Their lives and neighborhoods couldn’t seem more different.
One richer. One poorer.
One older. One younger.
In the south Kansas City neighborhood of Woodbridge, off Wornall Road near 128th Street, neatly kept lawns front neatly kept homes. Some of the residents use canes and walkers.
In the 3000 block of South 36th Street in Kansas City, Kan., trucks sometimes park on the gravel between small frame homes rented by young families. Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve celebrations can be punctuated by shots fired into the air.
Yet what very much links these divergent neighborhoods is a psychic bond forged by bloody, inexplicable carnage. In Woodbridge: a quintuple murder 18 months ago. In KCK: a quadruple murder late Monday.
Wrapped this past week in their shock and grief, the KCK neighbors might understandably be skeptical about what the older ladies of Woodbridge can impart about what they have endured.
What those women can share is what happened to their neighborhood, which all here agree honors their living and dead in an extraordinary way. Some think it borders on the miraculous.
“I just think God’s hand has been in this,” said Jan Caruso, 67, a 10-year resident of Woodbridge and a relative of two who were murdered there. “Not that he wanted it to happen, of course. Not that. But is is a gift to know what can happen when good people come together.”
Their tragedy is never far from their minds. But the murders in KCK, and their prayers for the neighbors there, sparked it afresh.
How George Taylor, 80, and his wife, Ann, 86, were in their home at 1 E. Woodbridge Lane when a man burst in, apparently to steal a classic Jaguar, and then beat the couple so severely they would later die at the hospital. Unable to start the Jaguar, the man allegedly stole the couple’s SUV, drove it down the cul-de-sac and used a shotgun to kill neighbor Lorene Hurst, 88, and her son Darrel Hurst, 63, as they stood on the apron of her driveway. Darrel had come to change a light bulb for his mother.
“I heard the shots,” said Caruso, who lives next door. She cried last week to think of it. Darrel was her cousin, Lorene her aunt.
Rounding the cul-de-sac, the assailant then stepped out of the SUV and shot 69-year-old Susan Choucroun on her driveway. From his bedroom window across the way, James Anderson witnessed the murder. Neighbors think of him as the sixth casualty. He died of a heart attack days later.
“I know it affected him seeing Susan get shot,” said resident Bill Simler, 85, who lives on another Woodbridge street and heard the three shotgun blasts that day. “He told me, ‘I saw the look on Susan’s face.’ ”
In the chaos that followed, Woodbridge experienced what KCK experienced this past week: the surreal wash of blue and red flashing police lights, satellite TV trucks, knocks on their doors from reporters.
In KCK, Mike Capps, 41, was inside his home about 11 p.m. Monday with three friends — Jeremy Waters, 36, and brothers Clint Harter, 27, and Austin Harter, 29 — when Capps’ next-door neighbor allegedly entered the home with an assault-style rifle and began firing.
Police rolled out a massive manhunt and on Wednesday arrested Capps’ neighbor, Pablo Serrano-Vitorino, a 40-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant, 170 miles away in mid-Missouri. There he allegedly had killed a fifth man, 49-year-old Randy J. Nordman of New Florence, the father of three boys. Held in jail, Serrano-Vitorino on Thursday attempted to commit suicide with a straight razor, authorities said.
The motive for the killings remains unknown.
“Right now I have a lot of questions. I want answers. I want justice,” said Ruth Harter, Clint Harter’s widow. She has a 2-year-old child and is eight months pregnant. Capps also had two children. Waters was the father of three sons.
“They are very, very heartbroken,” said Katrina McCoy, Waters’ former wife and the children’s mother. “He was a good guy and a good father.”
In the Woodbridge killings, ex-convict Brandon B. Howell, now 35, was arrested in the Northland on the night of the homicides, having been found walking along Interstate 29 carrying a shotgun in the leg of his trousers. Howell is scheduled to stand trial in September 2017 on five counts of first-degree murder. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty.
The residents of Woodbridge also seek justice, but Howell has occupied little of their thoughts, they said. More, the neighbors ponder what has developed between them.
Said Jeanne Stewart, 90, and a resident of Woodbridge for 37 years: “We have grown closer than we ever were before. … I think our friendships have deepened.”
No one in Woodbridge seems to remember exactly whose idea it was. All here insist that the cul-de-sac has always been neighborly in a normal smiling, waving and brief chat kind of way.
“After the tragedy,” Stewart said, “we decided we needed to be together more.”
Once each month since “the tragedy,” which is how it generally is referenced, nearly everyone in the neighborhood — at least eight of the 12 who now occupy the homes — chooses a restaurant and goes out to dinner together. They call and talk to each other constantly.
“We didn’t know each other nearly as well before the tragedy as we do now,” said Melinda Buie, 62, a resident for four years.
It might seem reasonable that some neighbors might have wanted to leave a cul-de-sac where one-third of the 15 residents were killed. One resident, Charles Choucroun, the husband of victim Susan Choucroun, did not stay. He lived in his Woodbridge home for several months after the crime but in time chose to move to Israel. Everyone else remained.
“I don’t think anyone said, ‘I’m leaving,’ ” said Vicki Gruver, 76, a resident for 15 years.
Defiance in a resolve not to be moved from one’s home is hardly an unusual reaction to trauma, said Jennifer Miller, a victim advocate for the Kansas City Police Department.
“This is my home and I’m not going to let this affect my life more than it already has” can be a positive reaction, Miller said. “I think that is a very brave thing to do.”
