Monday, April 21, 2008
Note: This story is about two men, now in their late 30s, who were suspected of having something to do with the mysterious disappearance, 20 years ago this month, of Linwood teenager Randy Leach. While they are by no means the only two people who have been suspected over the years, their lives have been fundamentally altered by the "witch hunt," as they call it, that they found themselves part of.
In the living room of his Portland, Ore., home, Robert Marble keeps two long-bladed knives on the wall. A curvy, sinister-looking decorative knife sits on the left, a bowie knife on the right.
Both knives were in his car, along with a paperback copy of "The Satanic Bible" and a "Dungeons & Dragons" handbook, when two detectives from the Leavenworth County Sheriff's Office pulled into the Kansas City, Kan., engine repair shop where he worked and asked to search his car in early May 1988.
The detectives were investigating the disappearance of Marble's Linwood High School classmate Randy Leach, who had last been seen on the night of April 15 at a party held at classmate Kim Erwin's house east of town. Nobody, including Marble and his best friend Kelly Powell, had reported seeing Leach leave the party.
Interviews with Kelly Powell by Phil Cauthon
After the sheriff's office confiscated the two knives and two books from Marble's car, whispers of satanic sacrifice grew louder. It wasn't the only theory circulating as the investigation began to drag on fruitlessly-a drug deal gone wrong, runaway, suicide. But it was the one that ensnared Marble and Powell. That was 20 years ago.
* * * * * * * *
Powell, a grade above Marble and Leach, was in ninth grade when his family moved to the country near Linwood, a town of about 400 people 13 miles northeast of Lawrence. He characterizes himself as a lazy, bored student who scored high on tests but did little homework.
He got involved in various activities early in his high school career-student council, the football team, a play, High Q. When he was 17, he stopped trying school activities and started doing a lot of meth.
Interview with Robert Marble by Frank Tankard
- Being under heavy surveillance
- Confiscation of two knives, 'The Satanic Bible' and a 'Dungeons & Dragons" handbook in May 1988
- Failing a polygraph test
- 'Leaves of Words,' a play about Leach's disappearance, and other recent reverberations
- Meeting with Harold and Alberta Leach a year and a half ago
- They cyclical nature of interest in the Leach case
He and Marble describe themselves at the time as black sheep with a rebellious streak. At a High Q competition held at a Catholic high school, for instance, Powell says he showed up wearing a cross ear-ring turned upside-down, while Marble wore a shirt depicting Iron Maiden's album "The Number of the Beast." "We were weirdos," Powell says. "He was more into heavy metal, I was more into ZZ Top."
Marble was wrapping up his senior year in the spring of 1988. Powell was living in Lawrence, out of Linwood for good. On the night of April 15, they showed up at Kim Erwin's party. It was Friday night. There was nothing else to do.
Several people at the party said they saw Leach drinking. Others said they didn't see him drinking but he seemed messed up on something. Neither Powell nor Marble were good friends with Leach, but they knew him well enough from school. "You knew everybody," Powell says. "Even people you didn't know, you knew."
When they arrived, Powell says, he saw Leach staggering around with a drink in his hand in the Erwins' garage. After Leach bumped into him, he says, he told him he should give up his keys, but didn't pursue the issue when Leach refused.
Later on, by the bonfire, Kim Erwin's little sister was hanging around with a crowd of older kids when someone grabbed her and jokingly said something like, "Let the sacrifice commence." Leach overheard this, Powell says, and yelled something like, "I'm not gonna be sacrificed!"
Powell says he, Marble and their friend Scott Smith left the party at about 1 or 1:30 a.m., although he isn't sure of the time. He doesn't know whether Leach was still there.
* * * * * * * *
In the aftermath of Leach's disappearance, law enforcement worked to track down and interview everyone who had been at the party. Marble and Powell were two of many who were questioned. After the knives and books were found in Marble's car, the heat grew stronger.
"The Satanic Bible," Marble says, belonged to a friend of his from Lawrence, and either he or Powell had borrowed it or the friend had left it in the car. He says someone must have left the "Dungeons & Dragons" handbook in the car, because he'd never played the game. Powell had picked up the curvy knife at a garage sale a few days earlier because it looked cool, and the bowie knife was an old Christmas present of Marble's.
After the items were confiscated, Marble noticed how gossip started swirling as law enforcement began asking around about the two friends.
Det. Sgt. Jay Oliver of the Bonner Springs Police Department, which assisted in the investigation, says people began offering false information about Leach's disappearance when they were arrested on unrelated crimes.
"Everybody thought that was their ace in the hole to get out of meth charges or criminal charges: 'I've got information about Randy Leach,'" Oliver says. "Usually, by the time we ran it down, it was third-hand information, an urban legend type deal that they'd heard from a friend that heard it from a friend that heard it from this guy. That's really how a lot of these people ended up getting looked at."
For several weeks, Marble says, law enforcement followed him everywhere he went, parking in front of his family's country house overnight, following him and Powell as they idly drove back roads or went from town to town visiting friends.
