Sakeim Dowdell and his brothers had a plan when they went to the Douglas County courthouse on July 21, 1970.
They were going to kill the cop who they believed murdered their brother in cold blood five days earlier.
“We could’ve killed him, gone home and had dinner. That’s how strong the hate was,” Sakeim said.
listen “It was like something that was out of a book. It was like a vile, green pus-hate, you know what I mean? Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me from getting to him.
“And that’s the reason we went there. ‘Cause we was gonna get him right there, with the whole dang National Guard there.”
The Dowdell brothers didn’t go through with their plan — had the National Guard not been at the coroner’s inquest into Tiger’s death, Officer William Garrett might have died in 1970 rather than 2020 — but their personal anger represented the tension that gripped Lawrence after Dowdell was killed by police in a downtown alley that unseasonably cool July night, 52 years ago today.
From poverty to power
Rick “Tiger” Dowdell was born May 8, 1951, the fifth of seven boys born to Frank Dowdell Sr. and Barbara Harding.
His nickname, Tiger, came from two different origins, his brother Sakeim said in a series of interviews for this piece.
First, Frank gave him the nickname because he never backed down from a fight with any of his older brothers — much like a tiger. His brothers adopted the nickname once they realized that when they tried to ditch Tiger while out in Lawrence, he would appear back next to them “like a tiger in the dark.”
listen “We treated him like a brother,” Sakeim said. “Just awful.”
The Dowdell boys grew up in an unstable household. Barbara died of leukemia when Tiger was 10 years old. Frank left the family suddenly and without warning, asking his sisters to look after his kids. He never came back; he moved to Tacoma, Washington to start a new family.
Tiger and his brothers who couldn’t yet look after themselves were raised by their grandmother, Temple Harding, who wasn’t quite able to give the boys everything they needed in a guardian due to her old age and at times failing health.
“(Our mom) died at 36 years old, and we were left with seven kids and our dad. Everywhere we went after that, we had to take Tiger with us, and we hated taking him with us,” Sakeim said.
“Tiger had to grow up fast,” he added. “Our whole lives changed because we were without a mom and without the basic social skills that a mom taught you. We were just surviving the best way we could without a mom. We had some very cold days.”
Sakeim said Frank was a tough father, who said little and weighed heavily on alcohol to cope with Barbara’s loss. A military man, Frank knew little other than manual labor and worked at a Lawrence factory for $3 to $4 an hour, corrugating paper into cardboard in sweltering working conditions in the summertime. The Dowdell family, Sakeim said, spent much of its time in abject poverty.
“In the summertime, we didn’t have shoes. We had one pair of shoes a year. We went barefoot, never had shirts, just shorts. It was that bad. We would leave the house at 8, come back at 6, and hope you found some food while you were out. We raided fruit trees to survive.”
Despite the hardships he faced, Tiger was a well-known and well-liked member of the Lawrence community growing up. A female grade school and high school classmate of Tiger’s, who asked not to be named, remembered his kindness — always donning a smile — and his sharp academic mind.
Though he struggled with grades early in high school, in his junior year he moved in with Bill and Marilyn Simons — Bill was a white man and the director of Lawrence’s Ballard Center, a social services center for Black youth, and Marilyn was a Black woman — and his grades quickly improved to As and Bs.
Tiger was an artistically gifted student who also played varsity basketball, starting most games his senior year. The adult figures in Tiger’s life spoke highly of him, saying he was bright, easy to communicate with, and that he would take constructive criticism to heart and use it to make himself better.
“It was a colorful time, but Tiger, he was one of a kind. He had charisma way far from anybody else, and his inner strength and his determination just took him out of the roof,” Sakeim said.
Tiger was an active member of the Lawrence community during his high school years. Though soft-spoken, he was a leader in efforts to introduce African and African American history curriculum into the Lawrence K-12 school system and was elected as the first president of the Black American Club at Lawrence High School as a senior because of how popular he was.
Tiger would go on to lead a walkout at Lawrence High School in April 1970 over a lack of Black history in the school district’s curriculum — and the outcry over the walkout would spill over into violence at KU, as the university’s union was firebombed April 20.
Sakeim, though, says Tiger’s activism actually began years earlier when he and his older brothers protested for an integrated swimming pool in Lawrence — a fiery issue in the town’s history. Those protests, he said, were also what put the Dowdell family on the city police’s radar.
