June 16, 2021
Lawrence, US 94 F
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Who killed Nick Rice? Key figures in the investigation

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 was shot and killed in the 1200 block of Oread Avenue on the night of July 20, 1970 — an innocent bystander in a crowd of more than 150 protesters.

The following key figures were involved in Nick’s life, his death, and the subsequent investigation.

Note: We are publishing this installment between “Part 5: Decades of misinformation,” and “Part 6: A coroner’s inquest, unquestioning media coverage — and the sniper theory.” We would suggest readers catch up on the earlier parts of the series before reading this piece.

Those still alive:

• Chris Rice: Brother of Nick, son of Harry and Esther; 15 at the time Nick was shot and killed. Chris is now a retired dentist living in Florida. In 2018, Chris began seeking records in an effort to uncover the full truth of what happened to his brother.

• Cecily “Sam” Stephens: Nick’s fiancée of just two days at the time of his death. The two began dating just a few months earlier and quickly fell in love. Sam lived in Lawrence at the time of Nick’s death, and still lives in Kansas.

She did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this series.

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• Jim Shofstall: Friend of Nick and Sam. They picked up Jim in Kansas City on their way back to Lawrence on the night of July 20, 1970. Shofstall was near Nick when he fell from the gunshot.

The Times could not reach Shofstall for this series.

Wallace Vernon Nicholson III: Friend of Nick, Sam and Jim. Nick and Wallace regularly played pinball together, and Nick stopped near the Gaslight Tavern to give Wallace a hug while he and Sam were looking for Jim so they could return to Kansas City.

The Times could not reach Nicholson for this series.

• Jimmy Joe Stroud: Officer in the Lawrence Police Department on duty the night of Rice’s death. Stroud had a troubled career in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserve and did a brief stint at the Wichita Police Department before coming to Lawrence. Just a few hours after Nick was shot and pronounced dead, Stroud met with local officials at the Douglas County attorney’s office and said he thought he might have shot Rice – and even asked if he would be charged for Nick’s death.

Records from the KBI and FBI indicate that both agencies seem to have concluded that Stroud was more likely than not the officer who fired a fatal shot at Nick Rice on July 20, 1970. However, Stroud was never charged with a crime.

Stroud doesn’t appear to have suffered any immediate consequences within the Lawrence Police Department despite his virtual confession that he shot and killed Nick. After joining the department on Dec. 1, 1969, he remained an officer until May 1977 — almost seven years after Nick’s death. He now lives in Grove, Oklahoma.

Contacted recently, Stroud, now nearly 80, said he had “no idea” if he shot and killed Nick Rice, and repeatedly told a reporter for The Lawrence Times that there was no evidence he was the officer who shot Nick or that the bullet that killed Nick came from his gun – even though the KBI confirmed that the spent bullet found at the scene came from Stroud’s carbine. Stroud maintained this position after the reporter told him that the KBI file showed a straight line from where Stroud was stationed that night to where Nick was shot and killed and where a graduate student named Merton Olds suffered a gunshot wound to the leg at the same time.

• Gale Pinegar: Officer in the Lawrence Police Department on duty the night of Rice’s death. Pinegar was working near Stroud, and the two officers gave conflicting testimony about who shot their carbine rifles during the chaos that resulted in Nick’s killing, when they did so, and at what angle. Multiple officers testified that Pinegar was the officer who yelled “Shoot him, shoot him, he’s an arsonist!” at a man who was trying to light a VW Bug on fire — the order that led to the gunshot that killed Nick. Pinegar told investigators in a sworn statement that he didn’t remember saying this.

Pinegar left the police department in January 1973 after joining in July 1968, but still lives in Lawrence, according to property records. In a 2002 news article from the Lawrence Journal-World, Pinegar was reported to be a car salesman at Laird Noller Automotive.

Pinegar, now nearing 80, did not respond to multiple inquiries from the Times seeking an interview for this series.

