Harold and Alberta Leach deserve better from the state of Kansas.
More than 29 years ago, the Leaches’ then 17-year-old son Randy disappeared. On April 16, 1988, he left the family’s home near Linwood and headed to a graduation party in Leavenworth County. He hasn’t been seen since and his parents have little information about what might have happened to their son.
The Leaches filed a lawsuit this week seeking access to investigative records in the case. For years, Leavenworth County officials have refused to release such records.
Lawrence attorney Max Kautsch is representing the Leaches. The lawsuit argues that the records should be released under a provision of the Kansas Open Records Act that allows records to be made public when the records are in the public interest.
Kautsch argued that extensive media coverage of the disappearance has created public interest in not only what happened to Randy Leach but also how local law enforcement handled the case.
For years, the Leaches have questioned whether the Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Office and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation conducted a thorough investigation and followed through on all leads. But without seeing the records, it’s difficult for the Leaches to be sure what has been done.
Records of criminal investigations are mostly exempt from the Kansas Open Records Act, no matter how old the records are or how long the case has been cold. The only way to unseal the records is to obtain a court order after convincing a judge that unsealing the records would be in the public interest, the step the Leaches are now taking.
State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, tried to change that during the 2017 legislative session. Holland sponsored Senate Bill 200 to amend the Kansas Open Records Act to require law enforcement agencies to grant public access to records in missing-person investigations if the person has been missing for 25 years or more. It would apply only to records in those cases that are at least 15 years old.
Members of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee advanced the bill to the full Senate with favorable recommendations and potential amendments, including a requirement that the records be produced within 30 days of the request and possibly expanding the bill to apply to all criminal cases and not just missing persons. But the bill was opposed by law enforcement groups and never advanced to a vote.
Balanced against the closure the investigation records could bring to the Leaches, it’s hard to believe there continues to be justification in withholding them. It’s unfortunate that they have to file a lawsuit to see records pertaining to their son’s disappearance.
Legislators should take note of the Leaches’ experience and make it a point to open records after an appropriate period of time. Surely, 29 years is long enough.