After Kansas City police chose that term to characterize four killings dating back to August around a south Kansas City trail system, avid users couldn’t help but wonder who might be lurking in the trees.
Foot traffic is down by some accounts. Officers wind past on all-terrain vehicles, on horseback, on foot. New surveillance cameras are purported to be in the area.
And though police say there’s “zero” physical evidence linking the homicides to a single perpetrator, hikers and bikers talk of a possible serial killer watching them.
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“If there is someone hunting for victims around here, no doubt he’s seen me,” said mountain biker Chris Valdez, a frequent visitor. Many days anymore he is riding the paths armed, in case he encounters trouble.
The anxiety is heightened by questions that police have not answered publicly, including how some of the slayings were committed and whether there appears a common motive.
They do acknowledge the similarities in the victims — all white men between ages 54 and 67, some of whom were killed walking their dogs near the popular trails along Indian Creek, Minor Park and Blue River.
A fifth body — that of Chase Hardin, 31 — turned up last week near the Harry Wiggins Trolley Track Trail at the 8600 block of Woodland Avenue. While police are working the case as a homicide, Capt. Stacey Graves said the “circumstances of Hardin’s death are different and do not share the same similarities” of the others.
The department has asked for FBI assistance, often a sign that investigators are seeking expertise in the behavioral patterns of criminals and their victims.
Could it be one serial killer?
What is known leaves “little doubt the murders are linked,” said David Canter, Director of the International Research Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Huddersfield in England. “Although at this stage that does not mean there is only one killer.”
He said that trying to glean some insight into the killer or killers, based on the incomplete public information, is nearly impossible.
“One thing I am willing to say,” Canter adds, “is that the victims in this case are very unusual.”
Nationally, men sharing the age range and race of the four victims along the trails represented about 4 percent of all single-victim homicides, according to FBI statistics from 2015, the most recent year for which data are available.
Of those, about a third — 180 across the country — were killed by assailants unknown.
“These are fairly rare events for this demographic,” said Jennifer Owens, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
According to Kansas City Police Department data from 2016, only 23 percent of homicide victims were older than 45. Only 10 percent of victims of all ages were white males.
As for the four slayings in south Kansas City, “it’s the special location in a small geographic area that makes them distinctive,” Owens said. “It’s out of the ordinary, and when something unique happens, that’s when the media and people take notice.”
Set a trap?
Heydon White hadn’t heard the news.
Just after 6 p.m. on a mild day last week, he was among the few out walking the stretch of Indian Creek Trail between the overpasses near 99th Street and Holmes Road, and 103rd Street at Wornall Road.
Carrying his 18-month-old daughter to his chest, White stopped at a makeshift memorial to Mike Darby, found dead the morning of May 18.
“Oh, my God! No way,” said White, who as a youngster strolled this trail with his grandmother. “No way.”
The memorial to Darby, 61 and longtime co-owner of Coach’s Bar & Grill nearby, included a cribbage board, cycling jersey and a large shamrock made of foil.
He was the fourth victim.
Sometimes, general similarities among a series of deaths may convince people they are connected even when they are not, said Enzo Yaksic, co-founder of the Atypical Homicide Research Group at Northeastern University in Boston.
As an example, Yaksic pointed to a string of drownings in Boston that many speculated could be the work of a serial killer, even though investigations failed to establish a link and many of the deaths appeared to be accidental.
But Yaksic, who uses data to study serial killings through his Murder Accountability Project, suggested some ways a killer could use the trail system to avoid detection and how police could set a trap.
“If a serial murderer is responsible for these deaths, the seclusion provided by the trail eliminated the need to create a ruse to isolate the victims,” Yaksic said. “The layout also affords the offender the opportunity to remain hidden and stalk potential victims as he decides the course of action most beneficial to him given the surroundings and circumstances.”
“Because most serial murderers live within the area in which they choose their victims, it is possible that he could be a drifter bonded to the area and comfortable there much like Gary Hilton, a killer that also could not harm his victim’s dog.”
Hilton was convicted of killing two women and an elderly couple near hiking trails in Georgia and Florida in 2007.
Yaksic suggested that Kansas City police might consider using a decoy to set a trap for the killer or killers, as Las Vegas police did earlier this year after two homeless men were killed at the same intersection.
Parks Director Mark McHenry was on Indian Creek Trail on Memorial Day and said it was packed with groups and single visitors of all ages and demographics.
Longtime enthusiasts Ted and Linda Schroeder of Kansas City, both retired, visited three times that weekend to volunteer cleanup work. They found four grocery carts in the brush and rolled them away.
“It seems the trail is especially safe in broad daylight,” said Ted Schroeder, 80. “Extremely well maintained.” Trails curl through sunny, open areas rather than being encroached by overgrowth where attackers could hide.
But at least one son of a slaying victim questions the safety.
“I don’t think people should be on the trails right now,” said Brian Darby, son of Mike Darby, found dead on May 18.
“We need to take every precaution,” he said. “There’s no reason to take unnecessary risks.”
In 2016, the first reports of a small homeless population around Indian Creek began trickling in to social workers and city officials, said Vickie Riddle of the Homeless Services Coalition of Greater Kansas City.
But she said it would be unfair to speculate a menace among the homeless. “The myth of the homeless is they’re violent,” Riddle said. “If there was some huge criminal element, these people out south would be killing each other” rather than victimizing passersby.
“There’s absolutely no evidence of this,” she said.
Brian Darby, for his part, said he didn’t subscribe to a theory that a homeless person might be the killer.
Evelyn Craig of the service agency re-Start said maybe 10 or 15 homeless persons have been identified between the junction of I-435 and State Line and the area around I-435 and Blue Ridge Boulevard. Outreach workers have ventured into encampments to offer housing and other services to those willing to accept them, she said.
Concerns around the area prompted a public meeting in September at Jasper’s Restaurant, 1201 W. 103rd St. City officials said the meeting led to additional police patrols, brush cleanup and more outreach to serve the homeless population.
On Wednesday, a meeting of the city’s Neighborhoods and Public Safety Committee will discuss a proposed ordinance to set hours at some city parks where crimes and homelessness combine.
“Our parks never close, which is atypical for public park systems just about everywhere in the nation,” said Councilwoman Katheryn Shields. Off hours would enable police to arrest camped persons and direct them to housing services, she said.
Whether they pose any danger to anyone but themselves, the hard-to-see homeless around Indian Creek Trail do emerge on the path from time to time during White’s walks with his young daughter.
“Since she came along I’m automatically more wary of the dispossessed,” he said, although he acknowledged they could also provide valuable eyes and ears to crimes being committed along the trail.
Mountain biker Valdez said he had no reason to think that the homeless encampments he has seen make the trails deadly. In any event, “I’m going to keep coming here,” he said, adding:
“We need to show the outside community that this is our place. Some unknown killers or anyone else isn’t going to scare us away.”