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Deputy Kevin Easter’s life, death compelled others

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Jan. 13, 2012, at 10:37 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 3, 2012, at 2:25 p.m.

Capt. John Speer pulled an old cassette tape out of his desk drawer at the Wichita Police Department and popped it into an old recorder. He hit play.

On the 911 tape, Speer could hear Kevin Easter tell the 911 dispatcher that he’s chasing a reported stolen car.

Kevin, a Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy, is calling out locations as he chases the car, a Honda. He’d started chasing the car near South Hillside, and he calls out that they were now near Range and Southfork.

On the tape, Kevin’s voice sounds calm. The 911 dispatcher sounds more nervous, especially as the tape continues. “Where are you at?” she calls out. “Where are you at?”

Kevin does not answer.

Speer, a friend of the Easter family, pops the tape out of the audio player. He can’t listen anymore. He balls up both fists, and rubs them into his eyes.

Kevin was shot to death 16 years ago this month by a gang member who stole that car. Kevin was only 24, newly married. He was the son of a longtime Wichita police officer, and the brother of another, Jeff Easter, who until now has never told the full story of his brother’s death, or what Jeff and John Speer and other officers did afterward.

Jeff Easter talks about his brother’s death.

Jeff was a patrol officer who chased down and arrested gang members.

For a few days after Kevin’s murder, Jeff wondered if he should quit.

But three weeks after the funeral, Jeff went back to arresting gang members. Eleven years later, he and the officers who mourned Kevin put together one of the bigger law enforcement operations ever conducted in Wichita.

In October 2007 police and federal officers, led by Jeff, used informants, wiretaps, and a federal anti-racketeering (RICO) act to take down 28 Crips street gang members, eliminating with them a significant amount of drive-by shootings, drug dealing and prostitution in Wichita.

Speer says they did it for the city. But he says they did it for Kevin, too.

“Here’s the deal,” Speer said. “NONE of us ever forgot Kevin.”

• • • 

Julie Easter awoke about 2 a.m. on Jan. 8, 1996 to the sound of pounding on her front door. She was alone in the dark, and scared, until she saw her brother-in-law in the doorway.

She grinned. Jeff Easter hardly ever drank, but she thought maybe Jeff was drunk, that he’d shown up to prank Kevin, her husband. But Jeff looked distraught. At his shoulder was another Wichita cop.

“Kevin’s been shot,” Jeff told her. “We don’t know how bad.”

At Andale High School, Julie and Kevin had been prom queen and king together, high school sweethearts. They were both 24. They’d been married only 7 months.

Julie feared the worst, and burst into tears.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen so soon,” she said.

• • • 

At the hospital, Jeff and Julie Easter hurried through a crowd of cops standing outside the emergency room. The crowd, as Julie remembered, “parted like the parting of the sea for us.” When the cops saw the Easters, they all looked down at the floor; a bad sign.

Outside the surgery unit, Jeff saw a sheriff’s major writing notes at the nurses station, and something about his posture told Jeff that Kevin was dead. The surgeon walked out and said what Jeff already knew. Jeff and Julie watched Jeff’s parents cry.

When Kevin had become a sheriff’s deputy, Julie, feeling fearful, had talked with Jan Easter, Kevin and Jeff’s mother. Jan had spent decades living with Rick, a retired police department major, and she was now the mother of two more cops.

“I never worried,” she had told Julie. “Rick is way too smart and way too fast to ever get hurt.” Her sons were just as formidable, Jan told her. Jan had assured Julie that Jeff and Kevin were just as smart, just as fast.

• • • 

The gang member who stole the car and murdered Kevin that night was only 14 years old. To this day, Jeff, and Julie, and John Speer, refuse to say his name, but he was Sakone Donesay, and prone to violence, fond of huffing paint fumes.

Listen to audio of emergency dispatch conversations when Kevin Easter began a car chase and was fatally wounded (silent parts edited out)

After he crashed the car through a fence, he jumped out and ran. Kevin tackled him in the same way that Jeff had tackled hundreds of other criminals in Patrol North.

It is unclear what happened next, except that there was a fight, and Kevin somehow did not immediately get Donesay rolled over, face down. The autopsy showed there was at least one bite mark on Kevin’s thigh. Kevin pulled out his mace can. But Donesay somehow got a hand free, and pulled a gun.