“We started to picket for the Jayhawk Plunge, which was in Lawrence, where Blacks weren’t allowed to go. This was in the 50s and that’s when we all started our militancy as far as race goes,” Sakeim said. “We started doing that and we started running around town and fighting the vigilantes and we were fighting for a swimming pool. All of us were out there, and the Dowdells — there’s so many of us — we were attracted toward the police and they had us on their radar.”
When Tiger was in high school and his brothers were enrolled at KU, the Dowdell efforts to militarize their fight for Black rights increased exponentially, Sakeim said.
“We started getting really boisterous and militant, and Tiger was right behind us. Then that’s when we all started carrying guns because of us being threatened and shot at,” he said. “We were the scapegoats of all the vigilantes and the white police force. We were followed, we were harassed, beaten, jailed, you name it, we went through all of it. Tiger was in the middle of it, all the time.”
“Tiger was well seasoned about the streets, but he got really out there and we had to reel him in a couple of times,” Sakeim added. “He thought he was infallible, really like a teenager, thought he was invincible.”
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation case file, though incomplete, provides for the first time a fuller picture of July 16, 1970 — the night Tiger was killed.
Gunfire rang out between 10 and 10:15 p.m. that night, with one report of windows being shot out and a report of a 61-year-old woman on Ninth and New York streets with a bullet wound to her left leg.
While responding to the shooting, two Lawrence police officers, Kennard Avey and Lloyd Jones, reported being shot at in the 900 block of New York Street. Avey and Jones, according to the KBI report, spotted two “colored” subjects running west on New York toward 10th Street, and Avey stopped his patrol car to follow the two on foot.
Avey would later testify that he saw the two subjects he was chasing enter the Afro House, a community center for Black youth, three blocks away at 946 1/2 Rhode Island; Jones said he saw pistols in their hands. The two called for backup and set up surveillance directly outside the house with two other officers.
One of those officers, Gale Pinegar, later testified that he saw two people leave Afro House in a light-colored Volkswagen — ultimately Tiger Dowdell and his friend, Franki Cole, a KU student — and thinking they could be the same two who ran from the shooting at Ninth and New York, radioed to Avey and Officer William Garrett so they could check the vehicle’s occupants.
Avey and Garrett both testified they turned on the patrol car’s sirens almost immediately (Cole would later say the lights were not on, though this appears to be disputed by eyewitness accounts). Avey, in a detail left out of public KBI reports at the time, pointed a shotgun out of the passenger side window at Cole and Dowdell while Garrett drove after the VW.
Cole allegedly sped and ran two stop signs before pulling on to the sidewalk in the 900 block of New Hampshire. Dowdell then ran from the passenger’s side down the alley, Garrett chased him on foot, fired a warning shot, then Dowdell allegedly returned fire once before Garrett fired three rounds from his Smith & Wesson Model 19, one killing the teenager instantly.Scene
KBI reconstruction of the scene of Tiger Dowdell’s shooting death.
In a 1990 interview with Marian Weeks, a KU journalism graduate student who wrote a thesis called “Lawrence, 1970: A Narrative and Oral Histories Surrounding Three Crises,” Avey told Weeks that Garrett literally stumbled over Dowdell’s body in the alleyway.
“He went up one side of the alley; I went up the other side of the alley. We was just working our way through,” Avey told Weeks. “And [Garrett] stumbled over Dowdell’s body. So he at that time, when I, he had, didn’t realize he had … So he and … ” (Avey’s train of thought appears to trail off here.)
Sakeim, who was at Afro House that night, said previous reports that Cole was taking Tiger to see his girlfriend up at Daisy Hill on KU’s campus were accurate. This fact still seems to disturb Sakeim, though, because he said Black people at the time made sure to travel in groups so they couldn’t get cornered — either by police or by the white vigilantes throughout the town.
“We always travel in packs, so that’s why we couldn’t understand when Franki took him,” he said. “We always traveled in fours, and we’d done that for a long time.”
Fifty-two years later, Sakeim is convinced that all Tiger was doing was running back to Afro House to get his brothers because he and Cole were being followed. Sakeim said he and his brothers never saw Cole again after that night and were never able to talk with her about Tiger’s death.
“He was coming back to the house to get us. Why would he start shooting?”
The closest eyewitness
Cole admitted at the time of Tiger’s death, and in an interview for a KU student’s master’s thesis in 1990, that her recollection of July 16 was shoddy due to the trauma of that night.