• Michael Sedlak: Officer in the Lawrence Police Department on duty the night of Rice’s death. Sedlak testified that he was near both Pinegar and Stroud during the evening’s events and was carrying a shotgun while they carried carbine rifles.

Just after Rice was pronounced dead, Sedlak went to Lawrence Memorial Hospital with KBI agent James Woods to confirm if Nick was the same person as the arsonist who had been seen trying to light a VW Bug on fire. The arsonist was said to be between 5-foot-8 and 5-foot-10, with long brown hair and wearing a white shirt. Nick, on the other hand, was nearly 6-foot-5 and had medium-length red hair. Still, Sedlak at first identified Nick as the arsonist when Woods asked if it was indeed the same person — but he then backed off the identification when challenged by Woods.

Sedlak’s employment with the Lawrence Police Department ended soon after Rice was shot and killed, and his tenure ran a mere nine months — from December 1969 to September 1970.

Sedlak still lives in town, according to property records, but he did not respond to multiple inquiries from the Times seeking an interview for this series.

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• Robert Lemon: Sergeant in the Lawrence Police Department; the commanding officer on the night of Rice’s death. Lemon requested all units to the 12th and Oread area on the evening of July 20, 1970 even though it was quickly realized that a call of multiple firebombs being thrown in the Rock Chalk Café was false.

Lemon was a 20-year employee of the department, joining on Jan. 1, 1967 and ending his employment on June 20, 1987.

In 2020, Lemon, in his late 80s, wrote to the Lawrence City Commission to express his sharp opposition to historical markers memorializing the deaths of Nick and Rick “Tiger” Dowdell. Efforts to reach Lemon to be interviewed for this series were unsuccessful.

• Donald Donoho: Officer in the Lawrence Police Department on duty the night of Rice’s death. Donoho was part of the evidence-gathering team that discovered the bullet slug near the Gaslight Tavern hours later, and hesitantly revealed that to the KBI.

Donoho worked for the department from September 1969 through January of 1985.

Now almost 90, Donoho lives in Arizona. He did not return multiple inquiries seeking comment for this series.

• Robert Fox: Officer in the Lawrence Police Department on duty the night of Rice’s death. Fox testified to firing a warning shot in the air as the scene on Oread Avenue grew more tense on July 20.

Fox, 80, left the department in June of 1991 after joining in December of 1965. The Times was unable to reach him for this series.

• Lawrence Good: Officer in the Lawrence Police Department on duty the night of Rice’s death. Good was part of the evidence-gathering team hours later that discovered the bullet slug near the Gaslight Tavern, and like Donoho was hesitant to reveal that to the KBI.

Good worked for the department from August 1969 through December 1972. Now in his early 80s, Good lives in Topeka. The Times was unable to reach him for this series.

• James Woods: KBI agent who investigated Rice’s death and conducted several sworn interviews with local officers. Woods was with Sedlak when Sedlak backed away from identifying Nick as the arsonist early on July 21, 1970.

Woods, 78, retired from the agency in 2000. The Times was unable to reach him for this series.

• Mike Elwell: Assistant Douglas County attorney at the time Rice was killed. Elwell was present at the early morning meeting on July 21 at which Stroud asked if he would be charged with shooting Nick. Elwell and his boss, County Attorney Dan Young, ordered several tests to be conducted on Nick’s body and clothes to see if there was any possibility he could be the person who tried to set fire to the VW Bug, even though the physical descriptions of Nick and the suspected arsonist varied greatly.

Elwell became a Douglas County District Judge in 1972, a role that he held until 1985. He then left the legal profession and now lives and works as an artist in St. Petersburg, Florida. Elwell, 79, did not return a phone message or email seeking an interview for this series.

Those who have died:

• Harry Rice: Father of Nick and Chris, husband of Esther; insurance salesman in Johnson County during his life. Harry died in 2004 at age 77.

