Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Taking count of lives taken

January 26, 2014


Before the summer of 2013, the last homicide in Lawrence was in 2008.

Before the summer of 2013, the last homicide in Lawrence was in 2008.

There have been four homicides in the last seven months in Lawrence, for those of you who are counting.

Most of you, by the way, aren't counting.

That became real obvious this week as I roamed the city trying to gauge how residents are reacting to our little bubble of tranquility being burst. What's that? You hadn't heard about our little bubble of tranquility either.

Well, until this most recent string of homicides, it had been about four years since the city's last homicide. That all changed in July when a 20-year old Topeka woman shot a 51-year old Lawrence man in the head at his home. The woman pleaded guilty to second-degree murder just a few hours before the city's most recent homicide, a mysterious attack earlier this month that left area businessman Harold M. Sasko dead in his home. In between, there have been a domestic dispute that resulted in a Christmas Day stabbing death and a death where a husband has been charged with shooting his chronically ill wife.

Four homicides in seven months. In the majority of Kansas towns — most total a few hundred or a few thousand people — even one murder sets the town's coffee houses, barber shops and taverns ablaze with comments and gossip. But Lawrence, apparently, isn't most Kansas towns anymore.

In my business, I often tell people Lawrence is still a pretty small town. It is my way of reminding them that word still spreads quickly in Lawrence, whether they want it to or not. But this week I was reminded that Lawrence isn't as small as it used to be.

I spent the better part of two days going from one popular hangout to the next asking people what they thought about these homicides. And I didn't get the typical small-town reaction. No shock, no disbelief, no real fear to speak of.

In the city, you see, murder is sad, but it generally is not scintillating.

"This just kind of sounds like life," Valerie Kutchko, a KU student who grew up in Kansas City, said when told the details of Lawrence's latest bout with violent crime.


Don't get me wrong. There are still things that rattle Lawrence residents. It is just that an average murder — and I really do wince at using that phrase — doesn't appear to be among them anymore.

Instead, the crimes that stand out to many of the people I talk to are things like the drive-by shootings in other communities, kids bringing guns to school, shootouts in the middle of an intersection in broad daylight. In other words, things on the 10 p.m. Kansas City news.

"When you watch the news over there, it is just homicide after homicide after homicide," said Pat Baker, who was eating breakfast at a Lawrence Hy-Vee grocery store. "We're not like that."

Or as Kerry Wehner , who serves both cocktails and wisdom at North Lawrence's Johnny's Tavern, said: "We don't have BTK here," referring to the serial killer who once terrorized Wichita.

No, the general consensus is that Lawrence is still far safer than your average city. Of course, several people I talked with were surprised to hear that there had been four homicides in seven months. I talked with some people who have been 20-year residents of Lawrence, and they were unaware of the recent string of violence. Most had heard bits and pieces of the crimes, but none of it had caused them any anxiety.

"I'm too busy to be nervous," said Rogelio Tristan, a senior in computer science at KU.

If anything, there may be an overconfidence exhibited by some.

"Lawrence is one of the only places where I feel like I can walk anywhere in the middle of the night and not worry about getting robbed or getting jumped," said Joshua Treff, a seven-year resident of Lawrence who previously lived in Toronto.

A regular reading of the police blotter would suggest that may not be the best of attitudes.

Others didn't exactly say they had their midnight waking shoes on, but they gave Lawrence very high marks when it comes to a lack of crime and violence.

"I think Lawrence is safer than most other cities its size," said Rick Ostrander, a substance-abuse counselor who was eating lunch at a westside Dillons. "I think there are a lot of good people attracted to the university."

Yes, we may not be a small town anymore, but we're still a quintessential college town. Except, it was pointed out that college towns aren't always the pictures of peace — everything from Purdue University a few days ago to Virginia Tech a few years ago.

"I don't think there is anything special about Lawrence that is going to keep us from experiencing what everybody else is experiencing," said John Novotny Sr. "It is nationwide at this point."


I'll admit, I wasn't really surprised by the reaction I got from people this week. But it did make me a little bit sad. It is four human beings after all, and outrage wasn't anywhere to be found.

But please, don't mistake me for being judgmental about how people react. It is important to note that everyone recognized the killings as tragedies. It is not that the taking of a life in Lawrence is meaningless. But it was still unsettling to me every time someone said that what is more remarkable than four homicides in seven months is that we went four years without one. They're right, of course. The data show the four-year stretch is the anomaly.

But still, I would have felt better if more of us would have taken the time to count. We remember what we count.

At least, that is how I was feeling at one point in this exercise. Then I ended up at a place that has produced various levels of clarity for me over the years: a bar stool. I'm sitting next to a guy at Johnny's, and he doesn't want to give me his name. I don't think he likes reporters much. But he does give me an insight.

