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Archive for Monday, April 1, 2013

Forty years, three murders and no answers in Franklin County cold case

April 1, 2013

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Richard Gwin/Journal World Photo.Lawrence man Gary Avery, 63, was just 23 when his mother, Hazel, and younger brother, Steve, went missing the evening of March 27, 1973. Hazel and Steve's bodies, along with that of Gary Longfellow, were found in near Ottawa two days later. All three had been shot in the head. The case remains unsolved.

Richard Gwin/Journal World Photo.Lawrence man Gary Avery, 63, was just 23 when his mother, Hazel, and younger brother, Steve, went missing the evening of March 27, 1973. Hazel and Steve's bodies, along with that of Gary Longfellow, were found in near Ottawa two days later. All three had been shot in the head. The case remains unsolved.

Other body: An odd coincidence?

Just three weeks after the murders of Gary Longfellow and Steve and Hazel Avery, police found the unidentified body of a young man in a wooded area in Anderson County, which is several miles south of the site of the Avery/Longfellow murder.

The man had a fractured skull, but police have never been able to definitively say whether the death was caused by a blunt object or resulted from a fall in the woods.

Police were never able to identify the man, though forensic scientists developed a DNA profile and composite sketch.

Several investigators interviewed for this story believe the the case is just a coincidence, and the young man's death was unrelated to the Avery/Longfellow case.

To learn more about the case, visit the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

A composite photo of a young man found in Anderson County just three weeks after the Avery/Longfellow murder. 

The man has never been identified.

A composite photo of a young man found in Anderson County just three weeks after the Avery/Longfellow murder. The man has never been identified.

More on the case

• March 29, 1973: 'Triple murder' being probed

• March 30, 1973: Leads lacking in triple murder

• April 19, 1973: Youth's body found on farm

• March 15, 1998: Triple murder remains an utter mystery

Photo of Hazel Avery, then 60, shortly before her murder in March 1973.

Photo of Hazel Avery, then 60, shortly before her murder in March 1973.

Hazel Avery's 1964 Chrysler sedan was found near Rock Creek, just south of Ottawa. Avery, her son Steve, and family friend Gary Longfellow were all found shot to death in the vehicle on March 29, 1973.

Hazel Avery's 1964 Chrysler sedan was found near Rock Creek, just south of Ottawa. Avery, her son Steve, and family friend Gary Longfellow were all found shot to death in the vehicle on March 29, 1973.

Here's how the bridge near where a triple murder was discovered 40 years ago looks today. The back and white photo shows Franklin County Sheriff's Office Dep. Brad Gilges and Sheriff Rex Bowling standing near the spot at the 25th anniversary of the crime in 1998. The bridge covers Rock Creek, about a mile south of Ottawa.

Here's how the bridge near where a triple murder was discovered 40 years ago looks today. The back and white photo shows Franklin County Sheriff's Office Dep. Brad Gilges and Sheriff Rex Bowling standing near the spot at the 25th anniversary of the crime in 1998. The bridge covers Rock Creek, about a mile south of Ottawa.

Gary Avery, now 63, was working the nightshift at the Lawrence Paper Company on March 27, 1973, when he received a call that his mother and brother were missing.

The bodies of Gary’s mother, Hazel, 60, brother Steve, 19, and family friend, Gary Longfellow, 23, eventually were found in the back of Hazel’s 1964 Chrysler, which was parked just off U.S. Highway 59 in Ottawa. The three had been shot to death, execution-style.

Police had no apparent motive or suspects, and few leads, in the triple homicide.

In the 40 years since, scores of investigators — to no avail — have taken a crack at solving the murder mystery.

“Somebody did it,” said Gary, Lawrence. “Somebody’s out there.”

Who? And, just as important, why?

The crime

According to accounts from police and family members, Steve Avery was attempting to hitchhike from Iola to Lawrence, on Highway 59, the night of March 27, 1973.

Steve was heading north to testify on behalf of his friend, Vietnam War veteran Gary Longfellow, in a paternity suit in Jefferson County the next day.

Steve and his wife, Dianne, had recently moved to Iola with their 13-month-old daughter, Stephanie. Following a fight with Dianne, who wouldn’t let Steve take the couple’s one vehicle north to Lawrence, Steve set off on foot with his thumb to the road, a somewhat common practice in the area four decades ago.

