About this article: In July 1970, 18-year-old Nick Rice was shot and killed on the KU campus. The circumstances of the killing were murky, and the shooter was never publicly identified. Now, with the help of newly obtained investigative documents, The Lawrence Times is shedding light on the case in this extended series. Read the whole series here.
In the days leading to July 20, 1970, Lawrence was fraught with tension. The shooting death of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell on the night of July 16 catalyzed a five-day stretch that came to be known as the “Days of Rage.”
According to Rusty Monhollon’s 2002 book “This is America?: The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas,” Lawrence residents feared that Dowdell’s killing could spur the type of race riots that had occurred in previous years in places like Detroit, Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood and Newark, New Jersey.
Each night since Dowdell was killed, protesters had filled the Oread neighborhood and turned on fire hydrants, set small fires and shot off fireworks to divert law enforcement away from East Lawrence, where Black residents had been demonstrating since Dowdell’s killing.
The goal was largely the same the night of July 20: not to engage in violent activities, but to create a diversion so law enforcement would have to divide its forces, allowing the Black community to continue protesting.
Statements gathered by students at KU’s law school in the days after July 20 revealed that while some people were intent on protesting Dowdell’s death, most of the people in and around Rock Chalk Café were simply there to eat, drink and have a good time. Media reports on July 21 stated that the crowd in general was “in a party mood.”
One eyewitness told investigators that the demeanor of the group was “light-hearted, but with an ugly and tense edge” — which seems only natural given the tensions of the preceding four days. Residents in the Oread neighborhood — which today includes spots such as the Oread Hotel, Ecumenical Campus Ministries and the KU Alumni Center — watched the growing crowd from their porches and balconies.
Around 9 p.m., when the crowd in and around Rock Chalk Café had grown to roughly 150 people, a small brush fire started on the northeast corner of 12th and Oread, directly across from the bar. Three men jumped over a bush and opened a fire hydrant at 12th and Indiana streets. The gushing spray drew Lawrence police officers to the area.
When officers arrived, some in the crowd heckled them. A small group, standing in front of a nearby apartment house, started throwing rocks, bricks and tomatoes at the police. Things escalated slightly from there, as a glass bottle shattered near the feet of one officer and another was hit in the chest with a rock and in the face with a tomato, according to the Lawrence Daily Journal-World’s report the following day.
The police retaliated by throwing tear gas canisters into the crowd, and fired at least one warning shot into the air. That ultimately dispersed the crowd, at least for the time being.
All the while, Nick Rice played pinball inside the café.
A series of fateful decisions
The way the officers cleared the crowd actually drew even more people into the tight confines of the Rock Chalk Café. Police moved to clear it, and an officer who entered the bar with a carbine rifle ordered everyone inside to go home for the night. Six more officers stood outside with shotguns, ordering patrons out as quickly as possible.
“You’ve got three minutes to get out of there.”
“Move out of there and move out of the area.”
“No! Leave your beer inside,” the officers shouted, according to the Lawrence Daily Journal-World’s reports.
Nick, his fiancée Sam Stephens and their friend Jim Shoftstall were among the last to leave — Nick was determined to finish his pinball game despite the ruckus. Most of the crowd from Rock Chalk Café was moving south down Oread Avenue, and the trio followed along, soon arriving at the nearby Gaslight Tavern, a bar located where there now is part of a parking lot connected to the Kansas Memorial Union and next to the Sabatini Multicultural Resource Center.
Nick made a beeline to the Gaslight’s pinball machine with Sam, while Jim went to visit friends at the Green House, a student housing structure halfway between the Rock Chalk Café and the Gaslight. The crowd continued to gather in the street.
Police officers were stationed within a two-block radius of the 12th and Oread intersection, and some protesters tried to return to the Rock Chalk Café to reclaim it from police control. The group nearly set fire to a student housing structure, but settled for igniting a light pole, which burned for a bit before going out on its own. Other demonstrators turned over trash cans, seeking makeshift barricades, and threw Molotov cocktails at telephone poles near the café. Wallace Nicholson, an acquaintance of Nick, Sam and Jim’s, later told detectives that the scene was chaotic, for sure, but it was “kind of harmless, and nobody was throwing anything at the police or anything except to be yelling at them sometimes, and all these things that they were doing were basically harmless, kind of like a carnival.”
Nonetheless, Sgt. Robert Lemon, the in-command officer on Oread Avenue that evening, dispatched every Lawrence Police Department unit to the area of 12th and Oread around 9:30. The department, he later said, had received a call that multiple firebombs had been thrown into the Rock Chalk Café — but that quickly was found to be untrue. Still, Lemon requested all units to the Oread neighborhood, Lt. Virgil Foust would later testify. (Foust died in 2015, and the Times was unable to reach Lemon for this series.)
