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Who killed Nick Rice? Epilogue: An eyewitness still grappling with painful memories of a tumultuous era

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.

Fifty-one years ago today marked a climax in the most turbulent period in Lawrence’s history since the Civil War.

Unrest on the University of Kansas campus reached a fever pitch as protests over the deeply unpopular Vietnam War coincided with smoldering local racial tensions — and a city torn between conservative fundamentalists and a new wave of progressive activists became a lightning rod for the type of unrest sweeping the nation in the 1960s and ’70s.

And the memories of what happened on one bloody night are still fresh in the mind of a Lawrence man who was just feet from an innocent teenager shot and killed during an encounter with police.

In April 1970, the Kappa Sigma fraternity at the University of Kansas was set on fire, causing significant damage; a furniture store in downtown Lawrence was firebombed and destroyed; and a firebomb was detonated on the sixth floor of the Kansas Memorial Union, causing more than $13 million in damages in today’s money — the level of property damage an indicator of how fragmented the town of 45,000 had become.

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The nationally publicized May shootings at Kent State University and Jackson State University sparked a new wave of protest on KU’s campus, and the 1970 commencement ceremonies were essentially canceled in lieu of a smaller event in Allen Fieldhouse. And two months later, tragedy struck Lawrence twice in less than a week as teenagers Rick “Tiger” Dowdell and Harry Nicholas “Nick” Rice were killed by Lawrence police officers.

Days of public mourning and violent unrest followed after Dowdell, a 19-year-old Black activist, was shot and killed by Officer William Garrett the night of July 16, 1970, in circumstances still disputed to this day. That unrest culminated on July 20, when Rice, an 18-year-old white student who had just finished his first year at KU, was shot and killed during a skirmish with police and more than 150 people near what is now the Oread Hotel.

The circumstances of Rice’s death were murky for half a century until Rice’s younger brother, Chris, obtained more than 600 pages of investigation records from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in 2020. Chris shared those records with the Times, which resulted in an eight-part investigative series published in May showing that Lawrence officials knew within a matter of hours exactly which officer had shot and killed the teenager — but instead obscured facts to the general public and misrepresented the police department’s role in the events of the evening.

After the series concluded, the Times received a message from a source who was in high school during the tumultuous summer of 1970 and still lives in Lawrence. The source wanted to share his still-vivid recollections of the evening, but on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about the events of that year and due to fears telling the truth could harm his status in the community.

The Times takes the responsibility of granting anonymity to sources seriously, and felt this particular source’s concerns with respect to sharing their story were valid. To make the narrative retelling of the source’s story easier to digest, they’ll be referred to by the pseudonym “John.”

John remembers coming to the Oread neighborhood on July 19 and 20 (what is now the Oread Hotel, Ecumenical Campus Ministries and the KU Alumni Center) with a group of friends to celebrate his 16th birthday. Their decision was also politically motivated, he said — though he and his friends were white, they were deeply upset about Dowdell’s killing days earlier.

He and his friends arrived right before police began gathering in the neighborhood and the night devolved into violent chaos.

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“I saw the telephone post get lit on fire, and it was a little bit of a carnival atmosphere. And we knew that the police were beginning to mass … and that was really agitating a lot of people. We were like, ‘what the hell is all this?’ It wasn’t like there was some massive fire going on. Other people were throwing rocks at that streetlight and I think that streetlight might have been knocked out several times — but it was just by, you know, f—ing idiots. It wasn’t by some massive angry crowd, but as the police began to kind of march up, people became more and more agitated,” John said.

The main source of conflict that night came in quick succession. Sgt. Robert Lemon of the Lawrence Police Department dispatched all of his on-duty officers to the Rock Chalk Café after receiving a false report of firebombs being thrown into the dive bar. And between the Rock Chalk and a bar called the Gaslight Tavern, the crowd overturned a red Volkswagen Bug and tried to light it on fire, agitated, as John said, by the increased police presence.

