September 7, 2013

Butler County sheriff rides out a roller-coaster week

Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet got the call early Monday morning, on what was a Labor Day holiday for most folks.

Butler County Sheriff Kelly Herzet got the call early Monday morning, on what was a Labor Day holiday for most folks.

“I’ve worried about this call, and this Monday morning, the call came,” he recalled Friday.

An emergency dispatcher got the 56-year-old sheriff out of bed with this: “Sheriff, we’ve got a deputy who’s been shot … ”

It happened along U.S. 54 near Santa Fe Lake Road. Officers had two people in custody, and a third, the gunman, got away. But as he quickly got dressed, Herzet didn’t think as much about the gunman on the loose. In those first minutes, he thought of the deputy.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, is he going to die? What am I going to tell his mom?’

“And I didn’t even know who he was, just that he was a deputy.”

Those words spilled out as Herzet leaned back in his office chair in El Dorado on Friday not long after he announced some good news: that the man suspected of shooting the deputy, Jan Tracy Kilbourne, had finally been caught outside a Wichita house earlier that morning.

Even in law enforcement, where you never know what might happen, it was a memorable week: a deputy getting shot; daylong manhunts in two counties involving federal, state and local agencies deploying helicopters, dog teams and trackers; law enforcement officers in multiple counties on high alert for the suspect, and finally, the fugitive getting caught as he ran from a car at a south Wichita house, wearing a wig.

Here’s how the week unfolded from Herzet’s perspective:

The shooting

When he got to the shooting scene Monday morning, Herzet said the deputy was already on his way to a hospital. The initial determination was that the deputy was stable but “code red,” meaning in critical condition.

The information triggered a new wave of emotion in the sheriff’s mind. He worried about every possibility.

“I think we think of the worst when we’re responding to emergency calls,” he said.

He didn’t have to bark out a bunch of orders, partly because Augusta and Andover police were closer and able to reach the scene before him. Everyone seemed to know what do, and was doing it.

Officers set up a perimeter to contain the suspect. He had been a passenger in a suspicious vehicle and had fired a shot into the deputy’s shoulder, prompting the deputy to fire back. The wounded gunman ran off.

The deputy was lucky: His protective vest blocked most of the bullet’s impact.

Before too long, Herzet’s decade of experience as a detective kicked in. He started thinking through a detective’s checklist, “and all the right things were happening.”

His mind returned to the wounded deputy, and Herzet was thinking that the deputy’s family needed to know.

“They need to be at the hospital with him.”

The deputy’s mother lived a few hours away. A message quickly went to authorities where she lived.

Herzet found out later that the deputy had already called his mother from the ambulance on his way to Wesley Medical Center, telling her he was fine.

The sheriff also learned later something interesting: Earlier the same morning the deputy had been shot, his mother called him to visit a little and tell him she loved him.

That was a little after 4 a.m. He was shot less than an hour later.

Not long after the call from his mother, “He’s fighting for his life in a gunfight,” Herzet said.

“Now, how ironic is that?”

The search begins

That morning, his mind shifted to catching the gunman. Cops young and old were searching hard through the area, sometimes up in gravel piles near the shooting scene. A fellow officer had been shot, and they wanted him caught.

The crime scene was becoming increasingly organized, with a Butler County sergeant running a command post. Arrangements were made for lighting and portable toilets because the investigators would be there from that morning into the night, documenting evidence and searching.

As sheriff, Herzet said, he has tried to build relationships with surrounding agencies, and it paid off Monday. He read a list of agencies that responded to the deputy’s shooting: Andover police, Augusta police, Benton police, Butler County dispatchers and Butler County EMS, El Dorado police, Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Kansas Highway Patrol, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, Salvation Army, Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, Sumner County Sheriff’s Office, trackers from Cowley County and the U.S. Marshal’s Office. And there were more, he says.

The logistics at such a scene can be “kind of overwhelming.”

