State

A year after the most violent crime a small town has faced, Hesston rethinks its identity

Hesston told its poorest families they had to move

Hesston has become too expensive for many of the people who work in its plants to live there. One of the last places for cheap housing, a mobile home park, is being torn down. After a mass shooting last year that largely impacted its transient wor
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Hesston has become too expensive for many of the people who work in its plants to live there. One of the last places for cheap housing, a mobile home park, is being torn down. After a mass shooting last year that largely impacted its transient wor

Few people in Hesston knew Cedric Ford a year ago when he shot 17 people at Excel Industries, killing three.

He lived in Newton and was just one face, among hundreds, who drove in and out of town every day to work.

Ford committed one of the worst crimes to hit the state of Kansas and one of the worst crimes to ever befall a town the size of Hesston. But a year later, many people in town said that, though they will never forget what happened that day, they have largely moved on.

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Some say that it’s partly because the town’s residents shared so much in common and banded together to support one another under the slogan “Hesston Strong.” And because of the non-violent tenets of the predominant Mennonite faith, the town didn’t become embroiled in arguments over gun control that have followed other mass shootings.

But one of the main reasons that they moved on so quickly, they said, is that they didn’t know anyone directly who was still dealing with tragedy. When Ford returned to Excel, he opened fire on the production line, killing and injuring people just like himself, blue collar workers who commuted in and out, not the ones who filled most of Hesston’s pews on Sundays.

Excel Industries, which makes riding lawnmowers, ramped up its production a few years ago, growing from a few hundred employees to around 1,000. And just about as many workers come and go every day from AGCO, the farm equipment manufacturer that is the town’s other major employer.

It is nearly impossible to find a home for less than $150,000, according to Hesston’s mayor. So many of the production workers at Excel and AGCO can’t afford to live in town and instead commute from Newton, Wichita or a dozen other nearby towns.

One year later, some town leaders are struggling with how or even whether they should do more to incorporate the transient workforce, which suffered the most during this tragedy, into the fabric of the town.

The city of Hesston decided to shut down its only mobile home park, which was one of the few places in town that factory workers at Hesston could afford. The decision sparked controversy, but the town hopes to turn the land into affordable housing, so that the people who are pushed out can someday return.

“Hesston is kind of an odd community in that ... more than half of the people who work here don’t live here, and there is a disconnect between the residents of the community and that workforce that comes every day and leaves every day and in many ways we never know and never knows us,” said Keith Schadel, the pastor at Hesston United Methodist.

So for many of Hesston’s 4,000 residents like Schadel, their small-town hospitality is limited to a wave at a passing car as the afternoon shift turns the only major intersection in town into a tiny traffic jam.

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Only a few residents, such as those who served Ford lunch at Sonic, see the town’s workers outside the driver’s seat of their cars before they turn onto the Interstate.

The engineers and managers who can afford to stay in Hesston were already gone for the day when Ford entered the factory firing, or were hiding under desks and behind closed doors in the front office, when Hesston’s Police Chief Doug Schroeder shot and killed Ford.

“I don’t want it to seem like I’m minimizing the situation because I didn’t know the people who were hurt, that doesn’t make it a better situation for me or for anyone in Hesston,” said David Kauffman, the mayor. “It just makes it feel more distant because there wasn’t a personal connection. Hopefully we’re building more of that now.”

THE LORD’S WORK

Brad Burkholder, the pastor at Hesston MB Church, served as the conduit between the Hesston Community Foundation and the victims of the Hesston shooting. The foundation raised $150,000 but needed a nonprofit that was experienced at helping people in need to distribute the funds.

Burkholder talked with victims of the shooting on the phone, ate meals with them or even visited them in their homes in surrounding towns like Wichita and Newton.

“And when you start doing those things, you start hearing about the pain and the other things going on in their life and how the shooting was just piled on top of some of the other difficult things they were facing,” Burkholder said.

And what he found was that, oftentimes, the victims of the shooting needed more money than they’d even asked for. The injured were receiving worker’s compensation, but that only covered a percentage of their regular earnings, not their overtime.

Sabrina Luke, the fiancee of Joshua Higbee, one of the deceased, needed help with rent and the costs of raising Higbee’s child, who she is trying to adopt. Others had health expenses or were struggling to go back to work after the psychological trauma.

