At his sentencing three decades ago for the murder of 25-year-old William Mayhugh, Martin Priest told a Sedgwick County judge: “I can only say what I’ve said all along: I haven’t killed nobody.”
But Danny Bardezbain remains convinced that Priest was lying.
Bardezbain, a retired Sedgwick County undersheriff, said Wednesday that he always believed that Priest was a serial killer who once roamed Wichita, driving a tow truck, who charmed the mothers of teenage girls in two states, whose stalking stopped only because he has been imprisoned for the past 30 years.
“That guy consumed me,” Bardezbain said.
“I realized I had a serial killer on my hands, and his victims were young teenage girls.”
In the span of about five years in the early 1980s, police in Kansas and Missouri linked Priest to five deaths but gained only one conviction that held up.
So Bardezbain, who had pursued cases against Priest, felt some closure this week when he got a text message that Priest had just been charged with murdering a 15-year-old Missouri girl, Tammy Rothganger. She disappeared from the central Missouri town of Eldon in May 1984.
As an investigator, Bardezbain spent many hours talking to Tammy’s mother about her daughter’s disappearance and about Priest.
Priest was the mother’s boyfriend, and according to an affidavit filed with the new murder charge, he was one of the last two people seen with the daughter.
As a supervising detective in Sedgwick County, Bardezbain worked the December 1984 murders of Mayhugh and Mayhugh’s girlfriend, Freida Bayliff. Jurors found Priest not guilty of killing Bayliff. Priest remains in prison for the killing of Mayhugh.
Through the Mayhugh case, Bardezbain also investigated the November 1984 disappearance of 15-year-old Katrina Cheely of Wichita. Priest had befriended Katrina’s mom.
Both Katrina, in Wichita, and Tammy, in Eldon, Mo., vanished after leaving for school. According to authorities, both girls were strangled.
As an investigator trying to get answers, Bardezbain felt that Priest was taunting him.
“I sat and interviewed this guy about each of these (disappearances). He always played the same game.” Priest would say that he might have given the victims a ride but that he didn’t kill them, Bardezbain said.
Katrina lived near Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Three months after she disappeared, in February 1985, a can collector found her body in a culvert on 151st Street West. Bardezbain had to crawl under a low bridge to retrieve her body from the mud. Her remains were nude and decomposed. In 1987, a jury acquitted Priest of Katrina’s killing.
Along the investigative trail, Bardezbain also learned that Priest had been convicted of murdering 12-year-old Tonya Lewis of Nevada, Mo., in 1980. Priest had been living at the same apartment complex where Tonya lived. The girl’s decomposed body was found in a farm pond 11 miles from town. Priest was released from a Missouri prison after a higher court overturned his conviction in Tonya’s death, citing insufficient evidence.
On Sept. 30, 1983, the Missouri court ordered that Priest be released from prison. Priest moved from prison to Eldon. Tammy disappeared from that community the following May.
Priest returned to Wichita in October 1984, according to testimony from a later trial. He hung out at Frankie's Lounge on West Douglas, where Bayliff was a waitress and Katrina’s mother was a customer. Priest and the girl’s mother struck up a friendship, according to a 1987 article in The Eagle.
In his investigation of Priest, Bardezbain could account for every year of Priest’s life, since he began getting into trouble as a juvenile, except for one year.
Murder charge in 1984 case
On Monday, the prosecuting attorney in Miller County, Mo., filed the new capital murder charge against Priest, saying that around May 16, 1984, he strangled Tammy Rothganger, identified in the charging document only as T.R. If Priest is convicted, the maximum sentence, the prosecutor said in a news release, would be life in prison.
Priest, now 57, is being held in El Dorado Correctional Facility for his conviction in Mayhugh’s murder. His earliest possible release date in Kansas is seven months from now, on Aug. 1. His parole has been repeatedly denied.
A defense attorney for Priest couldn’t be reached for comment.
An Eldon police affidavit filed in court Dec. 30 gives witness accounts of how T.R. – Tammy Rothganger – disappeared. One witness said she saw Priest drive up and yell for T.R. to speak with him, the affidavit says. T.R. got into the back seat after a second, unknown male let her into the car. The three drove away, and the witness “never saw T.R. again.”
Another witness, identified in the affidavit as D.N., said Priest picked him up early that morning. They went to Eldon High School, got T.R. and left the area. According to the affidavit: Priest stopped the car and hit T.R. on the back of her head with a wrench, knocking her out. D.N. saw Priest rape the teen and strangle her. They took her body to a local home and hid it, then buried it in an unmarked spot.
Bardezbain said Wednesday that he wonders how the case came together so that authorities could file the charge 30 years after her disappearance. Authorities wouldn’t discuss the case with The Eagle.
‘There’d be more dead girls’
In his investigation years ago, Bardezbain says he saw distinct patterns in the deaths for which Priest was charged: Except for the couple, the victims were young teen girls. Priest met the girls through their mothers. The victims were left face down in water or out in the elements – in environments where their bodies could decompose, destroying evidence.
Speaking of Priest, Bardezbain said, “Marty’s MO was he wasn’t a bad-looking guy … and he had a line of bullshit, and he knew how to take his victims.” Using his charm, Priest would pursue single mothers with teenage daughters, Bardezbain said.
“But his goal was to get to the daughter,” Bardezbain said.
In Katrina’s disappearance in Sedgwick County, detectives learned that Priest was the last person seen with her, Bardezbain said.
And for all the years after Tammy’s disappearance in Missouri, he said, “I was 100 percent sure” that Priest was responsible.
At the last hearing to determine whether Priest should be released on parole, Bardezbain listened as a Florida woman spoke in favor of Priest’s freedom. The woman said she had three young daughters and that Priest would come to live with them after getting out of prison.
When it was Bardezbain’s turn to address the parole panel, he said, “I went up and told them the history of Marty Priest.”
He told the panel: “What I do fear is you letting him go. … There are three little girls in Florida who are going to die. I truly believe that.”
If Priest hadn’t remained in prison all these years, Bardezbain said, “there’d be more dead girls.”
Deaths linked to Martin Priest:
June 1980 – 12-year-old Tonya Lewis disappears from Nevada, Mo. Her body is found in a pond.
September 1983 – Missouri court orders Priest’s release from prison after overturning his conviction in Tonya’s death.
May 1984 – 15-year-old Tammy Rothganger disappears from Eldon, Mo.
November 1984 – 15-year-old Katrina Cheely disappears from Wichita. Her body is found in a culvert. In 1987, a jury acquitted Priest of Katrina’s killing.
December 1984 – 25-year-old William Mayhugh is shot in the head and dies from exposure; Freida Bayliff, Mayhugh’s 33-year-old girlfriend, is found lying face down in a broken water bed.
January 1986 – Priest goes to prison for Mayhugh’s murder and remains in prison, with an earliest possible release on Aug. 1, 2016.
January 2016 – Priest is charged with murdering 15-year-old Tammy Rothganger of Eldon, Mo.