This July will mark 40 years since Lizabeth Wilson, the 13-year-old Prairie Village girl abducted after leaving the city swimming pool, was last seen alive. But this morning the Kansas Supreme Court is hearing another appeal from the man twice convicted of her murder.
The path from the tragic day in 1974 that rocked the community to today’s hearing is long and convoluted. If it wasn’t for a Prairie Village Police detective and the backing of his superiors, nobody would have been brought to justice for the murder. John Henry Horton, a custodian at SM East High School, was always the main suspect. But it wasn’t until 2003 that he was arrested for the abduction and slaying — 29 years after the fact.
In 2000, Kyle Shipps, a young detective in Prairie Village came across the file in the investigation room at the police department and began reading. As his interest grew, the phone rang. On the other end was a retired FBI agent who had worked the case in 1974. As they talked, Shipps made a decision. He asked his Lieutenant, Wes Jordan (now Prairie Village Police Chief) if he could try to re-open the cold case.
Shipps and Jordan were given one month to see if the evidence could even be found all those years later. Shipps went to work tracking down evidence and files. Three years later he was at a trailer in northeast Missouri watching as local authorities chased down and arrested a fleeing Horton.
“It needed to be resolved,” Shipps says. “We’ll keep doing everything we can to stay with it.” Shipps has already stayed with it through two trials, piecing together old evidence and assembling new evidence. The case “shook the community to its core,” Shipps says. But when he jumped in, nobody was left in the department who had worked the case.
“This case haunted people,” Jordan said. It always bothered the detectives who worked on it. Stories about the case were passed around the department over the years. “We tried,” was what you always heard, Jordan said.
The evidence against Horton was not strong enough to go to trial in 1974, the district attorney decided. Against those odds, Shipps miraculously began putting together a case with evidence that not only had been untouched for decades but had been scattered among several agencies.
“Mind-boggling” is how Jordan describes the monumental task of putting the case back together after 29 years. “It’s like a puzzle that’s been passed down over the years and pieces have been lost.”
“He did not need much convincing for me,” Jordan says of the day Shipps came to his office asking to re-open the case. “Think what a case like this would do to the community,” Jordan says.
“Kyle was tenacious. The more he got into it, the more he uncovered.” The first problem, Shipps says, was finding all the evidence. Some was in Prairie Village. The FBI still had some and so did the county. Just finding the evidence wasn’t enough, Jordan says, they had to prove chain of command over the evidence for 26 years at that point. “It was a different time then” in how evidence was handled, Jordan says.
Shipps was able to find the evidence and bring it back together. But that hadn’t been enough in 1974 to convict Horton. How could he put together a case all these years later?
Friday: Part 2 – How the murder case unfolded over the decades.