Timothy Dennis thought he could solve one of the most mystifying missing person cases in Kansas.
Dennis, a retired special agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, said he closed almost all of the approximately 75 homicide or death cases assigned to him over a 24-year career.
He was obsessive. His daughter joked at his retirement party that “the phone would ring, the door would slam, and we wouldn’t see Dad for two weeks.”
Duane Robert, a fellow investigator with the KBI, described his colleague as resolute.
“He didn’t play games,” Robert said. “If he was interviewing you and you were feeding him a line of bullshit, he’d tell you.”
But there was one case even Dennis couldn’t crack. Though he’s been retired for years now, he’s still bedeviled by its details.
Thirty years ago this month, Randy Leach disappeared from a party near his Linwood, Kan., home.
The 17-year-old had borrowed his mother’s Dodge 600 for the night. After mingling with friends, Randy and the car vanished.
There’s been no trace of either since that April night in 1988.
Dennis became the lead investigator for the KBI on Randy’s disappearance about 10 years later, and stayed on it until his retirement in 2010.
Though he never solved the case, he believes he knows what happened, how Randy died. He’s talking about it publicly now for the first time.
“Once you remove all the impossibilities, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth,” he said, paraphrasing Arthur Conan Doyle.
Before Dennis arrived on the case, local investigators with the Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Office keyed in on various theories and suspects, driving at least one person out of town.
The solution, Dennis believes, is less sinister than the bizarre theories, including that Randy was murdered by a satanic cult, or dismembered after an overdose, or hung inside a cave.
The detective, with his white handlebar mustache and sporting a blue Jayhawks jacket, met with The Star recently at a coffee shop near his Overland Park home. Despite the years gone by, he detailed his theory about Randy’s disappearance with ease, using the visual aid of a map drawn across three napkins.
“It’s the ones you don’t solve that haunt you,” he said.
In the early days of the investigation, clues were sparse, rumors were rampant and fear of satanism spread through the community of around 400.
Dennis’ explanation of Randy’s disappearance, while simple, was not explored by Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Office deputies in the first 10 years of the investigation, said Maj. James Sherley, the current Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
Some community members accused Randy’s peers of practicing satanism.
One suspect was Robert Marble, then 18 years old. He believes now that his personality contributed to his vilification.
Marble was questioned about his religious beliefs and the satanic bible, according to records of Leavenworth deputies’ investigation shared by Marble with The Star.
A Leavenworth detective interviewed Marble and wrote, “he has read the satanic bible but ... does not believe in the concepts of the occult.” And, according to a record of the interview, “he does not believe in God.”
A detective asked a witness if Marble and one of his friends were “involved with some type of satanic activity,” the records show.
Detectives also recorded accusations that Marble and three of his peers were “satanists,” according to the records.
Asked about the detectives’ notes linking Marble and others to satanism, Sherley said: “If they had initial information that there was a cult or satanic involvement, they may very well have asked questions about what his (Marble’s) beliefs were, but I don’t think anything they did was less than a well-intentioned effort to solve the case. ... Some (leads) are strong, some aren’t.”
In 1993, three people, not including Marble, were arrested. One of them had been identified as a satanist by a community member, according to the records.
“The arresting officer had reason to believe there was probable cause,” Sherley said. The spokesman was hired about seven years after Randy disappeared.
After the three people were held in jail for more than 24 hours, then-Sheriff Herb Nye “made the decision that probable cause did not exist for those arrests,” Sherley said.
When Dennis took on the case for the KBI in the late ’90s, he first had to eliminate a “basketful of wild-ass theories.” Murderous satanists weren’t seriously considered, he said.
‘No evidence. No car.’
On one of his first days on the case, Dennis drove to the site of the party on a warm spring day, climbed out of his vehicle and pondered the case’s history.
One person had told investigators that he saw Randy hanging in a cave. The man later retracted his statement, saying he was high that night.
Another person said Randy left the April 15 party with a man who later dismembered him after Randy overdosed. But that man was behind bars when Randy disappeared.
Any murder, Dennis concluded, would have required an extensive and unlikely coverup.
“Nobody’s talked. No evidence. No car,” Dennis said. “Those things don’t happen in criminal cases, unless the CIA hit team came in.”
How Randy left the party, Dennis acknowledges, has never been confirmed. One witness told police he saw Randy lying in the front seat of his mother’s Dodge late during the party. When he returned about 2 a.m., the witness was “sure Randy’s car was gone,” according to the records.
Dennis said that, since no other missing person report exists from that night, it’s feasible to believe Randy left alone.
Randy’s friend, Stephen Haag, was at the party that night and immediately noticed that Randy, who rarely drank, was either drunk or high — an observation that at least one other witness would later recall for police.
“I was completely sober. He was completely not,” Haag said.
Randy had two possible routes to get home: head north to Kansas 32, or head south and take what’s now known as Golden Road.
The latter option, the “back road,” would be the route less likely to be patrolled by police, Dennis said, and thus the most logical option for someone looking to avoid being pulled over.
