30 years later, Leawood’s first murder victim gets justice

Four men participated in Leawood’s first murder three decades ago, witnesses said, but only one left his ski mask behind.

A Johnson County judge on Thursday sentenced that Kansas City man to up to life in prison for his role in the home invasion murder of Philip Whitehead on April 2, 1981.

Gary Holcomb Sr., 50, had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in October after police broke the cold case by matching his DNA to the mask.

Judge Stephen Tatum followed the plea bargain in sentencing Holcomb to from 121/2 years to life in prison. But under the terms of the law in 1981, Holcomb becomes eligible for parole in about six years.

He confessed to police that he was the driver and lookout man for three others that night in the robbery of two postal workers the thieves wrongly believed were drug dealers.

He named the three other men, but prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to charge them.

Whitehead died at age 32 after one of the intruders accidentally shot him during the robbery at the house at 8500 State Line Road, Holcomb said.

He said he mostly stayed in the car but briefly went into the house and found the others panicking after the shooting. The other postal worker in the house told police that thieves blindfolded him, bound him and put him on the floor of a closet, where he heard a gunshot and then men fleeing.

At sentencing Thursday, prosecutor Jason Covington told the judge that they will never know exactly what Holcomb’s role was in the crime. He asked: Would an outside lookout man wear a ski mask?

Holcomb apologized to the victim’s family and said he accepted responsibility for what happened.

Family members — Whitehead’s two younger brothers and younger sister — spoke through letters to the judge.

They told of a man who dropped out of college at age 21 to help their mother raise them after their father died in an industrial accident. He never would finish college, though one brother became a lawyer, the other became an engineer and his sister earned a doctorate degree in music.

Whitehead was dating a high school friend and seemed close to marriage when the bullet through his heart ended his life, they wrote.

Tatum said the case shows how a murder decades ago still affects the lives of family members. He told them that he hoped the outcome gave them at least some closure.

Two days before the victim’s mother, Dorothy Whitehead, died at age 84 in a nursing home in September, the family wrote, one of them told her that Holcomb had agreed to plead guilty.

Her response, the letter says, was a few soft and quiet words: “Well, what do you know. Justice. After all these years.”