilion celebrating the baseball Hall of Famer and civil rights icon, the bronze landmark stood in the park where children play in a league named after the Brooklyn Dodgers legend.

The Robinson statue was hard to miss, even on a foggy day this past January, when Lutz squinted through raindrops and asked his administrative assistant if she could see the 6-foot, 265-pound monument. For a closer look, she crossed E. 17th Street and headed over to McAdams Park, where League 42 plays its games and where the statue had stood since 2021.

Lutz said he never could have prepared himself fully for what she reported back to him.

"They'd cut [the statue] off at the feet," he recalled, "and it was gone."

Before he called police at 12:55 p.m. and began fielding all the media calls, Lutz did the only thing he could in that moment.

He cried.

As the tears streamed down his face, Lutz thought of what he had built. He started League 42 in 2013, with rusted backstops and no dugouts. Players on 16 teams sat down the right- and left-field lines on metal bleachers, exposed to hard-hit foul balls. The league had grown, with 46 teams across five age groups and facilities including outdoor fields with dugouts, an indoor turf practice facility, a learning center that provides tutors and a financial literacy program.

As the tears kept coming, Lutz thought of the more than 600 players and their families, more than two-thirds of whom were Black and Latino. Lutz, who once feared baseball had become a country club sport, wanted to change that. He'd built it for kids like 9-year-old Emil Arriaga, whose mother, Valerie, called the league a confidence-builder.

And he built it for kids like Ohmari Johnson, an 11-year-old who hadn't played baseball before and was in search of a sport that fit him. After some time in League 42, he liked it enough to play a tabletop version of the game that mixes dice, math and the sport's rules. Once he learned about Robinson and what he overcame, Johnson found one word to describe how Robinson's story made him feel.

"Happy," he said.

Every year on Jackie Robinson Day, the country reflects on Robinson's legacy. This happens every day along E.17th Street, where the statue stood as a symbol of hope for a low-income community -- the median household income in the league's zip code is just over $30,000 -- and a catalyst for change within it. This past weekend, two teams of 13- and 14-year-olds played a League 42 exhibition game. Players and coaches gathered and talked about Robinson, sharing artwork, poems and stories about their league's namesake. The league opens its season today, on Jackie Robinson Day. That pedestal where the statue once stood, in a pavilion decorated in Robinson's honor, will be empty.

That's why, when police made an arrest in the statue's theft in February and said there was no evidence it was a "hate-motivated" crime, it did little to soften the blow.

"It may not be a racially motivated hate crime," Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, told ESPN in the foyer of the museum in Kansas City. "But it's still a hate crime in its own way.

"Because that was a dastardly kind of thing to do, whatever your motivation was."

ABOUT 12 HOURS before Lutz's nightmare began, just after midnight Jan. 25, surveillance video from League 42's headquarters showed what police later identified as a gray 2008 GMC Sierra backing up onto a curb along E.17th Street, steps away from a pedestal where the Robinson statue had stood. The driver punched the gas to rock the truck over a flower bed, tamping down a bouquet of brush browned by the Kansas winter.

A police affidavit obtained by ESPN said the driver never got out of the truck, but two other men removed the statue, using what police believe was a concrete saw before tipping it over and carrying it to the bed of the truck.

Through a series of leads, police identified a suspect, Ricky Alderete, a 45-year-old man who police said had open felony warrants. According to the affidavit, police reached one of Alderete's friends and viewed their text messages.

"Damn this sucks I'm sick af. Did [Alexander Rodriguez, the husband of the woman the truck was registered to] ever come through?" the friend wrote. "Yes last night," Alderete responded at 5:09 p.m. on Jan. 25, about 17 hours after police said the statue was stolen, "but for real he didn't have anything at all we were doing bad all night and we hit a lick and didn't get paid yet and then to make things worse we are not getting paid what we thought we would be getting paid we got like 350-400 lbs of Bronze and instead of two fifty we are only getting one dollar a lb to split between three people. I'm on my way to the scrap yard now so that we can process the scrap and get paid."

