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Who killed Nick Rice? Part 1: Four days, two killings

Lawrence in 1970 was a hotbed of the sort of unrest that afflicted much of the nation that year. Racial tensions simmered locally while the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War raged overseas. 

Over a 10-day period that April, the Kappa Sigma fraternity at the University of Kansas was set on fire, causing significant damage; a furniture store in downtown Lawrence was firebombed and destroyed; and a firebomb was detonated on the sixth floor of the Kansas Memorial Union, causing what would be $13.3 million worth of damage in today’s dollars. 

In the wake of protests after the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four student anti-war protestors at Kent State University on May 4, KU’s commencement events that May were hastily scaled back — essentially canceled except for a small ceremony in Allen Fieldhouse.

And two months later, tragedy again struck Lawrence when two teenagers were shot and killed by Lawrence Police Department officers in separate incidents just four days apart. 

The first of those two victims was Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, a 19-year-old Black man who had withdrawn from KU that March but remained a prominent activist in Lawrence. On the evening of July 16, 1970, law enforcement was dispatched to a series of gunfire-related calls around the city — including one at “Afro House,” located at 946 ½ Rhode Island St. in East Lawrence. The house was a community center that promoted Black culture at KU, and it had become a hangout spot for low-income Black youth in the month it had been open.

The exact circumstances surrounding Dowdell’s death remain in dispute 51 years later, but what information is publicly available shows that after the shooting call came in, Dowdell and a woman left Afro House in a light-colored Volkswagen. A police cruiser followed the car, and the pursuit came to a head in an alley off Ninth Street between Rhode Island and New Hampshire Streets. 

Dowdell got out of the VW’s passenger seat, and Lawrence police officer William Garrett chased the teenager down the alley. Garrett fired four shots from his .357 magnum. One of them went through the back of Dowdell’s head, killing him. 

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There is dispute to this day about what exactly happened between Garrett and Dowdell, and accounts have varied over the years about whether Dowdell was armed. Garrett insisted Dowdell was carrying a gun in his left hand, but Dowdell’s family is adamant that the 19-year-old was righthanded.

The full report by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation into Dowdell’s death has never been publicly released, because Kansas public-record law exempts “criminal investigation records” from disclosure. A request for those records by The Lawrence Times is pending.

Conner Mitchell/@connermitchell0 Rick “Tiger” Dowdell’s headstone is pictured in Lawrence’s Oak Hill Cemetery. The inscription reads “We are an African people. We shall win.”

Although the full picture of what happened to Tiger Dowdell remains murky, the fact that the world knows beyond a shadow of a doubt which officer fatally shot him is a much greater degree of closure and certainty than is known about the death of Nick Rice, an 18-year-old white KU student who was shot and killed on campus just four days later.

Rice was an innocent bystander, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, during a late-night skirmish between police and a crowd of more than 150 students and young Lawrence residents — known then as “street people” — who were angry and uneasy in the wake of Dowdell’s death.

But a Times investigation, aided by hundreds of pages of primary source materials obtained in 2020 by Rice’s brother Chris, reveals a pervasive disinformation campaign by local police and leaders that for decades served to cover up the details and circumstances of Nick’s death on July 20, 1970.

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After two years of filing and following up on public records requests, Chris obtained more than 600 pages of records from inquiries into his brother’s death by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice – the latter investigation requested by aides to then-President Richard Nixon.

In 2018, the KBI allowed Chris and his wife to view the contents of Nick’s investigatory files and take notes, but they also had to sign affidavits saying they wouldn’t publicly reveal any of the contents. Chris said he quickly realized that wouldn’t be enough, and connected with Max Kautsch, a Lawrence attorney who specializes in government transparency matters.

The two then embarked on a yearslong journey to formally request all of the records relevant to Nick’s death, which Chris finally received last year after spending several thousand dollars in record-production and legal fees.

A screenshot from the Shawnee Mission South Class of 1969 website shows a commenter sharing a memory in which he heard Nick was killed by a sniper.

Those records, which Chris provided to The Lawrence Times, show that a combination of the Lawrence Police Department’s untidy and defensive public response to Rice’s death, cursory coverage by local and national media, and questionable actions by officials outside of the public eye created a false impression in the community about the case that has persisted even five decades on. 

Why is it that Douglas County residents still believe Rice was a radical leftist hellbent on seeking justice by violent means on the night of his death, when in reality his friends and family say he avoided political issues?

Why is it that local police repeatedly suggested that Rice had been killed while attempting to commit arson, even though the Kansas Bureau of Investigation dismissed that theory immediately after the shooting?

Why were investigators reluctant to disclose that a single spent bullet, most likely from a police officer’s carbine, had been found at the scene shortly after the killing — and that rather than turning it in as potential evidence, a Lawrence police official had stuck the bullet into his pocket and taken it home?

Why did Nick Rice’s high school classmates from 1969 still believe in 2018 — while posting online remembrances ahead of their 50th reunion — that their friend had been killed by a mysterious sniper, when such a fate was physically impossible? 

And why is it that no one responsible for the deaths of Nick Rice and Tiger Dowdell was ever held accountable?

In this series of articles, the Lawrence Times will present the results of an analysis of more than 600 pages of investigative reports from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, along with an examination of what information was made publicly available in the summer of 1970 and new reporting into this half-century-old mystery.

Based on this work, we hope to finally answer exactly how Nick Rice was killed — and why it took decades to understand the truth.

Note:

This article is the first in a multipart series. As each part is published over the next several weekdays, they’ll be linked together.

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