In the nine months since the Lawrence City Commission unanimously approved creating historical markers to memorialize two teenagers killed by Lawrence police, the conversation on what those markers might look like, where they’ll be placed, and how much they’ll cost has mostly gone silent.
Rick “Tiger” Dowdell, 19, and Harry Nicholas “Nick” Rice, 18, were killed by city police officers in the span of four days in July 1970.
Lawrence’s Historic Resources Commission, which reports to the city commissioners, has not discussed the markers at a meeting since it gave its own approval for their creation in August. A subcommittee for historical markers, created as part of the discussion on memorializing Rice and Dowdell, has met just once.
In an email to The Lawrence Times in late May, Lynne Zollner, city staff liaison for the HRC, said the project is proving a bit more complicated than first expected.
“There is a lot of material to consider. It is difficult to do simple markers without providing context. We have discussed a central marker to provide this context,” she wrote. “I have done some research and the marker types we discussed at our last meeting are more expensive than I anticipated. We will discuss costs and marker context at our next meeting and try to see what approach we will recommend to the City Commission.”
The markers aren’t on the HRC’s agenda for its meeting on Thursday, but Zollner said Monday that it was on her priority list this week to get a marker subcommittee meeting scheduled.
“(The marker subcommittee) has met once with some direction to staff to look at the markers like the Leo Beuerman marker in front of Merchants. I will report back to them on cost associated with the marker,” she said. “They also agreed that a central marker to tell the whole story is needed. There is only so much you can put on a simple small marker.”
There remains no budget for any of the markers, Zollner said. Once the marker subcommittee has formulated its recommendations, it will return to the city commission for a decision on how to proceed. When commissioners approved the project in September, it did so as a “non-budgeted request,” meaning that sufficient funding will have to be identified either through amendments to the current budget or through other means.
Dowdell, 19, and Rice, 18, were killed in a four-day span marking one of the more tumultuous periods in Lawrence’s history, which would later come to be known as the “Days of Rage.” On the evening of July 16, 1970, law enforcement was dispatched to a series of gunfire-related calls around the city — including one at “Afro House,” located at 946 ½ Rhode Island St. in East Lawrence. The house was a community center that promoted Black culture at KU, and it had become a hangout spot for some Black youth in the month it had been open.
The exact circumstances surrounding Dowdell’s death remain in dispute 51 years later, but what information is publicly available shows that after the shooting call came in, Dowdell and a woman left Afro House in a light-colored Volkswagen. A police cruiser followed the car, and the pursuit came to a head in an alley off Ninth Street between Rhode Island and New Hampshire Streets.
Dowdell got out of the VW’s passenger seat, and Lawrence police officer William Garrett chased the teenager down the alley. Garrett fired four shots from his .357 magnum. One of them went through the back of Dowdell’s head, killing him. There is dispute to this day about what exactly happened between Garrett and Dowdell, and accounts have varied over the years about whether Dowdell was armed. Garrett insisted Dowdell was carrying a gun in his left hand, but Dowdell’s family is adamant that the 19-year-old was righthanded.
As protests regarding Dowdell’s death enveloped the city, a greater sense of calm seemed to have settled by July 20. Nick Rice, having just finished his freshman year at KU, came to Lawrence from Kansas City with his fiancée of just two days and a mutual friend to pay a traffic ticket.
After finding the traffic court closed for the night, the three decided to hang around Lawrence, playing pinball at the Rock Chalk Café — a dive bar located at what is now the Oread Hotel. A growing crowd outside of the Rock Chalk, though, would prompt the evening turning deadly.
As the Times recently reported in an eight-part series using hundreds of pages of state and federal investigation reports, Rice would be shot in the back of the neck that night by a bullet fired from the carbine rifle of Officer Jimmy Joe Stroud as police unleashed tear gas in a sea of chaos that enveloped the Oread Neighborhood.
Stroud, just hours later, would essentially confess to shooting Rice — first telling a group of local officials at the Douglas County Courthouse that he “thought he had shot someone” and later asking the assistant county attorney and superintendent of the Kansas Highway Patrol “am I to be charged with shooting the man?”
Yet in the days and weeks following, the Lawrence Police Department and area officials launched a disinformation campaign about Rice and the events of that evening — sowing public doubt on whether police were actually responsible for the teen’s death and helping propagate an impossible theory that Rice was shot by a mysterious sniper.
No officer faced consequences for their roles in the killings.
Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter, can be reached at cmitchell (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-435-9264. If you have sensitive information to send Conner, please email connermitchell (at) protonmail (dot) com. Read more of his work for the Times here.