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Headlines for Friday, January 20, 2023

News Summary updated image
Emily Fisher

Kansas Man Convicted of Threatening to Kill Congressman

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A federal jury has convicted a Kansas man who admitted he threatened to kill a congressman. Chase Neill, of Lawrence, represented himself at the trial and questioned U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner on the witness stand. Neill said he was a messenger from God, warning that the congressman had to die for ignoring his concerns about wizards and extraterrestrials. The judge found Neill competent to stand trial and act as his own attorney despite a serious head injury. Authorities have noted a sharp rise in threats against elected officials nationwide. Threatening a public official is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

— AP Reporting —

Kansas Man Convicted of Threatening to Kill Congressman

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A federal court jury convicted a Kansas man who insisted that a death threat he made against U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner was a message from God, amid what authorities have said is a sharp rise in threats against members of Congress and their families. Jurors found Chase Neill, 32, of Lawrence, guilty of a single count of threatening a U.S. government official. The presiding judge instructed jurors that to find Neill guilty, they had to conclude that a reasonable person would find that he had made a true threat and intended to either intimidate LaTurner or interfere with his work as a Republican congressman representing eastern Kansas. Neill acted as his own attorney and cross-examined LaTurner on the witness stand Wednesday. Neill testified Thursday that he was a messenger from God and he passed along a message from God threatening LaTurner for ignoring concerns about sorcery, wizards, extraterrestrials and a war for people’s souls.

Federal prosecutors said Neill fixated on LaTurner before leaving an after-hours voicemail June 5 with the congressman’s Topeka office that included, “I will kill you.” LaTurner testified that he worried about his family’s and staff’s safety and beefed up security at his home and Topeka office. “You cannot cloak yourself in religious belief and justify such a threat,” federal prosecutor Stephen Hunting said in his closing remarks. “There is a line you cannot cross.” Neill sat calmly as U.S. District Judge Holly Teeter read the jury’s verdict, which came after about two hours of deliberation. He politely declined to have the jury polled and, when asked whether he had more about the case to discuss, he said calmly, “No, your honor.” As a marshal handcuffed him, his mother, Pamela Neill, who had watched the three-day trial, told him, “I love you.” Teeter scheduled Neill’s sentencing for April 11. He could face 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

The judge had Neill give his testimony Thursday as a narrative from the witness stand because he was representing himself. Neill interrupted his comments to make sure documents were projected onto four big screens on a wall behind him and to confer with the judge and prosecutors about what evidence would be allowed. Prosecutors did not cross-examine him. Neill admitted in court that he left the June 5 voicemail and others with more death threats the next day. But he said he was conveying a message from God that LaTurner and other officials faced death by an act of God, such as a tornado or hurricane, for attacking God’s creation. “This is not me saying, ‘I’m going to chase you down with a knife,’ or something like that,” Neill said in his closing argument. His mother, fighting back tears, told reporters upon leaving the courtroom, “He never raised a hand on anybody.” Threats against members of Congress have increased since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In October, an intruder severely beat former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband with a hammer in their San Francisco home. Local school board members and election workers across the nation also have endured harassment and threats. Police in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week arrested a failed Republican legislative candidate over a series of shootings targeting elected Democratic officials’ homes or offices.

Hunting told jurors that it was reasonable for LaTurner and his staff to take Neill’s words seriously as threats. LaTurner said in a statement after the verdict: “Violence and threats of violence have no place in our society.” Neill said his concerns about a war for souls were sparked by a May 13 story on the Kansas Reflector news site about a legislative debate in which a western Kansas lawmaker urged colleagues to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a measure that would have restricted public health officials’ power in epidemics following the COVID-19 pandemic. Republican state Rep. Tatum Lee was quoted as saying, “The war is real you all. We are fighting for the soul of our nation.”