He shot Kevin four times, took Kevin’s gun, and ran. Minutes later, a city police officer, Russell Bowker, found Kevin lying in the snow, and asked if he was okay. ‘No, man,” Kevin said. “I’m gonna f---ing die.’ "

• • • 

At the hospital, Julie went to the room where Kevin’s body lay. A sheriff’s officer stood guard over the body. Julie reached out to touch her husband’s chest, and her hand recoiled — the hospital staff had broken open Kevin’s chest to massage his heart, and the surgery apparatus, cold and hard, was still attached under the sheet.

Julie touched Kevin’s face, which felt cold. She touched his hair.

Speer talked to Jeff only hours after Kevin died.

Jeff said he never got to say goodbye. He’d been with Kevin and his dad watching basketball only hours before Kevin died. When Kevin left to do his late-night patrol shift, Jeff watched him kiss Julie at the door.

Jeff thought about quitting. In his own career, he’d been bruised and threatened, and shot at twice. One day, two years before Kevin died, Jeff had chased down a gang member named Dominic Tisdale, near 13th and Lorraine. Jeff made the mistake of grabbing Tisdale by the shoulder instead of tackling him, and Tisdale had spun around and put the muzzle of a Tech 9 submachine gun inches from Jeff’s chest. He pulled the trigger.

The gun clicked; Tisdale had forgotten to put a shell into the firing chamber. Jeff arrested Tisdale and came close to vomiting into the street afterward.

But three weeks after Kevin died, Jeff came back to work, feeling resolved. Soon he was running down gang members again, and at a couple of these arrests, they taunted Jeff.

“I’m glad he was killed,” one said.

“I wish it would have been you,” said another.

Other officers told Jeff to leave. And he left.

• • • 

The funeral people asked Julie if she wanted one double headstone, one half for Kevin, the other for herself. She said yes.

Rick Easter, Kevin’s dad, whirled on her. “You will NOT do that.”

She got angry. Rick bluntly insisted. Rick and Jeff had always been blunt men, where Kevin had been sweet. Julie was furious.

What Rick was really saying was that at 24, she would want to remarry, have her own family. He was trying to protect her future for her, but she felt like a single-grave headstone would betray Kevin.

Getting mad was irrational, because Kevin himself had told her to remarry if he died. Kevin had even told her, in his impish way, that he had somebody picked out. Rick and Jeff were trained to lead people when the chips were down, and Jeff did that in the months after Kevin died, repeatedly rescuing her from herself. Julie was so paralyzed she could not move, sleep or eat, and Jeff would call up and say eat, or sleep. He’d take her in for a meal, he and his little daughter Melissa. Julie hugged Melissa a lot.

Kevin Easter’s widow, Julie Haas, now remarried, remembers the night Kevin was killed.

For a few months, Jeff kept tabs on Julie, gave her his time, offered advice, made decisions for her. Though she was what he called “a sweet innocent,” he learned things from her.

Jeff by his own account is hard to get to know, a guy, as Julie said, “who thought you just got things done and you didn’t care much what other people thought.” But now he learned from her. From her stories about Kevin he learned how to be more thoughtful. He would listen to Julie tell how Kevin defused arguments or dangers with a joke. How perceptive he was about others’ feelings. This could be an advantage, in life or in law enforcement.

“Kevin was a far better person than I ever will be,” Jeff thought. In some ways, as he listened to her, Jeff thought Kevin might have been the better cop. Some of the best cops he knew were tough guys; but some of the great ones had the knack that Kevin had: to stop a dispute with a joke or a perceptive suggestion.

Jeff looked out after Julie for months. Then, to her dismay, he pushed Julie away. She was angry, but he saw that she was not learning to stand on her own.

It was years before she saw this for what it was. She had loved Kevin, with his warmth and humor. But sometimes, as she said much later, you need a blunt Rick or Jeff Easter in your life, who refuse to tell you what you want, and tell instead what you need. Jeff was telling her now: “Stand on your own.”

• • • 

In 1999, three years after Kevin died, Jeff’s friend John Speer took over the Wichita Police Department’s gang unit. By that time, he, Jeff, street veterans like Norman Williams and Bob Bachman (and others too many to name) had spent years chasing and fighting gang members, investigating the dozens of drive-by shootings that made people scared to drive down Central. Speer said they needed a new approach to gangs, and Jeff and Speer both said Bachman had already supplied the key, soon after the gangs showed up in Wichita the late 1980s.

