Crime & Courts

Kansas mass shooting victims get $2 million after suing pawn shop that transferred guns

An insurance company for the Harvey County pawn shop that sold the guns Cedric Ford used to kill and injure several of his Excel Industry co-workers in 2016 has reached a $2 million settlement with some of the victims and their families, Washington D.C.-based gun violence prevention group Brady United announced Wednesday.

It was immediately unclear exactly how the settlement would be divided among those who last year filed a trio of wrongful death lawsuits against A Pawn Shop, Mike’s Rent to Own and Mike Strong Inc.

The lawsuits sought to hold the pawn shop responsible for selling an AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifle and a .40-caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun to Ford’s girlfriend in a purported straw purchase — a transaction that involves someone buying an item on behalf of a person who can’t make the purchase themselves, often because the person is barred from doing so.

A Pawn Shop sold the two guns to Sarah Jo Hopkins even though she paid for them using a credit card that was in Ford’s name, a news release from Brady United said. One sign of a straw purchase is payment by someone other than the gun buyer. The weapons had been pawned; Hopkins used Ford’s credit card to redeem them.

Hopkins pleaded guilty in federal court in 2016 to one count of knowingly transferring a firearm to a convicted felon. She contended she gave the guns to Ford because he abused and threatened her.

Ford used the guns to open fire inside Excel Industries on Feb. 25, 2016, during a shooting spree that authorities have said started after he was served with a protection from abuse order from a Wichita woman that day. Fueled up on alcohol and methamphetamine, he drove to the Newton trailer park where he lived after receiving the court paperwork, picked up the weapons and then went back to the lawnmower plant, shooting at passersby as he headed there.

Ford murdered three people and injured 14 others before Hesston Police Chief Doug Schroeder killed him to stop the mass shooting.

Renee Benjamin, 30; Josh Higbee, 31; and Brian Sadowsky, 44, were fatally shot during Ford’s attack.

Brady United, in an email announcing the settlement, called it “a major victory for public safety” and “a blow to the illegal gun market.”

“Gun dealers are taught and they understand that they are on the front lines of keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals. And because of that they have the duty to be suspicious of straw transactions and stop straw transactions,” said David Morantz, a Kansas City attorney representing Higbee’s family in the case.

An attorney for A Pawn Shop did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday afternoon.

The lawsuits were filed in February 2018 by Higbee’s common-law wife and minor son, three people who were injured but survived the attack — Dennis Britton, Paul Roberts and Melissa Torres — and the family of Nicholas Moon, who survived the shooting but died more than a year later on Dec. 10, 2017.

The Moons’ suit says Nicholas Moon was “severely injured” in the shooting and died “as a result of his injuries and their sequela.”

“This was a tragic situation that likely could have been prevented if A Pawn Shop would have followed the laws in the transfer of firearms,” said Wichita attorney Richard James, whose law firm Devaughn James Injury Lawyers is representing Britton, Roberts and Torres.

“Those laws are in place to ensure that only individuals who are permitted by law to own firearms are able to obtain them,” James said. “When those laws are violated many innocent lives are placed in danger.”

James said by email that A Pawn Shop’s insurer “agreed to pay their entire policy limits” of $2 million. The money, he said, will be split up based on the nature of the victim’s injuries. Excel’s worker’s compensation carrier also will be reimbursed out of the settlement for medical expenses it paid, James said.

“The lives of our clients, and all involved, were changed forever by this horrible event,” he said. “They are working every day to put this matter behind them as they move on with their lives.”

Tom Pyle, who represented Nicholas Moon’s family, said that no amount of money could replace the value of those killed or injured in the shooting.

“Mr. Moon was injured in the shooting and later died from his injuries,” he wrote in an email. “He was only 30 years old. Nick left a wife and young son. Nick was my client and he was also my friend. Nick loved his wife, his son, and his family. The world was a better place with Nick. He will be missed beyond measure.”

Brady United vice president Jonathan Lowy, who acted as co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuits, said in a phone interview that the settlement reflects an “increasing momentum” toward holding gun companies accountable for irresponsible sales.

Brady United has been bringing lawsuits on behalf of victims of gun violence in an effort to reform the industry for 30 years, he said.

“Most gun dealers are responsible business people who care deeply about their 2nd Amendment rights but also about their responsibly to public safely. It’s telling that about 90 percent of gun dealers sell no guns that are used in crimes,” he said.

“But unfortunately, like in any industry, there are bad actors. ... And it’s important to hold those bad actors accountable in cases like this.”

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Amy Renee Leiker has been reporting for The Wichita Eagle since 2010. She covers crime, courts and breaking news and updates the newspaper’s online databases. You can reach her at 316-268-6644. She’s an avid reader and mom of three in her non-work time.