Crime & Courts

1987: Prosecution vs. Priest, Round Four

Editor’s note: This story was first published in The Wichita Eagle on Sept. 28, 1987.

Marty Priest may have been a nuisance to police when he was growing up in west Wichita. A little mouthy, officers say, but not outwardly violent.

Last week, when Priest was charged with the November 1984 murder of 15- year-old Katrina Cheely, it marked the fourth time since 1980 that he had been charged with premeditated murder in Missouri or Kansas.

Investigators say two of the four homicide cases began with the disappearance of a teenage girl. The girls’ mothers knew Priest, police say, and they seemed to have liked him - at least until their daughters disappeared.

“He was very pleasant,” Linda Hall said of her first meeting with the man now charged with murdering her daughter, Katrina. “He said ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am.’ ‘Please’ and ‘thank you.’ He opened doors for me.”

To date, only one of the charges against Priest has stuck. He’s never confessed to any of the crimes, police say, and he refuses to discuss them with detectives.

“I can only say what I have said all along,” Priest said before he was sentenced to life in prison for the 1985 murder of a Sedgwick County man. “I haven’t killed nobody. I had a whole lot to say. But up to now, everything I have said has been turned around, so I don’t believe it would do any good right now.”

The four victims were:

▪  Tonya Lewis, 13, of Nevada, Mo. She disappeared on June 13, 1980, and was later found dead in a farm pond 11 miles south of town. Priest was sentenced to 25 years in prison for the murder but was released when the Missouri Court of Appeals overturned the conviction.

▪  Katrina Cheely, 15, of Wichita, the daughter of Linda Hall. She disappeared on Nov. 16, 1984 - the day Priest offered her a ride to Allison Junior High School. Her body was found three months later in a culvert west of Wichita. Priest is awaiting trial in that case.

▪  Freida Bayliff, 33, and Bill Mayhugh, 25. They were last seen alive by relatives on Christmas Day, 1985. Bayliff was a friend of Katrina’s mother. Mayhugh was the boyfriend of Bayliff. Priest is now serving a life sentence for Mayhugh’s murder. A jury acquitted him in the death of Bayliff.

Sedgwick County District Court records show that Priest’s first adult arrest occurred in 1976, when he was charged with failing to pay child support to his first wife. His second arrest came in September 1978 after he called a women’s crisis shelter where his second wife was staying. Police said he threatened to “blow the house up with a bomb.”

Court records show that Priest’s third wife eventually committed suicide when he was in a Missouri prison. He married his fourth and fifth wives while behind bars in Kansas.

In 1980, Priest was arrested a third time on auto theft charges but failed to show up for his trial in Sedgwick County on June 16, 1980.

In Missouri, however, on June 15, 1980, investigators found the decomposed body of 12-year-old Tonya Lewis floating in a farm pond south of Nevada. At the time of Tonya’s death, Missouri police said, Priest was living in the same low-rent apartment complex as Tonya and her mother, Sandy.

Priest and the girl both had gone to a playground with friends on the evening of June 12, according to court records, and they both left around 9 p.m. Tonya never came home.

When questioned by police, Priest said he’d gone fishing that night. But police found dust on his fishing poles. Lab investigators found prairie grass on the undercarriage of Priest’s car. And the tire tracks near the pond matched the tires on Priest’s car. The rear tires were bald. Priest was arrested for capital murder.

While Priest was awaiting trial, Miller County, Mo., sheriff’s records show, Priest’s third wife - Genny Priest - went to the courthouse and pretended to have a gun. She was arrested for trying to help her husband escape. The publicity surrounding the case allowed Priest’s lawyers to have the trial moved north to Harrisonville in Cass County. A jury there convicted Priest of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Genny Priest was convicted of attempted escape, but was placed on probation for two years. On June 12, 1982, she committed suicide at her Valley Center home.

Priest spent 2 1/2 years in prison before the Missouri Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. The appeals court said there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Priest of any crime. There was no evidence of sexual assault and therefore no clear motive in the case. There was no proof that Tonya hadn’t died accidentally.

’’We have no evidence of animosity between the defendant and Tonya, no fights, no threats, “ the Court said. “We find no basis on which a rational trier of fact could find beyond a reasonable doubt that Martin Priest intentionally caused the death of Tonya Lewis.”

On Sept. 30, 1983, the court ordered Priest released.

Priest returned to Wichita in October 1984, according to testimony from a later trial. He began stopping at Frankie’s Lounge on West Douglas where Frieda Bayliff was a waitress and Linda Hall a customer. Priest and Hall struck up a friendship.

On the morning of Nov. 16, 1984, Priest was at Hall’s house near Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Hall’s daughter was running late that morning, and Priest offered her a ride to school.

’’When she didn’t come home, I called him on the phone and asked him what happened, “ Hall said. “He just said, ‘I don’t know. I took her to school and dropped her off.’ “

It was still a low-priority missing persons case on Dec. 27, 1984, when Bayliff was found dead in her home. Mayhugh’s body was found on a dirt road, less than a mile away.

Three weeks later, on Jan. 18, 1985, police arrested Priest for failing to show up for his 1980 auto theft trial.

On Feb. 26, 1985, court records show that Priest, in an effort to ensure a lighter sentence in the auto theft case, tried to make a deal with prosecutors by telling them where they could find the gun used to kill Mayhugh. Priest tried to blame the murder on a brother-in-law, but was instead charged with the crime.

On Feb. 28, 1985, Katrina’s body was found in a culvert west of Wichita, and police began to investigate Priest. But it wasn’t until this month, when investigators turned up a bracelet that Katrina was wearing when she disappeared, that prosecutors said they had the evidence to file charges.

Prosecutors say they’re basing their case on efforts to show that Priest had possession of the bracelet after Katrina disappeared.