“I remember that was this guy kind of a bearded guy, 5-foot-5, 5-foot-6, and said, ‘Hey guys, my car’s insured.’ This is the guy that owned the VW, he said, ‘Let’s knock this thing over.’ And as high school kids, we all thought this was a grand idea,” John said. “A lot of people had started to run away because the police were getting closer and closer. I distinctly remember dropping several matches into the gas tank, and to this day I have no idea why it didn’t catch on fire.”

This is where John continues to face internal conflict over his role in the events of that night, 51 years later. He said he learned through the Times’ reporting that officers said the suspected arsonist they targeted in the chaos was under 6 feet tall, wearing a white T-shirt and had long hair — just like he did in high school. He showed a reporter a picture from his high school yearbook that confirmed this.

John still gets emotional when thinking about his role in the events of that night.

“That’s the part that freaks me out. And I know that I was the last person on the street before I read those reports because I saw everybody in front of me,” John said. “I don’t distinctly remember seeing Sam (Stephens, Rice’s fiancée of two days), or Nick, but I do remember everybody else was further down the street. There’s just so many things about that evening that I don’t understand — why that kid, you know … why he had to get killed.”

After Nick was shot and fell to the sidewalk — John just 10 feet away, by his estimation — it took John a while to figure out what happened.

“As I walk out on the street, I see these three officers walking back and they’re all kind of chuckling. And … I hear these people going, ‘You f—ing murderers, you goddamn f—ing murders,’ and just screaming. I have no idea what’s happened, but I know something pretty horrible is happening. I couldn’t see all the way up the street, because I just barely got to the sidewalk. When these three police approached me and yell ‘What are you doing?!’ and I’m like, you know, frozen. I’m 16 years old.

“One of them said ‘Boy, you better run.’ And I’m thinking if I run these guys are going to shoot me in the f—ing back. I mean, that was what ran through my mind. And I froze, and the guy takes his rifle and puts it up, like, ‘I’m gonna f—in’ crack your head open.’ I still was thinking, ‘If I run, they’re gonna f—ing kill me,'” John said.

He ended up walking away quickly, wondering then and now how he managed to escape from the night unscathed, and whether the bullet that struck and killed Nick Rice was meant for him instead.

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John recalled his horror at watching police officers continue to throw tear gas canisters into the Gaslight Tavern after Nick’s body was carried inside, an ambulance trying to reach him through the chaos. Police told investigators they thought the scene may have been a trick to divert their attention, which is why they kept firing the gas, but John felt differently.

“I think the thing that got me the most was the fact that the sergeant dispatched every officer he had on duty to the Oread neighborhood, even though they quickly figured out that there were not actually fire bombs thrown in the Rock Chalk. There’s a reason for that,” he said. “They wanted to kill some f—ing hippies — and I’m telling you, I’m not just like being overly emotive, they wanted to kill some f—ing hippies.”

Though policing in Lawrence changed after Dowdell and Rice were killed, John said, he recalled a haunting interaction a few years after the chaos of 1970 that brought him right back to his experiences as a 16-year-old:

“This probably happened about 1975. I was driving my own VW Beetle down Massachusetts Street. And I was driving south on Massachusetts Street, going to (a bar). I saw a parking spot right in front of the (bar), so I flipped a U-ie. And of course, you know, that’s a moving violation, and I wasn’t paying any attention, I was puffing on a big (joint). There was a police officer right behind me.

“He pulls me over, and says ‘You know you made a U-turn to come in here.’ And I say ‘I know, I’m very, very sorry officer. There’s no excuse, it won’t happen again.’

“There’s no way he couldn’t smell pot in my car, no f—ing way. And he doesn’t ask me for my license, doesn’t ask me for shit. But as he’s walking away, he goes, ‘By the way. Go ahead and keep on smoking what you’re smoking there — [John].’

“That was extremely odd, and it’s really kind of upsetting. You know, like, how did that guy know my f—ing name?”

The city of Lawrence continues to actively consider placing historical markers to memorialize Dowdell and Rice’s deaths.

Read the series from the beginning:

— Conner Mitchell (he/him), reporter for The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email 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.

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