Cole didn’t give a statement to law enforcement until Aug. 11, 1970 — she declined to give a statement to police immediately after, and she was prohibited from testifying during the county coroner’s inquest into Dowdell’s death unless she waived her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
Her version of the night’s events — what she can remember, at least — hasn’t changed. Cole, whose married name is Jackson, now lives in Washington and did not return a message seeking an interview for this article.
She ate dinner at KU’s Oliver Hall, where she was living while taking summer classes, and then took a nap until 9:30 p.m. She interacted briefly with an adviser, went to grab a late-night bite to eat at a burger joint, and by 10:30 was driving to Afro House. Once she arrived, her boyfriend told her to come back another time, so she got back into her blue VW to head back to Daisy Hill. Tiger caught her before she left and asked for a ride to visit a girl he was interested in.
Tiger didn’t tell Cole where the girl lived, and she drove down 10th Street, where she insists she stopped at a stop sign, before he told her to turn right, putting them parallel with the nearby alley behind Massachusetts Street. Here is the first indication Cole gave investigators of noticing a police car following them — she said she noticed a red light in her rearview mirror about three-fourths of the way down the alley.
She then turned right at Ninth and New Hampshire, and admits she could have missed a stop sign. She said the police car was following them but she wasn’t sure they were meaning to pull her over. Then she turned into the alley, hit a curb, and Rick got out of the car.
Cole told the KBI that Tiger never pointed out someone following them or asked to get out of her car. This point is where Cole’s version of events begins to break with the story from police and the few other eyewitnesses who saw all or part of the pursuit.
She said Tiger paused after he got out of the car and said something to her she couldn’t remember before he walked down the alley. All other accounts say that as soon as the car hit the curb, Tiger got out and immediately began sprinting down the alley.
Then, officers ordered Cole out of the car and she lost track of what was happening to Tiger. She remembers seeing officers with “big” guns near her, and the last time she saw Tiger, he was looking back over his shoulder. One of the “guys that had been in the car that was following us” started down the alley after Tiger, Cole said, and she remembers hearing just one gunshot while she was already outside of her car with the officer.
All other accounts, including from more than 10 witnesses, indicate at least three shots were fired, and ballistics reports show the most likely number of shots fired was five: Garrett’s warning shot, possibly a single returned shot from Tiger, and then three more shots from Garrett, one of which was the fatal shot.
Cole said Garrett (she “guessed”) then came out of the alley and asked for an ambulance, and was at the scene until it arrived. Then she was handcuffed, placed in a police car and taken to the station. It does not appear Cole was ever charged with a crime, and it’s unclear why she was arrested. She said during her August 1970 statement to the KBI that she was never given a reason.
Cole’s memory of the night is spotty and contradictory at times. She says she never knew a police car was following her or trying to pull her over, but at one point acknowledges seeing the red lights behind her. The latter is also an odd contradiction, as Cole later says — and reiterated during her 1990 interview for a master’s thesis by Marian Weeks on the impact of 1970 on Lawrence — she’s almost positive the car following her never had lights on. This was disputed by officers Garrett and Avey, as well as by eyewitnesses who saw the pursuit.
“If I had to give an explanation for as many memory blanks as there are, it would be that it was so traumatic that I’ve blocked it out,” Cole said in 1990. “It was the most traumatic thing that ever happened in my life.”
Officer William Garrett
Garrett, in his second stint with the Lawrence Police Department, graduated from Southeast High School in Kansas City, Missouri in 1961 before spending three years in Cocoa Beach, Florida, working for Boeing, the aircraft company.
In March 1964, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, spending nearly three years as a military policeman — two years in Japan and seven months in Yuma, Arizona. After he was discharged, he got a job in Lawrence for the first time, starting in April 1967. He resigned from the department in December 1968, stating he was unhappy with the department’s administrators at the time.
Garrett then took a job with the Overland Park Police Department, though he quit there by May 1969 because he felt as though he didn’t fit in the department and preferred the police work in Lawrence to that of Overland Park.
There is no record of Garrett facing any discipline while in Lawrence or Overland Park.
A psychological test Garrett took prior to starting work in Overland Park found him to be “reserved” and “shy” — more mild-mannered than expected for someone who wanted to be a police officer. A background check for the department also found no issues. Garrett’s Overland Park colleagues described him as smart, but not necessarily a “tough cop” or an officer who was a quick-draw with his gun.
