Crime

‘Why didn’t they go in there sooner?’: Families question KCK market shooting response

Lachell Day laughed with a friend as she ordered a cheeseburger at the deli just feet from her Kansas City, Kansas, home.

She told an employee she wasn’t in a hurry, a witness said.

That normality was shattered moments later when Jermelle Andre-Lamont Byers, 39, walked into Edwards Original Corner Market & Deli, shooting Day and fatally attacking the owner, Dennis Edwards, according to police and the victims’ families.

Byers allegedly barricaded himself inside the store, triggering a two-hour standoff with tactical officers — a response that has left grieving relatives with a host of questions.

Day was severely wounded but still had a pulse throughout the ordeal. She later died.

“Why did they take so long to enter that little-bitty building?” Edwards’ niece, Christina Bennett-Smith, asked during an interview with The Star about the July 10 standoff.

“Why didn’t they go in there sooner?”

Had the special weapons and tactics teams moved more quickly to take Byers into custody, Edwards and Day could have been rushed to hospitals and received medical treatment sooner, their loved ones said. They could still be alive, they believed.

“I don’t know why these two had to die,” Bennett-Smith said. “They both could very well be alive today.”

The police department defended its actions, saying officers responded as quickly as they could. Officer Zach Blair, a police department spokesman, said he believed officers attempted to reach the victims on multiple occasions.

With what the trained teams could see from outside, they “did everything that they possibly could have,” Blair said.

But Bennett-Smith and Day’s cousin, Chynna Jackson, said their relatives bled out in the market. Now they want answers.

“We have a right to that,” Bennett-Smith said.

Among their questions, Edwards’ family wants to know why no one told them her uncle was repeatedly stabbed during the attack, apparently with his own kitchen knife.

They expected to see gunshot wounds, and found one near his shoulder, Bennett-Smith said. They only learned of the stabbing when they saw his body for the first time at the funeral home.

“He sliced him up,” Bennett-Smith said of the undisclosed accusation against Byers. “My uncle looks like Freddy Krueger.”

Police said the two victims died from gunshot wounds.

The Wyandotte County coroner’s office referred questions about Edwards’ manner of death to police, whose spokesman referred questions about the stabbing to the district attorney’s office. A spokesman there declined to discuss the case with The Star.

Asked about information disseminated to family members, Officer Jonathon Westbrook, a spokesman for the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department, said that occurs between a detective and relatives.

Witness: ‘He’s got a gun’

During the shooting, a market employee who knew Edwards for 20 years dropped to the floor and took cover under a table, she told The Star last week. She grabbed her dog and ran outside, screaming for help.

After Byers allegedly attacked Day, Edwards chased him out of the market, according to Bennett-Smith, who described surveillance video now in the hands of investigators. Edwards may have been carrying a brick or a tool, witnesses told Bennett-Smith.

Byers then turned around and chased Edwards back into the store, Bennett-Smith said.

“I’m so sorry Dennis lost his life trying to protect her,” said Jackson, Day’s cousin.

At a nearby home, Lee Comstock, 44, was working and cleaning fire extinguishers when he heard a gunshot.

With a hatchet in hand, Comstock slowly began to wander toward the noise, scanning his eyes as he took steps through a neighbor’s yard and then a thin walking path. He made it to the alley behind the market, where he saw Edwards’ hysterical co-worker.

“He’s got a gun,” she told Comstock through tears, he recounted. “I got to find Dennis.”

Comstock walked behind the market and peered into an open back door, his heart pounding. He heard Edwards’ voice, which he described as sounding “healthy.”

The co-worker told Comstock that the man inside had shot a woman.

“At that point my heart dropped,” Comstock recalled Thursday, ”cause I was just close enough to him to hit him with that hatchet.”

As Comstock headed toward the door again, a Wyandotte County sheriff’s deputy, the first officer to arrive at the scene, pulled up next to the market on Reynolds Avenue.

