From The Star’s archives: Girl’s disappearance casts doubt on parole system

In 1998, Wesley Ira Purkey (center) was arrested in connection with the death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales. Years later, in prison, he confessed to the murder of Jennifer Long.
In 1998, Wesley Ira Purkey (center) was arrested in connection with the death of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales. Years later, in prison, he confessed to the murder of Jennifer Long. Special to The Star

This story was originally published in The Star on Oct. 28, 2001.

On a January morning in 1998, Wesley Ira Purkey — ex-con, doper, thief and future killer — cruised Kansas City streets looking for action.

Seventeen years earlier, while on parole, Purkey and a friend had robbed a Wichita man and shot him in the head twice. Miraculously, his victim survived. Purkey got 15 years to life.

Now, after nearly two decades in jail, the 46-year-old felon was once again on parole and free. For Purkey, that was a problem. Freedom baffled him.

Lying and stealing were his chief skills. Finding a job was hard. Keeping one was impossible.

It wasn’t long before his life sank into alcohol, cocaine and bad company. Then came Jan. 22. If Wesley Purkey knew what he was looking for that morning — drugs, booze, excitement — he hasn’t said.

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At age 16, Jennifer Long went missing on Jan. 22, 1998. File photo

But he found 16-year-old Jennifer Long.

Jennifer loved music, art and a cat named Clyde. In fact, every afternoon around 4, Clyde would wait near the front door for her to come home from school.

School was not Jennifer’s favorite place, relatives have said. In the winter of 1998, she was a recent transfer from Ruskin High School and felt threatened by East High School students.

And her life had been chaotic, as she moved from home to home between father and stepmother, mother and stepfather.

Despite the problems, though, she had big plans for Jan. 22. She had turned 16 the month before, and that afternoon her stepfather, Dwayne Lamont, was to take her for a driver’s license test.

Perhaps it was a relief to cut class that day and be by herself. At midmorning, wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, a green-and-black jacket and tennis shoes, the girl who loved music, art and a cat named Clyde walked out of East High and into the life of Wesley Purkey.

Beating the system

Purkey’s first parole came after a 1975 burglary conviction. He broke parole, was sent back to prison and then was paroled again in 1980. That’s when he shot the man from Wichita.

The state sent him back to prison. Records show that he was violent, uncooperative and defied authority. Twice other inmates stabbed him, once over a drug deal.

“Amoral ... bright ... manipulative,” counselors labeled him in their reports. A borderline “psychopath.” A con man’s con.

But in 1986, Purkey seemed to change. He stayed out of trouble, worked steadily in a prison paint shop, earned an associate’s degree in literature from a community college, joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and took drug, alcohol and mental health counseling.

Counselors noticed. In a 1992 evaluation, one observed that tests showed him a “classical” psychopath but that his education and intelligence moderated his antisocial tendencies.

By 1996, Purkey was even better. “Mr. Purkey seems to have used his period of incarceration to rebuild his life,” a counselor concluded.

In 1997, letters to the parole board from Purkey’s family and friends asked for his release. They said he’d matured and was ready for freedom.

Previous victims, prosecutors and police objected.

The 1980 shooting victim, still partially disabled, told the parole board that Purkey “should be kept in prison, paying for his crime as I always will.”

The board disagreed.

“We felt that he had made really good progress,” said Marilyn Scafe, Kansas Parole Board chairwoman. “After 17 years we felt he was suitable to be given the opportunity.”

In March 1997, Kansas turned Purkey loose.

Jennifer disappears

Late in the afternoon of Jan. 22, 1998, Glenda Lamont, Jennifer’s mother, learned from a school clerk that her daughter had cut classes. At first Lamont was mystified. Then, as the hours rolled by, she became frantic and began to call everyone she could to help find her daughter.

She called the driver who said Jennifer had not been on his school bus that afternoon.

“I called her father. I called her best friends. I called police,” Lamont said. No one had seen her. In time, police listed her as a runaway.

Lamont said she and others put up posters with Jennifer’s picture and sent fliers as far as California. They listed her daughter on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Web site. It called her disappearance a “nonfamily abduction.”

“There was no way she would run away,” Lamont said.

Months went by.

Still, police had no leads. The family despaired of ever knowing what happened to her. And they never would have known, without help from Purkey.

Tale of two killings

On Oct. 27, 1998, Purkey was working for a plumbing company and arrived at the Kansas City, Kan., home of Mary Ruth Bales to fix a kitchen faucet.

Mary Bales was 80 and frail, a polio victim as a child. Once he was inside her house, Purkey asked her for cash to buy a part to fix the faucet. Bales gave it to him.

Purkey left, bought crack with the money and brought a prostitute back to Bales’ home. Then he beat Bales to death with a claw hammer.

Police tracked him down, he confessed, and he was sentenced to life without parole for 32 years.

But during the Bales investigation, Purkey cut a deal with authorities. He would help them clear another crime if they’d promise to transfer him from a Kansas prison to a federal prison, where he thought life would be easier.

Purkey was convincing. He knew things about Jennifer that only people close to her would know, police said.

Investigators now say that months before he killed Bales, Purkey abducted, raped and killed Jennifer. Then he dismembered the body, burned it in a fireplace and disposed of the ashes.

FBI agents had searched for years but never found Jennifer’s body. It’s most likely, they say, there is no longer a body to find.

A flawed system

Last year, Purkey went back to a Kansas prison to serve his sentence for the Bales murder. On Oct. 10, 2001, federal prosecutors charged him with killing Jennifer and will pursue the death penalty. Purkey has not appeared in court to enter a plea. He has asked for an attorney.

Scafe, the Parole Board chairwoman, said that in the aftermath of Purkey’s parole and subsequent crimes, the parole board has interviewed him at length.

“He admitted that he had done well in the institutional setting,” Scafe said, “and he didn’t do well on the outside.”

Statistics show about half of Kansas parolees return to prison within five years of their release.

State authorities base their parole decisions on counselors’ interviews with the criminal, assessments of behavior in prison, and letters from officials, crime victims and family. All this they did with Purkey. They are still studying Purkey’s case to learn how to better assess candidates for parole.

Meanwhile, outraged relatives of Purkey’s victims believe the case shows that a clever criminal can hoodwink the Kansas parole process.

To Bales’ daughter-in-law, the parole board was wrong ever to free him.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Joyce Bales of Umatilla, Fla. “They said he was a good person in jail so they let him out. He’s a con artist.”

Glenda Lamont, besides grieving over the loss of her daughter, is also embittered by Purkey’s parole.

“The system failed,” she said. “I just don’t understand.”