Kansas City’s original cold-case detective retires

Janna Eikel came to the Kansas City Police Department in 1984 with a single focus: Solve crimes.

And as one of the department’s few career detectives, that’s exactly what she did, eventually pioneering the use of new technology to pry open some of Kansas City’s oldest viable cases.

She helped bring criminal charges against numerous serial rapists and predators who posed a danger to the community, police say, including Shy Bland, who was linked to 11 sexual attacks; Gary Jackman, who was linked to 52 attacks over his lifetime; and Terry Birmingham, whose DNA matched brutal attacks against three elderly women. Birmingham grabbed one victim as she was leaving Christmas cookies on a neighbor’s porch.

Eikel saw that Kansas City needed a devoted detective to review unsolved sex crimes in light of new DNA technology, and she crafted herself a role as the department’s first cold case investigator. She and her sergeant had such success that the department created a cold case squad, and later, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office started its own cold case unit.

She also attracted a serial killer while working as a prostitution decoy early in her career.

Last week, after a nearly 30-year career, Eikel retired.

She almost didn’t get onto the police force, initially blocked by the department’s height restriction.

The department turned away Eikel, who stands 5 feet 1 inch tall, the first time she applied.

“They laughed at me,” she recalled.

She worked for 10 years at a doctor’s office and various hospitals, where she met a Kansas City police officer she would later marry. He told her when the department abolished the height restriction and she applied again, first as a volunteer officer. After five years, she joined full time.

In her early years, she worked in the vice unit, where she made an excellent decoy during prostitution stings. At her height, she said, no one thought she could be a cop.

One night, as she lingered on a corner, a creepy man approached and asked how much she would charge for a sex act. She told him $20.

Eikel then made an excuse to walk the other way, so tactical officers could arrest him. But the man grabbed her arm, marched her down the street and said: “You’re not going anywhere. You’re going with me.”

Eikel signaled to her co-workers that she was in trouble, and officers arrested him. The next day, police realized he was serial killer Kenneth McDuff, who had murdered at least 14 people in Texas, raping and strangling most of them.

“When I found out, I almost threw up,” Eikel said.

He had been in Kansas City for only about three weeks, police think.

Eikel worked as a detective in forgery and robbery before landing in sex crimes.

Her cold case work began in uncharted territory. She initially left door hangers at victims’ homes to let them know she had re-opened their cases, but she soon realized that many victims had not told their friends, spouses or relatives about their attacks. The victims felt exposed and angry.

Detectives then began to send generic letters, referring to “a police report you filed.” Eikel also made a habit of visiting her victims in person, said cold case detective Gary Snyder.

Some victims remembered every detail of their attacks, Eikel said. Others had blocked out the horrific memories. But most told Eikel the same thing:

“I thought you had forgotten me.”

The cold case squad came in handy when a rapist began attacking women in the Waldo area in 2009 and 2010. Police identified a suspect but didn’t have enough evidence to charge him. His DNA, however, was linked to four unsolved rapes from the 1980s, and cold case detectives used their expertise to garner charges that kept him in jail while the more recent crimes were investigated. Prosecutors charged Bernard Jackson, a convicted rapist, with 22 new counts in 2011.

Many detectives view their job as a temporary assignment or a rung on the career ladder, co-workers said, but Eikel saw it as a lifelong calling.

“Everybody’s got a tough job at the police department, but it’s especially tough in sex crimes,” said Lisa Morris, the department’s former general counsel. “For her to do this job this long the average person can’t grasp the difficulty of working these cases day in and day out.”

Snyder said Eikel developed new techniques to catch suspects in lies and methodically put together case files like no one else.

“There aren’t a lot of career detectives anymore,” Snyder said. “There’s not a financial reward for people to be career detectives, but she loved the job. She helped victims, and she helped society as a whole by taking dangerous people off the street.”