Comstock told the deputy he wanted to go inside and save Edwards, but the deputy told him to get away from the store and said he had to wait for backup.

In a separate interview, Bennett-Smith thanked Comstock for apparently offering to take a bullet to help her uncle. Comstock became emotional Thursday when he said he wished he had stormed the deli, ignoring the deputy’s order.

“I could’ve helped him,” he added, saying he believed the tactical officers could have, as well. “If they would’ve pushed straight in, Dennis would be here today.”

The deputy happened to be in the area when the call came in.

But the sheriff’s office has a different mission than the police department’s, said Capt. David Thaxton of the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Office, namely responding to park calls and assisting police.

When situations like this one occur within Kansas City, Kansas, city limits, Thaxton said, the police department takes over.

KCM_OISKCK071019JAT050F (2)
Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Officers responded to the market at 3:08 p.m. on a report of a shooting, according to the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department.

When they arrived, officers saw a woman with life-threatening wounds who appeared to be dead, according to Westbrook, the Kansas City, Kansas, police spokesman. They were told there may have been a second victim inside, he said.

Police withdrew from the market after the suspect, later identified as Byers, pointed a handgun at officers, Westbrook said. An officer fired at Byers, hitting him once, police said. That officer has since been placed on administrative leave, as is usual in police shootings.

Two Overland Park police officers were contacted at 3:44 p.m. and arrived in a tactical truck. Olathe police also responded, though it is unclear what time those officers arrived.

Officers armed with shields made at least two attempts to get inside the store, Westbrook said.

“This guy, our suspect, was standing over the victim, who had sustained a mortal wound,” Westbrook said. “We’re not going to put our officers in harm’s way for what we see is a deceased individual.”

Pulling around a corner, a tactical vehicle ran over a stop sign across the street from the market. A group of bystanders, which by the end of the standoff grew to about 25 people, watched from a block away.

Guns drawn, officers could be seen peering around a nearby house and a police vehicle.

Bennett-Smith said it would have taken minutes for her family members to draw the building’s layout for SWAT officers to know what the inside looked like before they went inside. Edwards’ parents opened the market in 1959, a building Bennett-Smith described as a safe place filled with family memories for her and the couple’s other grandchildren.

Law enforcement negotiated with Byers until about 5:10 p.m., when officers with shields and helmets went inside and took him into custody. Blood could be seen near the right side of Byers’ shirt as he was taken outside in handcuffs.

Authorities have not said why officers chose to enter the building when they did.

“Officers responded, a SWAT team responded, agencies responded,” Westbrook said. “We handled the situation as quickly and efficiently and as safely as possible.”

Police Chief Terry Zeigler had announced his retirement just minutes before officers were called to the shooting. Moments after Byers was taken into custody, Zeigler posted on Twitter that he was being told there were two people dead inside the market at 81 N. Mill St.

A news release from the police department also said both victims were dead.

But Day was actually alive.

She was rushed, unresponsive, to a hospital, her uncle said the next day as he arrived at the market to offer Edwards’ family his condolences. He said he was on the way to the hospital then.

Only after reporters asked about the second victim did police say she had not yet died and was in very critical condition.

Because of the nature of the incident, which included an officer firing a weapon, the “flow of communication wasn’t as clear,” Westbrook said. It remains unclear why Day was initially reported dead in police department news releases.

Two days after the shooting, police said Day had died. She was 42. Edwards was 62.

Bennett-Smith described law enforcement as making a spectacle of the standoff, which she thought was more about showmanship than saving her uncle and Day. A film crew with Fox’s “First Responders Live,” which follows emergency personnel as they respond to calls, filmed a firefighter in Kansas City, Kansas, who responded to the market that day.

In a short clip during a recent episode, which has already been posted online, the show’s host can be heard saying they were told the shooting stemmed from a “botched robbery.”

Edwards’ family told The Star there was no evidence of a robbery. After the shooting, Byers may have taken a Gatorade and a honey bun upstairs, where he allegedly hid out in what was once Bennett-Smith’s grandparent’s room. But he took no money, Bennett-Smith said.

