Lizabeth Wilson and a younger brother were at the Prairie Village Swimming Pool on July 7, 1974. When they started to walk home, he ran ahead. He waited around a corner of the high school, planning to jump out and scare her. But he never saw her again.
John Henry Horton was a custodian at SM East that night. As the search for the missing girl got under way, Horton was immediately a prime suspect in the disappearance, police say. He had chemicals in the trunk of his car, including chloroform, believed taken from the science labs at the school. Other bits of evidence in the car and fresh scratches on his body all pointed to Horton, police said. And he had been absent from work for an extended time that evening.
Horton lived in Independence and the FBI immediately took over the case with the possibility Lizabeth had been taken across state lines. Even Clarence Kelley, the FBI director at the time who was born in Kansas City, got involved. Horton was polygraphed and hypnotized. The FBI interviewed more than 200 known sex offenders in the area.
In January 1975, six months after Lizabeth’s disappearance, an ATF agent supervising explosives at the construction site of a new Penney’s distribution center in Lenexa stumbled across human remains. Lizabeth Wilson had been found.
The FBI backed out. No state lines had been crossed. With only circumstantial evidence, the district attorney declined to prosecute the case. Horton, who was 27 and married when Lizabeth was murdered, was never charged or held.
Years pass until the day in 2000 when Kyle Shipps starts reading the files at the Prairie Village Police Department. With the go-ahead to try again, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation assigns a cold case squad member to help. Shipps and his partners re-assemble the scattered evidence and start interviewing people involved with the case back in 1974. They had to track down old witnesses and detectives who worked the case. An FBI hair examiner was pushing 90 by the time he was called to testify, 29 years after he worked the case.
When the detectives did a background check on Horton, they found he had been arrested on a peeping Tom charge in Missouri in 1992, caught in a trap laid by police in a small town. The charge was pleaded down and he moved. That behavior elevated the suspicions that he was the one.
Shipps found Horton living in northeast Missouri. Twice Shipps and the team interviewed Horton. They were sure they had their guy. But a big break in the case came when they interviewed a niece of Horton’s who had been living with him and his wife in 1974 when the niece was a teenager.
The niece said Horton took her and a teenage girlfriend to a golf course to get high not long before Lizabeth disappeared. Horton brought chloroform for the high. The friend told detectives that as she came out from under the chloroform, Horton was molesting her. For the detectives that proved deviant behavior.
Police had always suspected that Horton used chloroform on Lizabeth and that she died from an overdose. Shipps said detectives believe his intent was to molest her and he gave her too much chloroform – maybe because she fought him, which would be indicated by the scratches.
In October 2003, after three years of putting the pieces back together, finding the old evidence and interviewing old and new witnesses, police arrested Horton – more than 29 years after the murder. With a new district attorney, Paul Morrison, in office, Horton was finally prosecuted.
After a five-day trial in September of 2004, more than 30 years after the crime, Horton was convicted of first degree murder. Since the crime occurred in 1974, sentencing rules of the day apply. He is sentenced to life with eligibility for parole after 15 years.
But the courtroom drama, and Shipps’ work, is not over.
Monday: Part 3 – The courtroom saga