The 1974 murder of Lizabeth Wilson
Liz Wilson was 13 in the summer of 1974.
On July 7 of that year, the Prairie Village girl was cutting through the parking lot of Shawnee Mission East High School on her way home from the pool when John Henry Horton aimed his lascivious eyes at her.
Shortly after, Liz disappeared. Eventually, Horton went to prison for her murder, where he remains but is up for parole. Liz’s younger brother — now a grown man — and the detective who helped solve one of Prairie Village’s most notorious cold cases are asking prison officials to keep the killer locked up.
The day Liz vanished was a Sunday, and Horton had seemed more focused on the practicing cheerleaders and teen tennis players outside than his janitorial duties inside the school that day.
Then Liz came walking by.
She was never seen alive again.
About six months later, her remains were found at a Lenexa construction site.
Although the school janitor was a suspect from day one of the investigation, no charges were filed.
But in 2003, after Prairie Village police reopened the investigation and new evidence was found, Horton was charged with first-degree murder. It took two trials with lengthy appeals, but Horton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
But life, under Kansas law in force at that time, meant serving only 15 years before being eligible for parole.
And because that 15-year count began for Horton in 2003 when he was initially arrested, his chance is at hand.
Later this month he will meet with members of the prisoner review board, the new name for the parole board, who will announce a decision in October.
The board has already heard from prosecutors and police who oppose Horton’s release.
And they have heard from Alex Wilson, who was five years old when his beloved big sister was taken. He recently traveled from his home in Arizona to stand face-to-face with board members and tell them about Liz.
“On July 7, 1974, John Horton kidnapped, raped and murdered a 13-year-old girl and dumped her body in a field,” Wilson told the board. “That should be enough for the state of Kansas to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.”
It’s hard to dredge up the painful memories, but Wilson said he had to do it for his parents, who are both deceased, and for Liz, who read him bedtime stories and was teaching him to read when she was killed.
Though he was young at the time, Wilson said he has never forgotten seeing the veil of sadness that enveloped his parents.
“They had to struggle with that for the rest of their lives,” he said.
The day after Liz disappeared, Prairie Village police questioned Horton, who denied any knowledge of what happened to her.
In the trunk of his car, investigators found a container of ether and several bottles of chloroform, which he claimed he had stolen from a school science lab, planning to use the chemicals to get high.
Officers noticed several fresh scratches on Horton’s head, back, forearm and thigh. He said they were from working on his car.
They also interviewed the cheerleaders who had been practicing outside the school on the day Liz disappeared and two girls who had been playing tennis.
They said Horton had approached them and tried to get them to go inside the building. They refused.
In 2001, Kyle Shipps was a Prairie Village police detective who had not been with the department during the initial investigation, but was intrigued by the case and asked for permission to look into it.
He was teamed with an agent from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, and together they tracked down old leads. They came up with a huge new one that put the case over the top.
They found a woman, who in 1974, was 14 and lived across the street from Horton.
One night, she went with Horton and his niece to a nearby golf course where, she said, Horton talked her into sniffing a chloroform soaked rag to get high.
She passed out, and when she came to her pants were partially pulled down and Horton was fondling her vagina.
At trial, prosecutors argued that Liz died while Horton attempted the same type of thing on her.
Shipps, who is now retired from the Police Department, also met with the board in August and told them that Horton does not deserve to be released.
“Never has he shown any remorse or taken any accountability for what he did,” Shipps said.
When he spoke to the board, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said that under current law, Horton could have been charged with capital murder and faced either the death penalty or life in prison without parole.
“This horrific crime should result in him spending the remainder of his life behind bars,” Howe said. “Especially since he escaped prosecution for decades.”
Howe also asked the board to pass Horton for the maximum 10 years before he can again seek parole.
Horton did not respond to a letter seeking comment for this story.
Wilson agrees that Horton should never get out.
“What happened to her is so horrific,” he said. “It is so far beyond the pale. It is evil.”