Crime & Courts

Outstanding warrant could have landed Hesston shooter in jail

Police go through the parking lot of Excel Industries in Hesston on Feb. 25, where a gunman killed three co-workers and wounded 14 others before being killed by Hesston’s police chief.
Police go through the parking lot of Excel Industries in Hesston on Feb. 25, where a gunman killed three co-workers and wounded 14 others before being killed by Hesston’s police chief. The Wichita Eagle

Four law enforcement agencies had contact with Cedric Ford in the days leading up to Feb. 25, when he opened fire inside Excel Industries in Hesston.

During those 17 days, any of the agencies could have arrested and jailed Ford on an outstanding domestic violence warrant.

Two of the agencies — Wichita police and the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office — spoke with Ford by phone.

The two others — the Hesston Police Department and the Harvey County Sheriff’s Office — met with Ford in person to serve him court paperwork notifying him that a Wichita woman was seeking a protection from abuse (PFA) order against him for an alleged attack.

Most of the agencies say they didn’t know about the outstanding domestic violence warrant, which is for a misdemeanor crime.

Nor, they say, did they run the type of background check on Ford that would have turned it up.

The situation illustrates communication gaps that can arise among law enforcement agencies, between those agencies and the court system, and among different court systems, said Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence.

“I think it’s disturbing that you have a pickup order for somebody that was never picked up and then there was a follow-up PFA that was filed” and law enforcement wasn’t aware of the connection between the two, Grover said.

“Fragmentation can be dangerous,” she said. “I don’t think we always know when it will be dangerous, but it can be.”

Fragmentation can be dangerous. I don’t think we always know when it will be dangerous, but it can be.

Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence

Law enforcement officials point to a variety of reasons – including staffing and how misdemeanor warrants are handled – for not arresting Ford.

And, they say, while background checks and warrant searches normally happen, they don’t necessarily turn up municipal court warrants.

A Harvey County deputy sheriff delivered court paperwork in a protection from abuse case to Ford on Feb. 25, about 90 minutes before the shootings. Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton has said that event triggered the rampage. He also wasn’t aware of the warrant, he said.

“If I only knew then what I know now, we certainly would’ve done something different,” Walton said, referring to the events of Feb. 25.

But, he said, “How do you quarterback this thing?”

Ford, 38, killed three of his co-workers and wounded 14 other people before he was fatally shot by Hesston’s police chief.

Arrest warrant issued

The domestic violence warrant in question was issued after a misdemeanor criminal case was filed against Ford in Wichita Municipal Court on Feb. 8.

The same abuse allegations prompted the woman to seek the protection from abuse restraining order that was delivered to Ford on Feb. 25. That request was filed in Sedgwick County District Court.

The domestic violence warrant in question was issued after a misdemeanor criminal case was filed against Ford in Wichita Municipal Court on Feb. 8. The same abuse allegations prompted the woman to seek the protection from abuse restraining order that was delivered to Ford on Feb. 25.

According to the complaint filed in the domestic violence case, Ford pushed, shoved and threw his girlfriend to the floor on Feb. 5 at her home “while maintaining a ‘choke hold’ with his forearm across her throat.” The attack left redness and bruising on the woman’s skin, the document says.

Wichita police Lt. James Espinoza said an officer went to the woman’s house to take the report after she contacted authorities. The officer saw her injuries, and the department issued what’s known as a domestic violence pickup for Ford that day.

Because Feb. 5 was a Saturday, the pickup remained active over the weekend, he said, but Ford was not arrested.

On Monday he was charged with domestic battery in Wichita Municipal Court and an arrest warrant was issued in the case, court spokesman Donte Martin said.

A day later, Feb. 9, a Wichita police officer called Ford, told him about the warrant and gave him three options to handle it: go to the police warrant office and see a judge; hire an attorney to represent you in court; or show up for court yourself on Feb. 10, Espinoza said.

The warrant also became part of the Police Department’s local database, the Special Police Information Data Entry Retrieval system (SPIDER).

Espinoza said the volume of warrants handled by the Police Department’s warrant office compared with the number of officers working there means people largely get phone calls instead of getting hunted down in person.

Last year, the warrant office processed 4,376 warrants. Two officers, Espinoza and a clerk work there.

“At one time we had six officers over here,” Espinoza said. “We used to actually go out (to serve warrants). Now we don’t.”

At one time we had six officers over here. We used to actually go out (to serve warrants). Now we don’t.

Lt. James Espinoza, Wichita Police Department spokesman

Serving court papers

One day after Wichita police contacted Ford about the warrant, a deputy from the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office reached out to Ford to set up a meeting to serve him with a summons to appear in court over the protection from abuse order sought by the girlfriend. The deputy also would serve Ford with a temporary restraining order related to the PFA case.

