June 12, 2021
Lawrence, US 84 F
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Who killed Nick Rice? Part 6: A coroner’s inquest, unquestioning media coverage — and the sniper theory

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.

Wracked by grief, Harry and Esther Rice didn’t want the Douglas County coroner to perform an investigation into how their son died.

For a month after Nick Rice was shot and killed during a protest on the University of Kansas campus, officials wavered about whether to conduct a death investigation. They actually offered his parents the choice of whether an inquest would be held at all, according to Esther’s writings from the time. They said they’d prefer not to.

But on August 21, 1970, Assistant County Attorney Mike Elwell announced that an inquest would be held on Sept. 1 to “present more detailed information than the attorney general’s report.” The six-week scheduling delay was attributed to difficulty in booking a courtroom. But that explanation appears thin, since an inquest was held into Rick “Tiger” Dowdell’s July 16 death just days after it happened.

An all-white jury in that inquest unanimously and controversially cleared Officer William Garrett of any wrongdoing in Dowdell’s death. Garrett was soon after allowed to return to the Lawrence police force, seemingly with no punishment other than the temporary suspension he’d received prior to the inquest.

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Harry and Esther were heartbroken that the city proceeded with an inquest into Nick’s death against their wishes. It was “absurd to have one and subject everyone to further incriminations,” Esther wrote later. “We knew the cause of death was a .30 caliber bullet and that the only shots fired had come from the police carrying weapons that fired this type of bullet and all we could argue about was which policeman did the shooting.”

Twenty-two witnesses selected by Douglas County Attorney Dan Young testified in the Rice inquest. One of those was KBI Special Agent Jim Malson, who summarized a version of the agency’s report that was drafted by Assistant Attorney General Edward Collister. That publicized version of events included no mention of Officer Jimmy Joe Stroud, who had asked officials just hours after Nick’s death if he was going to be charged with shooting the 18-year-old.

The six jurors that took part in adjudicating Nick’s death at the inquest – all of whom were white and middle-aged – found after just 67 minutes of deliberation that the fatal gunshot wound was caused by a “person or persons unknown” and that “there was not sufficient evidence presented to determine whether the death was or was not caused feloniously.”

One source of news in Lawrence at the time didn’t buy the ruling. The Vortex, an underground newspaper published in town in 1969 and 1970, reported from the courtroom scene of the inquest that the evidence pointed to one person as the source of the fatal bullet: Officer Stroud.

“The truth is obvious. Stroud killed Rice,” the newspaper wrote in an article carrying no byline, in keeping with the publication’s subversive nature. “I know it, the witnesses know it, the jury knows it.”

Vortex

Unfortunately, most of the inquest testimony is lost to history, Nick Rice’s brother Chris discovered in his search for records of the case decades later. A complete copy of testimony from all 22 witnesses apparently no longer exists, and Douglas County told Chris in 2019 that after 30 hours of searching, the transcript couldn’t be found. Thirty-four pages out of the 261-page transcript are included in records from the FBI that Chris obtained, but the rest is missing.

Without these official records, the next best source of contemporaneous information about Nick’s death and the coroner’s inquest are the media accounts from the time. Although the Vortex had its own strong theory about the case, the reporting in other media illustrates how the misconceptions about Nick’s role in the events of July 20, 1970, and exactly how he was killed, were able to flourish in the community over the years.

A barrage of doubt, unquestioning media and the impossible sniper theory

The Lawrence Daily Journal-World (now the Lawrence Journal-World) and the University of Kansas student newspaper, the University Daily Kansan, were the two publications that most consistently covered the aftermath of Nick Rice’s death, along with reporters from the Associated Press. The Kansas City Times, a now-defunct sister paper to the Kansas City Star, also covered the events in Lawrence from time to time.

A Lawrence Times analysis of news articles from that era shows that while the Kansas City Times covered the Rice case with a somewhat skeptical eye, it was the local coverage of the Daily Journal-World, which brought the news to most Lawrence households, that probably had greater influence on the community’s general perception about what happened to Nick and the role that local law enforcement played.

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For example, the Kansas City Times reported correctly that the coroner’s inquest cleared Rice of any connection with trying to light the red VW Bug on fire that night. But The Daily Journal-World reported only that Nick’s hands and clothes tested negative for any accelerants and that Nick’s physical characteristics didn’t match that of the arsonist. The paper appears to have not flatly declared to its readership that Rice was not the arsonist — a conclusion it could have drawn based on the evidence that police made publicly available.

Instead, the Daily Journal-World’s coverage let many law enforcement statements about Rice death go virtually unchallenged, leading to the festering of what remains the most commonly held misconception about Rice death: that he was shot by a sniper from above Oread Avenue.

The full KBI file obtained in 2020 by Chris Rice shows that authorities knew as soon as they examined Nick’s body in the early hours of July 21 that the bullet entered and passed through Nick’s skull “almost in a perfectly straight line.” The KBI’s investigation would piece together that line began where Stroud was positioned on the street that night. Given this evidence, it appears that there is no way Nick Rice could have died other than from a bullet fired from where Officer Jimmy Joe Stroud had been stationed.

