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Charges filed in 2009 killing of driver hit by gunfire on Bruce R. Watkins Drive

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Friday, Sep. 13, 2013, at 12:03 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Sep. 14, 2013, at 11:27 a.m.

Four years ago, a sobbing 14-year-old girl stood on a Kansas City street and pleaded with police to find the person who fatally shot her mother as they drove home from a Starlight Theatre show.

On Friday, the now 18-year-old young woman stood with authorities as they announced that a suspect had been charged.

“These charges are a long time in coming,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said. “It is never too late to bring justice to a family.”

A Jackson County grand jury indicted Calah D. Johnson, 32, on Friday on a charge of second-degree murder in the July 17, 2009, killing of Deanna L. Lieber, an attorney who served as general counsel for the Kansas Department of Education.

Johnson, who is serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for cocaine trafficking, also faces a count of discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle.

Lieber, 45, of rural Lawrence, had just attended a Starlight show with her daughter and her mother-in-law. Lieber was driving on Bruce R. Watkins Drive at 59th Street when a bullet struck her in the neck.

Prosecutors said Friday that Lieber was the unintended victim of a bullet fired by the occupant of one car at occupants of another car as they drove toward the intersection where Lieber also was.

A red-light camera captured the incident. According to court records, detectives could see the window of Lieber’s vehicle shatter. Two other vehicles then were seen as they entered the intersection from 59th Street.

The cameras captured still images of the license plates of those two vehicles, according to court documents.

Detectives tracked down the vehicles’ owners, including a woman who said she had loaned Johnson, who was her boyfriend, her car on the night of the shooting.

“She said he even apologized because he had gotten a red-light ticket at the intersection,” according to the documents.

The owner of the other vehicle told police that she and her boyfriend were followed by another vehicle after a man with “light-colored eyes” acted in a threatening manner. The woman said that as they approached Watkins Drive, somebody in that vehicle started firing shots. According to federal court documents, Johnson is nicknamed “Green Eyes.”

Last year, a witness identified Johnson as the person who fired shots that night, according to court documents. And in July, another witness told police that Johnson had said that he “shot the schoolteacher in July 2009.”

Baker said Friday that the charges were the result of Kansas City police detectives “who were not willing to let it die.”

Deanna Lieber’s father, Melvin Wackerle, attended the news conference with his granddaughter and read a statement on behalf of the family.

He praised the efforts of police detectives, including the two who were at the scene at the night of the shooting and heard the plea of Wackerle’s granddaughter, who asked them, “Please find who did this to my mommy.”

Wackerle said he did not like that the case has been portrayed as a stray-bullet case. He said the shot was fired with the intent to hit someone else.

“Deanna was unfortunately in the path of that bullet,” he said.

Police Chief Darryl Forté said Friday that community involvement played a vital role in this case.

“We can have expert police work, but without the community involvement, we can’t do what we do,” Forté said. “And this is a classic example that when the community gets involved, that is how we identify offenders and make arrests.”

Baker echoed that sentiment.

“We couldn’t do it without witnesses willing to step up and do the right thing,” Baker said.

Johnson has a lengthy record of drug convictions in Jackson County. He served eight years in state prison before being released on parole about nine months before Lieber’s death, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections.

According to federal prosecutors, he became involved in drug trafficking within months of his prison release. In June 2010, he was arrested and charged after an investigation by Kansas City police and federal agents.

Twice during the investigation, officers seized handguns linked to Johnson, according to court documents.

Last year he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

Janet Waugh of Kansas City, Kan., a state Board of Education member, said Friday that she was “thrilled” to hear that charges had been filed.

“I was thinking about this the other day and thought maybe it had just been filed away as unsolvable,” Waugh said. “I am thrilled the Police Department continued working on it and has now found someone who they feel is responsible.”

Waugh described Lieber as a wonderful woman, attorney, mother and family member.

“She was such an asset to the department,” Waugh said. “She was so dedicated to youth and to education.”

Before her position with the education department, Lieber was in private practice in Lawrence and also served as a research attorney for the Kansas Court of Appeals and the Kansas Supreme Court.

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to grice@kcstar.com. To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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