Street criminals called Bachman “Dirty Harry,” because he is six feet four, tough, obsessive, a marathon runner, a SWAT team member, a patrol officer who made more arrests than any other cop. Bachman did one thing that caught the attention of Speer and Jeff and all the cop rookies who came on in the late 1980s and ’90s: He would pull over, lift the lid of his patrol car trunk, and show them the hundreds of index cards he kept in boxes, with the mug shots and names and addresses and aliases of all the gang members in town. He studied the cards, committed their details to memory, watched for the men in those cards on patrol.

Bachman called gang members “clowns.” He told young officers that he had pasted all the cards together himself.

Though crude, the cards were what military officers would call intelligence files, and Speer, Jeff, and many other young cops seized on this idea. They made their own files.

In the years to come, as Speer, Jeff and others advanced in rank, they built on Bachman’s notecard idea — they filled file cabinets with information, then filled files in computers, ensuring that the department developed a collective memory on every gang member, recording what they did, where they lived.

Speer would later remember that Jeff, in the hours after Kevin died, had said, “I will never forget.” Speer remembered it later as they built those files, compiled a collective memory accessible with a keyboard keystroke. The department literally began to never forget anything.

The gangs had done far more than scare people, when they blossomed in Wichita in the late ’80s. They had raised crime rates and frightened people into moving out of Wichita, which dropped property values and swelled school populations in Goddard and Maize, Andover and Derby.

In the six years Speer ran the gang unit, he pushed to get computer laptops installed on the dashboards of patrol cars, gigabytes packed with files that could be added to or accessed by officers. Dirty Harry’s car trunk files had gone high tech.

This took money, so Speer applied for grants. It took a new strategy, and when another street patrol veteran became Wichita’s chief of police in 2000, he supported Speer. Norman Williams had grown up in northeast Wichita, had been shot three times, and had survived, studied and learned.

He and Speer deliberated new strategies. Now, when a drive-by shooting occurred, the department instead of sending a couple of officers to investigate would flood the zone immediately with officers and detectives, “working a drive-by like we work a homicide,” as Speer said.

The thing about these gang “clowns,” as Bachman had taught them, was that as dumb and unpleasant as many of them were, most had learned enough to keep themselves out of prison. Patrol officers are not detectives. They are first responders to domestic violence, assaults, burglaries, thefts, fights. They couldn’t often invest the time it would take to stake out a drug dealer who took precautions. In the years Speer ran the gang unit, one of his unit sergeants was Jeff Easter. Everybody, from the chief on down, talked about how maybe, someday, they could go after a lot of gang leaders with the federal RICO act. Speer and the rest of them said they needed a break, though. They needed somebody big to start talking.

• • • 

Sakone Donesay was convicted of Kevin’s murder in 1997 but the Kansas Supreme Court later overturned the conviction, a decision the Easters received with great anger. So there was a second trial, and he was convicted again in December of 1998, right before Christmas. And Jan Easter did not survive this. She died at age 50 on March 27, 1999. The doctors said it was a massive heart attack, but the Easters said she died of a broken heart, and that Donesay had now killed two members of the family.

After Jan died, Julie did what Rick and Jeff had urged her to do. She made a new life for herself.

She got a master’s degree in tax law. She got a law degree. That didn’t diminish the grief. And she fell in love with a good man named Lorin Haas.

She stopped going to see the Easters, even at Christmas. She hardly ever contacted them, and felt guilty about that. Then, when grief over Kevin hit her inexplicably hard, five years after Kevin died, she felt like she was wronging Lorin. Lorin never complained. She felt guilty anyway.

How do you stop loving Kevin Easter, when he’d done nothing to hurt or betray or bore you?

When she married Lorin, and then got pregnant, and didn’t tell the Easters about it, she felt guilty about that, too. But it hurt too much to talk with them.

• • • 

Jeff became a police lieutenant in 2001, took over the gang unit from Speer in 2005, and built on what Speer and Williams had already done. They looked hard, as Speer had suggested, at which gang members were drug dealers. They stepped up work with confidential informants, a tricky, unpleasant business. They began videotaping interviews, because the more experienced gang leaders had a habit of changing or retracting their stories when questioned. Jeff re-did the strategy for the SCAT officers, (Special Community Action Teams), sending multiple SCAT officers to street crimes immediately, in the same way that Speer had sent gang officers to drive-by shootings. They were sharpening their strategy with every passing year; but they still needed a big break. And it came.

In 2006, a key Crips gang member that Jeff Easter was well acquainted with began talking a lot while under arrest. This guy described in detail the webs of leadership and conspiracies the gangs had forged. Commanders had talked for years about using RICO to bring down these guys, but they had needed a big, key informant. Now they had him.