Two days later, according to police, the truck was found in the parking lot of a Wichita apartment complex. Neither Alderete nor the statue were present. Then, on Jan. 30, a man who identified himself as Jason Hale, a city employee who was trimming trees in Garvey Park -- about seven miles away from where the statue was taken -- called 911 to report a trash can fire near a bathroom building. He told the 911 operator that he couldn't tell what was burning.

"It melted the whole trash can," Hale said on the 911 call, which was obtained by ESPN. "It's just burning in the middle of the ground here."

Police said they found parts of the statue in the trash can. ESPN contacted Timothy J. Hale, whose name and number were listed on a police document. A person at the number confirmed discovering the fire and texted a photo of the statue's head and bat on the ground where concrete met grass. The bronzed Brooklyn cap was charred on its left side. Police told ESPN that the investigation into the fire was ongoing.

"It just shows you the mentality of these people," said Trevor McDonald, a Wichita police sergeant in charge of larceny investigations. "Get rid of it at any chance they possibly can now that they know that the whole world's coming down on them.

"And they burn it up just as it was trash."

To make matters worse for Lutz, the stolen statue was commissioned by a lifelong friend, John Parsons.

Parsons found a photo of Robinson he liked -- with Robinson's left hand on his hip and a bat leaning on his right shoulder -- and created a mold. Lutz used more than $40,000 from the league's budget for the statue and convinced a slew of stakeholders, including League 42's board of directors and Robinson's family and name, image and likeness representatives, that the statue should be built.

Lutz and Parsons were frequently in contact with Robinson's daughter, Sharon. According to Lutz, Sharon Robinson took the latest renderings of the statue to her mother, Robinson's now-101-year-old widow, Rachel Robinson, for her approval. They went back and forth several times and, before the last iteration, Rachel Robinson wanted one final change.

"A bigger smile," Lutz says now.

So Parsons obliged, and the Robinsons signed off. League 42's statue became one of at least 10 statues across the country to honor Robinson, according to Chris Stride, a UK professor who studies sports statues. Robinson has the most statues in the U.S. of any baseball player in history, according to Stride's research. The honor of having one of them at McAdams Park is not lost on Lutz.

That's why Lutz wanted to quit when he found out it was stolen.

"My immediate reaction is, 'Oh, man, this is the kind of stuff that will drive me out [of running League 42],'" Lutz said, "because I don't have the wherewithal to withstand this kind of stuff. ... It was like this personal affront. It was like, you've broken into my house to take ... It wasn't my statue but, in some ways, I felt like it was our statue. It was terribly hurtful and offensive and difficult, for sure."

A GoFundMe page set up by the league raised nearly $200,000 before the fundraising link was closed Feb. 5, less than two weeks from when the statue went missing. There were additional donations, including $10,000 from an anonymous former professional baseball player and $35,000 in contributions to the league's PayPal account. Lutz estimated that League 42 received between $500,000 and $600,000 in total.

"We've been trying to get the attention of Major League Baseball for a long time," Lutz said, "and, because we're not in an MLB city, it's been a little bit of a challenge. But it's strange. The theft of the statue has opened a lot of doors for us."

MLB has pledged to pay for the statue to be rebuilt, as a coordinated effort among clubs. Lutz said League 42 has received a $100,000 check from MLB for the new statue, as well as security and lighting around it. He also said the theft fostered an open line of communication between League 42 and MLB, which he hopes will provide turf and lights for two of the youth league's fields.

"In the wake of this appalling crime, the 30 Clubs and the Commissioner's Office together felt that it was imperative to demonstrate our game's collective support of the Wichita community," Tony Reagins, MLB's chief baseball development officer, said in a statement to ESPN.

"We tip our caps to the leadership of League 42 and appreciate its continued impact on the development of the next generation of young leaders and players, who can follow the heroic example of their league's namesake."

The statue will be rebuilt where the original was created, Art Castings of Colorado, an art foundry 50 miles outside of Denver. The artist, Parsons, died in 2022, but the new statue will use Parsons' original mold. Tony Workman, the company's general manager, told ESPN that rebuilding the statue is roughly a 10-step process and should be completed in the summer.

"But one of the processes is making a rubber and plaster mold from his clay original," Workman said. "So, we use that mold to produce a wax. We cast the wax, finish the bronze and scald it."