At first, they made a game out of it, laughing as they led squad cars on excursions to nowhere. "It was so heavy-handed, the investigation and everything, we had to treat it as a game," Powell says. And when Powell realized that officers were ignoring his rampant meth use, he says, while waiting for evidence to surface in the Leach case, his ego grew inflated with a sense of importance and power.
"We started feeling totally invulnerable," Powell says. "It was like, wow, we were completely leading a charmed life here because they were waiting so long. And then, the basic fear. You see adults, people my age, looking at us with f*cking fear in their eyes. That was a fairly heavy feeling for a 17 year old. You know, you're already egocentric to begin with at 17, 18."
(Marble says of using meth, "Had I done that in the past, it would be something I was probably pretty ashamed of these days. I'll leave that aspect of it alone.")
Their brazenness toward law enforcement didn't help their cause. One day, Marble says, he pulled his car over on a back road east of Linwood and chewed out the Leavenworth County Sheriff's officer who'd been following him. The officer told him he was just doing his job.
Another time, when a Bonner Springs police officer pulled them over and began asking about Leach, Powell says he mouthed off, saying, "Go search down by the river or something. Do something productive. Quit f*cking hassling me about it."
This, he says, led to interrogation about Leach's body being in the river. Their attitude, Powell says, "may be part of why it came back to bite us in the ass. But it was so laughable and so farcical to begin with, if you took it serious, you'd go insane."
After a while, however, the surface-level playfulness wore thin. "It wasn't for several months into it," Marble says, "until about the third time that we'd been pulled over in the middle of the night and had guns shoved in our face by redneck, Billy Bob law enforcement personnel, that we started to realize, hey, these guys aren't shaking loose, and they're pretty serious about it."
Reports grew wilder. Marble says police questioned him after someone reported seeing him with Leach at an arcade in De Soto. Another report placed them at a Wal-Mart in Bonner Springs. He'd been seen holding Leach down and pouring drugs down his throat, and, according other reports, holding up a weapon and proclaiming, "This is what I used to kill Randy."
Find our 2006 story on the Randy Leach case, along with a timeline of the mysterious events surrounding his disappearance at lawrence.com/leach.
"At that point, people I had known most of my life were convinced I was some psychopathic killer," Marble says. "Numerous times back then I entered a local store, etc., only to see people actually pull their children close to them with a fearful look in their eyes, then leave like they were narrowly avoiding certain death."
Law enforcement couldn't ignore the leads that began pouring in, says KBI Senior Special Agent Timothy A. Dennis, but rumors ate up a lot of valuable resources. "When it turns out to be a false story or an embellished story or a completely manufactured story," he says, "obviously you've wasted that investigative effort running down that dead-end lead."
After the fourth or fifth time being questioned concerning the rumors, Marble had had enough. He says law enforcement convinced him that taking a polygraph test would clear the matter up.
When he went in for the polygraph, he says investigators blindsided him with questions about whether he had killed Leach and where his body was stashed. His blood boiled at being questioned about murder rather than about the bogus reports. After the test, he was told he had failed.
"Fortunately, results from that pseudoscience are not admissible in court," Marble says. "Unfortunately, they carry enough weight to launch a shitstorm if the results happen to randomly indicate you're lying. The harassment increased exponentially."
* * * * * * * *
In 1989, Marble moved to Lawrence. Away from a hometown that he felt had turned on him and out of the jurisdiction of the Leavenworth County Sheriff's Office, the pressure dissipated. Within a year, he joined the Army and said goodbye to Kansas for good (except for a few months after he got out of the service a decade later).
Powell remained in Lawrence. In the summer of 1993, more than five years after Leach's disappearance, he received a knock on his door from Harold Leach, Randy's father, and a con man named Harry Lee Harper.
Harper had come to town under the name Terry Martin and, with the cover that he was a research journalist, had begun poking his nose into the case.
After gaining the trust of Harold and Randy's mother, Alberta Leach, who had grown frustrated with law enforcement's failure to solve the case, Harper composed a theory that Leach's death had been covered up by a massive conspiracy involving a drug cartel, law enforcement and a satanic cult.
Powell says Harper introduced himself at his door as a journalist with the show "Unsolved Mysteries," a lie he had told others as well. Alberta Leach says of why Harper and her husband visited that day, "The police didn't interrogate (Powell) to any point, and there was still a lot of concern out there that they knew something,"
Powell invited the two men inside. He says Harper began by asking softball questions, like, "What happened that night?" He then became more aggressive and turned to leading questions about Kenneth Huffman, a neighbor of the Leaches who was a couple years older than Randy. Then, Powell says, Harper accused him of being part of a satanic cult involved in murdering Randy. Powell told them to leave.
Dawn Weston, a Leavenworth County Sheriff's detective who had recently been assigned to the case, began associating closely with Harper. Not long afterward, the sheriff's office arrested three men: Huffman, Scott Smith and Steve Daugherty, an acquaintance of the Leaches. With no probable cause, they were quickly released. Harper and Weston fled the state.
