Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sheriff needs community cooperation to help solve case

5/8/2013

Jeff Richards and the county he was appointed to serve are being tested.

Less than a month after becoming the Franklin County’s new sheriff, Richards finds himself leading a massive investigation into a triple homicide in rural Ottawa, as well as a search for a missing 18-month-old, Lana Bailey, the daughter of one of the victims. With the Major Case Squad activated, about 40 officials from various law enforcement agencies were searching the scene early this week where the bodies of Kaylie Bailey, Andrew Stout and Steven White were found. Speculation about the case has been rampant since area residents first caught glimpses Monday of a Kansas Highway Patrol helicopter hovering over the property at 3197 Georgia Road. As details about the developing story trickled out over the course of the past three days, some have questioned and criticized the sheriff’s office’s handling of the disturbing crime, which has grabbed headlines and media scrutiny from across Kansas and the nation.

Jeff Richards and the county he was appointed to serve are being tested.

Less than a month after becoming the Franklin County’s new sheriff, Richards finds himself leading a massive investigation into a triple homicide in rural Ottawa, as well as a search for a missing 18-month-old, Lana Bailey, the daughter of one of the victims. With the Major Case Squad activated, about 40 officials from various law enforcement agencies were searching the scene early this week where the bodies of Kaylie Bailey, Andrew Stout and Steven White were found. Speculation about the case has been rampant since area residents first caught glimpses Monday of a Kansas Highway Patrol helicopter hovering over the property at 3197 Georgia Road. As details about the developing story trickled out over the course of the past three days, some have questioned and criticized the sheriff’s office’s handling of the disturbing crime, which has grabbed headlines and media scrutiny from across Kansas and the nation.

Richards is in the spotlight — and the hot seat.

The grisly discovery of three bodies this week came amid a reorganization effort at the sheriff’s office, led by Richards, in which longtime Undersheriff Steve Lunger switched to the position of lieutenant colonel and Rick Geist, a former Ottawa police detective, took on the undersheriff role. Geist was sworn in to his new position — which is expected to involve oversight of sheriff’s office patrols, investigations and the evidence room — just hours before the first body was found Monday afternoon. Such a transition likely would be tricky under normal circumstances, but the challenge obviously is magnified by the immediate occurrence of a complex investigation into multiple homicides.

As Richards and his team continue trying to piece together the details of exactly what happened at the farm outside Ottawa, the sheriff needs the community’s support, understanding and cooperation.

At stake not only is the outcome of the criminal investigation into the deaths, but also the ongoing successful operation of the sheriff’s office. After all the TV crews and out-of-town reporters leave, Ottawa and Franklin County still will need law enforcement leaders they can trust — people they can count on to professionally handle everything from traffic stops to murder investigations.

Richards’ thrown-directly-into-the-fire situation is similar to one encountered by his predecessor, Jeff Curry. After just three weeks on the job, the former sheriff faced the death of a 22-year-old deputy, who was killed in a single-vehicle wreck near Pomona while responding to a domestic violence call, marking the first such death in the sheriff’s office’s history. In that instance, the community rallied around the sheriff and his office.

We hope Richards is afforded the same support. The sheriff obviously isn’t above criticism or scrutiny, but community members now should be focused on helping law enforcement bring a successful end to the investigation and the search for missing baby Lana.

Without such community cooperation, this week’s unfortunate discovery easily could meet the same fate as another Franklin County triple homicide — the March 29, 1973, slaying of Hazel Avery, Steven Avery and Gary Longfellow. The three were found shot to death in a 1964 Chrysler four-door car, which was parked on Rock Creek Road, one-half mile east of U.S. 59. Forty years later, the case remains unsolved with no justice for its victims.

Individuals with information about the missing child or the deaths discovered this week — or the unrelated 1973 triple homicide — are encouraged to call the Franklin County Crime Stoppers at (888) 311-TIPS or (888) 311-8477, submit a tip through Franklin County Crime Stopper’s Facebook account, text tip to 274637 (begin text with keyword “Franklin”) or online at www.tipsoft.com. Tipsters may remain anonymous.

Richards, his officers and other law enforcement agencies are expected to help protect Franklin County residents, but it takes the whole community, working together to keep us safe.

Will we pass the test?

— Tommy Felts,

managing editor

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