With all the good that has come from something bad, Lutz said he is glad he didn't quit after the theft.

"Jackie Robinson wouldn't want you to react like this," Lutz said. "Look at the adversity he faced and that he overcame. And if he had bailed at the first sign of this kind of adversity, we wouldn't be telling his story."

Thanks to Robinson's story, the statue's theft became national news.

On Feb. 1, Wichita police saw Alderete, wearing gray sweatpants and a red hooded sweatshirt, riding a bicycle about five miles from League 42, according to a separate affidavit obtained by ESPN. When an officer tried to arrest him for open felony warrants, Alderete went behind a grocery store, police said. The affidavit said his bicycle later was found at a nearby intersection, but Alderete was gone.

The affidavit said Alderete later entered the home of a man named Rowan Wiench, who believed Alderete pushed a vintage Coca-Cola refrigerator in front of the door. Wiench told police that he also believed Alderete was high on an "unknown substance." According to the affidavit, Alderete told Wiench not to move.

"Ricky put [Wiench] in fear for his safety and he was concerned he might have weapons," a portion of the affidavit read. "The stairs lead directly to his bedroom. Ricky told him, 'I didn't kill anyone,' upon first contact with him. This statement put him in additional fear."

The affidavit said Wiench was able to escape the house and call police after Alderete fell asleep on the floor of his bedroom. Police arrested Alderete for a probation violation and kidnapping, among other things, and for breaking into Wiench's house. Twelve days later, while in custody, police arrested him for his role the Robinson statue theft. His charges included felony theft (value over $25,000) and aggravated criminal damage to property.

According to an affidavit, Alderete told police that he was picked up at a Wichita drug house by Rodriguez, the husband of the woman to whom the GMC Sierra was registered.

"Another male, whom he knows as 'Rory,' ... Told Alderete and Rodriguez he had work for them to do and mentioned something about scrap metal," the affidavit continued. "Rory brought a concrete saw with him. Rory then directed Rodriguez to E.17th Street where Alderete said there was a ballpark with a Jackie Robinson statue."

Alderete told police that he and Rory were the two men who got out of the truck, while Rodriguez stayed inside. According to the affidavit, Alderete admitted to helping Rory push the statue over and load it into the truck. But he said Rory cut the statue with the concrete saw. Alderete then told police that he and the two others took the statue to a "scrap house" on East Evans Street, less than three miles from Garvey Park, where parts of it were found in the trash can. Police told ESPN that the East Evans Street location was a residence operating as a scrapyard.

On the day of Alderete's arrest, with Lutz standing nearby, police held a news conference. Aaron Moses of the Wichita Police Department said police remain committed to identifying everyone who might have been involved and spoke to a potential motive involving scrap metal.

Workman, the general manager of Art Castings of Colorado, said the original statue was made of 95% copper, the most sought-after metal.

When asked what condition the statue arrived at the scrapyard, Sedgwick County district attorney Marc Bennett told ESPN those details were part of an ongoing investigation. But Bennett added that Kansas legislation from a decade ago has tried to hold scrapyards accountable, though Bennett said the Greater Wichita area continues to see a high demand for scrap metal with people even heading out of town in pursuit of farms with copper in their irrigation systems.

A lawyer for Alderete, Jorge De Hoyos, declined to comment.

ON APRIL 11, ahead of Jackie Robinson Day, Lutz brought the bronze cleats that remained on the pedestal in Wichita to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, where they will be displayed.

"We thought it was the absolute right thing to do," Lutz told ESPN.

Kendrick, the museum's president, said the cleats likely will be displayed alongside a historical marker from Robinson's birthplace in Cairo, Georgia -- a marker that was damaged by gunfire in 2021 and was donated to the museum.

Kendrick spoke with ESPN on Feb. 21, the same day a news conference commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Negro League World Series. The Kansas City Monarchs defeated Hilldale in what was then a best-of-nine series. Robinson played for the Monarchs more than two decades later.

"It starts to make you question humanity," Kendrick said of the statue's theft. "You are sometimes ready to give up and wave the white flag on humanity. It's like, 'OK, man, I can't take no more of this.'"