• Esther Rice: Mother of Nick and Chris, wife of Harry; worked in numerous Kansas City-area arts roles during her life. Esther died in 2019 at age 91.

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• Virgil Foust: Lieutenant in the Lawrence Police Department who was on duty the night of Rice’s death. Foust testified that he understood Lemon’s call for all units to come to the Oread neighborhood to be in response to the call of firebombs in the Rock Chalk Café, even though there was no indication firebombs were ever thrown. Foust also did not initially disclose to the KBI that he had spotted a bullet slug near the Gaslight Tavern just hours after Nick was shot, which his Captain Merle McClure then picked up, scratched his initial into the butt end, put into his pocket and took home for almost a week. Foust only corrected his KBI statement after another officer and McClure ultimately admitted they took evidence into their possession.

Foust was a six-year employee of the department, joining in September 1964 and ending his employment in November 1970. He died in 2015 at age 81. In 1976, he left Lawrence and moved to Rogers, Arkansas, where he continued to work in law enforcement. He moved back to Kansas in 2006, living in Ottawa until his death.

• Merle McClure: Captain of the Lawrence Police Department at the time of Rice’s death. McClure was the highest-ranking law enforcement officer to give a sworn statement to KBI investigators. In it, he admitted to taking evidence from the scene near the Gaslight Tavern in the hours following Nick’s death in the form of a bullet slug and matchbooks. The Times could find no evidence of McClure suffering consequences for breaking the evidentiary chain, and McClure continued working for the department until July 1976. He died in 2000 at age 75.

• James Malson: KBI agent who was the lead investigator into Rice’s death, conducted many sworn interviews with local officers, and testified to the KBI’s summary findings at the coroner inquest into Nick’s death. He was promoted to KBI assistant director in 1989, and appointed director of the agency a year later. Malson retired in 1992 and lived on his farm near Ottawa until his death in 2017 at age 81.

• Harold Nye: Director of the KBI in 1970 when Rice was killed. Nye told Harry and Esther Rice he would help them however he could in obtaining the truth about Nick’s death, but was only able to provide a six-page summary of the KBI’s findings — which he said covered everything important to know, even though there were more than 600 pages of investigatory records in the agency’s possession. Nye was removed from his role as director in 1971 after a new state attorney general was sworn into office. He died in 2003 at age 77.

• James Reed: Douglas County coroner who performed inquests into the deaths of Nick Rice and Tiger Dowdell — both of which exonerated the Lawrence Police Department and anyone else from feloniously causing the deaths. Reed died in 1997 at age 73.

• Richard Stanwix: Chief of the Lawrence Police Department when Rice was killed. Stanwix was relatively silent during the investigation into Nick’s death but publicly echoed statements from city officials that police were justified in shooting on the night of July 20, 1970, because projectiles were being thrown at or near officers. He retired as police chief in 1987 and went on to work as an investigator for the Kansas Insurance Department. Stanwix died in 2008 at age 77.

• Buford Watson: Lawrence city manager at the time Rice was killed. Watson, according to media reports at the time, was one of the key officials who cast doubt on whether a Lawrence police officer killed Nick. Watson died in 1989 at age 59.

• William Albott: Superintendent of the Kansas Highway Patrol at the time of Rice’s death. Albott conducted interviews with Lawrence officers in tandem with Elwell in the hours after Nick was shot. Albott served as KHP superintendent until 1975, when he was named director of the KBI. He served as director until 1979. Albott died in 2000 at age 79.

• Daniel Young: Douglas County Attorney at the time of Rice’s death. Young and Elwell advocated for several tests on Nick’s body and clothes after his death to see if there was any possibility Nick could have been the arsonist. Young also was responsible for selecting the jury at Nick’s coroner’s inquest and the 22 witnesses who would testify, and deciding which materials to provide to the KBI and FBI during their investigations into Nick’s death. Young died in 2008 at age 76.

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