Crime & Courts

Hesston shooter was served with the same paperwork twice

In their own words: Kansas mass shooting and its aftermath

Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle
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Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle

Mishandled paperwork forced authorities to deliver a court summons and temporary restraining order to Cedric Ford a second time, an incident blamed for triggering his deadly shooting on Feb. 25 at Excel Industries in Hesston.

Had the documents been processed as intended by the Sedgwick County District Court and later by the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, authorities would not have returned to Excel to serve Ford with the same paperwork again, The Eagle found.

Both times, law enforcement officers served the papers to Ford at the lawnmower manufacturing plant where he worked as a painter. The documents were part of a protection from abuse case filed by one of his girlfriends alleging she had been abused by him on Feb. 5.

The first time Ford received the papers, on Feb. 12, he acted annoyed but not out of the ordinary, according to the Hesston police sergeant who served him.

The second time, on Feb. 25, Ford left Excel and went to his home in Newton to retrieve two guns. On the drive back, he shot at cars before opening fire inside Excel when he arrived.

Survivors, victims' families and law enforcement tell of the deadly mass shooting at Excel Industries in Hesston, Kansas on Feb. 25, 2016. Video by John Albert/The Wichita Eagle

Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton has said service of the paperwork prompted the attack. Ford, 38, killed three of his co-workers and wounded 14 other people before he was fatally shot by Hesston’s police chief.

The mistake that ultimately led the court to issue the second set of paperwork involved one document — a return of service of summons. This is the document that proved Ford had been served on Feb. 12.

A Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy returned it to the court too late, The Eagle found after examining how law enforcement and the court handled the paperwork in the protection from abuse case against Ford.

Sheriff’s office spokesman Lt. Lin Dehning said the paperwork was late because of the way the agency receives and routes faxed paperwork and because one employee was absent.

He said the sheriff’s office has changed its procedure in handling faxed paperwork to prevent a similar error from happening in the future.

I think Cedric Ford’s actions on that day need to be placed squarely on the shoulders of Cedric Ford.

Lt. Lin Dehning, Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office spokesman

The PFA process

Protection from abuse is a civil proceeding that allows a person to seek a restraining order against a domestic or intimate partner. It is not a criminal court matter, even though the abuse alleged can be a crime.

Protection from abuse is a civil proceeding that allows a person to seek a restraining order against a domestic or intimate partner. It is not a criminal court matter, even though the abuse alleged can be a crime.

The courts and law enforcement refer to the type of case as a PFA.

In a typical case, a person wanting the restraining order files a petition with the district court. A judge decides whether the complaints are valid and, if so, agrees to put a temporary restraining order in place until the court can hold a hearing to further weigh the allegations.

By law, the hearing must be held within 14 days and the person accused of the abuse must be notified by being served a summons and the temporary order in person. That’s usually done by a law enforcement officer.

If both the accuser and the accused show up in court for the scheduled hearing, a judge hears testimony from both sides and decides whether to extend the restraining order for up to a year.

If the accused has been notified of the hearing but skips the hearing, the court sides with the accuser and extends the restraining order for a year.

It is not typical to serve a person with the court summons and temporary restraining order in person twice, court officials say.

What happened in Ford’s case

The Eagle found that in Ford’s case, the court sent out the second summons and temporary order because it wasn’t told on time that Ford had been served with the documents on Feb. 12.

Whoever serves protection from abuse paperwork is responsible for forwarding proof of that service to the court. Ideally that would happen before the scheduled hearing, court officials say.

But it took the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office 10 days — until Feb. 22 — to notify the court that Ford had been served. His hearing was set for Feb. 18.

Whoever serves protection from abuse paperwork is responsible for forwarding proof of that service to the court. Ideally that would happen before the scheduled hearing, court officials say.

Had the court been notified on or before Feb. 18, it likely would have extended the woman’s restraining order for a year because Ford skipped the hearing. The second summons would not have been issued.

Questioned about the delay, Dehning said Sedgwick County District Court should have sent the documents to the Harvey County Sheriff’s Office at the outset, rather than to the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, because the woman seeking the protective order asked that Ford be served in Hesston at Excel, which is in Harvey County.

But, he said, one of his deputies decided to track down and serve Ford.

Sedgwick County District Court acknowledged the initial routing error when contacted by The Eagle.

