City moving forward on markers to memorialize Tiger Dowdell and Nick Rice, killed by Lawrence police in 1970

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Since the Lawrence City Commission in August 2020 approved creating historical markers to memorialize the 1970 police killings of two teenagers over the span of four days, the process to bring those markers to fruition has been slow.

But the city’s Historic Resources Commission in recent weeks has made significant progress — meeting with the families of Rick “Tiger” Dowdell and Harry Nicholas “Nick” Rice and deciding on the type of marker — Lynne Zollner, historic resources administrator, said Monday.

“The markers will be simple National Park Service type markers with the name, date of killing, and a photo if we can make that work, with a QR code that will link to the Watkins Museum of History website where there will be more information about the incidents,” Zollner said in an email. 

The commission’s marker subcommittee is still working to determine where exactly the markers will be placed and on the QR code link in conjunction with Watkins, Zollner said. Then, the full Historic Resources Commission will take a vote on final approval and send it back to the City Commission for final approval.

Zollner said there is not yet an estimate of what the markers will cost, and it will depend on what final design and size the group decides on when it next meets. When the Lawrence City Commission approved the project in 2020, 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.

Currently, the plan is for the markers to say something to the effect of: “Rick ‘Tiger’ Dowdell was killed near here on July 16, 1970 as part of the civil unrest in the City during the summer of 1970. For more information scan the QR code or visit the Watkins Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts Street, Lawrence, Kansas,” Zollner said. It’s important to note, she said, that this is not the final verbiage for the marker and the group will determine its ultimate text.

The markers would also have photos of the teenagers — a request of the Dowdell family — and a QR code for the link to Watkins.

“The group thought it was important to size the markers based on the residential character of the area. Too much verbiage would make the markers large for the character of the residential neighborhood,” Zollner said. “The markers should be large enough to draw attention, but not so large as to take away from the residential character of the neighborhood.”

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.” Using hundreds of pages of state and federal investigatory records, we in 2021 and 2022 wrote expansive series on Rice and Dowdell’s killings.

Dowdell, a 19-year-old former KU student, was a Lawrence activist who dropped out of the university in March 1970. He remained active in town, however, leading a walkout at Lawrence High School in April over the lack of Black history in the school’s curriculum. That walkout was somewhat of a catalyst of the tumult that gripped the city in 1970, as the anger spilled over to KU and the university’s student union was firebombed days later.

That unrest — over long-simmering racial tensions and the deeply unpopular Vietnam war — led to an unseasonably cool July 16. Gunfire rang out between 10 and 10:15 p.m., 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 leg.

Two Lawrence police officers reported being shot at in the 900 block of New York Street. One of those officers later testified that he saw two people leave Afro House, a Black cultural center opened earlier that year at 946 1/2 Rhode Island, in a light-colored Volkswagen — ultimately Tiger and his friend, a KU student. Thinking they could be the same two who ran from the shooting at Ninth and New York, the officer radioed to his partner and Officer William Garrett so they could check the vehicle’s occupants.

The Volkswagen 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.

Lawrence erupted in a series of protests over Dowdell’s death, though a sense of calm seemed to have returned to the city by July 20.

That night, Nick Rice — a KU student accompanied by 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 Cafe — a dive bar in the location that is now the Oread Hotel. A growing crowd outside of the cafe, though, would soon prompt the evening to turn deadly. Rice was 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 a theory that Rice was shot by a mysterious sniper.

Neither Stroud nor Garrett faced consequences for their roles in the killings, and though Garrett left Lawrence shortly after Dowdell’s killing, Stroud went on to work for the Lawrence Police Department for another seven years.

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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