Updated: Jun 4, 2020
WARNING - The details in this article are graphic, as we describe the death of members in this community. This was never for political gain or commercial use, and was only developed to inform others and shed light on the injustice that these families endured. All information was gathered through public record - please view the sources directly. Our community needs to understand where they failed and how we can progress to a more inclusive society that represents all.
As civil unrest shakes our nation to its core with the recent death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black Minneapolis man, who was murdered in police custody after suffering nine minutes of traumatic asphyxia, or strangulation for simpler terms.
We must understand this- our community [Lawrence, Kansas] is far from perfect and will never be equitable, just and fair to its minority members, especially to its Black and Native population, unless significant change is made from within. This is a fact. As racism is deeply rooted into Lawrence’s history and sees no political affiliation, occupation or creed.
Now that the City of Lawrence is looking for a new police chief, let us explain why this process is significantly important from a historical standpoint.
In 1988 through 1990, four members of the Haskell community – Christopher Bread, John Sandoval, Cecil Dawes Jr., and Harry Oliver – went missing and/or were murdered without explanation.
Edited Note: Bread was not missing, as his body was discovered around 1:00 a.m.- shortly after last being seen alive from 12:30 -12:45 a.m., according to witnesses in the case.
The Lawrence Police Chief at the time, Ron Olin, “saw fears among Indians as an overreaction.”
Boldly claiming that “there were no common threads linking the deaths, and suggested that drinking might have had as much to do with the deaths as anything else.”
All deaths occurred around an 18-month timespan and it wasn’t quick for rumors about “skinheads and serial killers” to swirl, gaining national attention from the Wall Street Journal, in an article published on August 16, 1990 titled - “Plains Mystery: Some Fear Serial Killer of Indians Is at Large in Lawrence, Kansas.”
Police Chief Olin “scoffed at the idea of a killer at large,” when talking to the Wall Street Journal.
“There is absolutely no indication of a homicide” [In the Bread case]. “Jeans, black jacket, long black hair, walking in the middle of the road in the middle of the night and on a county road and beyond the legal level of intoxication….there has never been a hit-and-run case before, where we’ve had 20 investigators working on it and ordered three autopsies. I am at a loss to explain the skepticism.”
Olin also rejected the idea of calling in the FBI at the time, claiming, “why would the FBI be interested in two drownings and some traffic accidents?”
Olin’s dismissiveness back then was eerie and costly, as he said any criticism of his department concerning the cases of Sandoval, Dawes and Bread was “misdirected” because the “bodies were found either in the river or on a country road, and the matters are the responsibility of the sheriff, not the police.”
As for the Douglas County Sheriff, they took an entirely different approach to these cases that contradicted Olin’s claims of a “hit-and-run” accident.
“The 20 or so investigators in the Bread case were dispatched for a homicide, not a hit-and-run. We still don’t know what we’ve got here,” said Sheriff Anderson at the time.
Detective Robert Van Hoesen was the first officer on the scene that night. He said, "It was my feeling that [the death] had occurred somewhere else, that this was a body that had been moved."
Both Sheriff Anderson and Detective Van Hoesen were “puzzled” as to why there were no auto parts on the road, no skid marks and no shards of glass.
Among other things, they wondered why the two T-shirts Mr. Bread was wearing were rolled up from the waist to his armpits. His back was scraped, as if he had been dragged, and there was nothing in any of the reports to suggest that he was walking down the middle of the road, said the Sheriff.
Forensic experts told the sheriff's office that the pressure of a body against the vehicle is usually so great in a hit-and-run that it burns paint into clothing. “The paint would typically come off at the point of contact, said the Sheriff, “and leather is known to pick up paint very easily.”
Christopher Bread died from head injuries of "unknown cause", and of the three coroners who examined the body, with two claiming that "the fractured skull and other injuries were consistent with a hit-and-run accident" and reported his blood-alcohol level at 0.127.
Directly from the article about the four cases:
The first death came to light 16 months ago when canoeists the Kansas River, which flows through Lawrence, found the body of 19-year-old John Sandoval. The young Navajo had vanished months earlier.
Then last October, in a park along the banks of the same river, hikers spotted a body floating among branches and twigs. The dead man, 21-year-old Cecil Dawes Jr., had been a West Point cadet. He was of mixed tribal background: Cheyenne, Arapaho, Creek and Seminole. He had been missing for 10 days.
In December, the body of an elderly Indian, Harry Oliver, a 72-year-old from the Kickapoo Indian Reservation near Horton, Kan., was killed after attending a powwow at Haskell. He also appeared to have been a hit-and-run victim, as his body was found early one morning on the city's main drag. An autopsy showed his blood-alcohol level to be .18, well beyond the legal limit for drivers of. 0.10.
Finally came the death in March of young Mr. Bread, who had last been seen at a local hangout where a band sponsored by so-called skinheads was playing. Until repainted recently, the front door of the place, known as the Outhouse, was decorated with a big swastika.
In the cases of Sandoval and Dawes Jr., details remain until this day, as sketchy and incomplete.
