Crime & Courts

Wichita has higher-than-average 'stranger murder' rate

When Patricia Smith and Patricia Magers were shot to death in an East Kellogg bridal shop in April 1992, it was a classic case of stranger murder.

Homicide records compiled by the FBI show that Wichita police have investigated more than 100 "stranger murders" since 1980.

The 24 percent stranger rate among all murders in the city is well above the national average of 16 percent and the statewide average of 14.3 percent.

But in reality, police said, true stranger killings like the ones that occurred at the La'Bride d'Elegance bridal shop are extremely rare.

Lt. Ken Landwehr said the FBI criteria label a homicide as a "stranger killing" whenever a victim and offender don't know each other.

"Almost all of your robberies are going to be stranger murders," he said. "Those are listed as 'stranger,' but they're cases where people were killed because they were witnesses."

Landwehr said solving a true stranger murder can be much tougher than solving a typical homicide.

"For an actual stranger killing, it's very difficult unless you can get evidence at the crime scene," he said.

The FBI data

The FBI figures come from the agency's Supplemental Homicide Reports, which contain detailed demographic information about homicides that occurred from 1980 through 2006.

Computer compatibility issues kept the Kansas data out of the FBI system from July 1993 through December 1999.

The available data shows that

most of the 2,052 Kansas homicide victims knew their killers.

There were 114 husbands who killed their wives and 54 wives who killed their husbands. Kansans were killed by an ex-spouse 16 times.

Boyfriends killed 52 girlfriends during the time period covered, while girlfriends killed 27 boyfriends. Parents killed 43 daughters and 34 sons.

The list of victims includes 105 children under the age of 5, and 52 who had yet to reach the age of 1.

It was not clear why Wichita's rate of stranger murders was higher than that of most jurisdictions. But it's possible that a murder that occurred during a robbery could be reported as a "stranger killing" by one jurisdiction and an "acquaintance killing" by another.

Solving a homicide

At the onset of any homicide investigation, Landwehr said, detectives know there's a good chance that there will be a connection between the victim and the killer.

"You go from the most intimate relationships on out," he said. "The odds are that 75 percent are related — or at least knew their victims very well."

Although they are rare, Landwehr said, true stranger homicides have occurred in Wichita.

Nine of the 10 BTK killings were true stranger murders, he said, as were the five murders committed by Jonathan and Reginald Carr in December 2000. He also mentioned the July 1990 murder of 9-year-old Nancy Shoemaker, who was abducted by a stranger in south Wichita.

Former Sedgwick County Sheriff Gary Steed estimated that he worked on 100 homicide cases over the years, but only a handful involved true stranger killings.

One case that sprang to mind, he said, was the Aug. 30, 1979, murder of North High School teacher Robert Temple and his wife, Letha. They were shot to death in their home at 739 N. 119th St. West.

Steed said the murders occurred as detectives were investigating a string of burglaries in the area.

"Eventually when you start looking at those you say, 'This burglary is similar to that burglary, and that burglary is similar to that burglary.'... We actually solved it (the murder) by working backwards through all the burglary cases."

Two 16-year-olds who were implicated in the burglaries were charged and convicted of the murders.

Steed said it's much easier to solve a case when there is a tie between the victim and killer.

"What you're looking for in a homicide investigation is a connection and a motive," he said. "There's usually some history — some anger or bad blood.

"When it's totally random, there's just very little evidence to lead you to the suspect."

Even in stranger murder cases, suspects often unwittingly implicate themselves.

"One of the things that often helps in a homicide investigation is that we deal with people, and people like to talk," he said. "And other people will tell on them.

"If it's a totally random stranger homicide where a person doesn't talk, it can be pretty difficult to solve."

The La'Bride case

Although the bridal shop killings remain unsolved, police have identified the suspect in the case as the I-70 killer.

The serial killer murdered six people in 1992 — all near interstate highways in Kansas, Indiana, Missouri and Texas.

Bob Trendel, Patricia Smith's father, said early on in the investigation that a detective told him, "If it's somebody local, we'll catch him. If it's somebody from out of town, we'll probably never know who it is."

Trendel said he never thought the killer was from Kansas.

Trendel said police took his daughter's keys into evidence as well as a cash drawer that was handled by the killer. He said he assumes police have the killer's fingerprints. He said there are other leads that should point to the killer.

"Practically everyone that he killed looked basically alike," he said. "This guy for some reason seemed to prey on brunettes, young brunettes.

"They were each shot one time in the back of the head. They have two different composites that as far as I'm concerned look like twin brothers."

Trendel said he finds it frustrating that police have never talked openly about the investigation.

"I would like to know if they're doing anything at all," he said. "They haven't told me anything in 10 years. Did they just stick it in the back room and forget it?

"I just wish they'd keep me updated. I don't know what's so bad about that."