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Archive for Sunday, September 17, 2000

Mystery on Mass.

Room sealed since ‘54 murder to be reopened

September 17, 2000

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"Good morning, ma'am," Phillip Johnson said as he laid his gun on the counter at the Lawrence Police Department. "I just shot Leroy Harris in his office, and I'm not sure if he's dead."

It was May 28, 1954. Harris, the city's only black attorney, was quite dead, struck by three of five shots fired from a blue steel .38-caliber pistol.

Mark Wolfson wonders what secrets are held in the room sealed by
his father after the 1954 murder on the second floor of the
building at 743 Mass. Forty-six years after the crime, Wolfson says
he'll allow the room to be reopened.

Mark Wolfson wonders what secrets are held in the room sealed by his father after the 1954 murder on the second floor of the building at 743 Mass. Forty-six years after the crime, Wolfson says he'll allow the room to be reopened.

Johnson, a 68-year-old man from Kansas City, Mo., had rewrapped the newly purchased revolver in its green paper and walked around the block to the Police Department to turn himself in.

Almost a half-century later, the small, second-floor office where Harris was murdered remains sealed and all but forgotten in the very heart of downtown Lawrence.

Like Geraldo Rivera cracking Al Capone's vault, the Journal-World, probably later this week, will open the space above Jefferson's restaurant at 743 Mass. to see what's been untouched for 46 years.

Mark Wolfson, whose family owns the building, believes it to be a giant time capsule, locked tight after Harris' murder.

'Shut it out'

Wolfson was a 15-year-old in 1954 and remembers the reaction of his father, Ralph Wolfson, to Harris' violent end. Ralph Wolfson ran a clothing store beneath Harris' office and initially thought the gunshots were a car backfiring.

"He was a little shook to a point that he just basically let that thing get sealed up," said Wolfson, whose family still owns the building. "Knowing him, I think he just probably wanted to shut it out."

Wolfson said his father hired someone to clean up the blood that dripped from Harris' body.

In the aftermath of the 1954 murder of attorney Leroy Harris, a
crowd gathers in the 700 block of Massachusetts. The door to the
right of the Green Lantern Cafe led to the stairs to Harris' office
above 743 Mass., which has remained sealed since shortly after the
crime.

In the aftermath of the 1954 murder of attorney Leroy Harris, a crowd gathers in the 700 block of Massachusetts. The door to the right of the Green Lantern Cafe led to the stairs to Harris' office above 743 Mass., which has remained sealed since shortly after the crime.

But most everything else about Harris' law office probably remains the same as it was the day of the murder, Wolfson said.

It probably still holds the Life magazine declaring William Holden the "top star" of 1954; the flowered trash can; the annotated volumes of American Ruling Cases; maybe even Harris' last smoke, the one cigar butt stubbed out in the middle of a metal ashtray. All of those articles were visible in photographs that documented the crime scene.

Wolfson's father had metal siding installed over the windows, through which Harris had looked down on Massachusetts Street.

Wolfson's decision to keep the office closed was helped by a 1977 gas explosion and fire next door that destroyed the stairwell to the office.

Murderous trip

Johnson's murderous trip to Lawrence was brief and confined to a three-block area of downtown, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.

A sheriff's deputy uses Leroy Harris' office telephone as two
Lawrence Police officers collect evidence for his murder
investigation. The crime scene photos were taken by Rich Clarkson,
now a nationally known photographer, who was a Kansas University
student working part-time for the Journal-World in 1954.

A sheriff's deputy uses Leroy Harris' office telephone as two Lawrence Police officers collect evidence for his murder investigation. The crime scene photos were taken by Rich Clarkson, now a nationally known photographer, who was a Kansas University student working part-time for the Journal-World in 1954.

Getting off the bus about 11:20 a.m., Johnson walked first to Wolfson's clothing store beneath Harris' office, where he asked Ralph Wolfson whether he sold pistols. Johnson eventually spent $46 on the .38 and six bullets at the Sportsman's Shop, 715 Mass.

Johnson later gave two different reasons for buying the gun and visiting Harris.

Johnson told police he was upset that Harris was taking so long to complete the sale of a house Johnson owned at 532 Mich. He testified in court, however, that he wanted to ask Harris about strange red and yellow lights shining through his window since the death of his wife two years before.

Johnson said he shot Harris because Johnson thought the attorney was reaching for a gun.

"I started shooting the gun I had in my hand," Johnson told police. "I do not know how many times I shot at Mr. Harris."

Pictures from the evening paper showed Harris lurched back in his swivel chair, mouth open, his left arm hanging to the floor. The fatal shot entered his skull through the cheek.

Phillip Johnson, 68, walked around the block from Leroy Harris'
office and turned himself in to police after he shot and killed the
attorney.

Phillip Johnson, 68, walked around the block from Leroy Harris' office and turned himself in to police after he shot and killed the attorney.

He was 'somebody'

Jesse Newman, 87, a retired railroad worker who has lived in Lawrence his entire life, still remembers Harris.

He was a justice of the peace, Newman recalls, a trustee at Ninth Street Baptist Church and a member of Western Star Lodge No. 1, which meant something at the time.

"If you were a lodge member you were somebody here in Lawrence," Newman said.

But Harris also was tough, known to have beaten a man with a snow shovel because the man bumped him as he passed.

"He wouldn't take nothing," Newman said.

Newman said Harris told him about the work he was doing for Johnson, and his fee.

"Leroy charged him as much as the property was worth," Newman said. "He got the property."

Newman remembers the reaction to the murder the next Sunday at church.

Some thought "it was a terrible thing," Newman said. "Others thought, 'well, one of these lawyers stole from someone.' Leroy just wanted it all, and it just cost him."

A 1977 gas explosion and fire destroyed the stairway that led to
Leroy Harris' second-floor office, which already had been concealed
by metal siding.

A 1977 gas explosion and fire destroyed the stairway that led to Leroy Harris' second-floor office, which already had been concealed by metal siding.

Harris had no children. His wife (Newman remembers her name as Birdie) left town soon after the shooting.

A quick trial

After his police statement, Johnson was taken to the Douglas County Jail, which was just east of the courthouse.

Rex Johnson, a retired Douglas County sheriff, was a jailer at the time. He remembers Johnson the killer as a quiet, frail man, untroubled by his situation.

"He just acted like ev-ery day," the former sheriff said.

The first-degree murder trial was brief.

Johnson admitted pulling the trigger but pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.

The most important decision preceded Johnson's trial by a couple of weeks, when a three-doctor commission ruled Johnson was mentally competent.

The trial revealed Johnson had been treated at mental hospitals in Kansas City and St. Louis. One doctor admitted Johnson should not have been allowed to leave the hospital.

Another said Johnson was "suffering from a paranoid type of insanity in the recessive state."

None of the doctors could be sure of Johnson's mental state the day of the shooting.

Dec. 2, 1954, jurors took an hour and 28 minutes to decide he was guilty.

Two weeks later, a judge sentenced Johnson to life in prison. Johnson died Dec. 3, 1959, at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing.

The remaining mystery

Wolfson doesn't expect the reopening of Harris' office to solve any lingering mystery about the murder.

"It's just pure curiosity at this point," Wolfson said. "I don't spend much time dwelling in the past."

But the room may provide some insight for Wolfson into the character of his father, who died in May 1999.

"I was just wondering what would have gone on in my dad's thinking to just basically let it be sealed up," he said. "Why would he have never rented it again? Why did he let it just basically be sealed up? That's the mystery, really."

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