Couple recall hostage nightmare
Ralph Leary knew he was in trouble.
He had a .25-caliber pistol jammed under his chin and two criminals on the run barreling through his front door.
Today, though it’s been five years since the two armed men took Leary and his wife hostage, the couple still are working to put behind them the 45-hour ordeal. They’ve seen David Cox of Kansas City, Kan., and Kip Johnson of Lawrence go to prison, they’ve moved into a new house and they’ve vowed to look to the future, not the past.
Still, the reality of it lingers.
“I told him I’d come see him in prison,” Ralph Leary said, recalling a promise he made to Johnson during the standoff. “I haven’t been there yet, but we’ve got to go see him.”
The Learys say they try not to think much these days about that frigid Thursday morning in 1998, a morning that had started like any other on their 132-year-old farmstead south of Lawrence.
But their recollections tell a story of calm resolve and gut-wrenching decisions in the face of terror that arrived at their front door.
“We made a conscious decision that we’re not going to look over our shoulders the rest of our lives,” said Leila Leary. She credits prayer from the community and the dedication of law enforcement officers as the reasons she and her husband survived the botched robbery and armed standoff, which for three days riveted the attention of regional media and the Learys’ rural Douglas County neighbors.
It was a day that forced Leila Leary to make the most difficult decision of her life.
The trail of terror started even before Johnson and Cox bullied their way into the Leary home that morning.
Their rampage had begun two miles east, at a house where they had tied up a teenage girl and stolen her car. Looking back on it now, Ralph Leary figures the area’s sparse population brought the two men to his place looking for a different getaway car, something that would make it tougher for Douglas County Sheriff’s deputies to stay on their trail.
But deputies already were closing in after learning of the earlier robbery.
They cornered the armed pair at the Leary home.
By 9 a.m. on Jan. 22, 1998, less than an hour after they had been taken hostage, all roads within a mile of the Leary home at 1509 N. 1100 Road had been cordoned off.
Douglas County Sheriff’s deputies crouched behind hay bales near the house, both to stay out of the line of fire and to avoid wintry north winds. Before long, Lawrence Police, Kansas University Public Safety officers and agents of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation were at the scene.
On that first day, the eye of the storm was the second-floor master bedroom of the Leary’s home. The couple and their captors were barricaded inside, and watching the commotion outside increase.
“I heard helicopters go over and turned the TV on and they was showin’ the house,” Ralph Leary recalled.
The criminals and their captors were not allowed much time to watch the surreal events unfold — the cable TV lines were cut shortly after the standoff began. Hostage negotiators began working to persuade Johnson and Cox to give up and release their hostages.
The Learys were left with a lot of time to try to keep their captors calm.
“They were pretty antsy,” Leila said. “They knew they were caught and we knew we weren’t leaving any time soon.”
The hours that followed put her in a difficult situation, she said.
Despite being offered two or three opportunities that day to walk away from the ordeal, Leila was too “stubborn and naive” to take them.
By later that night, though, the tone of talks between her captors and negotiators persuaded her to change her tune. At 8:30 p.m., Leila Leary was released and David Cox surrendered.
But stepping out of the home that had been her prison for 12 hours was no cause for celebration.
To this day, she cannot speak of that moment without emotion.
The decision to walk away from her home and her husband was “the worst one of my life,” she said, wiping away the tears. “It was a feeling that I was jumping ship.”
Burgers for two
The departures left Ralph Leary alone with a gun-toting methamphetamine user who could sense impending doom as police surrounded the home.
But for the home builder and longtime farmer, a big part of his trouble had just walked out the door.
“I was glad to see her out,” Leary said of his wife’s departure. “I figured I could take care of Kip. David was the spook of the bunch, he was very nervous.”
With his wife of 10 years safely at the nearby home of his brother Norman, Leary turned his attention to keeping his captor calm — trying to pass the time with jokes and idle chatter between sessions on the phone with negotiators. Later that Friday night, negotiations ended and they were able to doze a bit.
By the second day of the standoff, hostage and captor ventured downstairs to quiet their rumbling stomachs. The .25-caliber remained jammed into Leary’s neck or back as the two moved from room to room.
In the kitchen, Leary cooked hamburgers. Later, he received a letter from Johnson recalling what a good sandwich it was.
The conversation continued and the dialogue with negotiators escalated, through another day, and Leary’s thoughts returned to food, and a glimmer of hope for escape arose, centered on a family tradition.
“We always have pizza Friday night,” a smiling Leary recalled telling Johnson.
He told hostage negotiators he’d like to continue the tradition. With the pizza ordered, Leary kept a watchful eye for any sign of movement toward the house.
“If they was gonna deliver it, I wanted the door,” he said. “Once that door come open, I was gone. I’d made up my mind.”
But the delivery never came, and Leary never got his chance to make a break for it.
The prospects of a second night alone with Johnson seemed more daunting than the first.
The power and heat to the house had been cut off. He continued to imagine SWAT teams storming through the doors and windows, and the gun’s barrel was always on him — or poking into him.
On the outside
Huddled in the cold and trapped in the dark early on day three of the standoff, Leary found himself barricaded in a walk-in closet with his armed captor. Hours earlier negotiators had convinced Johnson to leave his fortress inside the Learys’ home.
But “he just wasn’t quite ready to go to jail,” Leary said.
By 5 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 24, after nearly 48 hours of white-knuckle negotiations, Johnson — cold, hungry, tired — decided to end the standoff.
The two walked downstairs, and a weary Ralph Leary grabbed his jacket from the coat rack and opened the door to freedom — stepping into the crosshairs of a sea of weapons.
“I never seen so many guns in my life,” he said.
Standing on the porch with the man who had used him as a human shield for nearly 48 hours, the now-freed hostage quickly became concerned about a moment of confusion on the part of law enforcement.
“I heard one guy say, ‘They both got on green. Which one’s who?'” Leary said.
He then remembered Johnson telling negotiators moments before that they’d recognize him because he’d be wearing a green coat.
“I looked down and realized I’d put on a green coat, too,” Leary recalled with a chuckle.
On the third day of the ordeal, Ralph Leary was reunited with his wife and their captors cuffed and hauled to jail.
In mid-1998, Johnson and Cox pleaded guilty to a string of charges related to the incident.
Johnson is serving the fifth year of a 24-year sentence at the El Dorado Correctional Facility. Cox is in his fifth year of a 19-year sentence at the Lansing Correctional Facility. He has more than two dozen violations on his record during his latest stint behind bars.
Seated together on the sofa of the house where they’ve lived since the middle of 1998 — construction was under way before “the boys come to visit” as Ralph Leary said — the Learys still have a view through their oversized living room window of the sprawling farmhouse that was the scene of all that trouble five years ago, which has been in the Leary family for its entire 132 years. Ralph’s daughter Susan Leary-Fulton moved in back in 1998.
“I knew we were gonna get out safe,” said Leila Leary. “I knew we were gonna be fine.”