Kendrick said the statue was a symbol of what Robinson represented, and the explanation owed to League 42 players is the hardest part. It was the first thing players saw when they arrived at the field. That's why the cleats will be displayed in the museum. It's part of Robinson's story and the story of Black players, of any age, in baseball.

It's why Larry Dennis, a retired city employee who is now League 42's vice chairman, smiles when asked about the league and its mission. He knows its accomplishments are unique. There's a story that sticks with Dennis from a game night at McAdams Park. Through a connection to Wichita businessman and League 42 benefactor Dave Murfin, Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson came to League 42 to speak. Play stopped after Jackson pulled his car into the lot along E. 17th Street. Dennis remembered his private conversation with Mr. October.

"He said he was amazed," Dennis said, referring to the number of Black players on the field. "[And] he said, 'Keep going.'"

Every time League 42 played games at McAdams Park after the league began in 2013, Lutz looked across E.17th Street at the old mechanic's garage, a dilapidated building surrounded by decaying cars. Some locals say it doubled as a drug house. Everyone thought it was a blight.

Over the years, the conditions in McAdams Park improved. The city of Wichita pledged $1.5 million to help kickstart League 42. Lutz said the money went toward a turf ball field for the league's youngest players and an area for restrooms and concessions. Then the rusty fences disappeared, and the league's two larger fields had new backstops, dugouts, fencing and scoreboards.

"It was like jet fuel to our program," Lutz said.

The league then hired Robert Swanson of Swanson House Fundraising, and that helped lead to the addition of a fourth field with artificial turf and lighting. But Lutz couldn't get the mechanic's garage out of his head. The refurbishment of the building would allow League 42 to extend beyond the game itself. "I would love to have that land," Lutz told himself.

Murfin acquired the land and leased it to League 42, which turned that old mechanic's garage into a place to nurture children. In the building, which opened in the spring of 2023, there's an indoor practice facility with a turf field, as well as the Leslie Rudd Learning Center, where children like Thomas Long are tutored. His mother, Jessica, said Thomas received a reading growth award.

"Back in the fall, he was at-risk," Long said. "He does the tutoring [at League 42] twice a week."

The tutoring takes place within the league's offices, where learning and baseball are intertwined. A classroom with learning rugs also has a framed, signed photo of Robinson. On the same wall, there's a home plate filled with words meant to inspire. HOME RUN and FULL COUNT and FLYBALL are alongside JUSTICE and SERVICE and INTEGRITY.

The league has continued to add education initiatives. The Passion Project speaker series brings in professionals from all walks of life, and Bats and Badges fosters a familiarity between children and law enforcement. Full Count is a partnership with a Wichita credit union for financial literacy.

And of course, there's baseball.

On a Wednesday night in February, light flooded out of the north entrance of the headquarters. Lutz and League 42 now own the building, where 9- and 10-year-olds fielded ground balls and took batting practice indoors. The sounds of the game echoed off the walls.

Rachel Stiger, whose 9-year-old son, Gavin, plays in League 42, waited on the other side of the netting that separated parents from the last offseason workout on the indoor turf. She walked through a door that led to the league's offices and sat under a mural of Robinson stealing home in the 1955 World Series, sliding under the tag of Yogi Berra in one of the most famous plays in baseball history.

"It means that he's able to look at someone that looks like him," Stiger said of League 42. "He's able to have that role model. We get a lot of books about history. And he sees that there was struggle. ... Just a motivation for him, period."

The next day, the indoor turf field is empty, but the building is not. Ohmari Johnson, the 11-year-old who played tabletop baseball with a friend in League 42's learning center, was asked about Robinson and the missing statue. Johnson had trouble processing the theft but felt hopeful about its replacement.

Even without the statue, Robinson's influence remained. It's why Lutz, who spent 43 years in a sportswriting career with The Wichita Eagle, started the league in the first place -- to provide an opportunity for children to play the game and realize what's possible. Before he put on a League 42 uniform, Johnson dreamed of moving to San Diego. Afterward, he altered his dream.

"My dream job is to play for the San Diego Padres," he said, "... Like Fernando Tatis, my favorite player."