Crime & Courts

When feds start death penalty again, Kansas killer will be among first 5 executed

20 years ago Jennifer Long was murdered: What happened

In 1998, Jennifer Long left high school early and disappeared. Years later, Wesley Purkey admitted to abducting, raping and murdering her in his Lansing home. Twenty years later, she will have a memorial to honor her.
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In 1998, Jennifer Long left high school early and disappeared. Years later, Wesley Purkey admitted to abducting, raping and murdering her in his Lansing home. Twenty years later, she will have a memorial to honor her.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday announced it has scheduled the executions of five death-row inmates across the country, including a Kansas man who in 1998 raped and killed a 16-year-old Kansas City girl before dismembering her body.

The executions would be the first carried out by the federal government since 2003.

In a statement, Attorney General William P. Barr said Wesley Ira Purkey, 67, was among five inmates scheduled to be executed. Barr said he directed the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt a proposed addendum clearing the way for the federal government to carry out the death penalty for the first time in nearly two decades.

Purkey’s execution is set for Dec. 13, the third of the five executions scheduled from Dec. 9 to Jan. 15, 2020. He is on death row for the killing of teenager Jennifer Long.

Long’s mother, Glenda Lamont, learned of the scheduled execution Thursday. She was overjoyed.

“I’m absolutely ecstatic that this is finally going to happen,” Lamont said. “I was mortified after he was sentenced, and put on death row, to find out that they had all of a sudden stopped executions for the heinous crimes people commit.

Lamont said she would like to be present at Purkey’s execution. She said she had waited 20 years for his execution.

“I don’t want to say that I’m happy. At the same time, he is a crazy mad man that doesn’t deserve, in my opinion, to be breathing anymore,” she said. “He thought he could play God and end my child’s life.”

On Jan. 22, 1998, Purkey, then a 46-year-old ex-convict high on crack, drove into Kansas City from his home in Lansing, Kansas. He spotted Long, a brunette tomboy, walking on the sidewalk away from East High School, where she was a sophomore.

Purkey pulled alongside and asked the teen — who had her share of disruption at home — if she wanted to party. She got in the pickup truck.

Inside his basement, Purkey raped Long, stabbed her repeatedly when she tried to escape, and then over the course of two days used an electric chainsaw to cut her body into pieces, burning her remains in a fireplace fueled by logs and diesel fuel. He eventually dumped her ashes 200 miles away in a septic pond in Clearwater, Kansas, south of Wichita.

Nine months after Purkey killed Long, he was arrested for the murder of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales, of Kansas City, Kansas.

She had been beaten to death with a claw hammer. Purkey planned to cover up the killing by burning the house to the ground. But before Purkey could set the flame, a neighbor spotted him lurking in Bales’ backyard and he was arrested.

In March 2000, Purkey pleaded guilty to the murder in Wyandotte County District Court. He was handed a life sentence.

Then in October 2001 — nearly four years after Long’s disappearance — he admitted to raping and killing her. Having transported her across the state line, a federal crime, Purkey hoped he could serve his life sentence in what he deemed to be a more comfortable federal prison rather than a state prison.

In November 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri found Purkey guilty of kidnapping a child resulting in the child’s death. Prosecutors sought the death penalty.

Purkey recanted his confession. But in January 2004, he was sentenced to death nonetheless.

His defense lawyers on Thursday objected to the sentence, citing failures by one of his trial attorneys and a jury’s failure to give a reason for imposing the death penalty.

Purkey remained Thursday at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, where the five inmates will be executed, according to the federal government.

Additional executions would be scheduled later, Barr said.

There are 62 federal death-row prisoners in the U.S., and 61 of them are males, according to the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

Eight of those inmates were convicted of crimes in Missouri, the most of any state except Texas with 13.

The only woman on death row in the federal system is Lisa Montgomery, of Melvern, Kansas. She was convicted in 2007 of killing of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, of Skidmore, Missouri, and cutting her unborn baby from her womb. The child was later safely recovered.

Montgomery remains at a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

Family reacts: ‘It’s closure’

Long’s stepmother in Kansas City, Marilyn Richards, heard the news of Purkey’s scheduled execution Thursday morning.

“It’s closure for Jennifer,” Richards said, “and for the other woman who was killed by his hand. I think it is closure for both families.”

Richards said she had considered attending the execution.

“I decided against it. It would be a really negative experience,” she said. She also said she had mixed feelings about the death penalty.

“I will just light a candle and blow it out and say a prayer for her.”

Richards said she is glad to see the process resume. “We’ve waited a long time.”

Long’s childhood friend Michelle McDaniel has long helped keep Long’s memory alive, working last year to get a memorial bench established for her along a walking trail in Independence.

“I’m all for it,” McDaniel said of resuming the execution. “I know it’s not possible, but if he was reintroduced to society there is obviously no rehabilitation for him. I think you have to be willing to participate in rehabilitation and he has proven, repeatedly, that he is not. If they said it was going to be life in prison, I would be fine with that also, because I feel like he’s still punished.

