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.
The story of Nick Rice’s death is equal parts clear, tragic and infuriating.
Nick came to Lawrence on July 20, 1970, with his fiancée of just two days, to try to pay for a minor traffic ticket and to avoid having to miss work the following morning to appear in court. They made a date out of the evening and played pinball at two college bars, seemingly unaware of a growing and somewhat unruly crowd of protesters just outside.
A sergeant in Lawrence’s police department chose to dispatch all units to the area, based on a call for help that his own lieutenant and subordinate officers later testified wasn’t in line with the crowd conditions they encountered on arrival.
After the influx of police, the crowd become more rowdy, overturning a red Volkswagen Bug and trying to light it on fire. That caused a skirmish that resulted in Lawrence Police Department officers using lethal force outside the guidelines of their training to try to disperse the throng of KU students and young city residents. In the chaos, Officer Jimmy Joe Stroud fired his newly acquired .30-caliber carbine rifle into the crowd — and the slug from that bullet came to rest almost exactly where Nick Rice’s body lay, the KBI confirmed through laboratory testing.
Nick Rice was the unwitting victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, his life snuffed out at age 18.
But because of a misinformation campaign carried out by local officials and allowed to proceed by a state agency that’s supposed to serve as a check on those officials, and promoted by incomplete local news coverage, who Nick was and how he died have long remained unclear to a community still trying to reckon with the events of 1970.
Without the efforts of Nick’s younger brother, Chris Rice, it might have continued that way for another two decades, until the expiration of the 70-year period that Kansas law requires before criminal investigation records must be opened to the public.
A family torn apart
Chris says Nick’s death shattered his family.
Harry Rice’s insurance business was severely impacted, Esther Rice’s social standing never recovered, and for years afterward, the Rice family fielded an untold number of letters, phone calls and the occasional in-person visitor telling them their son and brother deserved what he got. Chris recalled answering the phone once to hear a caller threatening to kill him and the rest of his family because of Nick’s supposed radical activism. He said he doesn’t know how many similar threats his parents may have gotten over the years.
It’s been almost 51 years since Nick was killed. Chris, now a retired dentist living in Florida, still remembers hearing in the early morning hours of July 21, 1970, that his brother had died.
“I do remember this ringing of the doorbell. It was at 1 or 2 a.m., over and over again. I was trying to sleep, and my mom was off at a wedding in California, so my dad finally got up and answered the door,” Chris said.
“There was some low talking, and then the people got in the car and drove off,” he said. “I went out to talk to my dad and I said, ‘Well, what happened?’ and he said, ‘They say Nick’s been shot.’”
“I said, ‘No, no, it can’t be,’ you know, so we actually got in my dad’s car and drove to Lawrence to identify the body, which has got to just be a horrible thing, when a dad has to identify his son’s body,” Chris continued. “Especially when it’s been disfigured so badly because the bullet went out through his face … Some of the KBI photos were from the morgue, and I’ll never unsee those.”
Harry went into the morgue alone to identify Nick’s body. When he came out, Chris said his dad was in shock, and could only say, “Yeah, it’s Nick.”
“All the way there I remember telling my dad, ‘It can’t be Nick. It must be somebody who’s got his wallet.’ You know, typical denial from a 15-year-old,” Chris said. “But he came out and said it was, and then we found Nick’s car and drove it home, and basically that was it.”
Chris and Harry then had to get in touch with Esther in California. She heard the news before they could reach her, Chris said. “She actually heard about it, according to her notes, on the radio, on the public radio, that a student was killed at KU or something. She says they said his name, and she got a phone call eventually from our minister,” he said. “And then she flew home and, of course, she was just a basketcase for a long time. It was just very emotional, as you can imagine.”
A lengthy, frustrating court battle
The Rice family would spend the next few years trying – mostly unsuccessfully – to get a complete picture of what happened to their son. They sought copies of the KBI’s investigative records — the same ones Chris would finally receive in 2020 — from the Kansas attorney general’s office. That resulted only in Nye, the KBI director at the time Nick was killed, giving Harry and Esther a six-page summary report that KBI agents filed in August of 1970.
Nye told the Rices, according to a letter Chris still has, that the summary — which actually was drafted and filed prior to the coroner’s inquest into Nick’s death — “contained all the essential facts condensed from the voluminous reports submitted by the investigating officers.”
Nye was replaced as KBI director in 1971 after a new attorney general took office, and Harry and Esther were unable to get any more help out of the state’s top investigatory authority after Nye’s departure. (Nye died in 2003.)
The Rices tried to address their grief and distress with how Nick’s case was handled by filing wrongful death suits in both federal and Douglas County district courts in July 1972, two years after Nick was killed. The two cases sought a total of $250,000 in damages (more than $1.5 million in today’s money). The federal case named Sgt. Robert Lemon, Lt. Virgil Foust, and officers Jimmy Joe Stroud, Gale Pinegar, Michael Sedlak and Robert Fox as defendants, and the local case also named the Lawrence Police Department as a whole.
But the family ran into more than a year of legal roadblocks in trying to get a wrongful-death conviction. In late 1972, the officers tried to have the case thrown out on a technicality, arguing that the state’s wrongful-death statute did not apply in a federal court, but the judge rejected that argument. In April 1973, the Rices and their attorneys tried to argue for a change in trial venue, saying that there was no possibility of finding an impartial jury in Douglas County. Esther testified she had received “numerous harassing telephone calls after her son’s death” and believed that at least some had come from Lawrence. She also testified that the harassing calls she and her family received in 1973, three years after Nick’s death, came at a higher rate than they had in 1970.
