Ottawa Elsie Kelly stares at the floor in her daughter’s living room as she speaks.
She’s used to the waiting.
For 16 months her family was in the dark about the whereabouts of her son, Gregory Price, until Johnson County Sheriff’s officers in April found his body inside an abandoned refrigerator near De Soto. Price would have been 34 when officers made the discovery.
But now, instead of holding out hope her son would return safely, the family’s wait is different.
“I want to see whoever did this to him punished because he didn’t deserve this,” Kelly said last Wednesday. “He didn’t deserve to be put in a refrigerator and us not knowing anything about it until a year and four months later. Gregory, he would have helped anybody. I just don’t understand.”
Johnson County Sheriff’s investigators and others have been working for the past two months to try to determine circumstances surrounding Price’s death. “We are coming close, completing interviews of everything and getting all the reports and things done,” said Master Deputy Tom Erickson, a sheriff’s spokesman.
Few public details
When they found the body, officers said they were investigating it as a suspicious death, but they have released few other details about the case. Erickson did say last week investigators were preparing to forward information in the case for prosecutors to review. He did not specify to which office it would be sent.
The case apparently has some Douglas County tie, and federal authorities are involved as well.
“We are aware of the situation,” Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said.
Branson said that he could not comment about specific details of the case but that his office was working with Johnson County and Douglas County sheriff’s investigators as well as prosecutors in the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office.
‘Nothing he wouldn’t do for us’
Kelly and her daughter, Crystal Mundhenke, said Price had worked for years to straighten up his life after rough spots.
He worked construction with Kelly’s husband, Larry Kelly, and his stepfather when he was 17. But he also landed in trouble that included a two-year prison term.
“When he got back out, it was hard for him to go to work anywhere because nobody wants to hire a felon,” Elsie Kelly said.
He moved to Missouri when he got married and worked there but came back to Ottawa after a divorce. He later married his high school sweetheart at home. His employment problems persisted, and he became mixed up with people using methamphetamine, his mother said. Then he tried to beat the drug.
“He just kept telling me, ‘I’m clean, mom,’” Kelly said.
His difficult quest for a job kept him moving around. Family members recount hearing that he stayed in motels outside Lawrence and other places.
But Mundhenke said that didn’t mean her brother neglected his family, including his three children, who are ages 5, 9 and 10. He also raised another child who died.
“He loved his family. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for any us,” Mundhenke said.
Price also had other passions he tried to pass on to his children.
“He spent lots of time with his kids. He took them fishing,” Kelly said.
Price kept in constant contact by phone, even during his difficult times. He’d call his parents or siblings constantly, even if he didn’t have anything to say.
Kelly last saw him in December 2010 in the Kansas City area. He had called and said he was unemployed and hadn’t eaten for several days. Kelly bought him a meal and later dropped him off at a motel where he was staying in Missouri.
“That was it. I never saw him again after that,” she said.
When she didn’t hear from him weeks later — it was highly unusual for him not to call — she reported him missing to police. And then they waited for months until the bad news came.
“Me personally, I would have been better off not knowing because at least then we had hope, and now...” Mundhenke said as her voice trailed off.
‘I don’t understand’
According to an autopsy filed in Johnson County District Court, officers late on April 19 responded to information a confidential informant gave them and discovered the refrigerator near 103rd Street and Kill Creek Road south of Kansas Highway 10. Investigators identified the body using finger and palm prints from his right hand.
The refrigerator was sealed with screws when officers found it, and the autopsy says the body was clad in gray tarp wrapped with duct tape.
The report lists Price’s last known communication as a phone call to his mother on Dec. 24, 2010. Kelly said investigators have told her he died at the end of December in 2010.
Dr. Michael S. Handler’s coroner’s report classified the manner of death as undetermined and noted advanced decomposition of the body.
A toxicology report listed traces of methamphetamine in his liver and brain tissue and also the pain killer acetaminophen in his liver tissue.
Kelly said investigators notified family members when they identified Price’s body, but they weren’t told he was found in a refrigerator until family members received inquiries from the media. Now they continue waiting for the outcome of the investigation and still have many questions, still puzzled by the end of Price’s life.
“Greg didn’t know any strangers,” Larry Kelly said. “He talked to everybody.”
“That’s why I don’t understand,” Elsie Kelly interjected, “how anybody could hurt him like that.”
Mundhenke said she hoped people could focus on Price as a loving father and family member.
“He was my brother, and he might have had problems,” she said, “but he didn’t deserve that.”