“All the meanwhile, you’re thinking: ‘Where is this guy?’ ”

Later Monday morning, the deputy was released from the hospital. Another deputy stayed with him, to help the wounded deputy cope with coming off of the adrenaline rush that goes with being shot in the line of duty, Herzet said.

At the scene, investigators were trying to locate Kilbourne through a cellphone by “pinging” off cell phone towers. At one point, they thought the pinging indicated he could be north of U.S. 54, so the search went that way for a while, but mostly focused to the south of U.S. 54 behind a row of businesses.

Farther south, the lots give way to rolling hills of high weeds, crisscrossed by tree lines and dotted by scattered homes.

Then, they realized the pinging was coming from inside the car that the gunman had been in when he shot the deputy. They found a phone registered to Kilbourne between the seats.

By the end of the searching Monday along U.S. 54, it was clear to Herzet that the suspect had somehow escaped.

And Herzet, who has been sheriff for about 2½ years, had a huge concern. If he shot a deputy, “Who is he going to kill? He’s desperate.”

The 911 center notified residents in the area that a dangerous fugitive might be in the area and advised people to lock doors, stay alert and call 911 if they thought they spotted the person.

Meanwhile, detectives were being dispatched to Hutchinson and Liberal because the suspect had ties there.

Little sleep

Like his investigators, Herzet got little sleep during the week. Three hours most nights.

On Wednesday, an exhaustive search about 20 to 25 miles south of the shooting scene, in Cowley County, was prompted after a woman came home to a man fleeing out a back door of her house. That search also didn’t end in an arrest. If the burglar had been Kilbourne, he got away again.

The intruder had spent significant time in the home, in a remote spot about 9 miles east of Udall.

“I’m 70 percent sure that it was him,” Herzet said Thursday.

He noted that the intruder had apparently washed his hands in a sink in the basement and maybe gotten a drink of water. He apparently took time to lie down on the couch for a nap. They were not the actions of a typical, smash-and-grab burglar, and there apparently was no getaway car and no missing items.

It was also hard for Herzet to believe that the typical burglar could have escaped the ground and air search and the dog teams and trackers that descended on the scene. Kilbourne had allegedly escaped authorities before in difficult conditions.

Thursday night was the first time in his life that Herzet got a professional massage. He thought it might help him relax, and it did. But his cellphone kept ringing during the massage, with calls from detectives and media seeking updates.

Herzet had just gone to bed Thursday night when he got a call around 11. Detectives used information that led them to a Hutchinson-area motel. But it turned out to be the wrong people.

Herzet told the investigators to keep him posted. But he couldn’t sleep.

The suspect’s continued evasion ate at him, Herzet said.

After Monday’s daylong search, he asked himself whether he had let down the county’s residents.

‘We got him’

Then finally, early Friday morning, Herzet got the call he wanted: “We got him, sheriff.”

Using cellphone tracking technology and old-fashioned police work, a Butler County detective and Wichita police officers arrested Kilbourne after he briefly ran from a car behind a house in the 700 block of South Terrace in Wichita, Herzet told reporters at a news conference later Friday morning.

How Kilbourne — who was wearing a wig when captured — got there is a mystery, Herzet said.

Herzet said he could hear the excitement in his detectives’ voices as they relayed the news.

“I knew they knew how much this meant to me to get him in custody,” he said.

Herzet went to the hospital in El Dorado to get a look at Kilbourne after he was taken there to be checked out. Kilbourne had what appeared to be a gunshot wound through his hip, but to Herzet, Kilbourne seemed to be in good shape for being on the run.

“He’s not as big a guy as I thought he was,” Herzet said. “He’s human.”

Herzet is a stocky, balding guy, a single father of two grown daughters, and he is about to become a grandfather.

“I live a very simple life,” he said. He rides a motorcycle or camps out in his easy chair in his spare time.

Will he sleep better this weekend?

“I hope so,” he said.

“It’s been quite a week.”

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