It’s not that Burkholder didn’t know that Hesston’s workers sometimes struggled but, because they lived elsewhere and didn’t attend his church, he didn’t often get the opportunity to go into their homes and minister to them. There are a few Excel employees who attend Hesston MB Church but they are engineers and managers, not production-line workers.

“It was revealing to me to see them wrestling with questions of who God is, why do bad things happen to good people,” Burkholder said. “Although that wasn’t always stated, it’s what I perceived: Life isn’t fair, so where is God?”

The shooting underlined the ways in which Hesston’s community had expanded, Burkholder said. He didn’t realize how many people were working at the plants in town, many of whom come from different backgrounds than his congregation.

“God has called us to love one another. It doesn’t matter what skin color or socioeconomic status, we’re called to care for one another,” Burkholder said. “That’s what I challenge our church to be. I think we do a pretty good job, and I think we continue to learn what it means.”

But he isn’t sure what this means for his church, in a practical sense, going forward.

“What does this mean when they don’t live here?” Burkholder said. “I do wonder how to connect with them, or if they want connection outside of work. I mean, what’s a typical day? You pull up, you go to work, you clock in. It’s not like you hang around and get to know the people in the town where you’re at.”

THE LEAST AMONG US

Ed and Melodie Bobbitt were returning home from dumping leaves on Feb. 25, last year, when they heard what they thought were firecrackers.

Then they heard ambulance sirens and saw on TV that there had been a shooting at Excel. They lived at Country Village, a mobile home park across the street.

Ed rushed to the plant, with four blankets, and helped pull one of the victims from the plant. Then, one of his nephews, who had been working at Excel but was not shot, rushed to Ed’s mobile home with blood on him.

Six months after the shooting, Bobbitt said, the city voted to buy the land that the Bobbitts and dozens of other families lived on and offered them $7,000 if they left within a year.

The Texas company that had owned the mobile home park for decades wanted to sell, and the property had long been considered a blight. Dogs ran loose, trash sat in the yards and many of the homes look dilapidated. The city bought the property to avoid another delinquent, out-of-town owner with plans to build nicer but still affordable housing at some point in the future.

But because there is no other mobile home park in town, effectively many of them are being kicked out of Hesston.

After the mass eviction was announced last summer, the following city council meeting was standing room only, the most the mayor had ever seen. “We have a long-term vision for the park that is a better, cleaner and safer park and affordable housing for the residents that are in the park,” Kauffman, the mayor, said.

For the first half of last year, the Hesston Record newspaper was filled with stories about fundraisers to support victims of the Hesston shooting and tributes to its law enforcement officers. But the second half of the year was dominated by stories about Country Village.

The Bobbitts’ pre-1976 mobile home — which he bought for $1,200 and fixed up with new wall paneling and a new floor made from discarded wood from the old high school gymnasium — is too old to move by law.

The city will pay the Bobbitts $7,000 to move, but more than $1,000 will go toward demolishing their home.

“This is home, this is what you call home,” Bobbitt said at his kitchen table this week. He had hoped the mobile home park in Hesston would be his last stop. “That’s why we put so much in it,” he said.

About 20 of the mobile homes are already empty or torn down. This week city workers were using a backhoe to dig up the foundation at one of the abandoned lots.

Only one inhabitant at Country Village worked at Excel, according to the Bobbitts, but it was one of the few places workers on the assembly line could afford. The city hopes that the new affordable housing they are planning to build on the lot will be able to house factory workers, as well as teachers who struggle to pay rent in town. A representative for Excel Industries declined to speak for this article.

After the controversial city council meeting, pastors from the town’s churches went door to door, asking what could be done to help residents stay in Hesston. Keith Schadel, the pastor at the United Methodist church in town, said that after the Excel shooting, he felt an extra sensitivity toward the needs of those around him.

He didn’t normally travel into the mobile home park to minister. But he found that when he did, some residents were so grateful that someone had come to listen to them, they cried.

“I have a fear that many of us in Hesston have in some ways excluded the employees of Excel,” Schadel said. “So that if a similar kind of visit was made to those folks, especially those who work here but live outside of town, they might have an emotional need to express the same kind of gratitude.”

Oliver Morrison: 316-268-6499, @ORMorrison

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