Reno County Museum displays gun that killed Ken Kennedy
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — Henry Platts carefully went through old guns in the second story safe at the Reno County Museum. The museums manager of the Reno County Historical Society wore gloves not to leave any corrosive oil on artifacts.
Platts was cleaning and taking inventory of the guns when he picked up a .22 caliber revolver. He paused when he read its tag: “Weapon That Killed Ken Kennedy.”
Though his task was to clean the inventory, Platts fretted cleaning a gun used in a murder case. The tag on the revolver also told Platts the museum received the gun in 2005 but didn’t include a file about the gun’s history. He contacted the Hutchinson Police Department.
Lt. Jason Yingling, a 20-year veteran of the HPD, had visited Kennedy’s grave in Plainville and driven the street in Hutchinson that bears his name. Yingling wanted to know more about the 1972 shooting that killed Kennedy, a 23-year-old Hutchinson officer, and wounded a reserve officer.
He decided to take the case, the Hutchinson News reported.
“No one is still around from when that happened, and so it’s just a name to us,” Yingling said. “I was interested in the story that went along with the name and what happened.”
Yingling was surprised to find out that someone took the time to cut out newspaper clippings from the shooting through the trial. Yingling knew whoever cut out the clippings thought the event needed to be well documented for future generations.
The gun and its history recently went on display at the Reno County Museum, 100 S. Walnut St.
Some facts about the gun and that night will always be a mystery, however.
Kenneth M. Kennedy, back from an off-duty motorcycle accident, had spent little time on patrol since he joined the HPD in January 1971, which made him a good candidate to do undercover work.
HPD Chief Bob Adams sent reserve officer Michael J. Coldren with Kennedy to do an undercover buy of alcohol at Robert E. Lee’s Barbeque, 918 S. Plum. The owner of the restaurant had been selling alcohol to minors and skirted a state alcohol stamp tax to keep the cost of booze lower.
Kennedy and Coldren arrived late on a Friday night in civilian clothing.
The two chatted with a man who they thought was the owner and made an agreement to buy three half pints of Old Charter whiskey for $3 each.
The man, 65-year-old Elmo Anderson, who managed the restaurant for owner Robert Lee, went outside and came back with a brown paper bag with the half pints.
Kennedy and Coldren sat at a table in the 777-square foot restaurant along with Helen Fletcher, also known as Helen Jobe. The 59-year-old was Anderson’s girlfriend.
Kennedy handed Anderson a $10 bill and examined the bottles while Anderson reached for change. Kennedy quickly examined the bottles for a state-required seal.
He didn’t see one, and pulled out his badge.
Anderson took off for the door. The two officers grabbed him and began to tussle. Coldren later testified that’s when Kennedy yelled: ’Look out for her, Mike.”
Coldren saw Kennedy draw his service revolver, and as he turned around to look at what Kennedy saw, heard an “explosion in my ear.”
Coldren was shot on the right side of his head, but he didn’t see who shot him.
The next thing Coldren remembers is waking up face down outside of the restaurant in a pile of his blood. Getting to his feet, Coldren looked around and found Kennedy’s body in the doorway.
Coldren stumbled down the road yelling for help. People passed him by and he eventually ended up on the porch of Carolyn Haubenchild’s home at 416 E. Campbell.
Coldren explained what happened and Haubenchild called police at 11:37 p.m.
F.K. “Trey” Owston was one of the first officers to arrive at the restaurant. Owston, now retired, remembered seeing officer Kennedy’s body and knew he was dead.
Inside, Owston said he saw Anderson sitting at a chair and other chair overturned. Owston heard a woman call for help in the kitchen area and found her with a gunshot wound in her abdomen.
″(Fletcher) said somebody shot me and then she had indicated Officer Kennedy had shot her,” Owston said.
Owston later found the Harrington & Richardson 922 used to kill Kennedy under a fridge in the area where Owston called for help.
Coldren and Fletcher were taken to South Hospital, which is now the Hutchinson Lofts. Coldren is the son of R.E. Coldren, then managing editor of The News.
Coldren’s uncle, Dick Coldren, was killed in the 1950s while working for the Leavenworth Police Department. Dick was 26; the same age Coldren was when he laid in the hospital.
Fletcher survived her wounds as well. During her trial, Fletcher testified that Kennedy shot at her first and she pulled her revolver in self-defense.
But Clarence Taylor Jr., who was there right before the shooting started, testified that Fletcher said ‘No hell, you ain’t taking him nowhere.’
She started to reach in her purse, Taylor said, as he ran out the door. He heard the gunshots as he ran away.
Fletcher shot Kennedy in the chest and in the lower part of his back.
Kennedy’s body, in a police report sketch, lay in the front door with a jukebox on one side of him and a cigarette machine on the other. The table where the tussle began was only a few feet from the door.
Anderson was found guilty of resisting arrest and sentenced to one year in prison.
A jury found Fletcher guilty of second-degree murder. She was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
Yingling said Fletcher was involved in a 1963 incident in Kansas City, where she shot her husband in the face. The man survived, Yingling said, and Fletcher was let off because she had a restraining order against the man.
During her trial, Fletcher said that the gun she shot Kennedy with was a gift from her husband. Yingling said he’s unsure if it’s the same husband she shot or if it’s the same gun was used in both shootings.
The Kansas Department of Corrections did not respond to an inquiry about what happened to Fletcher after being sentenced in March 1973. She would be 105 if she were still alive today.
Years after the case concluded, the gun and the rest of the evidence was going to be destroyed when a person in the evidence department decided the piece of Reno County’s history needed to be preserved, former police chief Dick Heitschmidt recalled. Heitschmidt, whose tenure as police chief went from 1992 to 2018, deeded over the gun to the museum.
The black, nine-shot revolver with a worn plastic white handle used in Kennedy’s murder is on display as part of an exhibit at the museum called “Hutch Heroes.” Yingling said he is also going to give the museum the couple shell cases Kennedy fired from his revolver as well as dismantled bullets that were in his gun that day.
K-61, the major north-south corridor through Hutchinson, was named Ken Kennedy Freeway and the fallen officer is honored each year during a ceremony at the Reno County Law Enforcement Center.
On the Officer Down Memorial Page, Kennedy’s sister, Sharon Kennedy Inks, wrote:
“Ken was my best friend when we were growing up. We used to pretend that we were twins because from September 28th to October the 9th we were the same age! Then on October the 9th I would turn a year older and be the big sister! I have long since been away from Kansas ... but I still think back to that terrible September day and wonder what Ken’s life would be like if he were still living. He loved being a police officer and I will always be proud of him.”
Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com