On the morning of June 23, 1977, Tammy Kershner said goodbye to her husband and left her 2-year-old son with a babysitter on her way to her job as a gas station attendant on South Broadway. She was 19.
Her family never saw her alive again.
Now, 37 years later, Calvin Higdon – convicted of robbing, kidnapping, raping and murdering Kershner – is essentially a free man. Higdon, about to turn 59, is a newly released parolee living at an undisclosed location in Sedgwick County. In his new mugshot on the Kansas Department of Corrections website, he has a shaved head and white beard. He has spent nearly two-thirds of his life in prison for what most agree was a vicious crime.
Where people disagree is whether he should have been let out of prison.
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Because of the nature of Higdon’s crime, he will be under parole supervision for the rest of his life, said KDOC spokesman Jeremy Barclay. But because his crimes occurred before the state’s registered offender law went into effect, he is not required to be on the list of sex offenders and violent offenders, which is available to the public and kept by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
The Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office had sent a form letter to the state opposing Higdon’s release. The Prisoner Review Board, part of the KDOC, approved his parole on May 28, and this past Monday the state put him under parole supervision in Sedgwick County. The decision to place him in Sedgwick County was a joint decision between KDOC staff and Higdon, Barclay said.
“The crime that he committed was a very serious and hideous offense,” Barclay said. Still, “he did serve roughly 37 years for those crimes,” Barclay said. “At this point in time, he is still mobile enough that he can do some work and support himself on the outside, with a diminished risk toward public safety. So it did seem at this point in time that he had served his sentence.”
Don Goseland is one of those who thinks Higdon should have stayed in prison. Goseland, now 66, was a detective who investigated the Kershner case for the Wichita Police Department.
“I worked a lot of homicides and been involved in a great number of homicides scenes,” Goseland said Wednesday. To him, Higdon’s attack on Kershner stands out because of the degree of premeditation and brutality. By Higdon’s confession, she had been robbed at gunpoint, abducted, driven to another county, ordered to undress, raped and shot three times. She had pleaded with him not to hurt her. Her body had been mutilated and buried nude in a shallow grave.
“This is as horrific as it gets,” Goseland said.
If the same crime occurred now, he said, the defendant could face the death penalty.
The loss can’t be measured. At the time Kershner headed to work, Goseland said, “everything was going really positive in her life.” Her family told police that she had been excited about going to her job. Her budding life “was just cut off,” Goseland said. “He’s punished the victim’s family for life.”
Goseland remembers Kershner’s family coming to police offices on the sixth floor at City Hall and meeting with a chaplain. They were crying.
“Everybody on the floor could hear it,” Goseland said.
Kershner’s family could not be reached for comment.
Corinne Radke, longtime victim advocate and co-founder of the local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, said she knows that the family opposed Higdon’s release.
“They were trying their best to keep him in prison,” Radke said. “They were afraid that he might try to look them up when he got out.”
Over the years, Radke said she also went before parole boards four to six times to help keep Higdon in prison. She thinks that under the new parole board system, with the panel under KDOC, the board is more lenient.
But Barclay, the KDOC spokesman, said parole rates show the opposite, with the percentage of inmates granted parole declining under the new board structure. Current board members have extensive corrections experience, and although the secretary of corrections appoints the board, it has autonomy, Barclay said.
A woman disappears
The Kershner case began as a mystery.
The newspaper headline on June 24, 1977, said, “Woman, Money Vanish In Puzzling Incident.”
The article said that Kershner and about $450 in receipts were missing from the Pit Stop gas station, 2348 S. Broadway, that it wasn’t yet clear whether she had been robbed and kidnapped or left on her own. Detective Capt. Al Thimmesch told reporters: “Right now, we’re looking for a missing person with the possibility of foul play.” The article said that detectives thought it wasn’t like her to leave without her child.
Goseland recalls that he suspected a robbery but was initially confident that Kershner would turn up alive.
Her missing person description: 5-feet-1, 110 pounds, with blond hair and light complexion, wearing blue jeans and a yellow blouse.
According to a timeline and narrative from newspaper articles and a 1978 Kansas Supreme Court opinion upholding Higdon’s convictions, she had gone to work about 7 a.m. and was last seen by a customer 15 minutes later. At 7:30 a.m., Higdon was reportedly seen at the station driving an older, gray Chevrolet. At 8 that morning, the gas station owner arrived and found that Kershner and the money were missing.
