A couple of weeks before his last day as chief of the Wichita Police Department’s homicide section, Lt. Ken Landwehr brought doughnuts to his detectives, several of whom had helped him solve many of the 600 homicides he’d worked.
He’d been the chief of that section for 20 years. He’d earned a national reputation as a crime solver. He’d earned a local reputation as a hero. Personally, he just wanted to play golf.
He gathered a meeting around the doughnuts in March and told them he had cancer.
He said it had just been found in a routine physical. He was matter of fact. Nobody else felt matter of fact. People who had seen murders sat horrified. Other people joined in; Todd Ojile, the gang unit lieutenant, watched shock register on faces. Landwehr said something he’d said at many scenes: “It is what it is.” He said he would deal with it. And that people should go back to work.
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Minutes later somebody called Kelly Otis at the courthouse across the street, and Otis and Dana Gouge, both now investigators for the Sedgwick County District Attorney, hurried over to join the detectives. They’d served for years as detectives under Landwehr, helped solve the BTK serial murder case, the Carr brothers murder spree, and hundreds of other homicides.
At murder scenes, Gouge said, with relatives crying, Otis and Landwehr gave the victims’ families empathy, comfort, an arm around a shoulder and a promise that detectives would do all they could.
Gouge has a reputation for being aloof, blunt, brusque. He’s that way at homicide scenes, too, as he says himself. Gouge never tried to comfort anyone. “I thought if I did, if I got emotionally involved, I’d be compromised, that I’d not be able to be objective.”
But when Gouge and Otis walked in minutes after Landwehr revealed his illness, Gouge walked up to him, put his arms around him, and hugged him tight.
A ‘relentless giver’
A couple of weeks later, hundreds of people showed up at Landwehr’s retirement gathering at City Hall. Landwehr cracked jokes. Many of his listeners knew of his illness and pretended not to. Landwehr didn’t want publicity, or sympathy, or anything.
“Kenny has been a relentless giver all his life, and he finds it very hard to be a receiver,” Deputy Chief Tom Stolz said later.
Landwehr, 58, made one reference to the future, as he said goodbye at the speaker’s podium. He said that he planned to shoot a golf game near his age when he was 70. He said it pleasantly, but with a trace of defiance. “See you around,” he said.
A plan of attack
The news Landwehr received from his doctors, according to several of his closest friends, was at first scary, and then terrible, and then somewhat better. As with most cancer diagnoses, there was the fright of initial discovery, and then tests that produced bad news, including that his time might not be long.
But after that, Landwehr went to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where specialists, according to Landwehr’s friends, gave him a plan of attack, and a more hopeful outlook. So as he’d done many times before, Landwehr decided to take on a baffling case and see what could be done. And he played golf.
Before he went to Houston, he took his wife, Cindy, and his son, James, to Hawaii, as they’d long planned for his goodbye to work. He’d arranged the retirement and the vacation long before he took that routine physical.
After that, he found out how much it would cost him to make repeated trips to MD Anderson.
Soon after, according to Ojile and Stolz, he got into disagreements with his friends.
He had insurance for the medical bills. But those trips to Houston would be multiple, and costly, for lodging and meals for him and his family.
His friends wanted to help. He told them to leave it alone.
But the ironic thing about that, as Ojile and Stolz said later, was that this was the guy who had repeatedly helped hundreds of people over four decades: homicide victim families, prosecutors working difficult cases, mothers grieving over drowned children, officers in despair.
Ojile and others have listened to Landwehr and followed his advice for decades. But this time, they didn’t listen.
“We all got around him, some of us,” Ojile said on Thursday. “And we made him listen to things he did not want to hear.”
Earlier this week, Stolz and other members of the Wichita Police Department broke with earlier promises they’d made to Landwehr to not talk publicly about his illness.
Landwehr had seen many people robbed by evil and death. He has told people for decades that no police officer is more special than any other citizen, and deserves no more consideration than any victim of bad luck or crime.
Ignoring this, his friends in the investigations unit put together a golf tournament in his name, and began sending fliers to the local media and the public.
The Kenny Landwehr Benefit Golf Tournament will take place starting at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 26, Stolz said, tentatively at the Tex Consolver Golf Course, 1931 S. Tyler Road. There will be a lunch and beverages provided, a silent auction, and prizes for winning teams.
Anyone can donate any amount, Stolz said. But Landwehr’s friends are asking $500 for each four-person team playing, or $125 per person.
Landwehr refused to be interviewed, and according to Stolz would have vetoed the tournament and publicity had he been in charge. But Stolz told him there were rumors in the community that Landwehr had quit because of his illness, and Stolz and others wanted those rumors dispelled. And he told him that no one could see any objection to Landwehr’s friends trying to raise travel money for a guy who had given 35 years of his life to the community. Not to mention helping solve 600 homicides.
Lessons from Landwehr
His many friends, like him, have had to face death, and not only because of the job. Jeff Easter, the captain commanding Patrol North, lost his brother Kevin, a sheriff’s deputy killed on duty. Easter was nearly killed himself a few years before that, when someone tried to shoot him in the chest.
“What you think about at times like that is never yourself,” Easter said on Thursday. “You can’t afford to think about yourself, even under the circumstances, because if you do that, you’re not a good police officer. Or a good father. And Kenny is both of those things, even now.”
Easter and others have their favorite Landwehr stories about Landwehr teaching cops how to help other people.
Many things Gouge saw at Landwehr’s side for 12 years were heartbreaking, Gouge said, especially child deaths, natural or from abuse. Landwehr, he said, has an incredible ability to get through to the survivors, calming and comforting them where comfort seemed impossible.
“He’s got this sincerity about him,” Gouge said. “It’s so powerful. People would realize, listening to him, that he believes what he says.”
He would never promise to solve their case, Gouge said. But he would promise that he and his detectives would work night and day, would do everything they could, to find out what happened. “People took a lot of comfort from that.”
John Speer, the captain now commanding the Professional Standards Bureau, remembers a few years ago being called to a house where a child drowned. At the hospital, after they made sure from the body that it was an accident, they still had work to do, but the mother came in. And Landwehr deliberately stood aside, and wordlessly made other cops stand aside, and waited, while the mother held her child in her arms, and sobbed.
Other commanders would have cut that scene short after a few minutes to move on to other cases. But Landwehr stood there, waiting, watching the effect those sobs had on other officers, for nearly an hour, until the mother was done.
“The lesson there, which he taught to us and which I never forgot, is that a case is not just a case,” Speer said.
Gouge’s favorite story involves a case Landwehr worked decades ago, regarding Richard Grissom, a serial killer.
That was the first case that became a national story, and there was a book done, “Suddenly Gone,” and one day Gouge asked Landwehr to autograph it, because Landwehr’s picture was in the book. Gouge left “Suddenly Gone” lying out at home one day, and Gouge’s 5-year-old son found it, and recognized the cop in the photograph.
“That’s Landwehr,” his son said.
“Yes,” Gouge said.
“He must be famous,” the boy said.
“Yes, he is.”
“Boy,” the child said. “I bet Landwehr has A THOUSAND DOLLARS!”
Gouge teased Landwehr about that later, and Landwehr just grinned.
On June 26, his friends hope to raise more than that.