June 17, 2021
Lawrence, US 91 F
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Who killed Nick Rice? Part 5: Decades of misinformation

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.

Nick Rice’s role in the events of July 20, 1970, should have been crystal clear to the public from the very beginning.

Nick’s brother, Chris, obtained state and federal investigation records 50 years after the killing that show that multiple law enforcement officers testified as part of the ensuing investigation that Nick was most likely an innocent bystander. He was not the person who attempted to set fire to the Volkswagen Bug that had been overturned by a crowd of protesters in the middle of Oread Avenue, nor had he been a part of the unruly crowd in any other way.

The physical descriptions of Nick, who was a towering 6-foot-5, with medium-length red hair that swooped across the right side of his face, and the suspected arsonist, who was under 6 feet tall and had long hair, could not have been more different.

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The KBI had privately concluded as soon as August 1970 that while Nick was in the crowd near the car, he hadn’t taken part in the unrest or the attempted arson. Local authorities told the FBI in September that Nick was part of a crowd of onlookers and didn’t appear to be involved in trying to set the VW ablaze.

But beyond the agency making a cursory public statement in mid-August that it didn’t believe Nick was the same person as the arsonist, those sentiments were never adequately communicated to the general public, and rumors and speculation about Rice’s death have run rampant for years. Some people still believe an early rumor that Rice was killed by a mysterious sniper shooting from an elevated position nearby.

In fact, a law enforcement officer from that night who had a big impact on the events that led to Nick’s death – Sgt. Robert Lemon, who dispatched all available Lawrence police officers to the Rock Chalk Café after the department received a call that two firebombs had been thrown inside the building when they hadn’t – is still promoting a false version of what happened that night, five decades later.

Lemon wrote to the Lawrence City Commission in August of 2020 to express his strong opposition to plans to erect historical markers in honor of Rice and Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, the other teenager killed by police in July 1970. In a handwritten note scrawled on lined scratch paper, Lemon told commissioners they were “out of their minds” to consider honoring the two.

“Dowdell tried to kill a police officer and Rice was involved with student rioting on Oread Avenue,” Lemon wrote. “Who are they going to memorialize next. BTK, Boston Strangler or John Wayne Gacy [?]”

Note from former Sgt. Robert Lemon to Lawrence City Commissioners in August 2020.
Note from former Sgt. Robert Lemon to Lawrence City Commissioners in August 2020.

The Times was unable to reach Lemon for comment on this series.

But the reason Lemon was able to make such claims five decades after Rice and Dowdell died at the hands of the agency he helped supervise is because so much information about the two cases has been kept from public view over the past 50-plus years.

Because the entire KBI investigation file was kept sealed due to a provision in Kansas open-records law that keeps criminal investigation records from being opened to public view until 70 years after the fact, historians have been unable to fully understand the events of summer 1970.

And because of the trust that is traditionally placed in the word of law enforcement officials, the general public has been left with no choice but to accept the flawed and incomplete official public version of the case as the truth – leaving a historical record that until now has been vague and unclear.

Nick Rice, radical arsonist?

The KBI was certain within its own ranks that Nick Rice could not have been the man who tried to torch the overturned VW on the night of July 20. But in the days and weeks following his death, Lawrence and Douglas County officials sowed doubt about that fact in multiple public statements that went largely unchallenged by reporters covering the case. And while those local agencies were publicly casting doubt on Nick’s role that summer night, they were also working behind the scenes to try to tie the teenager to attempted arson, the full KBI investigative report reveals.

Based on testimony from officers at the time, it seems as though plans to label Rice an arsonist were first generated during an investigative interview with Officer Michael Sedlak in the early hours of July 21, just after Nick was shot and pronounced dead. In that interview, Col. William Albott, the Kansas Highway Patrol superintendent, asked Sedlak if “the one that was killed [was] the one who was lighting the fire?” Sedlak replied that Rice and the arsonist were the same person.

Sedlak-July-21-Interview

Shortly after that interview, at 3 that morning, Sedlak went to Lawrence Memorial Hospital and told the KBI agents present that Assistant County Attorney Mike Elwell had ordered him to view Nick’s body to confirm it was, indeed, the same person officers had seen attempting to set the VW Bug on fire.

Prior to letting Sedlak view the body, KBI Special Agent James Woods asked him to describe the person seen running away from the car. Sedlak said the person was a white male, between 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-10, with long hair and dressed in a white T-shirt and dark pants.

In his report for the agency, Woods said it was “obvious” from Sedlak’s description that Rice — 6-foot-5 and wearing a green turtleneck and striped pants when he was killed — wasn’t the arsonist.

But Sedlak, upon viewing Rice’s body, immediately said “that’s him.”

Woods ask Sedlak if he was sure. Sedlak then pulled back, saying “No, I’m not.” Woods asked again if Sedlak was sure Rice was the arsonist, and Sedlak repeated that he wasn’t sure.

Given Sedlak’s seesawing answer, Elwell then told the KBI he would run tests on Rice’s hands to see if there was any evidence that Nick might have been involved with the attempted arson. Elwell’s boss, County Attorney Dan Young, also sent Lawrence Police Capt. Merle McClure to the scene of the shooting to see if he could find any evidence, such as matches, in the immediate area of the VW Bug.

The thought, Elwell told the KBI, was that there could be traces of sulfur from matches on Nick’s fingers. The KBI made clear in its report that it thought those tests wouldn’t prove anything of substance, and indeed, the sulfur tests came back negative, as did tests on Nick’s clothing for traces of gasoline or other flammable material.

Elwell and Young also sought to gather evidence that could have justified the use of lethal force by the police. But those efforts only further underscored what other officers had testified to in private: that Nick Rice was not involved in any crime. He just seemed to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Still, local authorities continued trying to tie Nick to the attempted arson. Several of the Lawrence officers on the scene described a “rag that appeared to have been burnt on one end” that was directly under Nick’s chest when he fell – which could have implied he was the one trying to set the VW on fire. This theory seemed to rely in part on a photo that shows people gathered around the bloodstain where Nick fell. There appears to be a white cloth in the middle of the blood. In addition, Sedlak said he pulled the remnants of a smoldering rag from the engine compartment of the VW.

People gather near the blood stain where Nick Rice fell after being fatally shot on July 20, 1970.
KU Digital Archives

But Sedlak said he didn’t know where the rag had gone, and Pinegar — the officer who had yelled “Shoot him, shoot him, he’s an arsonist!” from near the car — said he never saw a rag being used to try and set the VW on fire. Sedlak and Pinegar could not be reached for comment on this story.

The full KBI report shows that Lt. Virgil Foust found much of the evidence on the night of July 20, and that Foust had found two pieces of rags that he then gave to a detective, who in turn gave the pieces to the KBI.

Yet Foust also told the KBI on July 25 that he didn’t know of any rags being found. Officers also didn’t identify where rags were found as part of official evidence, nor did they present any evidence that proved either of the two rags that Foust found had been used to try to burn the car.

Nonetheless, Officer Lawrence Good told the KBI on July 25 that he “believed detectives had what appeared to be a piece of white cloth that appeared to have been soaked with some type of substance; and the edge of it appeared to be burnt.”

“I was advised this was found in the area of where the body was found; but this is kind of secondhand,” Good said in a sworn statement. “I heard someone say this.”

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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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