On the stormy night, Steve’s progress stalled, and he called his mother from a pay phone in Richmond, about 40 miles south of Lawrence.

Hazel, a local nurse who lived in the 600 block of Alabama in Lawrence, called Longfellow to accompany her on the trip because of the late night and stormy conditions.

They left about 10:30 p.m. Motorists reported seeing Steve walking along Highway 59 two miles north of Richmond, or perhaps south of Princeton near Central Heights Road.

After that call at work, Gary and other family members scoured the city of Ottawa and Franklin County looking for the trio, but had no luck. Douglas County Sheriff Rex Johnson, who knew the Avery family, helped coordinate a search.

A day and a half later, on March 29, a worker on her commute into Ottawa noticed a large sedan parked on the side of a country road. She called police and the three bodies were found.

The crime scene posed just as much a mystery for police and detectives then as it does decades later.

Jim Malson, a retired Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent, was in charge of the investigation. Now 76, Malson remembers the details of the case clearly.

All three bodies were found with their heads slumped on seats in the car. Hazel, in the front passenger seat, Steve in the rear passenger side, and Longfellow behind the driver’s seat. All three were knelt down on the floorboards, and all had “contact” wounds, indicating that at some point, someone placed a gun against their heads and pulled the trigger.

In total, seven bullets were recovered. Steve had been shot twice in the head and Hazel had been shot in the neck, shoulder, and head.

Longfellow, meanwhile, also had been shot through the bottom of his foot. Malson speculates that Longfellow had tried to run, or possibly kicked a foot up at the shooter. But as with everything in the case, it was all a best guess, Malson said.

“Try to put it together, it just don’t come together,” he said.

Motive was the most difficult aspect to pin down in the case, said Jeff Hupp, a retired KBI agent who worked the case until 2010. It wasn’t a robbery, as nothing had been stolen. It wasn’t sexually motivated, as there were no signs of a sexual assault.

All that was left was that someone wanted one of the three dead: A "hit."

The murder did have a professional feel to it, Hupp said. Whoever was responsible had to control three people — including two young men. Not an easy task and probably the work of someone with some experience in such matters, Hupp said.

But the idea that someone planned such a murder seems improbable.

No one knew Longfellow and Hazel were heading to Ottawa, and it seems unlikely someone would have been staking out the two or Steve.

Both Malson and Hupp say the investigation showed Steve potentially had an enemy or two. But he had no criminal record, and according to investigators and family members, both Longfellow and Steve appeared to be fairly typical, blue-collar young men.

“It’s a heck of a mystery,” Hupp said.

The case today

Even with advances in evidence-gathering technologies, it doesn’t appear a break in the case will come from any sort of trace or DNA evidence.

That 1964 Chrysler, where the killer or killers surely left some evidence of their existence, is long gone. Gary said that after the case, the car was released to their family. But they couldn’t stand to sell the car, and potentially see it traveling down the road one day. So, they had a family friend in the salvage business destroy it.

The case is now in the hands of Franklin County Sheriff’s Det. Mike Reed, who picked the case up cold a few years ago.

Reed, Malson and Hupp all mention some bizarre tips over the years: A delusional drifter, possible connections to the traveling serial killer duo of Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, an unpaid gambling debt. But nothing that gained any real traction.

Occasionally, they receive tips about the case, including one four years ago that didn’t pan out, Reed said. But he’ll keep taking calls, and exploring leads and tips as they come in.

“One just never knows,” Reed said.

Malson — who worked the case longer than anyone — has a theory about how that March night so many years ago went so terribly wrong. But he's not talking publicly about it.

Closure?

Many of the family members with a stake in the case are now deceased.

Dianne, Steve’s wife, died of illness several years back. Stephanie, Steve’s daughter, who would be 41 today, died in an automobile accident, Gary said.

“I’m the only one,” he said.

Gary's hung onto all the old newspaper articles about the case, and has photos of his mother and little brother close at hand in his Lawrence home. Gary’s only son, Steve, was named after the little brother who was mysteriously and inexplicably gunned down along a country road four decades ago.

“You think about it every day,” Gary said. “It’d be nice to have some closure.”

