Crime & Courts

September 14, 2013

Fatal College Hill Park stabbing raises questions about use of force

You can still see the stains, reddish-brown and etched into the concrete, down a sidewalk in College Hill Park.

You can still see the stains, reddish-brown and etched into the concrete, down a sidewalk in College Hill Park.

The spots mark a dying man’s last steps.

Whether they realized it or not, College Hill residents stood right around the bloodstains as they met with police officers Tuesday evening. The Wichita Police Department calls it an impact meeting – a chance for residents to meet with police and get information, ask questions and voice concerns about a recent crime in their neighborhood.

In this case, the string of events apparently began as a car burglary, which allegedly prompted two men to chase the burglar into the park. The chase ended in a fatal stabbing of the alleged burglar early Sunday, and culminated in first-degree murder charges Wednesday against two Wichita men accused of running down the fleeing burglar.

It’s the kind of crime that can prompt discussion of how the law defines self-defense and reasonable use of force. Questions about when force can be used and how to respond to a crime were on the neighbors’ minds at Tuesday’s meeting.

The Eagle asked District Attorney Marc Bennett whether he could help explain how the law applies to self-defense and use of force, and Bennett gave this “general summary,” stressing that he can’t discuss the College Hill case, which his office is prosecuting:

“When a person seeks to defend themselves, their property or another person, the test that will be used to gauge that behavior is whether the person acted reasonably under the circumstances. Did the person reasonably believe their acts were necessary and would a reasonable person in the same situation have shared that assessment?” Bennett said in an e-mail.

Bennett also cited statutes that can apply, including this phrase, part of the definition of self-defense: “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to defend such person or a third person against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force.”

Details of what happened

Police Detective Tim Relph, a veteran member of the homicide unit, began the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting with the residents just west of the park swimming pool, where generations of children have splashed and now, near where a fatal stabbing occurred.

“This is a problem that came to your door,” Relph told about two dozen neighbors who formed a semi-circle around him. A minute later, he clarified himself.

“Actually, it came to their doorstep,” he said, referring to a house behind him in the 300 block of South Clifton.

The stabbing appears to have started with a car burglary a block south of the stabbing scene, in the 400 block of South Clifton. A man identified in court documents as Carl A. Cooper, a 32-year parolee with 14 auto burglary and theft convictions in the past decade, had allegedly burglarized a car outside a home on South Clifton. He was not from the neighborhood. A woman saw him in her car and yelled at him.

It was around 3:45 a.m., and two men approaching the house to visit the woman evidently heard the yelling.

“This was just a chance interaction,” Relph told the neighbors.

The two men didn’t know the man they were chasing, and according to Relph, they chased Cooper as he ran north about a block. One of the men ran after him; the other drove a pickup by the park.

The chase zig-zagged on foot through the park. The detective pointed to a barren locust tree near the swimming pool, where the chase ended in the stabbing.

Cooper suffered two or three stab wounds, in his upper body and upper leg, police have said. He died from his injuries about nine hours later, at Wesley Medical Center.

At the meeting, one of the residents asked Relph and several officers with him whether they should confront a criminal.

“No, that’s what we get paid to do,” Officer M.L. Lowe responded. Lowe is the community police officer assigned to the area, so he responds to any concerns in the neighborhood around the park.

“I don’t want homicides on my beat,” Lowe said.

What police want people to do is to promptly report suspicious behavior by calling 911 and to be a good witness.

A woman asked how the law defines legal use of force, and Relph said you can use deadly force to protect yourself – “You don’t have to wait to get stabbed.”

You also have to be able to “articulate” how you were threatened and how you were in fear, he said.

What police don’t want, Relph said, is people killing each other over property.

When the same woman heard that Cooper had a number of thefts on his record, she blurted out, “I hate to say it, but my sympathy level just went down (for him).”

Later, after she learned more about how he was allegedly chased down and stabbed more than once, she changed her mind, saying she did have sympathy for him.

“He was hunted down,” she said.

Police have recovered a fixed-blade knife.

After he was stabbed, Cooper left a blood trail for about 100 yards, from the tree in the park over the sidewalk, across Clifton and onto the front porch of a home across from the park.

