The impassioned pleas of the deceased echoed across a Wyandotte County courtroom on Monday, from both a young boy who was brutally tortured and murdered and the detective who was determined to convict those responsible.
There was Adrian Jones, the 7-year-old boy starved to death by his stepmother and father in 2015. Portions of his short life were recounted at his father’s sentencing, one of the final chapters in a story of abuse that ended with the boy’s body being fed to pigs.
But the presence of Detective Brad Lancaster could also be felt in that courtroom. Lancaster was the lead detective on Adrian’s case. He was murdered before he could conclude his work. The case has been wrapped up now with this final court proceeding. Both of Adrian’s tormentors have been charged, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
“Brad should be standing here reading this, not me,” Detective Stuart Littlefield said as he delivered a statement to the courtroom. Michael Jones, Adrian’s father, kept his back turned while the detective spoke, facing the judge but not Adrian’s family members.
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Lancaster was a techie, and his work on the videos that Adrian’s stepmother and father recorded of the boy’s torture played a huge role in the investigation. Lancaster, 39, was shot and killed a year ago by a man he and other officers were pursuing.
That morning, Lancaster greeted two fellow detectives on the case, eager to share news of progress. More footage had come back, and he was piecing the story together, detailing the abuse Adrian suffered. He was preparing to lay the case out for prosecutors.
Lancaster put in long hours, Littlefield said. If they left the office at 2 a.m., he’d still be there. And he’d greet them early the next morning, already hard at work. Lancaster did more than investigate the ghastly details. He also chronicled how Adrian’s plight wasn’t discovered in time to save his life.
“Sometimes I find myself looking at random houses, wondering if another Adrian is trapped behind the door, because there were people who saw the marks on his body and said nothing,” Littlefield said.
Change must come in the wake of Adrian’s death.
His state child welfare records are still sealed, a result of a loophole in Kansas law that allows “affected individuals” to halt the release of records in cases when a child dies or is seriously injured. Sometimes that can mean a child’s abuser is able to keep a record sealed. In other instances, prosecutors can do the same.
That can be a barrier to truth. And it can keep even well-intentioned legislators and other officials from learning critical information that might help save other children.
Adrian’s grandmother, Judy Conway, is awaiting the release of the records. She questions whether better regulation of home schooling is necessary, a way to account for children’s welfare if a parent is trying to hide abuse. And she wants to know what became of the phone calls that people have said were made to authorities on Adrian’s behalf.
Abusive parents can be cunning. State law must allow child welfare advocates to be equally resourceful.
“They had it down to a science, how to avoid DCF (Kansas Department for Children and Families),” said Detective Mark Bundy, who also worked the case. The family would move constantly to avoid detection, he said.
What is not yet open to public scrutiny is information about the contacts state officials in Missouri and Kansas had with Adrian. Those are the questions that drove Lancaster, fellow officers said.
“There are children being abused right now,” Littlefield told the courtroom, his voice shaking. “As I am speaking to you, there is another Adrian somewhere, waiting for someone to come through the door and rescue him. We must find these children — for Adrian and for Brad.”