"To most people, it just happened to one person, and that person wasn't them," he says. "That's not the right way to think about it, but a lot do."

A sip to ponder that. There is no doubt in my mind the reaction would have been different if one of these killings was more random — someone walking down the street murdered by a complete stranger. This last case is very much still a mystery, but with the others there seems to be a connection between the victim and the suspect. And let's face it, none of us want to believe we have someone in our lives who would shoot us in the head or stab us in the chest.

"You can't dwell on it," my bar stool partner continues. "Wrong place, wrong time. You never know when it is going to happen."

All right. I don't feel any better, but you've convinced me. We've got our reasons for not counting.

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at


Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 4 months ago

The total fatalities in automobile accidents for the years 2008 - 2011, in Lawrence, Kansas:
(I was not able to find statistics for other years.)

2008: Fatalities: 8
2009: Fatalities: 5
2010: Fatalities: 2
2011: Fatalities: 2
Total traffic fatalities in Lawrence, Kansas, during those four years: 17

Statistics from:

The following is clipped from:

"Douglas County has a higher rate of suicide deaths than the national average, and Kansas ranks 19th among the 50 states.

“Kansas is high, and Douglas County is high,” Epstein said.

This year, through Dec. 17, 22 people had died by suicide in the county, according to records from the county coroner’s office. That’s up from 11 suicide deaths each in 2008 and 2009."

Also, same source:
"Number of suicide deaths in Douglas County per year:

2006: 21
2007: 18
2008: 11
2009: 11
2010*: 22
Through Dec. 17.

Source: County coroner’s office" -end clip-

Every needless or preventable death is a tragedy, but to single out only 4 homicides out of well over 61 deaths is dodging something. I'm not sure what, but something.

Scott Morgan 4 years, 4 months ago

*In 1891 over 187 people were killed or severely injured in wagon and horse/mule/oxen incidents in a much smaller population Lawrence. Many were in the age group of 1-9 years.

*The above figures totally pulled from my head, but sounds logical.

Movement in one way or another involves inherent danger. There are thousands of wrecked ships littering the bottom of the great lakes for instance. Rail travel was not without incident, steam power boiler accidents were numerous too.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 4 months ago

It's very handy that you chose 1891, because that is the only year that almost all of the federal census records were destroyed by fire. So, there are only somewhat vague records to go on for that year.

Population of Lawrence, Kansas in 1890: Estimated to be 9,997

So, more than one out of 53.46 people were killed by wagon and horse/mule/oxen incidents every year by your estimate. It seems to me that reaching adulthood would be quite a feat if that were actually the case.

It is true that all forms of transport are dangerous to some extent, but I think that to claim that the fatality rate in 1891 was almost 2% per year is stretching a point.

I did hear some discussion about that when I was younger, and yes, people were killed in horse accidents then, as they still are today, but I don't think it averaged about one out of 50 persons every year, year after year.

Leslie Swearingen 4 years, 4 months ago

So, no one does care about those that were killed in Lawrence this year. I find that very sad.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 4 months ago

"Every needless or preventable death is a tragedy"
- Ron Holzwarth, in the first comment on this thread.

Do you need further clarification on that statement?

Lawrence Morgan 4 years, 4 months ago

This is an excellent article, kind of a meditation by Chad Lawhorn; it's nice, yet different than most newspaper writing.

And it makes a very good point: Lawrence is not as small as it used to be. It would be very interesting to see, though, if most homicides were from people who had been in Lawrence for at least several years, or if they were just here for a short time.

How many of these people were especially creative in their lives - a writer, an artist, for example. I mention this, as an example, because John Lundmark, some years ago, took his life because of pancreatic cancer. He was very creative as an artist, and there exists a web page for him today so that people can remember him, as well as some of his work which was not destroyed.

One thing that people with the internet can do is to create web pages for people who have died, so that others can remember them for the rest of their lives and beyond. Perhaps there should be a web site with pictures and the life of each person who has died in Lawrence, not only for homicides but in general, and people's contribution of things they have done for others during their lives which are important - whether it be an artist, or just a very good father or mother. This would result in something visual and textual - a web page - which will last for a long time (or at least a while while the Internet is presently with us).

And you could look back and read the lives and see the pictures of many wonderful Lawrence people.

I'm also sure that many students today would greatly enjoy such a presentation.

Ron Holzwarth 4 years, 4 months ago

On two occasions, I looked at the Facebook pages of deceased persons. One I was very good friends with, and the other was someone I didn't know at all that died in a terrible way. By looking at their Facebook pages, I learned something about them that I would not have known otherwise.

I didn't make it to either one of their funerals, but in a way, I did pay my respects to them.

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