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Who killed Nick Rice? Part 4: An officer with a checkered past ‘believed that he shot someone’

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.

It was just a short ambulance ride from the KU campus to Lawrence Memorial Hospital. Shortly after he was taken there, Nick Rice was pronounced dead, just before midnight on July 20, 1970.

Because of delays caused by tear gas thrown toward the scene where Rice’s body lay on the sidewalk, a hampered effort to get him inside the Gaslight Tavern – where more tear gas was thrown – and the general chaos of the evening, the 18-year-old succumbed to his gunshot wound on arrival at the hospital.  

Nick wasn’t the only person to be hit with gunfire that night. Merton Olds, a 23-year-old Black graduate student, was just yards away from where Nick fell. Olds suffered a gunshot wound to his leg, and according to media reports at the time, he rode in the ambulance to the hospital with Nick.

Two witnesses also reported minor injuries consistent with gunshot wounds, though those were much less severe — scratches and small holes in shirts, which would indicate the bullets had ricocheted off the ground.

An 18-year-old was dead at the hands of Lawrence police, the second teenager to lose his life in less than a week.

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Within three hours, the Douglas County Attorney’s Office and KBI investigators who were already on scene would have a tacit admission of guilt from an officer who was involved in the incident: Jimmy Joe Stroud.

KBI Nick Rice is carried out of Gaslight Tavern.

Stroud told a group of local leaders who’d gathered at a late-night meeting at the county attorney’s office that he “believed that he shot someone,” according to KBI agent James Woods’ summary report of their investigation.

The KBI didn’t formally interview Stroud until July 25, four days later. Stroud did not corroborate for the KBI the story he had told local officials the night Nick was killed — but the KBI obtained access to taped transcripts of Stroud’s late-night conversation with Mike Elwell, the assistant county attorney at the time, and Col. William Abbott, the director of the Kansas Highway Patrol. 

Stroud’s first statement in that transcript is telling: “You got me on a spot,” he says. “Let me ask a question. Am I to be charged with shooting the man?”

Elwell didn’t directly respond, telling Stroud he was checking with all officers to find out if anyone fired a gun. 

The gun Stroud fired also was important: a carbine rifle he’d bought earlier that day. He testified that after purchasing the gun he had test-fired it for safety, and that it held 30 rounds of .30-caliber cartridges. But even though he swore he only fired once, the gun had 28 rounds left after Nick was shot.

Stroud-Interview-July-21

Just hours after an 18-year-old was shot and killed, Stroud had told officials that he thought he might have shot Nick Rice — and later asked those same officials whether he would be charged in Rice’s death. 

Why, then, would the Lawrence Police Department, the Douglas County Attorney’s Office and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation spend the following days and weeks publicly sowing doubt about who had killed Nick Rice — when in reality they’d already received a virtual admission of guilt from one of their own?

The troubled career of Jimmy Joe Stroud

Before coming to Lawrence, Stroud, 28, worked at the Wichita Police Department for a few months, from August 1968 to February 1969. That followed a rocky stretch in the U.S. Navy, in which he enlisted in 1960 after turning 18. 

From 1960 to when Stroud left the Naval Reserve in 1966, he was disciplined five times — four for unauthorized absences and once for being derelict in performance of duties. The latter incident was in 1964, after which he was demoted to the reserves, where he stayed for two years.

According to Stroud’s background check, which the KBI ordered as part of its investigation into Rice’s death — the only officer to be subject to such an inquiry — he tried to leave the reserves earlier than 1966, applying a year earlier to work in the Lawrence Police Department. 

That didn’t pan out, however, and in August 1966, Stroud’s application to work on the Wichita police force was rejected by a 4-3 margin because of his “background and know-it-all attitude.” After finally leaving the Navy, he started working for the city of Wichita in 1967, first as a fireman and then ultimately becoming a police officer, according to the documents in Nick Rice’s KBI investigation file.

Stroud’s departure from the Wichita Police Department, just shy of six months after he was hired, came under mysterious circumstances. A report dated three days after his termination on Feb. 10, 1969, was redacted from the records Nick Rice’s brother Chris received in 2020, but “covers the investigation of the family trouble, assault with a revolver of his wife, his drinking problems, and his behavior leading to the requested resignation of Mr. Stroud,” according to the KBI file.

Nonetheless, he was hired by the Lawrence Police in December 1969.

Stroud-Background-Check

In the weeks and months after Nick Rice’s death, the KBI did not publicly reveal that it had obtained information that Stroud thought he may have shot someone during the events of July 20. The Times could find no record of Stroud being disciplined in any way for his actions that summer night, and he was never charged with a crime in Nick’s death.

Stroud now lives in Grove, Oklahoma. In a brief phone interview with the Lawrence Times for this series, Stroud, now nearing 80, said several times that people in Lawrence were “shooting at us” during the summer of 1970 and that it was an incredibly tense time.

