April 8, 2013

40 years later, still no answers in triple homicide

Gary Avery, now 63, was working the night shift at the Lawrence Paper Co. on March 27, 1973, when he received a call that his mother and brother were missing.

Gary Avery, now 63, was working the night shift at the Lawrence Paper Co. on March 27, 1973, when he received a call that his mother and brother were missing.

The bodies of Gary’s mother, Hazel, 60; brother Steve, 19; and family friend Gary Longfellow, 23, eventually were found in the back of Hazel’s 1964 Chrysler, which was parked off U.S. 59 in Ottawa. The three had been shot to death, execution-style.

Police had no apparent motive or suspects and few leads in the triple homicide.

In the 40 years since, scores of investigators – to no avail – have taken a crack at solving the mystery.

“Somebody did it,” said Gary Avery. “Somebody’s out there.”

Who? And, just as important, why?

According to accounts from police and family members, Steve Avery was attempting to hitchhike from Iola to Lawrence on U.S. 59 the night of March 27, 1973. He was heading north to testify on behalf of his friend, Vietnam War veteran Longfellow, in a paternity suit in Jefferson County the next day.

Steve Avery and his wife, Dianne, had recently moved to Iola with their 13-month-old daughter, Stephanie. Following a fight with Dianne, who wouldn’t let him take the couple’s vehicle north to Lawrence, Steve Avery set off on foot with a plan to hitch a ride, a somewhat common practice in the area four decades ago.

On that stormy night, his progress stalled, and he called his mother from a pay phone in Richmond, about 40 miles south of Lawrence.

Hazel Avery, a nurse who lived in Lawrence, called Longfellow to accompany her on the trip because of the late night and stormy conditions. They left about 10:30 p.m.

After that call at work, Gary Avery and other family members scoured Ottawa and Franklin County looking for the trio but had no luck. Douglas County Sheriff Rex Johnson, who knew the Avery family, helped to coordinate a search.

A day and a half later, on March 29, a woman on her way to work in Ottawa noticed a large sedan parked on the side of a country road. She called police, and the three bodies were found.

The crime scene posed as much a mystery for police and detectives then as it does decades later.

Jim Malson, a retired Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent, was originally in charge of the investigation. Now 76, Malson remembers the details of the case clearly.

All three bodies were found with their heads slumped on seats in the car. Hazel Avery was in the front passenger seat, Steve Avery in the rear passenger-side seat and Longfellow behind the driver’s seat. All three had been kneeling on the floorboards, and all had “contact” wounds, indicating that at some point someone placed a gun against their heads and pulled the trigger.

In total, seven bullets were recovered. Steve Avery was shot twice in the head, and Hazel Avery was shot in the neck, shoulder and head.

Longfellow, meanwhile, also had been shot through the bottom of his foot. Malson speculates that Longfellow had tried to run or possibly had kicked a foot up at the shooter. But as with everything in the case, it was all a best guess, Malson said.

“Try to put it together, it just don’t come together,” he said.

Motive was the most difficult aspect to pin down in the case, said Jeff Hupp, a retired KBI agent who worked the case until 2010. It wasn’t a robbery, because nothing was stolen. It wasn’t sexually motivated, as there were no signs of sexual assault.

The only theory left was that someone wanted one of the three dead – a “hit.”

The homicides did have a professional feel to them, Hupp said. Whoever was responsible had to control three people, two of whom were young men – not an easy task and probably the work of someone with some experience in such matters, Hupp said.

But the idea that someone planned such a killing seems improbable.

No one knew Longfellow and Hazel Avery were heading to Ottawa, and it seems unlikely someone would have been staking out the two or Steve Avery.

Both Malson and Hupp say the investigation showed Steve Avery potentially had an enemy or two. But he had no criminal record, and according to investigators and family members, both Longfellow and Steve Avery appeared to be fairly typical, blue-collar young men.

“It’s a heck of a mystery,” Hupp said.

Looking for closure

Even with advances in evidence-gathering technologies, it doesn’t appear a break in the case will come from any sort of trace or DNA evidence.

That 1964 Chrysler, where the killer or killers surely left some physical evidence, is long gone. Gary Avery said that after the case, the car was released to their family. But they couldn’t stand to sell the car and potentially see it traveling down the road one day. So they had a family friend in the salvage business destroy it.

The case is now in the hands of Franklin County Sheriff’s Det. Mike Reed, who picked it up cold a few years ago.

Reed, Malson and Hupp all mention some bizarre tips over the years: a delusional drifter, possible connections to the traveling serial killer duo of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, an unpaid gambling debt. But nothing that gained any real traction.

Occasionally, they receive tips about the case, including one four years ago that didn’t pan out, Reed said. But he’ll keep taking calls and exploring leads and tips as they come in.

“One just never knows,” Reed said.

Many of the family members with a stake in the case are now deceased. Dianne, Steve Avery’s wife, died several years ago. Stephanie, Steve’s daughter, who would be 41 today, died in an automobile accident, Gary Avery said.

“I’m the only one,” he said.

Gary Avery has hung on to all the old newspaper articles about the case and has photos of his mother and little brother close at hand in his Lawrence home. His only son, Steve, was named after the little brother who was mysteriously and inexplicably gunned down along a country road four decades ago.

“You think about it every day,” Gary Avery said. “It’d be nice to have some closure.”

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