Dehning gave the following explanation of what happened next:

The deputy contacted Ford by phone on Feb. 10 and offered to meet him at a gas station the next day.

When Ford didn’t show up and didn’t answer calls, the deputy contacted Hesston police Sgt. Chris Carter. She asked Carter to help serve Ford at Excel Industries because she was out of her jurisdiction.

Carter and the deputy contacted Excel on Feb. 11, looking for Ford, but he wasn’t at work. The deputy decided to leave the summons and temporary order with Carter, asking him to serve it to Ford at Excel the following day. The deputy told Carter to sign and return the paper that documented the service back to the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office and left Hesston.

Carter contacted Excel on Feb. 12 and arranged to meet Ford in a private area in the plant. He served the paperwork between 3 and 3:10 p.m., then returned to his office and sent the fax before 5 p.m. Carter also said he followed up with a phone message to alert the deputy.

Hesston police Sgt. Chris Carter served Cedric Ford with the first set of protection from abuse documents on Feb. 12 at the request of a Sedgwick County Sheriff’s deputy. He said he called Excel Industries and asked for a private area to give Ford the paperwork. “He had the usual reaction that most people … do,” Carter said. “He just kind of looks at me and goes, ‘Uhhh’ — he looked kind of deflated — and then he goes, ‘Man, now what?’ ” Ford quickly relaxed. “It was as identical to any other PFA serve I’ve done in 21 years,” Carter said. “Nothing stood out about it.”

The deputy didn’t see the fax until 10 days later, on Feb. 22, because the deputy was off work for a holiday and then an illness. No one else in the sheriff’s office other than an administrative assistant saw the fax because it was received electronically and forwarded directly to the deputy’s e-mail address.

On Feb. 22, the deputy returned to work and took the proof of service to a court clerk to be filed. But by then it was four days past Ford’s hearing date, Dehning said.

The court, not knowing Ford already had been served, sent out a second set of documents — this time to the Harvey County Sheriff’s Office — to be served. A Harvey County deputy did so around 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 25.

Ford started his shooting spree about 90 minutes later.

It’s unclear exactly how many sets of protection order paperwork are re-delivered each year in Sedgwick County due to errors like the one in Ford’s case.

The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office serves more than 3,500 civil documents and court orders a month. Around 200 are orders in protection from abuse cases.

Dehning said the agency normally provides the court with proof that a person has been served within a day or two.

3,500 approximate number of civil documents and orders served by the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office monthly

200 roughly are in protection from abuse cases

New procedure

Dehning said that after the sheriff’s office realized the mistake, the agency changed how it routes faxes.

The documents will still be converted to electronic files and routed to a central e-mail address. But now they will be forwarded to both the deputy handling a case and to a supervisor so at least two people see them, he said.

That should lessen the chance of similar delays or the chance of overlooked documents in the future, he said.

Although a procedure in place at the sheriff’s office ultimately caused the 10-day delay — and the court to issue the second set of paperwork — Dehning said the agency shouldn’t be blamed for the shooting.

“I think Cedric Ford’s actions on that day need to be placed squarely on the shoulders of Cedric Ford,” he said.

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

Time line of events:

Feb. 5: A woman calls Wichita police and reports an assault by her boyfriend, Cedric Ford. Later that day, she petitions Sedgwick County District Court for a restraining order and asks that Ford be served at Excel Industries in Hesston. A judge sets a hearing for Feb. 18.

Feb. 8: The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office receives the restraining order documents to serve in error but decides to try to serve the documents. A deputy contacts Ford on Feb. 10 to arrange a meeting, which he ignores.

Feb. 12: Hesston police help the sheriff’s office by serving the documents to Ford at Excel Industries. Police fax proof that Ford was served that day. No one in the sheriff’s office sees the proof of service for 10 days.

Feb. 18: Ford is due in district court for the hearing but doesn’t show up. The court doesn’t know he was served with the restraining order documents on Feb. 12 and issues another set. This time they go to the Harvey County Sheriff’s Office.

Feb. 22: The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office sees the faxed proof of service from Hesston police and files it with the district court.

Feb. 25: A Harvey County deputy serves the second set of restraining order documents to Ford at Excel Industries. His shooting spree starts about 90 minutes later.

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