Correction: Kevin and Jennifer O’Connor live in Wichita. An earlier version of this story had the incorrect city.
Kevin O’Connor was already undergoing chemotherapy for the most advanced stage of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in July 1998 when he began prosecuting a murder trial as a Sedgwick County assistant district attorney.
With his immune system weak, he developed pneumonia. He kept going. He didn’t get a conviction in that case, but he did wind up beating the cancer.
And that’s just how he puts it.
“I went into it with the attitude I was going to beat cancer, not survive it,” he said.
That characterizes his approach to life in general, whether it’s standing firm as a Cubs fan in a family of White Sox backers while growing up in Chicago, laboring in the brickyard, playing rugby at the University of Kansas or aggressively working to put bad guys behind bars during 20 years as a prosecutor.
“I am a fighter,” said O’Connor, 48.
That’s a main theme in his campaign for Sedgwick County district attorney to replace retiring Nola Foulston.
He worked for Foulston for 17 years before he left in late 2009. His opponent, Marc Bennett, is a current deputy district attorney and former colleague.
To understand where O’Connor is coming from, you need to know how he’s been influenced by his father, James Patrick O’Connor, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and died 10 years ago.
“If I’m half the man my father was,” said O’Connor, “I’m doing all right. He’s the American dream.”
James O’Connor was a Catholic who grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, when the violent sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants was at some of its worst. His father died when he was 3; his mother when he was 13. He stayed away from the political turmoil and fighting, opting instead to play soccer. He played on the more elite Protestant teams, although he wasn’t allowed to stay in some hotels or restaurants with his teammates when they traveled.
Tales of those experiences would shape a mindset that his son would follow as a prosecutor.
“It’s always angered me when people are victimized, bullied,” Kevin O’Connor said. “That has always driven me. You can’t be a vigilante and go after people, so the way we have it in this country is we prosecute people who commit crimes.”
In early 1953, at the age of 18 and with only a sixth-grade education, James O’Connor was sent by an aunt to Chicago, where another aunt and sisters lived. His fiancée, Pauline Reilly, arrived from Belfast later that year and they were married 10 days later.
James O’Connor joined the Army and jumped out of airplanes for the 82nd Airborne Division, so he could make an extra $50 per month. He would later work multiple jobs — delivering milk, upholstering or doing whatever he needed to do.
He was also creating lessons for his five children.
“Get an education, work hard,” Kevin O’Connor said. “Dad would say, ‘You live in the greatest country in the world. You are only limited by how hard you want to work.’ ”
His father later landed a sales job, then became a vice president, for Beck Face Brick Co. Kevin and his two brothers started to work in the brickyard by age 13 or 14, unloading box cars and picking up loose bricks.
“Back-breaking work,” Kevin O’Connor said.
Later, he spent his summers and spring breaks working on construction crews.
A cornerback on his high school’s football team, O’Connor tried to keep going in the sport, first at a small college and then at a junior college in Illinois
“I realized I didn’t have the talent,” he said. “It was time to hang up the cleats.”
A friend told him about favorable out-of-state tuition rates at KU, so O’Connor headed for Jayhawkland.
While getting a degree in journalism with an emphasis on advertising, he also played rugby. Lou Blanco, now a businessman in Miami, was one of O’Connor’s rugby teammates.
“Very serious guy, big hitter, a fun guy,” Blanco said.
But not so serious that O’Connor would take his aggression beyond the rules, he added.
“Rugby is a physical sport. But if you decided to fight, you’d get kicked off the game and may not be able to play the next week,” Blanco said. “Then the team would have to play a man short. That’s not good.”
After graduating from KU, O’Connor spent a year or so doing what he called “junk mail” sales. Then he met Jennifer Stiles, a KU alum from Hutchinson, while he was in Lawrence to play in an alumni rugby game. As they began dating, talk of his future came up.
He mentioned he was always interested in reading crime stories in the Chicago Tribune.
“I’ve always wanted to be a prosecutor,” he told her.
Jennifer suggested law school.
James O’Connor’s response was something along the lines, “What? More school? Just go to work.”
But being a prosecutor also fit with another of his father’s lessons:
“Give back because this is the greatest country in the world.”
“It’s helping people who have been victimized,” O’Connor said. “That’s how I approach the job.”
Kevin and Jennifer later married. They now live in Wichita with their four children, ages 16 to 9. He helps coach youth football.
Before his final year at KU Law School, O’Connor did a summer internship with Foulston’s office. He took a full-time job there the next year, in 1992, handling traffic cases.
“As the years went by, I brought him in on cases with me,” Foulston said. “He was bright, affable, a good head on his shoulders.”
O’Connor ran unsuccessfully for Reno County district attorney in 2000, when he and his family were living in Hutchinson.
“It was really before my time,” he said. “As it turned out, it was best because I was able to go on and do other things.”
He left Foulston’s office in October 2001 to work for the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., on the capital case unit. But living in Kansas was a better fit and Foulston asked him to return to help work on the Carr brothers’ case, a quadruple murder. He was back in Wichita by July 2002.
Besides the Carr brothers, he’s also worked — to one degree or another — on such high-profile cases as Michael Marsh, a death-penalty case, and BTK.
O’Connor became a deputy DA in charge of a trial division in 2003 and joined Bennett in successfully prosecuting the case involving Chelsea Brooks, a 14-year-old pregnant girl who was murdered in 2006.
Defense attorney David Moses said Bennett and O’Connor are both great trial lawyers and “formidable foes.”