Neill told jurors he values his soul and was required by God to act when he “heard the sound of the trumpet.” He also showed jurors a LinkedIn page for himself, saying he dealt with “matters concerning over 400 million lives lost with high sorcery.” Neill testified that in 2018, “God came to me very directly,” without elaborating. A U.S. magistrate judge said in an August order refusing to release Neill from custody that Neill had suffered a head injury four or five years ago “characterized as a head fracture.” But the trial judge concluded last month that Neill was capable of following what goes on in court and assisting his lawyers, making him mentally competent to stand trial. She granted his request to act as his own attorney, starting Wednesday. “I’m really trying to explain how I interact with God, and it’s a difficult explanation,” Neill told jurors during his testimony Thursday. “I apologize.”


Kansas Researcher Given Time Served in China-Related Case

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — A former researcher accused of concealing work he did in China while employed by the University of Kansas was sentenced Wednesday to time served and two years of supervised release. Feng “Franklin” Tao was convicted last year of three counts of wire fraud and one count of making a false statement. A federal judge threw out the three wire fraud convictions but let the false statement conviction stand. Tao was accused of not disclosing that he was working for Fuzhou University in China while employed at the Kansas university. In announcing the sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson said Tao was deceptive about his work in China but the offense did not warrant a prison sentence.


Canadian Company: Most of the Keystone Oil Spill in Kansas Cleaned Up

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Kan. (KNS) - The pipeline company that spilled nearly 600,000 gallons of crude oil in north-central Kansas says it has cleaned up most of it. The Kansas News Service reports that TC Energy estimated that it spilled 588,000 gallons of crude oil when the Keystone pipeline burst in early December, 2022. The company says more than 800 workers are on site and crews have recovered more than 85% of the oil. Much of the work is focused on Mill Creek, several miles of which are undergoing intensive cleanup.


Johnson County Man Convicted of Murder in 2020 Overland Park Library Shooting

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KSHB) - A Johnson County man has been convicted for shooting and killing another man outside the Johnson County Library in Overland Park in April of 2020. Police say they were called to the main branch of the library on reports of a shooting. KSHB-TV reports that the officers found 30-year-old Micah Babick in the parking lot. He was declared dead at the scene from a gunshot wound. Investigators arrested Dvonte Jamal Brown a week later, and charged him with first-degree murder. Wednesday, a jury found Brown guilty. He will be sentenced on March 29.


KBI Arrests Salina Man on Suspicion of Distributing Methamphetamine

SALINA, Kan. (KPR) - The Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) has arrested a man for suspected distribution of methamphetamine. The arrest of 55-year-old Gregory Westfall of Salina followed a joint investigation by the KBI and the Dickinson County Sheriff’s Office. Officers took Westfall into custody at a hotel in Salina. He was arrested for alleged possession of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. Agents obtained a warrant to search the hotel room on I-135 south of Salina. The Salina Police Department deployed a K-9 unit to assist the KBI agents. Officers say they discovered methamphetamine, counterfeit oxycodone pills, believed to be laced with fentanyl, and an illegal firearm. Westfall was booked into the Dickinson County Jail. The KBI says the investigation is ongoing.


Three Female Topeka Police Officers File Discrimination Suit

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Three female Topeka police officers filed a lawsuit this week against the City of Topeka and the city’s Police Chief Bryan Wheeles. KSNT reports that Captain Colleen Stuart, Captain Jana Harden and Lieutenant Jennifer Cross filed the suit alleging they have been passed over for promotions and treated differently than their male counterparts over the course of several years with the department. The three plaintiffs are asking for $1.5 million in damages including future lost wages, benefits and emotional distress. The plaintiff’s attorneys are also requesting that a jury trial take place in Kansas City, Kansas instead of Topeka. A spokeswoman for the city of Topeka said city officials are taking the claims seriously but declined to comment further Because the matter involves pending litigation


Education Department: Graduation Rates on the Rise

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – The Kansas State Department of Education has released new data showing public school students in the state are graduating at an all-time high. KSNT reports that the graduation rate for all public school students rose to 89% in the 2021-22 school year from 88.1% in the previous year. The graduation rate in Kansas has risen by more than 8% since 2010, when the state adopted its current calculation rate for record keeping. Some groups of students, including those who qualify for free meals, have disabilities or limited English proficiency are also earning their high school diplomas at record levels. In some previous years, lower-income students have had lower graduation rates, but the new data from the KSDE shows their graduation rates are rising faster than the average of all Kansas public school students. The data shows that, since 2010, the graduation rate for students who qualify for free meals has risen 14.6 percentage points.