But I feel like, for him, the death penalty is more appropriate.”

“I feel like it is some justice for Jennifer,” she said. “We know he will never be able to hurt another person like he hurt her and Mary Ruth Bales and his first attempted victim in Kansas.”

In addition to his murder conviction, Purkey has other violent felonies in his record, including aggravated battery, kidnapping and robbery. More than a decade before Long’s killing, Purkey and a friend robbed a Wichita man and shot him in the head twice.

While incarcerated, Purkey was stabbed twice by other inmates, once over a drug deal.

In reports, counselors described him as amoral, bright and manipulative, according to stories in The Star’s archives. One noted he appeared to be a “classical” psychopath, but that his education, which included an associate’s degree in literature from a community college, moderated his antisocial tendencies.

By 1996, a counselor said he seemed to have rebuilt his life while incarcerated. He was paroled from prison in March 1997.

In October 1998, Purkey was working for a plumbing firm when he appeared at Bales’ home to fix a leaky faucet. Instead, he bought crack with the money she gave him to buy a part for the faucet, returning to her home with a prostitute. He then beat Bales to death with a hammer. He returned the next day to make the crime scene look like a break-in and burglary.

At his sentencing for Bales’ murder, Purkey said he was high on crack cocaine when he killed her and had been trying unsuccessfully for months to get into a treatment program.

He said: “Words cannot express my remorse for … this hideous and senseless murder.”

During the Bales investigation, Purkey told authorities he would help them clear another case: the disappearance of Jennifer Long, who had been listed as missing by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But he wanted to be moved to a federal prison, where he thought life would be easier.

At his 2003 federal trial in Kansas City for Long’s murder, Purkey argued he did not kidnap Long, but that he confessed to kidnapping her across state lines to ensure the case would be handled federally.

In 2018, Purkey filed a motion for the court to set an expeditious execution date for him, according to federal court records. He noted he had exhausted all his appellate remedies, including a review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Purkey received a letter Thursday notifying him that a date was set for his death sentence. It told him he could send a request for a presidential pardon if he wanted.

In the letter, T.J. Watson, warden of the complex where Purkey has been held, said he would soon visit Purkey to talk with him about “many of the details surrounding the execution.

“At that time, I will be available to answer any questions you may have regarding the execution process,” Watson wrote.

Purkey’s attorney, Rebecca Woodman, said in a written statement that she recognized the pain Purkey caused to the families of his victims, something he also acknowledged. But she said he had not received full and fair proceedings as claimed in Barr’s statement.

Purkey’s life was marked by unimaginable abuse, his attorney said. As a child, he turned to drugs after he was abused by a Catholic priest and alcoholic family members, Woodman said.

But the jury tasked with deciding his fate never heard some of his personal circumstances “that led to these tragic events,” she said.

Among what Woodman called a “myriad” of legal violations in Purkey’s case, his previous attorney hired a friend to conduct investigative matters after he was fired from a public defender’s office for serious misconduct, she said.

His previous attorney has had more clients sentenced to death in federal court than any other defense lawyer in America, Woodman said. That attorney, Frederick A. Duchardt, declined to comment Thursday when reached by The Star.

Woodman also said a juror who disclosed her experience with child sexual assault before she was picked to sit on Purkey’s jury was not asked whether she could be impartial.

Purkey’s federal death penalty jury also failed in a way that no other has, according to Woodman: They left blank part of the verdict form that would allow the courts to understand why they sentenced him to death. A judge offered to send the jury back to deliberations, but Purkey’s previous attorney declined and “accepted the faulty verdict,” Woodman said.

Purkey is now in declining health and suffers from dementia. Woodman said the timing of the decision “raises serious questions about the application of capital punishment under this administration.”

Federal executions rare

Attorney General Barr in his announcement said the five inmates set to be executed have “exhausted their appellate and post-conviction remedies.”

Those inmates include Dustin Lee Honken, who was convicted in 2004 of shooting and killing five people in Iowa, and Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of a white supremacist group who in 1999 was convicted of murdering a family of three, according to prosecutors.

Barr said the Justice Department has sought the death penalty “against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding.”

“The Justice Department upholds the rule of law,” Barr said, “and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

The Justice Department on Thursday also announced a new protocol that replaces its previous use of a three-drug cocktail to a single drug, pentobarbital. It “closely mirrors protocols” in some states, such as Missouri and Texas.

In 2014, after a botched state execution in Oklahoma, then-President Barack Obama directed the department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs.

That review has been completed and the executions can continue, the Justice Department said.

Barr’s announcement comes after public support for the death penalty somewhat increased in 2018. But support of capital punishment had been in decline for years, reaching a four-decade low in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center.

Executions on the federal level have been rare. The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.
Eric Adler has won more than 50 state and national journalism awards for his reporting that often tell the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. A graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in NY, he teaches journalism ethics at the University of Kansas.
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