“The only thing that man stole was this community’s safety,” she said.

Since the attack, Edwards’ family has talked for hours about why tactical officers did not go inside sooner. It’s something community members have also asked Bennett-Smith about.

“The woman suffered inside the store while they negotiated” for two hours, one person commented on Facebook under a news story. “So sad.”

Another responded: “I was literally just thinking that.”

Don Vilfer, who was part of an FBI SWAT team for five years in Sacramento, said tactical officers generally have to consider whether rushing into a building could cause a shootout and additionally harm victims or innocent bystanders.

It has been a trend during the last few years that SWAT teams generally won’t charge inside unless there is an immediate reason to do so, such as an active shooter.

It’s always easier in hindsight, Vilfer noted, to make a decision about what would have been best.

“Nobody wants innocent victims to have fatalities from a shooting if something could’ve been done to save them,” he said.

Thor Eells, executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association, said decisions have to be made based on verified information.

“In general terms, it’s all situationally dependent and the critical question in this type of scenario is, ‘What type of intelligence do they have regarding the extent of injury?’” he said.

If a person has a “non-survivable” injury, officers may not make entry, Eells said. But the situation is weighed differently if a person could possibly be saved with medical intervention, he said.

“We will act on their behalf to rescue them,” he said, “and so it changes the dynamics of your decision making.”

Motive unknown

Day’s family was happy Wyandotte County prosecutors filed charges against Byers the same week.

Byers remained at the county’s detention center on a $500,000 surety bond.

He was charged with first-degree murder in Edwards’ death and second-degree murder in Day’s, according to court documents.

Byers did not have an attorney listed in public court records who could be reached for comment as of Thursday.

It remains unclear what exactly transpired before and after the shooting. Police have not described a possible motive for the killings.

The Star has requested a judge disclose the affidavit of probable cause in Byers’ case, which could include more information.

Jermelle Byers
Jermelle Byers Wyandotte County Detention Center

Day was friends with Byers, but she did not know he would harm her, according to her cousin Jackson.

She lived in a brown house on Reynolds Avenue, just down the street from the market, since she was a child. She’d go there often to pick up items or get something to eat, Jackson said.

Day spent more than a decade as a certified nursing assistant who worked with children with special needs, an inspiration for her cousin. Day didn’t have children of her own but she treated her many cousins as “her babies,” providing them with clothes, food and advice when they needed it the most, Jackson said.

“Her heart was made of gold,” Jackson said. “She was the rock that kept us together.”

When Jackson would call her in need of something, Day wouldn’t ask questions. She’d respond: “I’m on my way.”

“Like, I could call her right now,” Jackson started to say Tuesday, stopping herself. “Well, I can’t right now.”

At the market, which is now closed, community members have left flowers and candles. Messages written in chalk on the sidewalk faded in the recent rain.

Standing outside the market Wednesday night, Bennett-Smith said her family members were having a hard time eating and sleeping.

They were also struggling to bury Edwards, whose funeral was expected to cost more than $9,000, Bennett-Smith said.

Edwards was found dead in the kitchen of the deli, a feature he added to the market he reopened about 11 years ago. He also finished the floors and painted the walls himself, Bennett-Smith said, and he was proud when the city’s mayor ate there.

“This was Dennis’ empire,” she said. “This little bitty store was like a huge castle to him.”

Bennett-Smith said her family has never viewed law enforcement as “the enemy.” Local police officers, whom Dennis Edwards admired and fed throughout the years, have stopped by the market to offer their condolences, she said.

But they don’t have the answers to her family’s questions.

“Not only do the police owe us answers,” Bennett-Smith said. “They owe this community answers.”

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Luke Nozicka covers local crime and federal courts for The Kansas City Star. Before joining The Star, he covered breaking news and courts for The Des Moines Register.
Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.
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