In Lawrence, Garrett also had no discipline issues, but was passed over for a promotion to sergeant around the time of Dowdell’s death. According to an Aug. 13, 1970 KBI report, police chief Richard Stanwix told the agency Garrett took the sergeant’s test “approximately one month ago” but was not selected because his grades on the test weren’t the highest and because he’d quit the department to work for Overland Park before returning. Stanwix said it was still possible Garrett would be promoted to sergeant in the future.
There was no record in Garrett’s background of any racism or incidents with people of color. KBI background checks from the time were not necessarily stingy or withholding of unsavory information when investigating a fellow law enforcement officer: When the agency investigated the background of Officer Jimmy Joe Stroud, who would shoot and kill 18-year-old Harry “Nick” Rice four days after Tiger’s death, for example, it made clear the officer’s issues with alcohol, domestic violence, and his poor disciplinary record in the Navy.
However, the fact remains Garrett was the one to pull the trigger and fire a fatal shot into the back of Tiger Dowdell’s head.
The officer testified he had interactions with the Dowdell family before, but said he couldn’t identify them on the street.
In fact, Garrett stopped Tiger the night prior to his death for a taillight violation, though no ticket was issued.
It’s unclear what Garrett’s life became after the Dowdell shooting. He was suspended briefly in the days following — until the coroner’s inquest days later cleared him of “felonious intent” — and past media reports said he left Lawrence soon after.
During the inquest, Sakeim said, Garrett “all the time looked down at the floor or looked at somebody talking to him, but he never looked out at us. Never.”
Garrett died in Olathe on May 5, 2020 at age 77.
For 52 years, the biggest point of contention in the murder of Tiger Dowdell was whether he had a gun on his person when he was killed.
The full KBI case file shows that he did. The Ruger .357 magnum laying by Dowdell’s left hand wasn’t his gun, though.
The KBI found that the gun Tiger was carrying that night was actually registered to a man named Kenneth White, who bought it at a store on 23rd and Louisiana just two weeks earlier.
Although the gun being registered to another person may have initially lent credence to long-standing rumors that police planted a gun on Tiger’s body that night, his brother Sakeim confirmed that Tiger and White were close friends.
“A day later we did find out it was Kenneth’s gun because we woke up and Kenneth said ‘where’s my gun at?’” Sakeim said. “He did have Kenneth’s gun, but he was right-handed.
“He was coming back to the house to get us. listen He wouldn’t have turned back and started shooting. Why would he turn back? And then, in that case, why did he get shot in the back of the head?”
Ballistics tests on the weapon after Garrett recovered it from the scene revealed one spent cartridge under the gun’s hammer, one empty chamber, and four live rounds — meaning at most, Dowdell shot the gun one time in the alleyway.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the gun’s history is where it lay after Dowdell was killed. Avey and Garrett in their testimony following the killing would say the gun was “inches” from Dowdell’s left hand.
But in an interview with Douglas County officials, Bryan Hampton, a private investigator and former Lawrence police officer who was on the scene almost immediately, said the gun was at least a foot and a half away from Dowdell’s hand.
Even when pressed by County Attorney Dan Young to say the gun was inches away from Dowdell’s hand, Hampton maintained his stance that the gun was further away than the two officers had said.
If investigators followed up further on the gun’s location in relation to Dowdell’s body, they did so in the pages of the case file that have gone missing. Those missing pages, numbers 129-131 and 133-141, correspond to the file’s table of contents in sections titled “Dowdell’s Ruger Revolver” (the gun was not Dowdell’s), “Garrett’s Smith and Wesson,” “Comparison of bullet found in Dowdell with Garrett’s Revolver,” and “Paraffin Tests.”
In a letter last month, the KBI confirmed pages 133-141 were missing from the case file.
“It is impossible to discern why. There is no place else where we would reasonably expect those pages to be located,” the letter says. “Needless to say, the KBI’s record-keeping methods have changed significantly through the years. We have no way of knowing at what point in time, over the last 50-plus years, some pages in the Dowdell case file were numbered, by whom, or for what purpose. It would serve no purpose for us to speculate on that.”
Given that the missing pages likely answer with much more specificity whether Tiger fired the gun in the alley, one of the key questions in the case appears to be obscured permanently.
The Murder of Tiger Dowdell:
A series examining the previously sealed Kansas Bureau of Investigation records of the Lawrence police shooting death of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell on July 16, 1970
Seeking the truth always matters.
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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.