Police: 4 Injured at Shooting Near Kansas City Funeral Home

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Police are investigating after gunfire erupted at a Kansas City funeral home, leaving three people with gunshot injuries and another with minor injuries. The shooting was reported about 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Elite Funeral Chapel in south Kansas City. Police spokeswoman Leslie Foreman says one shooting victim was inside the funeral home, one was in a laundromat next door, and a third was found in the parking lot of the funeral home. Two of the victims are hospitalized in stable condition and one is in critical condition. A fourth person suffered minor injuries. Foreman says a funeral was being held at the time but it is unclear what led to the shooting.


Johnson County DA Files Sex Abuse Charges Against Former Gardner Edgerton Teacher

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KSHB) — The Johnson County District Attorney's Office has charged a former teacher at Gardner Edgerton High School with child sex crimes. KSHB TV reports that 28-year-old Nick Prutsman is charged with two counts of sexual exploitation of a child. In a letter to families, the school district said the Gardner Police Department notified them of allegations of criminal conduct against Prutsman. The letter said Prutsman was immediately removed from the school campus on December 12. The school’s website identifies Prutsman as a teacher of automotive technology at the high school’s Advanced Technical Center He was arrested Thursday and was released after posting bond. He's due back in court on January 31.


Kansas Senate Committee Considering Back-to-School Tax Holiday

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) – Supporters of a back-to-school sales tax holiday say it would help teachers and low-income families purchase needed classroom supplies. A Senate committee is considering three bills that would create a two- to four-day period each August when school items would be free of sales tax. That would include clothing, school supplies, computers and more. Missouri and Oklahoma both have similar tax holidays. Some senators said that many families cross state lines for tax relief. No testimony was offered in opposition to creating the tax holiday. Kansas officials estimate a four-day sales tax exemption would cost the state up to $9.5 million in revenue.


Bill Would Give Local Governments Power to Restrict Abortion

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) – A Kansas Senate bill seeks to give local governments the power to restrict abortions. Wichita Republican Chase Blasi introduced the bill Thursday in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee. It would repeal a state law that prevents local governments from regulating abortion. But if the bill were to pass, it would likely face steep challenges in Kansas courts. A 2019 ruling said the state constitution protects the right to an abortion. Abortion opponents in states from Nebraska to New Mexico have introduced similar legislation that would make it easier for local governments to restrict abortion access.


Grocery Store Contraction on the Rise in Rural Areas

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (HPM) - New data from the U-S Department of Agriculture show there are fewer places to buy groceries each year and that the scarcity of food retailers is especially high in rural areas. The study shows the percentage of grocery sales from the nation’s top 20 retailers more than doubled from 1990 to 2020. Additionally, rural grocery stores have continued to close and been replaced by superstores and dollar stores. Some operators of independent grocery stores in rural areas are forming cooperatives to improve buying power with manufacturers. They say that also helps lower prices for consumers.


Fairway Officials Oppose Efforts by Shawnee Tribe to Take Over Indian Mission

FAIRWAY, Kan. (KCUR)- The city of Fairway, Kansas, is firmly rejecting efforts by the Shawnee Tribe to take ownership of the Shawnee Indian Mission, a former boarding school for Native children in Johnson County. The Shawnee Tribe wants to take over ownership of the historical site from the Kansas Historical Society. Tribal leaders say the mission is not being properly maintained. In an email released Thursday, the City of Fairway, which maintains the site, disputed that claim and others, stating Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes has “spread blatantly false and misleading statements” about the Shawnee Indian Mission. The release questions the tribe’s ability to run the site and raise funding for restoration. Also, the Kaw Nation released a statement this week, saying if any tribe takes over the property it should be them, because the Mission sits on aboriginal Kaw land. The statement says the city agrees that improvements need to be made to accurately tell the school’s history.


