The 263 relevant pages of a Kansas Bureau of Investigation file into one of Lawrence’s longstanding mysteries do little to help answer questions that have been raised over the last 52 years — and instead leave one prevailing question which may ultimately be lost to history: Why did Lawrence Police Officer William Garrett shoot and kill Rick “Tiger” Dowdell on July 16, 1970?
Theories on that answer have abounded over the last half-century: The police department had it out for the Dowdell family; Garrett planted a gun on Tiger to exonerate himself; Tiger legitimately shot at Garrett first; it was merely a tragic accident; and more.
The case file, which we obtained in April, may raise even more questions than before, and doesn’t point to whether any theories are completely accurate.
Dowdell’s death and the police shooting death days later of Harry “Nick” Rice, a white 18-year-old KU student, were the culmination of one of the darkest periods in Lawrence’s history.
Lawrence, like many college towns at the time, was a lightning rod of unrest due to tensions around the deeply unpopular Vietnam War. Racial tensions had long simmered between a predominantly white population largely resentful of a growing Black activist movement in the city, which was just exiting a lengthy era of Jim Crow laws.
The summer of 1970 soon turned deadly.
Tiger Dowdell was a 19-year-old Black man who had withdrawn from KU that March but remained a prominent activist in Lawrence. On the night 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 1/2 Rhode Island St. in East Lawrence. The house was a community center, supported in part by funding from KU’s student government, that promoted Black culture and had become a hangout spot for young Black people in the month it had been open.
The uncontroverted part of that night happened as follows: Dowdell and Franki Cole, a Black woman who also attended KU, 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 shots from his Smith & Wesson Model 19. One of them went through the back of Dowdell’s head, killing him instantly.
Specific details of that night, though, have been unclear in the 52 years since Dowdell’s death.
Were the police lights on while following the VW? Who shot first? Did Dowdell really have a gun? If he did, why was it by his left hand when he was right-handed?
The KBI, which investigated the killing, until recently had released only a 10-page report to the public about the events of July 16, 1970.
The full KBI case file does not answer every question. It is at times a frustratingly cursory investigation into a tragic event in Lawrence’s history — and a dozen key pages missing from the original case file do little to ease suspicion at the background of this case. It is just one-third the size of the investigation file into the white teenager shot by police four days later.
However, the case file does provide for the first time a fuller picture of July 16, 1970 — including interviews with multiple Lawrence police officers and other never-released investigatory materials.
These articles contain the results of an analysis of the 263 pages we received from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, along with an examination of what information was made publicly available in the summer of 1970 and how it changed the trajectory of Lawrence’s history.
Why tell this story now?
Reporter Conner Mitchell first submitted a request under the Kansas Open Records Act for the full Dowdell case file in April 2021 while reporting on the July 20, 1970 death of Harry “Nick” Rice. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation initially denied that request, citing a provision of Kansas law which allows criminal investigation records to remain closed to the public for 70 years.
Our publication, thanks to a grant from the Society of Professional Journalists, secured legal counsel to assist in obtaining the records and was ultimately allowed to view the file in person in November. After submitting a new record request, we received the bulk of the case file — with the exception of the missing pages — in April for a fee of $668.
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.