Kansas City police said Friday they are investigating “obvious similarities” among four unsolved homicides along the same trail system: one on the Blue River Trail and three along the Indian Creek Trail, including the Thursday slaying of local bar owner Mike Darby.
Since last August, four victims have been killed: all white men between the ages of 54 and 67. Three were walking their dogs on the trail system or close to it.
“Detectives are aware of the similarities and are actively investigating all four of the homicides,” Kansas City police spokeswoman Capt. Stacey Graves said in an emailed statement. “At this time, there is no physical evidence that suggests these cases are related but the possibility is being reviewed.”
The victims include Darby, 61, co-owner of Coach’s Bar & Grill at 103rd Street and Wornall Road, found slain on the trail about 6:30 a.m. Thursday about a half-mile east of the bar. Police have not released Darby’s name, but he has been identified by friends and family.
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Darby was walking his two dogs on the trail that morning, as he had done for years, friends said.
The other victims:
John W. Palmer, 54, found killed Aug. 19 near East Bannister Road and Lydia Avenue. Palmer was found in a wooded area, and police have not said how he died.
David Lenox, 67, found killed Feb. 27 in the 9900 block of Walnut Street. Lenox was shot just a few steps away from his front door while walking one of his dogs.
Timothy S. Rice, 57, of Excelsior Springs, found dead April 4 inside a shelter at Minor Park, near East Red Bridge Road and 110th Street.
Each case is being treated as a separate investigation, Graves said.
Families left with questions
Darby’s son Brian said he had not heard about any connections in the four homicides and was not sure what to make of the news.
“I was aware of at least one incident beforehand,” he said. “I don’t know if it makes me feel better if it was all random or connected, but I am 100 percent confident in the police to solve this.
“For me and the family, it just happened,” Brian Darby said. “It doesn’t really matter who or why. I want closure, don’t get me wrong. Nothing about this makes sense.”
Brian Darby has learned little about the circumstances of his father’s death, he said. Police told him that there was no evidence of a struggle.
Lenox was the only victim not killed on a trail, but his body was found a few blocks away at Willow Creek Apartments, where he lived. Lenox was found shot to death in a parking lot; his dog, a Shih Tzu named Snickers, remained at his side until authorities arrived.
The circumstances of Lenox’s death are troubling in their similarities to the other slayings, according to Lenox’s son, Mike Lenox. The three victims walking their dogs, the similarities in their ages, the proximity to one another — all factors that lead Mike Lenox to believe some link could exist.
“Given the similarities, it is possible there is a connection with all four,” Mike Lenox said.
That thought hadn’t crossed his mind, however, until after Mike Darby’s death.
“When this happened to my dad, we thought it was a random act of violence,” Mike Lenox said. “If an individual could be capable of that, you’d think that individual could do something like that again.”
Kansas City police have intimated to Mike Lenox that the investigation into his father’s death has resulted in zero concrete leads.
The family has pledged $10,000 of their own money toward a reward for tips that would lead to an arrest in David Lenox’s case, bringing the total to $12,000. Lenox hoped the fourth killing in the same vicinity, and the media attention that may follow, will unearth more answers.
“I really just want to find out who killed my dad,” Mike Lenox said. “If it is a serial killer, I want to find him. If it’s not, I want to find him.”
John Mullenax is John W. Palmer’s cousin. Palmer had close bonds with his cousins, according to his obituary.
“He was a family guy,” Mullenax said. “Everything revolved around the kids and his wife and church.”
Palmer often drove to the trail in his truck, Mullenax said, and parked at a nearby fire station. When Palmer didn’t return home on Aug. 19, his wife, Cathy Palmer, drove to the area and learned from authorities that her husband was dead.
“We couldn’t believe it,” Mullenax said. “We’d just seen him not long before, and the way it happened made it not seem real.”
He also raised a concern about law enforcement’s safeguarding of the area.
“What seems odd to me, with the modern things available, is that the police department hasn’t done something to set up some kind of trap in the area,” Mullenax said.
Kansas City reacts
A mixture of reactions came from families who live along the trail, such as those who live in the Oakdell neighborhood and whose backyards are within a few hundred feet of where this week’s homicide occurred.
Tim Munyan, 31, walks there frequently with his toddler daughter. Munyan said that his wife was already talking about perhaps moving away from the neighborhood.
“I mean it’s just pretty concerning,” he said. “We love the trail and we go there a lot. My wife’s concerned — won’t even go back there anymore. Hopefully they get whoever that is (killer) and get him out of here.”
Oliver Brandsgaard, 25, and his father Charles, 55, said that although three killings on the trails and one not far away is disturbing, the trails are so long, winding through so many different kinds of neighborhoods of varying safety, it is just as likely that they are not connected at all.
Oliver Brandsgaard, however, is glad that police will be patrolling the area.
“It’s alarming,” he said, “I’m not as alarmed as I’ve seen other people be. But I have noticed there are more homeless people back here than there were in years past, so I’m glad they’re starting the patrols.”
Ben Wearing, 88, has lived in the neighborhood for 51 years, long before the trail even existed.
“I’ve never been concerned,” Wearing said. “I’m not going to stop walking just because of that.”
Andre Edmond said he walks the trail every night. Golf clubs slung across his back, he chips ball there.
“Why would you be concerned,” he said. “It’s not going to stop you from doing anything you normally do. I’m out here every day, every night. I walk the trails. I see deer out here. I’m more worried about them than I am any individual.”
The homicides on Indian Creek Trail and Blue River Trail, as well as other crime problems in city parks, have caught the city council's attention.
The council's Public Safety Committee will discuss park safety at its meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday at City Hall. The committee will consider a resolution directing the city manager to work with the Board of Parks and Recreation to develop a safety plan.
It will also consider an ordinance to prohibit people from entering or remaining in Budd Park, Case Park, Cooley Park, Hidden Valley Park, Indian Creek Greenway Trail Park, Kessler Park, Mulkey Square Park or Ilus Davis Park between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, a sponsor of both measures, said the recent homicide of Darby definitely gave impetus to these proposals. But she said the council has been concerned for some time about unsafe areas of certain parks and ways to deal with that.
Graves, the police captain, said walking trails like the one along Indian Creek are not necessarily dangerous. But, she said, “you should always try to be aware of your surroundings. We recommend traveling with a mobile phone to alert police of anything suspicious.”
Devin Wetzel, superintendent of parks for the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department, released a statement about the homicides, asserting that the safety and security of parks patrons is top priority.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Mr. Darby,” Wetzel said. “KCPD is investigating and will continue to look after our patrons’ safety. We encourage everyone to be aware of their surroundings and to get out and use our parks and trails.”
Police are urging anyone who observes or encounters someone who is acting strangely or is exhibiting suspicious behavior to call police.
The Police Department said officers will be conducting extra patrols in the area, on foot and on ATVs.
Anyone with information is asked to call police or the TIPS Hotline at 816-474-TIPS (8477).