Kansas Commerce Department Seeks Extension of APEX Incentives Program

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - The Kansas Department of Commerce is asking lawmakers to extend a financial incentive program credited with helping the state attract a $4 billion Panasonic factory to be built in De Soto. The two-year APEX program is aimed at attracting major economic investments with tax breaks and other incentives. The incentives for the Panasonic plant could total more than $800 million. Currently the program is set to expire at the end of this year. Extending it would allow the state to make one additional deal in 2024. The state estimates that every dollar from APEX will generate about $26 in private investment. Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Renee Erickson says lawmakers will review whether to extend the program. “As much as I do not like incentives, we could either continue to lose out on opportunities or take a chance,” Erickson said. The state says there are discussions for other projects and wants the program extended for one additional year.


Kansas Legislature to Consider Changes to Open School Enrollment

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Some Kansas lawmakers want to change a new law that would allow public school districts to reserve slots for the children of employees. An open enrollment measure passed last year allows students to transfer to any public school district with enough space to take them. But it does not give priority to children who want to attend a school where their parent works. The open enrollment measure was part of a larger bill on public school funding. Critics say some districts aren’t prepared for an influx of students, and others could lose students and the funding that goes with them.


KBOR Approves Criminal Justice Program for Kansas State

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - The Kansas Board of Regents has approved a new criminology degree program at Kansas State University, despite concerns about similar degrees being offered elsewhere in the state. Officials from Emporia State University opposed the move, saying Kansas doesn’t need another criminal justice program. The Regents recently ordered a study that showed hundreds of duplicate degree programs across the system. But Kansas State officials say duplication of programs isn’t necessarily a bad thing and students should be offered the opportunity to study the field of their choice without having to move to another school. Four of the state’s six major universities already offer four-year degrees in criminal justice. Kansas State will begin offering its program this fall.


Topeka Teacher Surprised with $25,000 Milken Educator Award

TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR) - A fourth grade teacher in Topeka has been honored with an educator award that comes with a $25,000 prize. Kristine Becker, of Logan Elementary, received the surprise today (WED) when she was presented with a national Milken Educator Award by the Milken Family Foundation. The award honors outstanding educators across the country for excellence in and out of the classroom. Milken Educator Awards Vice President Stephanie Bishop and Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson presented the award at a school-wide assembly in front of students, colleagues and local and state dignitaries. According to a news release from the Milken Family Foundation:

"In Becker’s fourth grade classroom, she creates immersive environments where students have so much fun, they hardly realize they are learning. A master of classroom transformations, Becker’s unit on branches of government results in the classroom becoming a courtroom, where students take on the roles of judge, plaintiff, defendant, jurors and attorneys as they learn about the judicial system. She has held mock elections to mirror the national presidential vote, built a fake campfire in the middle of her classroom-turned-campsite for science experiments, and created a spy headquarters with black lights and glow-in-the-dark accessories. During project-based learning, students plan and sell breakfast items as they explore entrepreneurship, and concepts like supply and demand. The students connect deeply with the curriculum while building a lifetime of memories, and these creative methods contribute to meaningful results: The school’s fourth grade student proficiency nearly doubled in ELA and more than doubled in math from 2019 to 2021."

Becker is a graduate of Emporia State University, earning a bachelor’s in elementary education in 2013 and a master’s in instructional coaching with a concentration in elementary STEM in 2016.


Kansas Lawmakers Question Distribution Method of Special Ed Funding

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - Special education funding for public schools in Kansas is distributed differently than most education spending. Some Republican senators are questioning whether that’s efficient. The amount of money each Kansas school receives is based on how many special education teachers and staff the school employs. It's not based on the number of students receiving the services. Craig Neuenswander, of the Department of Education, says that process makes sure schools can provide special education without yet knowing how many students will need it. “If somebody new moves in, you’re required to provide that service. So, you need money on hand to do that," he said. Schools are audited to see if they receive more money than needed. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly has proposed increasing special ed funding to reach the level required by state law. Schools without enough funding must cover the remaining costs.


