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Family still questions suicide ruling for man who was witness to murder

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, April 6, 2014, at 10:49 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, April 6, 2014, at 10:49 p.m.

Photos

When Arthur Gary was found shot to death on the east bank of the Arkansas River on April 4, 2013, he had a .380 semi-automatic pistol in his right hand.

“Mr. Gary had a past medical history significant for depression,” the autopsy report said. The death was ruled a suicide.

But Gary’s relatives are skeptical. If he was depressed, they said, it was because he had been receiving death threats.

Gary was a key witness in an upcoming murder trial, they said, and he was apprehensive about testifying.

“Arthur was scared; you could tell that,” said Kanesha Dawson, Gary’s girlfriend.

“He was getting all these messages that said he’s a dead man, he’s a snitch – just threats on top of threats on top of threats,” said his grandmother Opal Wofford.

Six weeks after Gary’s death, the trial went on as scheduled and the defendant, Travis Knighten, was convicted of second-degree murder. The state’s evidence included a transcript of Gary’s testimony at a preliminary hearing in which he identified Knighten as the shooter.

Although they were reluctant to talk about it at the time, Gary’s relatives said they always were skeptical about the suicide ruling. As the one-year anniversary of Gary’s death passed last week, they were wondering if someone had gotten away with his murder.

“I don’t in my heart think he did it on his own,” said Gary’s mother, Donita Johnson. “I want to think he didn’t take his life. I think at the end of the day, all of us want to know the truth.”

“I don’t think it was a suicide at all,” Dawson said.

At least one other person has questions about the suicide ruling: the man who found Gary’s body. He asked that his name not be published for fear of being dragged into a dispute he knows nothing about.

“I just find it hard to believe that somebody could shoot themselves and hang on to a gun like that,” he said. “He was flat on his back with the gun in his right hand. It just didn’t look right to me.

“I’m a Vietnam veteran, and I know what it looks like. I just don’t believe it was suicide myself.”

No gunpowder residue

Sedgwick County Coroner Jamie Oberst said people do sometimes hold on to guns after committing suicide.

“It’s not common, it’s not uncommon,” she said. “We do see it.”

There was no gunpowder residue found on Gary’s hands, but Oberst said that’s not necessarily an issue.

“Most of the time, you’re going to see that with a revolver,” she said. “It’s not worrisome if it’s not there.’

She said information about Gary being depressed came from law enforcement. She said she couldn’t speculate about how Gary’s death might have been classified had it not been for the reference to depression.

“It would have depended on the rest of the investigative circumstances,” she said.

Wichita police homicide Lt. Todd Ojile said the depression reference came in an interview with Gary’s mother. He declined to discuss details.

Police normally don’t discuss suicides, Ojile said, but “all evidence suggests this is a suicide.”

Gary’s mother said she doesn’t understand how her words could have been interpreted by police to suggest that her son was suffering from depression.

“He had never been clinically diagnosed with depression,” she said. “He’s never taken medicine for depression. I do know that the whole situation was weighing heavy on him.”

Dawson said if her boyfriend was depressed, it was because of the threats.

“Who wouldn’t be depressed going through that?” she asked.

Parking lot shooting

Gary was a popular student when attending South High School, Dawson said.

“Arthur was known for his basketball and girls,” she said. “He was a ladies man, true to form.”

After high school, Gary spent time at Seward County Community College in Liberal and at San Diego City College in the city where his grandmother now lives. He always ended up back in Wichita.

“He was living the life of a normal 22-year-old before this happened,” Dawson said.

Wichita police said Gary was driving a borrowed Toyota SUV early on the morning of May 7, 2011. Knighten, one of Gary’s closest friends, was riding shotgun. Three others were in the back seat as the car pulled into a parking lot at 13th and Hillside.

Some of the passengers remembered seeing a gun that night, but none said they remembered seeing Knighten shooting it.

Among the 100 people at an after-hours party in the parking lot that morning was Mario Brown, a 22-year-old gang member. No one knew exactly why, but his eyes met Knighten’s, and Knighten opened fire. Brown was killed and another man was wounded. Police said they had one report that Brown and the shooter had recently argued at a club.

The SUV left the parking lot, and none of its occupants voluntarily said a word to police.

“You’ve got a bunch of 19-year-olds in a car who don’t know what to do after a murder, so they all bury their heads in the sand,” Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Amyx said at Knighten’s trial.

A surveillance camera captured the image of the van, and police traced it to Gary’s former girlfriend. She gave them Gary’s name, but he was nowhere to be found. He had moved to Liberal, a town he knew from his days in junior college there.

Wofford remembers her grandson grappling with what to do.

“It put Arthur in a really compromising situation,” she said. “He couldn’t believe that Travis wouldn’t step up and take ownership of this. He had some unrealistic idea that he was going to do it.”

In December, seven months after the shooting, Gary finally told his story to police.

“You could tell that a weight had been lifted off his shoulder,” Dawson said. “But you could tell he was being burdened with something else.”

The preliminary hearing

Gary was one of two witnesses to testify at Knighten’s preliminary hearing in May 2012. He told the judge that in the moments before the shooting, Brown and another man at the after-hours party were “mugging and tripping” – giving intimidating looks – to the people in the SUV as it drove through the parking lot.

“Did they start walking toward you?” he was asked.

“One of them did, yes,” he testified.

“The one that got shot?”

“Yeah.”

Gary also said he saw Knighten with a gun.

“I seen him pull a gun out of his right pocket,” he said.

“Did you actually see Travis shooting the gun?” he was asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Wofford said the threats didn’t stop after he testified.

“Things only got worse after the preliminary hearing,” she said.

Dawson said many of the threats ended up on Gary’s Facebook page. One of the posts warned that “There’s a number on your head.”

Six months after that hearing, Dawson gave birth to a daughter. She said Gary was a proud first-time father.

“He couldn’t do what normal dads do with their daughters,” she said. “He couldn’t take his daughter to the park. Even going through the drive-through, he would be looking over his back.”

The last day of Gary’s life was “business as usual,” Dawson said. She went to her job at a printing shop, and Gary stayed home with his daughter.

“When I got home, he was fine,” she said. “Nothing that happened that day was out of the normal. He wasn’t acting weird. Nothing like that.”

They watched a show about amusement parks on the Destination Channel, she said. She was pregnant again, she said, and they talked about someday taking their children to Disneyland. She made Italian pork chops and pasta salad for dinner. Gary said he was going to walk to a friend’s house and said good-bye to his daughter.

“He picked her up, gave her a kiss and said he’d be back,” Dawson said. “That’s the last time I saw him.

“There was nothing to suggest this was a final good-bye.”

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @hlaviana.

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