When asked what he remembered about July 20, 1970, at first Stroud said he had no idea. When told that was the day that Nick Rice had been shot and killed, he said, “I don’t know him right offhand, I guess.”

Asked again if he remembered being on duty on July 20, Stroud said “everybody was on duty, probably. That’s when the riots were going on.”

The Times asked Stroud if he remembered going to the Douglas County Courthouse in the early morning hours of July 21 and telling local leaders that he thought he’d shot someone, and asking if he would be charged with a crime.

“Oh yeah,” Stroud said, before pausing for an extended period. “They didn’t have no evidence.”

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Did Stroud think he killed Rice, even by accident, 51 years later?

“I have no idea,” he said. “They never had any evidence that I did.”

Told that testimony and diagrams in the full KBI report show a direct line from where Stroud was stationed and admitted to firing his .30-caliber carbine to where Rice was shot and killed and to where Merton Olds suffered a gunshot wound to the leg, Stroud said, “They didn’t have any evidence that it was my bullet.”

KBI laboratory testing also confirmed that a .30-caliber carbine bullet found as part of the evidence search was fired from Stroud’s rifle. It is unclear, however, whether the agency ever actually informed Stroud of this finding.

The FBI wades in

Though Lawrence perhaps isn’t the first city that comes to mind when thinking of the unrest that gripped the United States in 1970, the shooting death of Nick Rice actually caught the attention of the White House and President Richard Nixon. 

Nick’s mother Esther wrote to Nixon on August 4, asking him to launch a federal investigation into Nick’s death. She told the President that she and her husband Harry couldn’t believe police had “mistakenly shot our beautiful son.”

Esther also made clear that she and her husband had so much respect for law enforcement that they initially entertained the false idea that Nick had been killed by an unknown sniper.

“We taught our sons respect for our laws. We even excused the mistakes of law enforcement agencies at Chicago and Kent (State) University, but now we are one of those mistakes, and we see the other face of campus confrontation,” Esther wrote to Nixon.

Esther-letter-to-Nixon

U.S. Assistant Attorney General Jerris Leonard responded to Esther’s letter to Nixon a month later. He said Attorney General John Mitchell had been asked to undertake a detailed investigation of what Esther described in her letter. 

Simultaneously, a team from Nixon’s Presidential Commission on Campus Unrest — which was launched in June 1970 after students were killed at Kent State and Jackson State University in May during clashes with law enforcement — also came to Lawrence in the aftermath of Nick Rice and Tiger Dowdell’s killings.

The PCCU issued a 68-page report in August 1970 after spending 10 days in Lawrence. It found that Lawrence’s 40-member police force was 35 officers smaller than what was typically needed by a town Lawrence’s size (then around 45,000 people). It also found that training for officers was fairly cursory — three weeks of instruction before going on the job and “spotty” training from then on.

The commission concluded its report by calling on the Department of Justice or another federal agency to immediately begin investigating both Nick and Tiger’s deaths, as well as recommending “massive” reform to Lawrence’s police department.

A preliminary FBI investigation began in mid-September under the title “Unknown Subjects, Lawrence, Kansas Police Officers; Harry Nicholas Rice — Victim.” That investigation appears to mostly focused on reviewing records gathered by local authorities, but federal investigators did interview several people and gathered information that local and state officials did not.

During the FBI investigation, the KBI handed over copies of sworn statements given by several officers in the Lawrence Police Department, but it didn’t provide the transcript of Stroud’s July 21 conversation in the county attorney’s office — the one in which he asked if he would be charged in Nick Rice’s death. The agency also only gave the FBI investigative reports of five non-law-enforcement witnesses, even though dozens had been interviewed as part of Douglas County and the KBI’s investigation.

One of those witness interviews stands out.

Douglas County Attorney Dan Young included a report of an unsubstantiated claim that a witness found “a high-powered type of spent carbine casing” on July 24, four days after Nick’s death, in a driveway along the east side of Rock Chalk Café. However, the morning after Nick was shot, the KBI itself conducted a crime scene search and found no evidence consistent with that report.

In November, the Department of Justice concluded that the facts of the case didn’t support a federal violation by the Lawrence officers. But Leonard, Nixon’s assistant attorney general, apparently wasn’t satisfied. He wrote a memo in February 1971 that contained a different subject line than what orignally had appeared in the case.

It now read “Jimmy Joe Stroud, Police Officer – Subject … Harry Nicholas Rice – Victim.”

Yet even though the federal government concluded that Stroud was more likely than not the officer who had fired the shot that killed Nick Rice, the investigation ended with no charges filed.

A memo from Jerris Leonard, Richard Nixon’s Assistant Attorney General, lists Jimmy Joe Stroud as the subject of an FBI investigation into Nick Rice’s death.

Note:

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.

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