“I’ve had cases with both of them and enjoyed working with them,” he said. “Marc is very quiet, but can be strong. Kevin is a little more fiery, a shorter fuse. That’s the Irishman in him.”
O’Connor smiled. He’s heard it before.
“What I am is passionate,” he said. “Oftentimes people who don’t have passion mistake passion for anger or being fiery. I’m not angry. I love my wife and kids.
“I have a personality in the courtroom that I think appeals to jurors. It appeals to law enforcement. They see me as a fighter, willing to try tough cases.”
Fellow attorneys gave O’Connor mixed reviews in a recent survey sponsored by the Wichita Bar Association and The Eagle. Of the 143 who responded specifically about him, 51 percent strongly agreed or agreed he was fair while 34 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. On being respectful and courteous in court, 37 percent thought he was while 45 percent felt otherwise.
“I’m more interested in being the people’s lawyer than the lawyer’s lawyer,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor says he is aggressive in court. He’s also known to use colorful analogies when making a point to jurors.
Kansas’ Supreme Court thought he went too far and said he committed prosecutorial misconduct in the case of Billy J. McCaslin, who was found guilty of the 2006 rape and murder of Angela Duran in Wichita.
But the court ruled in January 2011 that the misconduct was not sufficient enough to reverse the conviction.
Medical examiners determined Duran, a 31-year-old mother of three, had been stabbed more than a dozen times, then set on fire after being doused with citronella.
The defense attorney told the jury that McCaslin’s shirt didn’t have any blood splatters or citronella on it.
O’Connor answered: “You’ve all maybe lit a barbecue. Did you get fluid on you when you are lighting a barbecue? No, it goes on the charcoal, and Angela Duran was his charcoal.”
On why there was no soot on McCaslin’s clothing, O’Connor said: “We’re not saying he hung around and cooked s’mores. We’re saying he lit the fire and left.”
The court said, “Comparing a burning murder victim to the lit charcoal for barbecuing meat and for roasting marshmallows to make a cookout dessert falls short of qualifying the prosecutor as a paragon of professionalism.”
The idea of roasting marshmallows over Duran’s “flaming body, while picturesque, is particularly repugnant,” the court said. “We agree with McCaslin that these remarks not only constituted prosecutorial misconduct but also demonstrated ill will, lack of good faith and were gross and flagrant.”
O’Connor dismissed it as an overreaction by the court.
“They felt I was mean to a person who raped, stabbed and burned a person,” he said. “I was consistent with the facts in the case. It was an easily understood analogy, but they found it to be offensive.”
O’Connor left Foulston’s office in October 2009 over what he called “fundamental differences with the district attorney, even down to core values. I couldn’t work there anymore.”
Foulston said he wasn’t carrying out the administrative responsibilities required of a deputy DA.
O’Connor disputes that and counters that her change of attitude about him came in part because he declined to donate money or “walk in her parades” for her 2008 re-election campaign. Foulston said that’s not true.
Sedgwick County Election Office records show that 12 people listed as working in Foulston’s office donated a total of $4,800 toward her 2008 campaign. O’Connor wasn’t on the list; Bennett donated $250.
Before O’Connor left in 2009, Foulston offered to let him return to chief trial attorney while taking a pay cut of $5,000 to $90,000. He declined.
O’Connor and Foulston both say she called him in late February or early March 2011, asking if he would return to the office. He never got back with her.
Although Foulston said she’s not officially endorsing anyone, she supports Bennett on her Facebook page. She has a Bennett sign in her yard — she said her husband put it there.
“I have an affinity for Kevin,” she said, “but now he’s hooked up with people who have picketed me.”
She’s referring to the abortion opponents who have picketed her home over the years. O’Connor recently said, “I’m a lifelong conservative, pro-life Republican. That’s what we need in the DA’s office.”
Special prosecutor, special assistant
Since he left the DA’s office, O’Connor has worked as a special prosecutor on cases for several county attorneys, including in Butler County, and as a special assistant for Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
He most recently prosecuted the Adam Longoria case in Great Bend, resulting in Longoria’s conviction for the murder of a 14-year-old girl. He’s currently assisting the attorney general’s office in the prosecution of Brett Seacat, a former Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy charged with murdering his wife, in a trial set to begin Dec. 3.
He was the special prosecutor in Butler County on a case involving Adam Herrman, who vanished without a trace at the age of 11 in 1999. Doug and Valerie Herrman were convicted last year of fraudulently receiving state adoption subsidies for their adopted son.
O’Connor said he began considering running for DA about a year or so ago when he was approached by some Republicans, although he noted he thought Foulston would be his opponent.
He stuck with his plan to run after she announced in September that she’s retiring. He said the office needs new leadership.
He said he considers Bennett a friend and a good prosecutor, but he said Bennett wouldn’t be able to make the changes that are necessary to erase what he calls an air of “arrogance” in the office.
Bennett said, “I don’t feel like I am arrogant, or the people I come to work with every day are arrogant.”
Noting that Bennett has spent 15 of his 17 years as a prosecutor under Foulston, O’Connor said his varied experience gives him an advantage.
“Just because Nola is gone doesn’t mean the policies that are entrenched in that office go away,” O’Connor said. “I don’t want to leave the impression I’m going to come in and fire everyone, because that’s ridiculous. But you need to make changes in the policies in place.”
He points to reorganization of the office, particularly on the administrative end.
“Maybe we can free up attorneys to be attorneys,” he said. “We need a full-time, aggressive district attorney. The office needs to be re-energized.”