Comments

Kylee Manahan 1 year ago

You know, when I went to the funeral the girl that was wanted the paternity test for Gary made a big scene at the casket before they lowered him down. I never knew her but I knew Gary, Steve and Hazel. Maybe she be the one to carry the burden. I never knew what happened and still don't. All the people who may have known something have been questioned by the KBI. If that person didn't admit then, I can't help.

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Kylee Manahan 1 year ago

no because I didn't believe it because at the time there were so many rumors.

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Kylee Manahan 1 year ago

I knew them all and was questioned by the KBI. I know someone who knew what happened, but that person is no longer alive, but since he knew I sincerely believe there were others that knew what happened. Miss them all and think of them always.

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LawrenceTownie 1 year ago

Gary Longfellow was a classmate of mine, very nice young man. The last time I talked to him was about one month before the murders. I have never forgotten him. He served his country then came home only to be murdered. Insane. His murder was one of several along the I-35/59 highway routes, all unsolved. Several years ago, south of Baldwin Jct and west of 59 hwy, a slain woman was found by her husband when he returned home from work. Never solved either.

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trinity 1 year ago

Tried to reply to the email I received, and my stupid email service wouldn't let me. I am pretty sure that is Kingman Road in the picture of the Deputy&Sheriff; I just can't recall any roads in Ottawa or Franklin County going by numerical names! Rock Creek Road would be a mile south of Kingman.

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trinity 1 year ago

I remember when this happened, I was 13 at the time&an Ottawa native. That road was one of many "make-out" roads-until those murders. Really took me back, reading this article.

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SHFR 1 year ago

Dianna. Steve's wife's name was Dianna. She hated being called Dianne. "Informed" and "The Sychophant", there were articles published about police thinking the two cases may have been linked.

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irvan moore 1 year ago

great story, thank you Shaun,

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Norma Jeane Baker 1 year ago

Now, who has the vivid imagination? Too many episodes of Criminal Minds?

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Bob Forer 1 year ago

It is somewhat perplexing that the several investigators interviewed for the story believe that the death of the young man whose body was found the following month several miles south was unrelated to the Avery murders.

Most likely the guy was a young drifter with no connections whatsoever to the area. Based on the decomposition of the body, authorities estimated his death at two weeks to a month prior to the discovery of the body. The midpoint of that range is almost to the exact day of the Avery murders.

If I had to venture a guess I would say that at some point in his travels, the drifter hooked up with the trigger man, and they were both hitchhiking along Highway 59 when picked up by Hazel Avery, who felt sorry for them, as she had just picked up her son who had just been similarly walking along that dark road on a cold and stormy night. She would have little reason to fear, as hitching was much more common back then, and she had two young men, one a Viet Nam vet, next to her.

Shortly after being picked up, I would surmise a robbery attempt escalated to murder. Perhaps the drifter was taken aback by the brutality of his companion's actions, and a heated argument ensued. The trigger man, perhaps out of ammo as he had previously fired all seven shots from a seven-shot revolver into his first three victims, picked up a small boulder and hit the drifter in the head with it. The drifter may have fallen and died near where he was struck, or may have wandered for a few miles before falling dead.

I find it hard to believe that a mere fall in the woods would be of sufficient force to cause a skull fracture and death. The odds of three murders being unrelated to the suspicious death of a unidentified drifter just miles apart at around the same time in sparsely populated, rural Kansas locale are simply too astronomical to not suspect a connection, until proven otherwise.

One cannot rule out a failed robbery merely because nothing was taken. I imagine that the drifter, like any person who had the misfortune of unwittingly hooking up with a sociopath, would have freaked out after witnessing his new hitchhiking companion brutally execute three innocent people. He panicked and ran, and the shooter forgot to grab the valuables before fleeing the scene in chase of the drifter.

I am wondering if the police, upon discovering the drifter's body, put two and two together and steered their investigation southward on highway 59 from where the two possible suspects may have been traveling from.

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Bob Forer 1 year ago

"Malson — who worked the case longer than anyone — has a theory about how that March night so many years ago went so terribly wrong. But he's not talking publicly about it."

When interviewed by the LJW twenty five years after the murders, Malson oddly had a much different perspective on the case:

This from the linked 1998 LJW article:

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.”

Apparently, Mr. Malson's imagination has improved with his advanced age.

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consumer1 1 year ago

Isn't Dick Avery still alive? He and I were close friends.

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