Nick and Sam were still inside the Gaslight when rumors began circulating in the crowd of a plan to set a car on fire. Decades later, Sam told Nick’s brother that she had wanted to go outside to see what was happening, but Nick vetoed the idea, saying it was too dangerous.
That’s when the couple decided it was time to leave. They couldn’t immediately find Jim, so they hopped into Nick’s VW and drove around the block before ultimately ending up back in front of the Gaslight. They spotted Jim, and Nick parked the car in a lot across the street. Nick, who Klock described as an “outgoing individual who never met a stranger,” saw Wallace Nicholson right after parking the car, and ran over to give him a hug. Naturally, the two men were pinball buddies.
Walking back to the Gaslight, Nick, Sam, Jim and Wallace could hear people in the crowd talking about turning over a Volkswagen and setting it on fire. At the same time, a portion of the crowd continued hurling rocks and bottles near police officers, though two crowd members would later testify that no members of law enforcement were actually hit.
Trying to ignore the commotion, the four walked north of the Gaslight. The crowd began cheering after a rock broke a streetlight, and a group pushed a red VW Bug into the middle of Oread Avenue. It took six or seven people to overturn the small vehicle, and the crowd began clamoring to set it ablaze. Lit matches were thrown at the gasoline that spilled out of the tank; someone tried to use a gasoline-soaked rag as an accelerant. But despite the oil and gas covering the ground, the VW didn’t catch fire.
The final hour
Some people stayed by the overturned car, but most of the crowd — which still numbered more than 100 at this point — was walking back toward the Gaslight.
Someone shouted “Pigs!” in the direction of police, prompting at least five officers to move closer to the crowd from where they were stationed near Rock Chalk Café. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation couldn’t say for certain, but it believed the five officers who approached the crowd to be Lemon, Jimmy Joe Stroud, Gale Pinegar, Michael Sedlak and Robert Fox.
Stroud and Pinegar were armed with .30-caliber M-1 carbine rifles; the others carried 12-gauge shotguns. Stroud, he would later testify, had purchased his weapon earlier that day. He also testified that he tested the gun once and that it fired accurately.
Nick and his friends were near the overturned VW. Jim heard Nick say something like “perhaps we should be leaving town,” because his orderly shift would start a few hours later, at 6 a.m. They began walking toward Nick’s car, parked in the lot across from the Gaslight, when police started throwing tear gas in the direction of the overturned Volkswagen. Officer Fox fired his shotgun in the air as what he later said was a “warning shot.” As people tried to flee the police, the tear gas and the noise from the shotgun, the crowd moved closer to Nick and his friends.
Despite all of the chaos, one person remained near the overturned car, continuing to light and throw matches at the VW’s oil slick. Officer Pinegar, seeing the person emerge from behind the vehicle, yelled “Shoot him, shoot him, he’s an arsonist!” The man sprinted away.
The KBI report concludes that an officer gave a command to fire at the man, though Pinegar later told the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he didn’t remember saying it. If he had, he said, it was to get the man away from the car so he couldn’t set it on fire. Other officers testified they’d heard Pinegar shout the order to fire.
Suddenly, all hell broke loose.
Jim was near Nick, some 25 yards south of the VW and 60 feet from the Gaslight, when he heard a loud crack behind him and to his left. Someone yelled, “They’re shooting!”
Stroud, apparently in response to Pinegar’s order, went into a crouch, leveled his carbine rifle and fired a shot at the center of the fleeing would-be arsonist’s back. Shooting from 80 feet away, Stroud missed the fleeing person he said he was aiming for.
Simultaneously, the other officers with Stroud — including Pinegar and Sedlak — fired a volley of carbine and shotgun fire. All except Stroud would later testify that they shot into the air, even though multiple witnesses said officers – who they couldn’t identify – fired at least three shots on a direct line into the crowd, not into the air.
Pinegar and Stroud offered conflicting testimony. Pinegar was certain he fired his gun at an angle of between 45 and 60 degrees, but Stroud told the KBI he thought Pinegar fired at a 20-degree angle, and that his colleague fired from the hip. No other officers gave any indication about what angle they had fired their weapons.
Nick reached for Sam — his fiancée of just two days — as gunfire filled the air. He grabbed her hand and started running with her toward the Gaslight.
Moments later, Sam realized he wasn’t holding her hand anymore. She turned to see Nick lying face down on the ground, under a streetlight and next to a telephone pole. Multiple witnesses said Nick fell immediately. A bullet had entered the base of his skull and exited through his upper left cheek, mangling his face. His body lay face down on the ground, illuminated only by the one remaining working street light.
A witness said Sam let out “the most chilling scream” he had ever heard.
Unless stated otherwise, all information in this series comes from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s full report into Nick Rice’s death, which includes law enforcement records and interviews with eyewitnesses.