Easter talked to his commanders, and his commanders talked to federal officials. And they put together the federal RICO cases of 2007.

• • • 

What followed has been well documented: They arrested and charged 28 key gang members, broke down a great deal of organized crime, and Jeff coordinated not only 12 Wichita officers but investigators from the Sedgwick County sheriff, the FBI, the DEA, the ATF, the U.S. attorney for Kansas, and even the IRS.

In a department with 650 sworn officers, Jeff was named Officer of the Year for 2007, which would have been more enjoyable had there not been so much stress. Working with the federal officials was complicated; confidential informants were at times infuriating. Organizing the RICO cases was brutal.

Jeff arranged to be called out to the scenes of street crimes at night, to connect dots with the larger strategy. There was one stretch where he was called 14 nights in a row. He had remarried, and had three daughters and a son, and for months, as they worked, Jeff missed birthday parties, family dinners and holiday gatherings. Kimberlee, his wife, grew accustomed to answering the home phone in the middle of the night, but asked him to start taking those calls on his cell.

He was not the only person working 80 hour weeks. But he was the one with the dead brother as motive.

• • • 

On first shift in Patrol North, Bob “Dirty Harry” Bachman still patrols the streets, as he has done since 1980.

The gang leaders were an arrogant bunch. Before RICO, some of them, when police arrested them, would smile. “Put me in jail. I’ll be out in six hours.”

Because of RICO, Bachman said, there are considerably fewer wealthy, arrogant drug-dealing “clowns” in the Patrol North area.

Police say RICO cases reduced drug dealing, prostitution and violence. In 2006, there were 31 gang-related drive-by shootings in Wichita; in 2011 there were 11. In 2006 there were 10 gang-related homicides, and another 23 in 2007; in 2011 there were 7.

“A lot of those clowns had spent years riding around in fancy cars, living the high life, having 10 or 15 kids with six or eight moms,” Bachman said. “Everybody in the neighborhoods knew who they were, knew they didn’t have real jobs, knew their money came from crime. That had an impact on people’s thinking.”

What happened after Kevin’s death was something profound, Speer said. In a way, he said, they remembered Kevin every time they arrested a gang member, every time they devised a new strategy. Jeff thought about him every day as they built the RICO project.

“There are only a few who know what a monumental task RICO was,” Speer said. “Jeff ran into obstacles, with personalities, with people not wanting to stick their necks out on informants, people who didn’t want to take a chance on a case. But he kept his head, and he could see the light at the end of the tunnel. And he had that motive — Kevin.”

“We all sent a message to the gangs, starting not just with RICO but everything we all did before that, when we got the laptops, when we started compiling all that information, when we started thinking out of the box,” Speer said. “We sent a message to the thugs that no matter what you do, we will remember. If you used to deal dope in the 1990s, we will remember that today, and keep working until we can hold you accountable today. If you’re doing things now, we will remember, and hold you accountable.”

• • • 

Julie Haas was 24 when Kevin died; she’s 40 now. She lives in La Crosse, near Hays, with her three children and husband Lorin, a certified public accountant.

Julie, though she has a law degree and a master’s in tax law, is mostly a stay-at-home mom these days, and callers to the Haas home are liable to hear the shrieks and yells of children playing. Maggie is 8; Jenna, 6; Ryan, 3.

Recently, she sat down with a laptop, scrolled through the Easter family pictures, lingering over pictures of Kevin. Her three children peered over her shoulder, and when she pulled up a photo of Kevin at Kansas State, grinning his big grin, she turned to her kids. “You remember how I told you about Kevin, right?” They nodded.

“I had decided some time ago that they would grow up knowing about him,” she said. She had fretted about that, because Lorin has loved her so much. She worries what Lorin thinks. There was this other guy, a long time ago after all. And he never gave her a reason to stop loving him, or to forget his sweetness, how he was so sensitive about being so much smaller than his cop Dad and his cop older brother. And there was that big smile, and the spirit behind it. One day, after she chided Kevin about putting away the dishes, Kevin put away all the dishes but one, and wrote a note: “I left this one just for you.”

Eight years ago, while pregnant with her first child, she had finally written Jeff. She told about Lorin, that she had re-married, that she was pregnant. Some time after that, at a memorial gathering at the new Law Enforcement Officers Memorial at City Hall in Wichita, Julie showed up, with her children, and Jeff was there.

Jeff scooped up one of her kids in his arms, and stepped up to the memorial with Julie. They stood together for a few minutes, remembering Kevin.

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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