Similar sentiments already are being expressed in KCK.
On Tuesday, the morning after the killings, Kristin, a neighbor who didn’t want her last name used, helped to wash blood off Capps’ porch. She had known him for much of her life.
At a vigil Wednesday night, Kristin was wearing a 9 mm handgun on her hip, as she does most every day.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” she said. “I grew up on this hill since I was 8 years old.”
She’s not leaving now.
‘Hope for a better day’
Having strong connections in a neighborhood can help ease the pain of tragedy.
Crimes like the homicides in KCK and Woodbridge affect nearly everyone who lives nearby by “shattering the expectations of daily life,” said Steven Marans, a professor of child psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine and director of the Childhood Violent Trauma Center.
“It opens a Pandora’s box of the fears all of us share as human beings,” he said in a telephone interview. “Unfortunately, the effects can endure for a lifetime.”
Traumatic events can make people feel they have lost control, Marans said, and have enduring hypersensitivity to possible danger. People sometimes isolate themselves in defense.
But he also said strong social supports, as well as access to mental health care, are keys to preventing long-term issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
A year after the killings in Woodbridge, residents of the larger development dedicated a memorial sculpture and benches to the memory of their departed friends. Today, almost every resident in the cul-de-sac insists that the events of 18 months ago haven’t changed their basic belief in the goodness of mankind.
“I couldn’t get up in the morning if I didn’t have hope for a better day,” Caruso said.
Nor, they said, did it affect their daily sense of personal safety.
“It did not cause me to fear my neighborhood,” said Stewart, the 90-year-old.
The reason: “It just seemed like such a random thing,” she said, offering an often repeated sentiment.
Caruso said, “I don’t feel unsafe.”
“We all felt like it was one of those flukes,” said six-year resident Mildred Jenkins, 79, “like a meteor hitting.”
But it would be incorrect to say that the tragedy didn’t change them.
Stewart said that early on the most common neighborhood reaction was disbelief, followed by anger.
“A lot of anger,” she said, “so angry that anyone would do that to perfectly wonderful people.”
As that ebbed, it gave way to a disquieting sense of neighbors’ place in the larger world. Before the tragedy, many here thought that yellow police crime tape was strung in neighborhoods far from their own.
“I feel much less isolated from the world than before,” Buie said. “Not in a good way.”
Said Gruver, “It makes you aware of the evil people who are out there who will shoot indiscriminately without reason.”
Then there are the flash visions. Stewart and a few others conceded that at times they can’t keep their minds from picturing their neighbors after the murders. None of the surviving neighbors actually witnessed the scenes up close. But on the night of the crime, investigators worked for hours, with the bodies shielded behind screens. Neighbors’ imaginations filled in details. For some, images still come unbidden.
The sight of three empty houses also took its toll.
“It was hard,” Gruver said. “How many houses are there? Nine. A third of them were empty. It just made you feel sad.”
But the houses actually sold quickly. Two sold before they went on the market. Neighbors welcomed the new owners. Few were as welcoming as the Hursts: Harold Hurst Jr. of Leawood, whose brother, Darrel, and mother were killed, and Kathy Hurst, Darrel’s widow, also of Leawood. Then there was Caruso, the niece next door.
“I prayed so hard to have a good person move in,” Caruso said. “That’s what happened.”
The Hurst family always has been close, with family dinners at Lorene Hurst’s Woodbridge home pretty much every Sunday and meals usually ending with a slice of pie made from scratch.
Her husband, Harold Sr., died a few years ago. But for as long as the couple owned the home, children, grandchildren and then great-grandchildren played and became familiar with the neighborhood.
“For our family, it was a very simple life … just to have peace and stability and babies being born,” Kathy Hurst said. “We will continue to live by those standards that my husband and I grew up with.”
That standard included Harold offering the new owner, who had no furniture, some of his mother’s furniture.
“This is from the Hursts and this is from the Hursts,” said the resident, pointing to the kitchen table and an end table. The woman, who didn’t want her name used for privacy reasons after a divorce, also talked about how Kathy Hurst came to the house to show her how to use the stove. Harold Hurst came over one day and offered a painting for above the hearth, where it hangs now.
The woman had known the neighborhood and had liked it long before the tragedy. Even so, she was somewhat apprehensive about buying a home linked to tragedy, until she entered.
“When I got in the house, it felt OK,” she said. “It just felt like it has been a happy place.”
Soon after moving in, she was invited to the monthly dinners, which she attends. So does Mary Spicer, 63, who last April bought the home owned by the Taylors. Mary Spicer had known Kathy Hurst since childhood. They’d gone to grade school together.
The neighbors opened their arms.
“It felt like home,” Spicer said.
Bill and Peggy Hain moved into the former Choucroun home in November. Still relatively new to the block, and busy caring for grandchildren, they’ve yet to be able to accept the invitations to the neighborhood dinners.
“They ask and ask,” Bill Hain said. “I hope they don’t give up.”
In the KCK neighborhood, many of the residents there are as similarly tight-knit as the friends and neighbors in Woodbridge. Funerals are being arranged. There’s much healing ahead.
Stewart, of Woodbridge, said that if she has any words of advice it would be this: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t let it divide you.”
Perry Goin, a family friend to the Harter brothers, spoke at the vigil Wednesday.
“Anyone that knew these people knows that we were family just as much as if we were blood,” he said. “We lost some brothers. But we’re going to hold our heads up high and be together.
“Everybody stay strong.”