The girlfriend filed the protection from abuse case in Sedgwick County District Court on Feb. 5, the day of the alleged attack. District court and municipal court are separate entities.

Agency spokesman Lt. Lin Dehning said it’s common for deputies serving protection from abuse documents to run a person’s name through the SPIDER system to find where they live. If they come across active local warrants, the deputies generally serve those, too, he said.

Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Lin Dehning said it’s common for deputies serving protection from abuse documents to run a person’s name through the police department’s SPIDER system to find where they live. If they come across active local warrants, the deputies generally serve those, too, he said. Some of those warrants, like the domestic violence warrant out on Ford, require that the person be arrested and booked into jail.

Some of those warrants, like the domestic violence warrant out on Ford, require that the person be arrested and booked into jail.

It’s unclear whether the deputy who tried to serve the protection from abuse documents to Ford knew the domestic violence warrant existed.

The deputy ended up enlisting the help of Hesston police Sgt. Chris Carter to serve Ford the documents at Excel, where he worked as a painter, on Feb. 12.

Carter said he doesn’t recall checking for outstanding warrants on Ford, either.

“I was just helping her out. It was their guy,” Carter said. “… So I assume that that sort of background stuff was … something they had taken care of.”

Final contact

Ford’s final contact with law enforcement before he embarked on his deadly shooting spree came about 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 25.

A Harvey County sheriff’s deputy showed up at the plant to serve Ford with a second set of protection from abuse paperwork and handed it to him in much the same way that Carter did on Feb. 12, Walton said.

Cedric Ford’s final contact with law enforcement before he embarked on his deadly shooting spree came about 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 25. A Harvey County sheriff’s deputy served him with protection order paperwork at Excel at that time.

Walton said his office normally would conduct a background check and search for outstanding warrants for a person they planned to serve with such documents.

But during a recent interview, he said he didn’t know that Ford was wanted on the Wichita warrant.

“I was not aware of it,” he said.

Walton said his agency can check for Wichita warrants logged in the SPIDER system, but it’s up to Wichita police to decide whether they want a person arrested, because they are responsible for retrieval and transporting the person to Sedgwick County.

He said that in his experience as sheriff, he has found that Wichita police normally do not request arrests of people with municipal court warrants who come into contact with law enforcement in other counties.

Filling gaps

Grover, the executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, said an ideal system would connect the different courts and law enforcement agencies that deal with related pieces of domestic violence cases – like criminal charges and restraining orders – so information isn’t missed.

In Ford’s case, that might have meant that police were notified when the protection from abuse case was filed in Sedgwick County District Court, for example, she said. Or that Wichita Municipal Court, where the domestic violence warrant originated, was better connected to district court and the sheriff’s office, which dealt with the protection from abuse case.

“Hindsight is really a great thing to have because you can make assessments and judgments based on what’s now happened that you wouldn’t have imagined would have happened before,” Grover said.

In domestic violence cases, she said, there are so many places where gaps can arise that the community “has to look at it and say, ‘Where did this gap happen?’ 

Law enforcement officials say it’s impossible to gauge whether arresting Ford, even on Feb. 25, would have prevented the shooting – or even delayed it beyond a few hours.

Walton described Ford as “a very angry man,” fueled by alcohol, methamphetamine and paranoia that led him to carry weapons nearly everywhere, including to take a shower.

He was planning a shootout with police if they ever came to arrest him on the domestic violence warrant, Walton said he learned in a post-shooting interview with one of Ford’s girlfriends.

“He had a lot of irons in the fire,” Walton said.

Hindsight is really a great thing to have because you can make assessments and judgments based on what’s now happened that you wouldn’t have imagined would have happened before.

Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence

Amy Renee Leiker: 316-268-6644, @amyreneeleiker

Timeline of events:

Feb. 5: A woman calls Wichita police and reports an assault by her boyfriend, Cedric Ford. Wichita police note visible injuries on the woman and make a case.

Feb. 8: Prosecutors file a domestic violence charge against Ford in Wichita Municipal Court. An arrest warrant is issued.

Feb. 9: A Wichita police officer calls Ford and notifies him of the warrant.

Feb. 10: A Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy calls Ford and tries to arrange a meeting to serve him with a court summons and a temporary restraining order in a protection from abuse case. The case was filed by the victim in the domestic violence case. It’s unclear whether the deputy knows about the domestic violence warrant.

Feb. 12: A Hesston police officer serves the court summons and temporary restraining order in the protection from abuse case to Ford at Excel Industries. The officer is helping the Sedgwick County deputy. He does not know about the domestic violence warrant.

Feb. 25: A Harvey County deputy serves another set of restraining order documents to Ford at Excel Industries. Ford’s shooting spree starts about 90 minutes later. Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton later tells The Eagle he was not aware of the domestic violence warrant.

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