The Douglas County judge denied the request for a change of venue, citing a lack of evidence that a trial in Lawrence couldn’t be truly impartial.
The cases also hit significant snags when the Rice attorneys attempted to subpoena the records custodian of the KBI at the time, Dwayne Sackman. In two May 1973 hearings, Sackman refused to let the attorneys copy or even see the records of the case, but the Rices’ lawyers got the judge in the federal court case to order that Sackman and the KBI produce copies of records of any kind related to Nick’s death.
Sackman appeared for a deposition on May 30, 1973, carrying 250 pages of KBI records and 20 exhibits that were identified as part of the record. Though Nick’s parents were finally able to know for sure that more records existed, they didn’t include the full contents of the KBI investigation file. Sackman was asked during that May deposition if there were other records relevant to the case that he wasn’t aware of. He responded only that “there could be.”
Ultimately, Esther and Harry became disillusioned with the legal process and the months of setbacks they had faced. In October 1973, they asked to settle both cases for a total of $500 – the retainer fee they’d paid their attorneys – which Lawrence city officials quickly agreed to.
Both cases were dismissed with prejudice, meaning that no legal action related to Nick’s death could ever be brought again.
Fighting for the full story
The fight for the truth so wore down Nick’s parents that Chris had to put his own hunt for the real story of July 20, 1970, on hold until Esther’s death in 2019. (Harry Rice had died in 2004.) She simply didn’t want Chris to pursue the records that revealed what actually happened on the night she lost her oldest son, Chris said.
“She didn’t want me to investigate this,” he said. “She had done her best throughout the years to try and answer misstatements that were made in newspapers and things like that, trying to paint Nick as anything other than the innocent bystander he was.”
But Chris said he still needed to know the full truth of what happened on that summer night in 1970.
“This deeply affected our family, and there are some people who still think Nick was breaking some law and was punished for it,” he said. “Most of all, we need to get the history right.”
One of the people Chris hasn’t really been able to speak with about his brother’s death is Nick’s fiancée, Sam Stephens. She still lives in Kansas, but didn’t respond to a request to be interviewed for this series.
Chris couldn’t remember for certain whether he or his parents met Sam during her brief courtship and engagement to Nick. As he fought to track down the definitive records into Nick’s death, Chris said he’s only heard from Sam once — in an email on the same day he was in Lawrence in August 2020 doing a presentation on the story behind Nick’s killing.
“She just said, ‘that was such a horrible time that I’ve really tried to block it out,’ pretty much,” Chris said.
Sam told Chris some other details of that night, but because she didn’t give the Lawrence Times permission to share its contents, the Times is not publishing her email.
Chris thinks they may have met briefly when Sam and Nick were dating. “I would say, probably, we met. I assume that I did, but I don’t remember her face very well, or, or anything,” Chris said. “Nick didn’t have a picture of her in his wallet or anything. I don’t know if somebody else has a picture of her.”
“I would love to meet Sam someday, just chat with her. She said in her email that it was just a horrible time. It was her first real love and then this horrible thing happened,” he said. “It was very tragic – she was holding his hand and then she wasn’t.”
A sense of closure?
It was an emotional and at times expensive journey for Chris to get the full story of what happened to his brother half a century ago.
As a teenager himself in 1970, the killing of his older brother gnawed at him over the course of his life. He told the Times that because of his parents’ own investigative efforts and the small amount of information they’d been able to gather during their lawsuits, he had a general idea of what had happened. He knew it was almost certainly a police officer who was responsible, and that the sniper theory was impossible.
But the actual details of what happened were vague, holes left in the story that long left Chris wondering.
In the end, it turned out the KBI records custodian was correct — there was more material available about the case. A lot more: Chris obtained 600 pages of new documents through multiple public records requests to both the KBI and FBI, which cost him several thousand dollars in production fees over the course of the two-year battle to obtain the information.
“This was a labor of love for me,” he said. “It took a lot of time, and it shouldn’t have taken as much time. It shouldn’t be this hard to find out the truth.”
After reading through the newly discovered documents – which he shared with The Lawrence Times for this series – Chris Rice says he finally has the sense of closure he needed about what happened to his brother Nick.
Although his parents had more or less lost the desire to continue fighting for the full truth of what happened to their son as they grew older, Chris said, he believes they would’ve been felt vindicated by what the KBI and FBI records showed.
“Yes, I feel like I now know the whole story,” he said. “And I hope this story gets out [for] people who still are questioning, you know, what the role of my brother was, and what happened, and put to rest this whole sniper theory.”
Asked if there was anything he would say to Jimmy Joe Stroud, the Lawrence police officer who almost certainly shot and killed his brother in a sea of chaos five decades ago, Chris paused.
“What I would say to him is, ‘Accidents happen. And, you know, I’m so sorry this happened. I’m very sorry. I know that you’ve probably lived with this your whole life. And I just want you to know that accidents happen and I forgive you,'” he said. “It’s OK. I mean it’s not OK, I’m never going to forget it, but I can certainly forgive.
“What I can’t forgive is the way that Lawrence tried to cover it up.”
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.
This is the final installment in the first Lawrence Times investigative series: Who killed Nick Rice?
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