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Family questions circumstances surrounding Wichita man’s death

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 8, 2013, at 10:40 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Sep. 9, 2013, at 10:24 p.m.

The papers kept piling up on Jim Sauer’s front porch in west Wichita late last month, and his car was missing.

His neighbors noticed, and it bothered them.

The retired teacher was a man of ritual, they knew: He would read his paper every morning, go have breakfast and then come home. He didn’t get out and about much, especially after having knee-replacement surgery earlier in the summer.

Finally, on Aug. 23, a neighbor called 911 and asked police to check on him.

Officers found him dead next to his bed at his house at 736 N. Young, northwest of Central and West Street. Sauer, 66, was diabetic and weighed nearly 300 pounds. An autopsy showed a major artery was 95 percent blocked, police and others said.

The death appears to be the result of natural causes, Wichita police Lt. Doug Nolte said. The coroner’s office is awaiting lab results to rule out anything other than natural causes, he said.

But friends and family often use another word to describe Jim Sauer’s death: murder.

Missing laptops

When Mike Sauer came from his home in northern Kansas to learn more about his uncle’s death, he immediately noticed several things amiss.

The bowl where Jim Sauer routinely threw his loose change had been nearly full when Mike Sauer was last in Wichita a few weeks earlier helping to take care of his uncle following his surgery. But now it was empty, except for a few coins scattered on the floor.

Jim Sauer’s two laptop computers also were missing.

And he was wearing his hearing aid when he died, Mike Sauer said.

“The only time he put his hearing aid in was when he was talking to someone,” Sauer said of his uncle. “He would have never went to bed with his hearing aid in his ear. He was clearly talking to someone.”

A Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy found Jim Sauer’s car parked at the Scotsman Inn, 5922 W. Kellogg, shortly before 4:30 a.m. on Aug. 28. The car was impounded.

By then, Mike Sauer said, he had learned that someone had tried to make Western Union transfers and credit card purchases on his uncle’s account – all of them denied. But a man had cashed a $5,000 check dated Aug. 17 from his uncle and tried to cash another check for $8,000. His nephew put a stop on the second check.

As luck would have it, the man who cashed the first check was in a room at the Scotsman with a woman, Sauer said. When police went to the hotel, the pair barricaded themselves into the room for several hours before allowing police inside.

Victim was frugal

Mike Sauer said he was among those in the hotel parking lot waiting for the pair to surrender.

Under interrogation, they admitted to knowing Jim Sauer. They met while walking at Towne West, they said, and told him about the woman being in dire need of money. Sauer agreed to help them.

They went to his house, where, they said, Sauer wrote them the checks and gave them permission to use his car to drive to Liberty, Mo., to cash them.

Friends and family have decided Jim Sauer died on Aug. 17. One reason, Mike Sauer said, is that banks began calling his uncle to inquire about rejected attempts to transfer money on that day. Jim Sauer never returned those calls.

“This guy didn’t die of a heart attack,” said Frank Smith, a retired investigator who has been looking into the case at the request of a longtime friend of the victim. “He was out mowing the lawn in the afternoon. By that evening, they were on his laptop trying to make transfers.”

Mike Sauer said not one segment of the pair’s explanation to police fits his uncle.

“They claim they met him walking around Towne West,” Mike Sauer said. “He hated that mall with a passion.”

When Mike Sauer returned to his hometown of Seneca on July 26, Jim Sauer was able to make it up and down stairs but could not walk for extended periods. That makes walking at a mall he hated unthinkable.

“Giving away $13,000 was unheard of,” Mike Sauer said. “He was very tight with his money.”

Pat Ciotta, a friend and co-worker of Jim Sauer’s for more than 30 years, also said that would be utterly out of character for him. While he was generous with his time – repairing computers or giving rides or fixing things – he was very frugal.

“He was a thrifty guy,” Ciotta said. “He didn’t give money away. He helped people, but he was not one to say, ‘Yeah, I’ll give you money.’ ”

Ciotta and Mike Sauer reject the claim that Jim Sauer brought two strangers to his house. He was something of a hoarder, they said, and let almost no one visit.

Mike Sauer said a neighbor told him he had lived next door for 30 years and the first time he had been inside the house was the day they found Jim Sauer’s body.

“He just didn’t want them to see how messy it was,” Mike Sauer said. “It was just unheard of that he would invite somebody over – especially a stranger.”

The pair’s claim that Jim Sauer loaned them his car doesn’t sound right to his nephew, either. What his uncle would have done, Mike Sauer said, is agree to drive someone somewhere – not offer his vehicle for someone else to use.

Jim Sauer reset his car’s odometer to 0 every time he filled the gas tank, Frank Smith said, and when it was found at the Scotsman, the odometer read 117. The man and woman told police they drove the car to Liberty to cash the $5,000 check, a trip of more than 300 miles one way.

Wanting answers

Wichita police released the man and woman after questioning them in late August.

“After we interviewed them, there wasn’t enough probable cause to make an arrest” for any crime, Nolte said.

Mike Sauer hasn’t given up hope.

“My plans are to stay here until I get some answers,” he said.

He owes that, he said, to a man who was devoted to his students at L’Ouverture Elementary. A “celebration of life” was held for Jim Sauer on Friday night at the school.

“He was a very intelligent, very caring person,” Ciotta said. “His students, I think, loved him. Many of them kept in contact with him and told him how much he meant to them.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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