The Murder of Tiger Dowdell: A lasting impact

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Exactly what happened when Rick “Tiger” Dowdell walked into a Lawrence alleyway late July 16, 1970 is likely lost to history.

The police officer who shot him in the back of the head died in 2020, and the person closest to Dowdell on the night of his death cannot remember what happened with reliable specificity because of the trauma of the incident. 

Perhaps most importantly, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the independent agency tasked with investigating Dowdell’s death, did a cursory investigation that rarely, if ever, pressed the officers on the scene that night on what actually happened — even when faced with conflicting information.

Whether that’s because the agency, by the time it began investigating Dowdell’s killing, was already investigating the subsequent death of white teenager Harry “Nick” Rice, or for some unknown reason, is unclear. But the Rice investigation totals more than 600 pages, while the Dowdell investigation totals just 263.

Although part of that is due to dozens more eyewitnesses being present at the time of Rice’s death than Dowdell’s, there are multiple occasions in the Dowdell investigation where conflicting information is presented and simply not followed up.

Testimony from Lawrence police Officer Kennard Avey says Officer William Garrett fired a “warning shot” at Dowdell before the teen supposedly returned fire. County Attorney Dan Young does not follow up on the line of questioning.

What information the agency made public in the weeks following goes against the specifics of what it actually learned during the course of the investigation, and the full file is missing more than a dozen pages that could have lent additional context to the case.

The Bureau cannot explain how those pages went missing, possibly more than five decades ago. But that raises the question of what exactly was going on in the agency closer to 1970 that would allow vitally important information to go missing from a case file. 

What the never-before-seen case file and all other available evidence still manages to show, however, is that Garrett murdered Tiger Dowdell in the alleyway between Ninth and Rhode Island streets. 

Garrett drew his weapon on Dowdell outside of the parameters of Lawrence police department policy at the time. That policy states officers must use the “greatest caution” in drawing and shooting their firearm and says “he must answer for his act and its results to his own conscience and perhaps to the law and the Department.”

The policy, which is part of the KBI case file, further states that even firing a warning shot — which Garrett’s partner that night testified he did — is dangerous to innocent people.

How Garrett managed to hit a fleeing subject from dozens of yards away in a dark alleyway remains a mystery. But conflicting testimony about how far Dowdell’s friend’s gun was from his left hand lends even more doubt to whether he had drawn the weapon at all before he was killed. 

Whether Tiger was simply running back to Afro House to get his brothers, as Sakeim Dowdell thinks, or whether Avey hanging a shotgun out the passenger side window at Franki Cole’s VW made Tiger think white vigilantes were after him will never be known. 

But all told, Tiger’s murder — at the hands of a police department that had threatened to kill him shortly before his death, Tiger’s grandmother told the KBI on Aug. 12, 1970 — drastically changed the fabric of Lawrence.

KBI notes of an Aug. 12, 1970 interview with Temple Harding, Tiger’s maternal grandmother.

Ursula Minor, president of the Lawrence NAACP chapter, has lived in Lawrence her entire life and was a young teenager when Tiger was killed. She doesn’t remember much from that time, but has a vivid memory of the curfews that were enacted in the days following and her parents telling her how there were certain times they wouldn’t be able to go outside.

Ursula Minor

Now, the organization she leads makes an effort to educate the community on tragedies such as Dowdell’s death and the lynchings in Lawrence in 1882. Without acknowledging the past and talking about what exactly happened, you may not be able to totally reconcile the tragedy, but you can perhaps prevent another from happening.

“You move forward in a way that you don’t want things like this to happen again, so that’s what our goal is, is to work with the community and let them know these things have happened in the past and talk about it,” Minor said.

“We do have to work together and talk about these things and keep it out there so that people understand Lawrence was not this perfect place.”

Lawrence, Minor said, really has a “dark history,” of which Dowdell’s death is very much a part. People are often surprised to hear of the violence white people committed against people of color — something Minor attributes to the “weird Lawrence bubble.”

“I think there’s people that know that it happened and a lot of people that don’t know it happened,” she said. “A lot of the history of Lawrence at that time, it was in the history and it just went. And if you don’t talk about it, people don’t know.

“There’s been so much media coverage from the past that wasn’t the best. It was kind of whitewashed,” Minor added. “I feel like if you weren’t just right there in the middle of it you wouldn’t know what would happen. A lot of Black people at the time were scared to say anything even if they knew what happened. They weren’t very protected.”  

Bill Tuttle, a professor emeritus of African and African-American Studies at KU, said it’s difficult to “appreciate” how tenuous the situation in Lawrence was in 1970. It’s not an exaggeration, he said, to recognize that the city only narrowly managed to avoid a full civil war.

Dowdell’s death remains relevant today, Tuttle said, because Black men continue to die at the hands of white police officers.

“I think this is important not only locally in Lawrence, at KU and in Kansas, but I think it has national importance as well. Lawrence has always had this image of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ and [William] Quantrill[‘s raid] and the fight against racism and the spread of slavery, so people have always been interested in Lawrence from that perspective,” Tuttle said. “But then 105 years later, a Black man is shot to death by police officer.”

Kerry Altenbernd, a Lawrence historian, said the more he learns of Dowdell’s death, the more convinced he is that the killing was intentional.

SUSAN WOLFE Kerry Altenbernd

“I don’t think this was an accident at all. It was planned that as soon as they had an opportunity they were going to kill Tiger,” he said. “Tiger’s was an intentional killing by a rogue police force.”

Altenbernd said the murder is of such vital importance to the history of Lawrence that it deserves its own memorialization of what happened. Recent city discussions have leaned toward a single marker commemorating 1970 — the firebombing of the Kansas Union and the deaths of Tiger Dowdell and Nick Rice.

“To say that he should just be part of another marker is just wrong. To not have his own separate one, no, no, no,” Altenbernd said.

“It’s something that needs to be dealt with. Officially. By the government of the City of Lawrence. To have two police killings of two teenagers within four days of each other should say something.” 

As for the Dowdell family, Tiger’s death clearly left a lasting impact.

Sakeim and his brothers struggled with alcohol and drug addiction for years following — and never had any sort of grief counseling, Sakeim said. Now, the brothers rarely drink and have mostly curbed their drug issues, but the impact of Tiger’s death will never fade.

“It’s not over in our family. Couldn’t bring his name up for 10 years. That’s how mentally ill we were,” he said. “Losing a brother at my young age, it never computed. Sometimes compartmentalizing is all you can do with death.” 

Sakeim and his brothers held a reunion in Lawrence in 2015 and participated in programming about Tiger’s death at the library. That experience, he said, was the “time reality shut in our minds.”

“For 15 minutes we just bawled our asses off. We were standing in front of 300 people and we couldn’t say nothing,” he said. “We were just crying.”

“He will always be remembered.” 

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

July 16, 1970

A lasting impact

More questions than answers

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.

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