The Daily Journal-World did report that the coroner’s inquest that September determined the path of the bullet was “about as horizontal as it could be.” But because the coroner’s inquest wasn’t held or decided for six weeks after the shooting, that revelation came too late.

The days just after Nick was killed allowed public officials to unleash a barrage of doubt that a police officer had fired the fatal shot. This went unchallenged in the local press.

The first press release issued after Rice’s death – by Young – stated twice that Young did not know who fired the shot. Even though he acknowledged that police did fire shots and tear gas canisters were uncorked before the shooting started, Young still cast doubt on whether any of those caused Rice’s death.

Stroud’s tacit admission hours after the shooting was withheld from those initial press releases, and with the source of the bullet purposely left vague, it was easy for the public to begin speculating about Nick’s cause of death and entertain ideas that physically were not possible. Part of that speculation likely arose on its own because it had been confirmed that snipers had fired at police officers in the aftermath of Dowdell’s death days earlier. But the full record shows no confirmed report of snipers in the area on the night Nick was killed.

Young’s first press release also suggested that even if a police officer did fire the shot that killed Rice, the shooting was justified because the crowd had been assaulting officers with rocks, bottles and other projectiles. Lawrence City Manager Buford Watson and Police Chief Richard Stanwix echoed the initial sentiments from County Attorney Young. Watson told the Daily Journal-World that a policeman is justified in shooting “when he sees a felonious action about to be committed or when protecting persons or property.”

But though the crowd did appear to be throwing things at or near officers that evening, the use of lethal force to dispel the crowd was out of line with the Lawrence Police Department’s stated internal practices. The department’s officer training manual in that era expressly cautioned against firing warning shots because of the danger they posed both to civilian bystanders and officers themselves.

LPD-Handbook

Despite how clear the cause of Rice’s death seems with the hindsight of the full KBI investigation file, media reporting at the time helped to confuse or blur the facts of the case. For example, the July 21 Daily Journal-World article, quoting Young’s press release nearly verbatim, reported that county coroner James Reed had performed Nick’s autopsy, but that the investigation into which type of bullet made the wound in the back of his neck wasn’t complete.

That was the last time the media ever addressed what kind of bullet killed Nick Rice, even though the autopsy report later given to Nick’s family said that the examination “revealed a small hole about 9mm diameter or less penetrating the skin beneath the skull in the middle of the back of the neck.” A .30-caliber bullet is slightly smaller than a 9mm, and would match the type of carbine rifles that Stroud and Pinegar were carrying the night of July 20.

But the news article that may have done the most damage to the truth of what happened to Nick Rice came from the Daily Journal-World on July 22. It was titled “One Oread Shot Not Policeman’s?”

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“If information compiled from Lawrence policemen is accurate, either Nick Rice or Merton Olds was not hit by a shot fired by Lawrence policemen. It remains possible that neither Rice nor Olds was hit by a Lawrence policeman’s bullet,” the article begins.

The article cites “reports” that all officers fired their weapons into the air, but then quotes Assistant City Manager Dennis Kallsen as saying that “at least five of six officers who fired shots, fired them into the air.” Kallsen tried to emphasize that the city wasn’t implying the sixth shot was fired into the crowd, and the Daily Journal-World told its readers that “reports at this stage are confused.”

By July 23, the false narrative of a sniper above Oread Avenue being to blame for Nick’s killing had begun to work its way into the public’s understanding of his death. And even though local officials had plenty of evidence that such a fate was impossible, and had produced no evidence to support it, they took no steps to clear that up to the public.

An ad ran that same day in the Daily Journal-World from Arly Allen, the owner of Allen Press Inc., one of the city’s most successful businesses, addressing Buford Watson, the city manager, in large, capitalized letters. While the ad’s text is indicative of the sort of “law and order” pro-police rhetoric that was commonplace at the time, it also seems to suggest that Nick Rice had been killed by a sniper:

Stop it now, Mr. Watson! Lawrence is under attack. Groups are now forming out of fear and hatred to tear this city apart. One man is dead. Others are going to die.* We cannot ignore the danger that all of us face at this very moment.  The city must act immediately to stop the dangerous deterioration of public confidence. Every illegal act must be punished at once with all the power the law commands. If the law is not enforced now, soon there will be no law to enforce. Mr. Watson, you have the power to preserve law and order. if you permit disorder to continue, you place every citizen of Lawrence in deadly peril. You must act now to maintain law and order. There can be no compromise on this point! Law cannot be ignored. Act now to preserve it! Government must be respected. Act now to deserve it! Stop this disorder now, for God's sake, Mr. Watson. Stop it now! If you feel as I do, cut this out and send it to Buford Watson, City Manager, City Hall, Lawrence. Then maybe he will feel the way we all feel. *At the very moment this was written, a student was killed by sniper fire. This must not be allowed to continue! Other people will be killed if action is not taken now. This ad paid for by Arly H. Allen and others who feel the same way.

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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