Two days into the search for Randy, one of Marble’s classmates contacted a Leavenworth detective, according to a record of the conversation.
The classmate, who mentioned Marble’s predilection for heavy metal and dyed-black hair, accused Marble of brandishing a knife in a Walmart parking lot and saying, “This is what we used to sacrifice Randy,” a Leavenworth detective wrote.
Marble said the accusation, which he dismissed as fiction, may have been the result of his status as an outcast.
He was considered a “stoner” who wore holey jeans, leather and T-shirts with artwork from his favorite heavy metal bands, including Iron Maiden.
“In the Bible Belt, hick town of Linwood, Kansas, my preference for music happened to not be in line,” Marble said.
Not long after the classmate’s accusation, officers confiscated two knives and a Dungeons & Dragons manual from Marble’s car. The fantasy role-playing game was, in the ’80s, considered by some as a ploy conceived by Satan to arouse moral turpitude.
The detective who interviewed Marble wrote, “(Marble) has never played Dungeons and Dragons.”
The scare, which has been likened to the McCarthy-era hunt for communists three decades before, became known as “Satanic Panic.”
Marble eventually moved away from Linwood in 1989, too hounded by police and vilified by the community to stay. He joined the Army and served for nine years, working on field artillery systems. He now lives in Portland, Ore., where he works as a facility manager.
Dennis said Marble was not considered a suspect when he worked the case, and he doesn’t consider him one today.
‘I think this is it’
Thirty years ago, a single-lane bridge on Golden Road spanned Stranger Creek. There were no guardrails on the approach to the bridge, which has since been demolished.
Underwater, Dennis said, “is the only place you’ll hide a vehicle through the seasons, where nobody’s going to stumble over it.”
At first, his fellow investigators scoffed at such a theory.
Stranger Creek, officers told Dennis, wasn’t deep enough to conceal a vehicle.
But Dennis showed them, of all things, the movie “Kansas.” There’s a scene in which a “vehicle is knocked off Golden Road into the creek, and it sinks."
The movie was filmed the summer before Randy’s disappearance.
Based on Dennis’ observations and information provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Dennis concluded the creek would be deep enough through the seasons to conceal a vehicle.
Investigators, led by Dennis, hired a team from Lee’s Summit Underwater Rescue & Recovery. Not long into the team’s first search, sonar equipment detected a vehicle.
“I can remember standing there waiting for the diver, and reminding myself to breathe,” Dennis said.
The diver ripped off a piece of plastic molding from the vehicle and resurfaced. Dennis stood on the bank, hands outstretched to receive the molding. On it were the words, “Grand Prix,” a Pontiac.
“Is this what you want?” asked the diver.
“No,” Dennis said. It wasn’t the Dodge he was looking for.
The search continued.
Dennis was encouraged by the fact that a railroad bridge spanned the creek a few yards downstream from the road. No car could fit through the bridge pilings, he thought.
But one day the dive team found a different vehicle, this one stolen, downstream of the bridge. The force of the current had pushed it past the pilings.
The discovery drastically dimmed Dennis’ hopes for the case.
“It went from a manageable search area to an unreasonable area,” Dennis said, “because if the current could push (a vehicle) this far, what’s to keep it from pushing it 100 feet, 100 yards, 100 miles?”
Bill Feller, a diver of 30 years for both the Navy and private companies, said Dennis’ theory is feasible.
Feller works for Lee’s Summit Underwater, though he wasn’t involved in previous searches for Randy in Stranger Creek.
“He could be anywhere between that bridge and St. Louis,” he said. “You’re looking for a needle in a haystack, and you don’t know which haystack to look in.”
Sherley, the Leavenworth Sheriff’s spokesman, said Stranger Creek at Golden Road wasn’t searched by Leavenworth detectives for the first 10 years of the investigation.
Feller added it’s also possible Randy’s car went into a “bowl” on the creek bottom that may have later filled in with sediment, making detection with search equipment nearly impossible.
“We feel for the family, but there’s nothing we can do,” he said.
Even Randy’s parents considered the creek. His mother, Alberta Leach, said two fishermen searched it a few months after Randy’s disappearance. Additional attempts have since been made in the Kansas River, but its shallowness and sandiness have deterred efforts.
Other head-scratching mysteries have been solved via underwater searches. Toni Anderson, a student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, disappeared last year, driving national headlines and kidnapping theories. But the Wichita native’s body was found inside her vehicle in the Missouri River about two months after she vanished.
Oklahoma authorities conducting an underwater training exercise in 2013 discovered two vehicles containing six sets of human remains that likely dated to disappearances in the ’60s and ’70s.
Dennis feels he did everything he could to achieve a similar breakthrough in the Randy Leach case.
“I prided myself with having a reputation of closing cases, and I thought I could close this one, but I couldn’t,” he said. “In my heart of hearts I think this is it, but I can’t prove it.”