Crime & Courts

Aftermath of 1988 Wichita murder trial still haunts jury foreman

Ron Blasi never got over the aftermath of the Bill Butterworth case.

Blasi was the jury foreman in that trial and voted with the others to acquit Butterworth on charges of murder in the deaths of a Wichita father and his two daughters. Twenty-five years later, Blasi said he remains irritated by what authorities said about jurors.

So when Blasi came to town from Missouri for a funeral earlier this month, he came to The Eagle newsroom to complain.

The “slander” about the jury began the day after the trial, Blasi said. The district attorney gave an interview. The Eagle headline said the jury “fell for a lie.”

Like the jury in the recent George Zimmerman trial — which found Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin — his jury got a bum rap, Blasi said.

Retired Wichita police Lt. Ken Landwehr also hasn’t forgotten the case.

He remembers how sorry he felt for Mary Fager.

The bodies of her teenage daughters had lain in their hot tub for a day. Landwehr remembers Phillip Fager’s body on the floor. He thought the case he helped build against Butterworth was solid.

But the jury acquitted Butterworth. To this day, Landwehr says that in his opinion, he and the other authorities let Mary Fager down, “either by picking a bad jury or by presenting a flawed case.”

‘Didn’t have a case’

“They didn’t have a case,” Blasi recalled of the prosecution.

“We all went in the jury room, and after they picked me as foreman, I wanted to take a quick vote before we looked at the evidence. We had seven votes for acquittal right there.

“All they had was that Butterworth had driven the Fager car to Florida,” he said. “That’s all they had.

“And you can’t convict a man of three first-degree murders just because he drove a car.”

The crime

On the last day of 1987, Mary Fager — returning from an out-of-town trip — drove to her home at 7015 E. 14th St. and found her husband and daughters dead.

Phillip, her husband, had been shot in the back. Their daughter Sherri, 16, had been drowned in the hot tub. Kelli, 9, was strangled hours later, and then dumped in the tub, too.

For the rest of his life, Landwehr said, the smell of warm water and chlorine would bother him.

Police tracked down and arrested Butterworth, a handyman contractor, a few days later in Stuart, Fla. He had driven from the Fager home in the Fager car, stopped at Towne East to buy new clothes, then driven to Florida. Before leaving, Landwehr said in the recent interview, Butterworth drained his bank account.

Butterworth had been building the sunroom that housed the hot tub. In his defense, he said finding the bodies traumatized him and that he came down with amnesia. He said that was why he took the car and drove to Florida.

A young lawyer

At the trial, Butterworth’s public defender, Richard Ney, tried all sorts of moves to get his client acquitted. By Ney’s own account, he failed at several.

A judge refused to allow him to introduce a letter that the BTK serial killer sent to Mary Fager before the trial began. Ney thought this implied BTK might have been the killer.

He failed also to persuade a judge to let him introduce other evidence about a boyfriend of the older teen.

“If anybody has complaints about evidence not allowed, it was us, and not the police,” Ney said.

Butterworth had told a story that Landwehr thought should easily prove he was guilty. He had said that he had gone in and out of the back of the house nine times on the day of the murder, jumping over the fence.

“There was snow on the ground,” Landwehr recalled, and no footprints showing Butterworth had gone back there. The truth, Landwehr said, was that the family had let him in because they knew him.

Ney would go on to become, as police acknowledge today, one of the better criminal defense attorneys they would ever face in court. But at this trial, in 1988, Ney was a young public defender with more zeal than experience.

“I wish I could say that I was a brilliant attorney who got a killer off,” Ney said. “But all I did was show that Bill was innocent.

“I don’t think you always have to prove the ‘why’ of a case,” Ney said. “But with Bill you had a guy who never did anything wrong, was trying to raise his children, working on a home construction job, one of hundreds he did. And suddenly, he kills an entire family?

“You got to have some ‘why’ to that. The police never did. They found out he had the car, and 48 hours after that they never went looking for anyone else.”

No doubts

The jury never really had doubts, said Blasi, the jury foreman.

“We finally told the two jurors favoring guilty: ‘Look, there’s no motive, no witnesses, no weapon found. And you are ready to find this guy guilty of a triple first-degree murder? Because he took a car?’

“We were cordial,” Blasi said. “It was not a hard decision to make.”

The fallout

Landwehr felt bad how they had somehow let the Fagers down.

“I lost a case, yeah, and I hate doing that,” he said. “It hurts your pride, but it doesn’t hurt anything like what Mary Fager went through.

“In my opinion, anyway, we let a killer get away by not picking the right jury or not proving our case. That’s our mistake.”

The verdict shocked a lot of people.

Blasi said a cousin, also named Ron Blasi, got death threats over the phone. Blasi, the jury foreman, incensed, published a pamphlet outlining his opinions. One man who asked for copies, Blasi said, was Butterworth, who came to his house and talked with him and his wife.

The police chief at the time, Richard LaMunyon,

told Clark Owens, the district attorney, that he should have assigned more experienced prosecutors.

Nola Foulston, a young lawyer few voters had heard of then, ran for Sedgwick County District Attorney against Owens a few months after the trial, using Butterworth as a campaign theme. She trounced Owens 82,969 votes to 55,822.

In 2004, BTK surfaced with threatening letters again, after years of silence, and Landwehr went after him with a task force. Landwehr, using a strategy he devised with the FBI, tricked BTK into revealing himself in 2005.

At Dennis Rader’s first court appearance, he was represented by Richard Ney.

Moving on

Landwehr and Ney can summon only brief praise for each other, spoken in flat tones.

“His reputation has always been good,” Ney said.

“Obviously good at what he does,” Landwehr said.

They faced each other in more cases over the years. Landwehr worked 600 homicides; Ney said he has represented thousands of criminals and hundreds of murder suspects. The stakes were always justice, and people’s lives.

After Butterworth, Landwehr said, he swallowed his pride.

“You learn,” he said. “And you go for overkill in every case after that.”

Four years later, in 1992, Landwehr took over the homicide unit as commander. His detectives and Foulston’s prosecutors put murderers in prison for the next 20 years.

Ney went on to a distinguished career. His law firm website points out that Ney is “currently one of 10 Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel in the United States, trying and consulting on federal capital cases throughout the country.”

On his site, Ney lists the Butterworth verdict as one of his notable accomplishments.

“This is why we have juries,” Ney said. “This is why we do not have lynch mobs.

“I can tell you story after story where I represented a client where, if someone put a gun to my head, I would say yes, he’s guilty. And yet in the trial, it became apparent that was not the case.

“Do we want a system where we are taken into the street and shot? Or a system where we believe in the presumption of innocence?

“Those are not just pretty words on a piece of paper.”