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Archive for Sunday, March 15, 1998

TRIPLE MURDER REMAINS AN UTTER MYSTERY 25 YEARS LATER

March 15, 1998

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Twenty-five years after the triple murder near Ottawa, the crime remains unsolved, although officials are reviewing the possibility of applying modern forensic technology to old evidence in the hope of finding new clues.

It was Tuesday, March 27, 1973.

Hazel Avery, a petite 53-year-old nurse with light red hair and blue eyes, left Lawrence about 11 p.m. to pick up her son Steve, who was barely 19.

She took her 1964 Chrysler, a blue, four-door sedan with a Douglas County tag, DGA43.

``I was working night shift,'' said Gary Avery, one of Hazel's three sons and Steve's older brother. ``If I'd been working days, I might have gone.''

Hazel was separated from her husband, who was living in Topeka. Preferring not to be on the road alone because it was late and a thunderstorm was brewing, she called Gary Longfellow, a 23-year-old friend of Steve's.

Longfellow agreed to the trip, although he was scheduled to appear in court the next day in Oskaloosa. He was being sued by a 17-year-old McLouth woman. She claimed he was father of her child. A judge later dismissed the lawsuit, citing lack of evidence.

The paternity suit was the reason Steve Avery was headed to Lawrence from his new home in Iola. He planned to testify on Longfellow's behalf. His wife, Dianne, had refused to let him take the family car, so he was hitchhiking north on U.S. Highway 59.

Agents for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation later determined that Steve Avery stopped briefly in Garnett. But he got farther than that.

He called his mother for a ride from a pay telephone at a filling station in Richmond about 10:30 p.m. Richmond is north of Garnett but still about 40 miles short of Lawrence in the southern extreme of Franklin County.

Hitchhiking in these parts was more common in 1973 than it is now, 25 years later.

``When we ran the traffic survey, we found there were a number of people hitchhiking that night,'' said David Johnson, a former KBI agent who was based in Ottawa in 1973.

Johnson later went on to become state director of the KBI. He retired from the agency in 1989 and now is director of security for the Kansas Racing Commission.

``There were an unbelievable number of people hitchhiking at that time,'' he said. ``But you seldom see people hitchhiking now.''

Steve Avery apparently kept moving after he called his mother because he was last reported seen alive by passersby about two miles north of Richmond or perhaps south of Princeton near Central Heights Road.

News of the day

Steve Avery was about 5 feet 10 and had long, blond, curly hair. He and Dianne had a 13-month-old daughter, Stephanie. The young Avery family had lived in Iola for about a month, having moved there from Lawrence where Steve was raised.

Longfellow's physique matched his name. He was 6 feet 2 and weighed about 140 pounds. He was a student at Lawrence School of Hairstyling. He also was a Vietnam War veteran.

Big news about Vietnam was reported earlier that afternoon on the front page of the Lawrence Journal-World.

The last 32 American prisoners-of-war were freed by their Viet Cong captors and flown from Hanoi to the Philippines. In Saigon, it was the first day of a three-day airlift ferrying the last 5,236 U.S. combat troops from the country.

It also was reported that day that former Nixon White House aide G. Gordon Liddy refused to testify to a grand jury about the Watergate burglary. Marlon Brando wasn't expected to show up at the Academy Awards to collect his Oscar for ``The Godfather.'' Lake Perry was high because of heavy March rains. And there was a standoff at Wounded Knee, S.D., between the FBI and members of the American Indian Movement.

Within 48 hours, the brutal, triple murder of the Averys and Longfellow were being described nationally under bold newspaper headlines.

``It's really sickening,'' said Gary Avery, ``but now it's nothing to hear about someone going in and blowing a bunch of people away. But when this happened, it all went coast to coast.''

The three were reported missing by family members in Lawrence on Wednesday, March 28, 1973.

The Chrysler was found the next day, shortly after noon, on County Road 498 about 2 miles south of Ottawa and about a half-mile east of U.S. Highway 59. It was parked 158 feet east of the bridge that spans Rock Creek.

Hazel Avery was dead in the front passenger seat. She had been shot in the forehead, neck and shoulder. Steve Avery was in the back seat, shot twice in the head. Longfellow also was in the back seat. He had been shot twice in the head, once in the foot.

``We surmised from the trajectory of the hole in his foot that he was running, or at least trying to run,'' said Johnson. ``But they were all shot (to death) in the vehicle and they were never moved nor did they ever move after they were shot.''

The investigation

Johnson and other investigators familiar with the case said in recent interviews there was no evidence that any of the three attempted resistance while in the vehicle. Johnson said they were killed after the car was parked where it was found, rather than shot in the car elsewhere and driven where they were discovered.

Seven slugs eventually were recovered by investigators, some fragmented.

The possibility that one of the three might have killed the others and then committed suicide was quickly ruled out because no weapon was found and the keys to the car were discovered -- several days later -- yards away from the car on a bank of Rock Creek.

Possible evidence that might have helped investigators was obliterated by rain and a county road grader before the car was found. The only tracks evident were those of the Chrysler driven straight to the killing scene.

Hazel Avery's money and jewelry were not taken. There was no evidence of sexual assault. The unpredicted reunion of the three on short notice made it unlikely that someone with a personal grudge had followed them or was waiting in ambush.

Police teams walked miles searching for evidence and also drained Rock Creek looking for the murder weapon, but nothing was found.