The Kansas City Star later reported, "Weaving together strings of wild rumors, all unsubstantiated, Harper and his hypothesis opened old wounds, offered false hopes and changed lives."
Dennis of the KBI says he still doesn't understand why the three men were arrested without probable cause. "I can't explain it," he says. "I still scratch my head."
Weeks later, a cousin of Randy's named Roger Rose showed up at Powell's house armed with a handgun. Rose says he'd spoken with his uncle Harold Leach that morning. Harold had vented frustration about the case and mentioned Powell. Rose says he didn't know who Powell was, but he decided to ask him a few questions, not knowing Leach and Harper had visited previously.
Powell says Rose pulled his gun on him and held it to his head after entering the house. Rose says a group of Powell's friends in the house threatened him with pool cues and he didn't pull his gun on anyone.
After the tension eased a bit, Powell and Rose moved out to the porch and talked while one of Powell's friends called the police. Powell dropped charges against Rose, but the District Attorney's office pursued the case and Rose was put on diversion.
* * * * * * * *
Twenty years in, the Leach case isn't classified as "cold." New leads still come in, many of them straight from the rumor mill. In December, someone reported receiving a letter that suggested an inmate in a Kansas jail could have information about Leach's disappearance.
After interviewing the person who mailed the letter and the recipient, Dennis of the KBI determined the information "didn't have any relevance whatsoever to this case." This has been a common outcome.
"The case has taken on, unfortunately, an urban legend atmosphere," Dennis says. "There a lot of people that pass on rumors and innuendo as if they were fact."
In October 2006, a play about Leach's disappearance was staged in Lawrence. The play, "Leaves of Words," written by KU graduate student Tim Macy, explored fictionalized accounts of the different theories.
Powell was incensed at the idea of a play perpetuating some of the rumors that he had found himself in the middle of. He was the first to comment online at the bottom of the Lawrence Journal-World story previewing the play:
"If they use real names in this play I stop it while it is on stage:..The leach's are hurting over randy, I sympathize with them:..What they fail to understand or care about is the other people who have been hurt too:.hurt by rumors that got started, the lies and innuendos that have cause more than a few people to have to be interviewed every few years by investigators:.."
The comments section underneath the story has since taken on a life of its own, morphing from a discussion of the play into an ongoing forum about Leach's disappearance. As of this writing, 491 comments have been posted, most recently on April 13. Much of the comments could be characterized as a back-and-forth between Powell and Marble and people who are critical of them.
Posters, mostly anonymous ones, have written nasty comments, accusing them of knowing more than they let on or calling them pity seekers. They've fired back in like fashion. Marble replied to one poster by likening him to a "slack jawed, drooling, inbred Linwoodian."
Powell has also made incendiary remarks about the Leach family, fanning the flames of a feud between them. In one post, he wrote of Randy, "I have no idea what happened to this guy, but as anybodys god as my witness, if he shows up alive somewhere I will beat him to death for the grief he has caused me and mine."
Despite the name-calling and gutter-dwelling, Marble calls it "the most positive thing to occur since this case opened." People who say they're friends or family of the Leaches, or have some involvement in the case, have entered the discussion, and even when talk turns mean, the message board has created an avenue of discussion that didn't exist before.
"We've managed to counter some of the behind-the-scenes rumor-mongering and finger-pointing," Marble says. "We've been able to address these things in public."
One afternoon in November 2006, Marble met with Harold and Alberta Leach at their house to clear the air.
"All told, even if they had believed the rumors, I would not hold that against them because, first and foremost, they are Randy's mother and father," Marble says. "Considering the emotional trauma of such a loss, I wouldn't begrudge them any avenue that they pursue trying to find an answer. With that in mind, I only cut that much slack to the direct family members. That does not apply to these jackass lookieloos in the community."
Alberta says she didn't recognize the man in his late 30s who showed up at her door. "He's a very nice-looking young man," she says. "He's cleaned himself up from what he used to be in his appearance."
Powell was also invited but could not bring himself to meet with the Leaches. He later posted to the comment board, "(Marble) put up with more bullsh!t from the town then I did(he was a naitive son and I was that weirdo that moved in from lawrence) and he forgave more people then I could if I had been betrayed by someone(s) I grew up with since kindergarden:."
Last July, Marble got his knives back from the Leavenworth County Sheriff's Office, as well as the "Dungeons & Dragons" handbook. They were accompanied by a letter signed by Sheriff David A. Zoellner that said the items were "no longer of evidentiary value."
The sheriff's office declined to comment, but Dennis of the KBI says of Marble and Powell, "Based on their cooperation, I no longer consider them subjects of interest in this."
Marble says he'd asked for the items each year when he returned to Linwood to visit his folks. He hung the knives on his living room wall as trophies of vindication. He's waiting to get "The Satanic Bible" back. Â»