Later on the same day of the robbery, while Higdon and a friend were in a car belonging to Higdon’s relative, the friend saw a billfold and moneybag on the car floor. Inside the billfold: Kershner’s license. To the friend, Higdon admitted to robbing Kershner. They burned the billfold and money bag in a back yard, and Higdon gave the friend rings that later were identified as being Kershner’s wedding bands. The next afternoon, the friend gave the rings to police. Higdon, who had already been questioned and released by police, was arrested early on the morning of June 25, two days after Kershner disappeared.
After police told Higdon of his rights, he eventually confessed to killing Kershner and took detectives to an abandoned farm in Sumner County, about 15 miles south of Wichita. They went to a shed in a wooded grove. He said he had sexually assaulted Kershner before killing her. She had been shot three times in the head.
Goseland said he can still recall how Higdon showed the investigators the shallow plot where he buried Kershner. Higdon had dug in his heel to mark each corner of the grave. “And he did that with no remorse,” Goseland said.
Higdon also told police about the abandoned railroad abutment where he stashed the murder weapon and the Salvation Army drop box in south Wichita where he left her clothing.
An autopsy found evidence of rape. She also had cuts above the pubic area and on the breasts, evidently inflicted after her death.
Four months after her killing, a Sedgwick County jury spent less than an hour finding Higdon guilty. The jurors had heard Higdon’s taped confession.
“I pulled a gun on her and asked for her money,” he said on the tape. At the shed, he said, “I told her to take off her shoes, and she started crying. I told her to take her clothes off. I grabbed her and sexually assaulted her.”
He said she grabbed his knife. “I panicked and grabbed my pistol and shot her.”
According to a newspaper article: “Later that day, according to the tape, Higdon returned to the site, mutilated the body and buried it.”
At his sentencing five and a half months after the murder, Higdon’s attorney, Ed Hund, argued that the confession wasn’t voluntary and that his client didn’t pull the trigger. The defense attorney described Higdon as “a nonviolent person” who “wouldn’t even go hunting because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood.” District Judge Nicholas Klein had ruled that the confession was admissible, and the Supreme Court backed that decision.
According to the article, the judge sentenced Higdon to concurrent terms of 15 years to life for the robbery, five to 20 years for the rape, and life sentences for the murder and kidnapping to follow the other sentences. Barclay, the KDOC spokesman, said Higdon’s release occurred after he had served more than double the minimum sentence.
Higdon is among a dwindling number of Kansas prison inmates who were sentenced under the so-called “old law” provisions that had “indeterminate” sentences. Under newer laws, sentences have expiration dates. As of Tuesday, only 546 of the 9,636 inmates had indeterminate sentences, Barclay said.
In the past two years, only one of 186 inmates with indeterminate sentences who had been released from prison was returned to prison because of a new felony sentence, which was for a theft, he said.
So regarding those who are granted parole, he said, “it would appear that the decision-making is sound.”
Several parole attempts
Barclay noted that Higdon is about to turn 59 and said that one general consideration is that offenders are increasingly less likely to commit a similar crime as they age.
Higdon had gone before a parole board several times before his release, Barclay said.
Higdon’s relatively quick release this time after the board’s approval shows “he was so well-prepared to get back out into society.” While in prison, Higdon has gained work skills and has completed all the recommended treatment and health programs, Barclay said.
After spending nearly all of his sentence at Lansing Correctional Facility, Higdon was moved to the Norton prison to make sure he could acclimate himself to a new environment, which would help him in the transition to the outside world, Barclay said. KDOC records show Higdon did get into some disciplinary trouble within the past year while at Norton Correctional Facility – last August for fighting and this past January for insubordination or disrespect. The KDOC website lists his disciplinary record since November 1996. His other violations since that time include disobeying orders, having dangerous contraband, threatening or intimidating, and using stimulants or sedatives.
Goseland, the former police detective, said Higdon’s prison disciplinary record showed that he got into trouble nearly every year.
Barclay said he couldn’t discuss specific conditions for Higdon’s parole, but he said Higdon will be under a moderate supervision, meaning he will have direct contact with his parole officer at least once or twice a month.
While Barclay said he couldn’t say why Higdon had been released to Sedgwick County, he noted that Wichita and the county offer industrial jobs that Higdon is prepared to do. Often, parolees get placed where they have support systems, including mentors or relatives.
“There’s no such thing as an assurance that he’ll never commit another crime,” Barclay said.
“But based on what we’ve done in preparation,” he said, “this individual is prepared” to handle life outside prison.