© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Missouri ‘Adopt-a-Highway’ program under review over sign honoring a convicted murderer

Missouri has diverted anywhere from 1.5-3% of its construction money from safety programs, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. Around $17 million is spent on highway infrastructure like guard cables, rumble strips and friction treatments.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A Missouri bill would make it illegal for MoDOT to post a sign designating a highway “named for any person who has been convicted of the killing of, or the attempted killing of, a law enforcement officer or permit any signage in convicted person’s memory.”

The Missouri Department of Transportation approved an Adopt-a-Highway application from the family of Kevin “Rockhead” Johnson, who was executed in November 2022 for the killing of a Kirkwood Police officer. The sign was up for four months before the entire program got suspended.

For several months last year, a sign on Interstate 44 near Kirkwood in St. Louis County told motorists they were driving on a highway where litter cleanup was done to honor Kevin “Rockhead” Johnson.

The sign was up for approximately four months before a motorist recognized the name as a man executed by the state in November 2022 for the killing of Kirkwood Police Sergeant William McEntee in 2005. A social media post sparked outrage and news stories.

“We immediately took the sign down and suspended the program,” Ed Hassinger, deputy director of MoDOT, said Thursday to the House Transportation Accountability Committee.

Hassinger testified on a bill sponsored by state Rep. Justin Sparks, a Wildwood Republican who is also a former police officer. Sparks’ bill would make it illegal for MoDOT to post a sign designating a highway “named for any person who has been convicted of the killing of, or the attempted killing of, a law enforcement officer or permit any signage in convicted person’s memory.”

The sign was placed because the Missouri Department of Transportation approved an application to the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program from Johnson’s family.

Under the rules governing the program, no one can adopt a highway who was convicted of a violent crime until 10 years after they complete their sentence and any organization that includes such a person cannot adopt a highway.

The rules on what can be on the sign bar political or commercial messages but are silent on whether the highway can be adopted to honor a violent felon or other lawbreaker

Johnson was a teenager when he killed McEntee, who Johnson believed had been involved in the death of his then 12-year-old brother. At the time of his execution, Johnson’s attorneys said he was “an amazing father” and “a completely rehabilitated man.”

In their attempts to reverse his death sentence, attorneys argued he was convicted by a jury stacked against him by former St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch. A special prosecutor on the case claimed McCulloch deliberately excluded Blacks from the jury, and his supporters argued Johnson may not have received the death penalty if he had gotten a fair trial.

While it is suspended, MoDOT is reviewing the entire Adopt-a-Highway program, Hassinger said.

Begun in 1987, the program is intended to keep highways beautiful by recruiting groups to collect litter and do other labor-intensive clean up along Missouri roads. Groups must agree to maintain a half-mile of urban highway or two miles of rural highway.

While the program has generally operated smoothly, there have been moments of controversy.

The Ku Klux Klan successfully sued the state after its application to adopt a stretch of Highway 21 near Potosi was rejected in 2001. The U.S. Supreme Court said refusing the Klan’s application violated the organization’s free speech rights.

The entire program is being reviewed both to prevent a recurrence of the latest controversy and to determine if it is still a valuable help to the department, Hassinger told the committee.
“There has been a change in the behavior of drivers and we have a concern as to whether this is still a viable program,” he said.

State Rep. Tim Taylor, a Republican from Bunceton, said he sees the program as a community-building exercise and has worked with student groups and others to adopt sections of a road.

“I encourage you not to make a blanket policy because we heard instances of one or two bad actors here,” Taylor said.

The committee did not vote on the bill.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.