The coroner's report stated that "Mr. Sandoval was last seen at a party near the center of town. Friends say that when he left, he was walking toward home, not in the direction of the river where his body was found."
Dawes Jr.'s body, too, was found also in the Kansas River.
As for Dawes Jr., the sheriff knew that "Mr. Dawes Jr., after leaving a bar late at night, snagged a tire of his car on a railroad tie while crossing the tracks."
Here is the Sheriff's theory (on lines 167 through 172):
Worried that he'd get in trouble for drinking and driving, young Mr. Dawes left the car on the edge of the tracks and ran to the river. A superb athlete, he may have thought he could swim to the other side and walk home. His blood alcohol level was .186. Again, the legal limit for driving is 0.10.
Dawes Jr.'s parents, firmly believed that their son "would have thought twice before jumping into the Kansas River, whether he had been drinking or not," and "thought he was forced in."
His parents were "troubled that the police didn't notify them when they found his son's car near the river the Saturday night he disappeared."
And the police's response?
They claimed that it was the son's car and thus there was no reason to notify his parents. It wasn't until the following Friday that the father, the late Cecil Dawes Sr., located the car with the sheriff's help in one of the tow-yards the police use.
Directly from the article (on lines 184 through 199):
Mr. Dawes found the contents of his son's wallet scattered across the front seat and on the floor. Also clothes, receipts, check stubs and books. Why didn't the police connect the abandoned car, which must have been listed in their computer, with the missing-person report that Mr. and Mrs. Dawes later filed with the police, the father asks now. Why didn't they examine the car closely and take its contents in as evidence? The car, he says, seems particularly important in light of the fact that a woman who was riding with his son that night says the young man thought he was being followed. After getting stuck among the ties, he told her to get out and hide. She has told investigators that from where she was hiding in the bushes nearby, she thought she heard a car door slam and a voice. But people close to the investigation say she has changed her story at least once.
All cases were categorized as "unattended deaths" and after more than 25 years later, this still remains unsolved.
Olin later retired in 2010, which came about a month before the city auditor released a report on the police department.
But several City Hall leaders, including the auditor, said they were "confident the upcoming audit had no bearing on Olin’s decision."
After his retirement, he immediately served as the Director of Security for Kansas Athletics, which paid him $115,000 a year and was hired by former Kansas Athletics Director, Lew Perkins, who left his job only 11 days later.
Former Mayor and current Kansas State Representative Mike Amyx was quoted saying, “I can tell you that I was always proud to call him chief.”
“He’s very much been a to-the-point type of guy. He’s a no nonsense type of individual, but a true, true professional. A professional is the best way to characterize him.”
Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson, who took office in 2005 as the county’s top prosecutor and is currently filing for re-election this year, said Olin’s "long tenure and his academic expertise benefited law enforcement agencies in the county."
“His longevity in that position has been remarkable, and I think that’s a testament to his ability to run an efficient and effective office.”
Olin failed the Lawrence Native American community, and seeing the quotes that bolster his inability is very disappointing from county and city leaders. As those families deserved justice that was never received during Olin's tenure as police chief.
This is our biggest question: If this happened to four white women, all within an 18-month timespan here in Lawrence, would Olin be as dismissive as he was back then? Quick to call these "two drownings and a couple car accidents" instead of homicides? Would he take no responsibility, and shove everything to the sheriff's office, regardless of if its in his jurisdiction or not, as he did with these cases?
And why would their blood-alcohol levels be mentioned in every case, intoxicated or not, it was almost as if they were trying to insinuate a stereotypical classification of Native Americans and Alcoholism.
So, the answer to our question is probably no. Lawrence would have most likely turned this city upside down, if that was the case, and for all we know, there would have probably been a taxpayer-funded memorial somewhere in town that would commemorate those four hypothetical white women.
What a dark chapter for our Native community here in Lawrence. We should expect better because we deserve better. So as the city embarks on a new search for its police chief - keep this in mind, we are watching.
As we fast forward to today - there are still many instances of racial injustice that plague our city and county systems. Things that are perplexing and make you wonder because they do not add up. Literally.
Take the example of Dayson Gage Kelley, a 18-year old white Topeka man, who Lawrence Police, on February 28, believed was "readying up [his AK-47] to shoot at crowds in one of the city's most popular bar districts" according to court documents.
Kelley was charged in Douglas County District Court on March 3 with two counts of aggravated assault on law enforcement officers and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon- all felonies.
According to the article, published by Mackenzie Clark, public safety reporter for the Lawrence Journal World, the LPD does not generally discuss investigations that have gone to the Douglas County district attorney's office for charging consideration and prosecution; therefore department spokesman Patrick Compton said via email "based on what is in the affidavit, in this situation, police acted quickly and prudently to avert a situation that could have easily ended in tragedy."
Here is what was stated in the affidavit:
The officers allegedly witnessed Kelley engage in a verbal altercation and shortly thereafter take a loaded semi-automatic rifle from the trunk of a Toyota Camry, according to the police affidavit supporting Kelley’s arrest. The alleged incident took place in a parking lot near three bars close to the intersection of 14th and Ohio Streets, commonly nicknamed The Wheel, The Hawk and The Bull.<