Fifteen years after Thomas Bird was convicted of murdering his wife, a longtime friend plans to bike through eastern Kansas to promote a new book that maintains he's innocent.
The Rev. Ken Kothe says there wasn't enough evidence to convict Bird, his friend from seminary days in the 1970s. So convinced is Kothe that last year he persuaded author and publisher Dave Racer to write the book, "Caged Bird."
But others -- including the foreman of the jury that convicted Bird -- still believe firmly the former Emporia pastor killed his wife, Sandra, in 1983.
Kothe, a Lutheran pastor from Burnsville, Minn., was to kick off a weeklong "Freedom Ride" Sunday at Lansing Correctional Facility, where Bird spends his days. Scheduled stops include Topeka, Junction City, Council Grove, Emporia, Lawrence, Ottawa and Kansas City.
Racer, of St. Paul, Minn., plans to join Kothe on the trek. He published 5,000 copies of his book, which were released last Monday.
Kothe said some proceeds from the book sales will be used to pay Racer, and the rest will help pay Bird's legal fees.
"I hope the people are outraged when they read the book so that they demand a new trial," Kothe said.
In 1985, a Lyon County jury convicted Bird of first-degree murder. Kothe said the verdict was a rush to judgment in a case that drew national attention, including the 1987 television miniseries "Murder Ordained."
"Sometimes I think people would rather get a conviction than get justice," Kothe said.
But Kothe will find Dale Barger, the jury foreman at Bird's murder trial, a hard sell.
"We based our decision on the evidence given then, and there's been no shocking new evidence to change that," Barger said.
Barger said he was convinced of Bird's guilt from hearing testimony that Bird never called home after his wife didn't meet him at church as planned July 17, 1983.
There also was testimony Bird had an affair with his church secretary, Lorna Anderson, who also is in prison. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the 1983 shooting death of her husband, Martin.
It was the investigation of the Martin Anderson murder that led to a review of the death of Sandra Bird, who had died four months earlier in what originally was thought to be a traffic accident.
She was found dead in the Cottonwood River, where her car had run off a bridge.
'Too many questions'
John Rule, a retired Kansas Highway Patrol trooper who investigated the accident, said he didn't find anything linking Thomas Bird, but he was convinced immediately that it was no traffic accident.
Rule said there were no skid marks; Sandra's watch was found as much as 75 yards away from her body; and a wine bottle and two empty glasses were at the scene.
"There were just too many questions," Rule said.
Barger recalled that Thomas Bird called security at Emporia State University, where his wife worked that evening, plus the Lyon County Sheriff's Department and the Highway Patrol, but didn't call home.
"Would you call all those places before you called home?" Barger asked.
Barger said the evidence suggested the pastor and his secretary had an affair, and he thinks Lorna Anderson drove Bird away from the crime scene.
Kothe and Racer maintain Lorna Anderson had a role in the murder but did not have an affair with Bird.
Bird has acknowledged he had a sexual encounter with Anderson on New Year's Day 1984 but insists it was an isolated incident, Kothe and Racer said.
They also said jurors would have made a different decision if they had heard testimony from Lorna Anderson.
In 1990, a Geary County jury acquitted Bird of the first-degree murder of Martin Anderson. During that trial, Lorna Anderson admitted she had lied previously on several occasions.
Besides asking the state Supreme Court to grant a new trial, Kothe and Racer plan to ask Gov. Bill Graves to grant clemency to Bird. Neither is likely to happen.
The state's highest court upheld Bird's murder conviction twice -- in 1986 and 1989. Graves has never granted clemency in his nearly six years in office. In 1994, then-Gov. Joan Finney rejected Bird's clemency bid.
Bird is eligible for parole for the first time in November, and the Kansas Parole Board will hear his case in October at Lansing.
But the board will hear from others than Bird. Barger plans to write a letter requesting the board keep Bird in his cage.