A woman at the home, who didn’t want to be named, told an Eagle reporter that her family woke up early Sunday to a “man bleeding to death” on their porch. His wounds left him too weak to stand. According to emergency radio traffic, the first responders found a “bunch of blood” in the street.

Most of the blood has been washed away, but not before it left the stains in the pores of the sidewalk.

On Wednesday, prosecutors charged Kyle A. Carter, 30, and Trenton H. Custer, 34, with first-degree murder in Cooper’s death. They remain in jail on $250,000 bonds on the murder charges.

Carter is on probation for felony forgery. In 2004, he was in trouble with federal authorities, who charged him with possessing a Russian-made SKS rifle related to methamphetamine trafficking, court records show. In his guilty plea, Carter admitted to receiving the SKS rifle from two other men in exchange for meth; the exchange took place in Newton in November 2003. He was sentenced to five years in federal prison.

In March 2009, records show, Carter tested positive in Sedgwick County for meth use. He received a 10-month prison sentence for violating conditions of his release.

Custer spent time in prison in 1999 and 2000 for a burglary of a non-dwelling in Kingman County, records show.

Victim had two children

Sarah Malcolm, mother of Cooper’s children, said of his auto burglary record, “His MO was to break into cars to feed his habit,” in particular, crack cocaine.

Cooper grew up “in the church,” but his father died from a blood clot when Cooper was 17, she said.

“He kind of lost his way after his dad passed.”

Malcolm said she left Cooper over his drug use.

Most people knew him as Anthony Cooper, not Carl Cooper, she said.

The two had two children together, now ages 10 and 12, she said. A fund has been set up in part to pay funeral expenses that the family can’t afford, Malcolm said. It is the Carl Cooper Memorial Fund, through TECU Credit Union (for questions, call the credit union at 316-263-5756, and ask for member services).

After funeral expenses, any extra money would go to his children, she said.

Cooper had his problems, she said, but “that was still their dad.”

Past use-of-force cases

The park stabbing is only the most recent case that has prompted questions about what is legal use of force.

In July, The Eagle reported on an Independence case in which a defense attorney for a man accused of robbing a coin shop contended that the merchant had no legal justification for firing a shot that wounded his client in the back. The defense attorney argued that because the suspect had left the shop and was fleeing, he no longer posed a threat. The Montgomery County prosecutor disagreed.

For that story, Bennett, the Sedgwick County district attorney, said that he wouldn’t comment on the Montgomery County case but would help explain what the law says.

Kansas law upholds the concept of “no duty to retreat,” Bennett said, meaning that if someone is attacked in a place in which they have a right to be, and they are not breaking the law, they can use justifiable force to defend themselves.

Among facts that can be considered in whether to file charges is how far the person who is perceived to be the threat is from the person who feels threatened. The farther away the perceived threat is, the harder it is to argue that the threat remains, he said.

In 2011, The Eagle reported on a Sumner County homeowner who reportedly grabbed a rifle and shot two burglary suspects on his property. Because deputies couldn’t determine at the scene whether the resident’s use of deadly force was legally justified, he was arrested on suspicion of aggravated battery and jailed briefly. A couple days later, the county attorney decided not to file charges.

The article noted: “Wichita and Sedgwick County law enforcement say there have been only a handful of incidents in the area involving deadly force by a homeowner over the last 25 years.”

Neighbors’ concerns

At Tuesday’s College Hill impact meeting, one of the residents suggested that car owners post signs in their vehicles warning burglars that they could end up risking their lives for their thievery.

Several of the neighbors voiced concern about what might be occurring at the house where the car burglary occurred. They were suspicious about why people at the house would be having visitors at 3:45 in the morning.

Kristen Nguyen, one of the neighbors at the meeting, said she has lived near the park for 35 years.

It’s a charming old park, with rolling, grassy vistas, dotted by massive shade trees. And it’s surrounded by friendly residents, she said.

Although the stabbing is unsettling, it doesn’t make her feel less safe, she said.

“Because for me, it is such an isolated incident.”

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