``We searched massive areas on foot,'' said Franklin County Sheriff Rex Bowling, undersheriff at the time. ``We had officers walk the highway clear to the county line. It was quite an effort. We had hundreds of theories, but really nothing concrete.''

The KBI took the lead on the case, but received major assistance from the Franklin and Douglas county sheriffs departments.

The lack of evidence and no discernible motive for the carnage left the early investigators stumped and frustrated.

The leading theory among some officers who worked the case, never proven, was that shortly after Steve Avery was picked up by his mother and Longfellow, they offered a ride to another hitchhiker or hitchhikers. The theoretical fourth and fifth persons for reasons unknown killed the trio then escaped on foot to the reasonably nearby Interstate 35 and there caught a ride away from the murder scene.

Some who worked the case refuse to speculate even that much about what might have happened.

``What might have happened is wherever your imagination wants to take you,'' said a terse Jim Malson, the now-retired KBI agent from Ottawa who worked the case closest and longest. ``Many rumors were disproved. It's facts you have to deal with, not opinion. We didn't solve it.''

At several points early in the investigation officers thought they might be on to something.

On April 18, 1973, the badly decomposed body of a young man with a bashed skull was found in a drainage ditch near Garnett. An autopsy showed he was 18 to 20 years old, about 5-feet-10, with brown, wavy hair. He had been dead two to four weeks, a range of time that made his death possible soon after the triple killing a bit to the north. Perhaps he was an accomplice or witness killed because he knew too much.

But fingerprints and dental records failed to match the body with anyone known missing locally or nationally. KBI circulars were published showing the silver cross and unusual rings found on the corpse. One ring was inscribed with the number 78. That effort also failed to turn up new information.

Investigators on the Avery/Longfellow case checked out the new body, looking for a possible connection. But 25 years later that case remains more shrouded by mystery than the mysterious triple murder. The young man was never identified. It was impossible to determine if his skull was fractured by a killer or by a fall. His death remains an open but inactive case with the KBI.

File: Inactive

Over the years, the Avery/Longfellow murder case, difficult when fresh, grew progressively colder. The last serious activity on the case was in 1994 when agents responded to a tip that proved groundless.

Although it is reviewed periodically by KBI officers, it no longer is anyone's full-time assignment at the agency. With no new tips or information to pursue, agents say, there is little they can do but hope for some remorseful killer or witness to step forward after so many years.

``Right now the case is inactive,'' said KBI special agent William Delaney, who now oversees the case and the agency's Kansas City regional office. ``But if we were to get a lead tomorrow, we'd follow up on it.''

The case remains a nest of horrible unanswered questions, a nagging memory for those who worked it closest.

Johnson said for him it stands out as the ``oddest'' and most bewildering murder case of his law-enforcement career, which spans more than 35 years.

Called cold by a reporter last week, he remembered key details of the case with astounding clarity.

``I've thought about it I don't know how many times,'' Johnson said. ``It was just so strange.''

``I think about it every time I go south of Ottawa,'' said Jim Woods, a KBI agent in Lawrence who was involved in the case. ``The unresolved deaths of three people. We looked at a lot of possible motives. There just wasn't anything you could put at the top of the list.''

``We worked every lead we had,'' said Rex Johnson, Douglas County sheriff for 24 years until 1989. ``We never came up with anything.''

``It eats at them,'' said Gary Avery of the law enforcement people on the case. ``It's been all these years and just a big zero. A lot of people can't understand. We got all this technology and smarts and still they can't figure it out.''

But the latest possible development in the case is a direct result of new technology and the desire of a Franklin County sheriff's officer to test it for possible new leads in the 25-year-old case.

``A couple of weeks ago Capt. Brad Gilges was at the bureau for a class on fingerprinting and identification,'' said Franklin County Sheriff Rex Bowling. ``Through the class he and a KBI agent got to talking about the case. Technology has changed a lot since that time, particularly in the areas of fingerprint searching and DNA testing.''

Bowling said KBI evidence sheets indicate there might be latent fingerprints from the triple murder scene and other evidence that might reveal more information through modern DNA tests and print searches.

Delaney confirmed that KBI currently is reviewing its files and evidence to see if the new technology can be applied.

And the police continue to hold out hope for new, but old-fashioned evidence in the form of a tip or confession.

``We're hoping that anyone out there with information will come forward,'' Bowling said.

Franklin County's new Crime Stoppers program could mean up to a $1,000 reward for useful information, he said.

Gary Avery said he would like to see the killer or killers brought to justice, but has little hope it will happen after all these years.

``Whoever it was will answer to God,'' he said.

After 25 years his remaining family members, several of whom live in Lawrence, would rather not rekindle the horrors of 1973 by raking up the past.

``It's nothing to celebrate about,'' he said of the upcoming 25th anniversary of the crime. ``It's too painful for us anymore. My little brother would be in his 40s now. My mom would have been 86 years old. I think about it all the time. You wonder what the world would have been like with those two around. I knew Gary Longfellow, too. I see his folks, not as often as I would like. They were hurt real bad.''

Gary Avery said he prefers to let pleasant dreams and memories of his brother and mother push away the terrible ones of their untimely deaths.

``I have had dreams of going over to my mom's house and there she comes through the back door after all these years,'' he said. ``Pleasant memory dreams. Kind of like that.''

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is shields Some information in this story is based on interviews with various unnamed law enforcement officials, newspaper reports and conversations with members of the Avery family.

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