Kansas Among Few States Without Clinics to Treat Long COVID Symptoms

WICHITA, Kan. (KNS) - Clinics designed to treat the after-effects of COVID-19 are specialized clinics with the expertise for treating long COVID. But Kansas is one of the few states without a clinic for long-COVID patients. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in five American adults who had COVID-19 developed long COVID symptoms. That means about 200,000 Kansas residents are suffering from the syndrome. Kathryn Burke works with a support group for people with long COVID. She says the shortage of clinics in the state often leaves people in rural areas a very long drive away from a health care provider who might restore their lung capacity or clear their brain fog. “It is hard for people in more rural locations, less wealthy locations to be able to access long COVID care simply because the medical clinics and medical centers around them simply may not have the funding or the staffing to dedicate time and money towards long COVID clinics," she said. (Read more.)


10 Librarians Nationwide Receive "I Love My Librarian" Awards

NEW YORK (AP/KPR) — This year's winners of the "I Love My Librarian Award" include a Manhattan woman. Tara Coleman, based at Kansas State University, has been leading a campus-wide common reading program. Coleman is one of 10 librarians selected as winners based on nominations from library users around the country. Each of the 10 honorees receives a $5,000 cash prize and a $750 travel stipend to attend the library association's LibLearnX event later this month in New Orleans. The awards are made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and support from the New York Public Library. The awards were established in 2008. This year, judges at the library association chose the winners from more than 1,500 nominations.


KU Women’s Basketball Team Overcomes Deficit to Beat West Virginia, 77-58

LAWRENCE, Kan. (KPR) – The Kansas Jayhawks surged in the second-half of the women’s match opposite West Virginia to turn a 14-point halftime deficit into a 77-58 victory over the Mountaineers on Wednesday night at Allen Fieldhouse. The 14-point margin is the sixth-largest halftime deficit overcome in school history and the largest since KU came from 17 points down to defeat Texas Tech, 68-66, on January 21, 2015. The win improves the Jayhawks' record to 13-4 overall, and 3-3 in Big 12 play. Next, the KU women will plays their third nationally-ranked opponent in the past five games as they hit the road to face No. 18 Iowa State on Saturday, January 21. That game will tip off at 5:00 p.m. and be televised on ESPN+.


Pederson, Reid Face Off Again as Jags Visit KC for Playoffs

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Jacksonville coach Doug Pederson has known Chiefs counterpart Andy Reid for nearly three decades. He learned from him first as a player and later as a coach. The two have matched wits plenty of times since going separate ways with Reid's Chiefs beating his proteges' Jaguars in November. But never have they met with so much at stake. The winner of Saturday's rematch at Arrowhead Stadium will advance to the AFC title game. The Jaguars last made it there in 2017 when they lost for the third time in three tries at making the Super Bowl. The Chiefs will try to advance for the fourth straight year.


AP Source: Royals, Chapman Agree on $3.75 Million Deal for 2023

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Royals and Aroldis Chapman have agreed to a $3.75 million, one-year contract. A person familiar with the deal confirmed the move to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the contract is pending a successful physical for the seven-time All-Star. Chapman was once among baseball’s most dynamic pitchers, known for consistently throwing 100 mph or more. But the left-hander, who will be 35 on opening day, is coming off the worst season of his 13-year career, going 4-4 with a 4.46 ERA for the Yankees in 2022 while raising questions about his dedication to his team.


More Than 50,000 Tickets Sold for Possible AFC Title Game in Atlanta

ATLANTA (AP) — The NFL says more than 50,000 tickets were sold in the first 24 hours for a potential AFC championship game in Atlanta. Season-ticket holders of the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs were given priority access to tickets if the Jan. 29 game is played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The league revamped its playoff system after Buffalo’s game against the Cincinnati Bengal was canceled. That denied the Bills a shot at a home-field edge throughout the AFC playoffs. The league decided if those two teams advance, the AFC title will be decided at a neutral site.


This summary of area news is curated by KPR news staffers. Our headlines are generally posted by 10 am weekdays. These ad-free headlines are made possible by KPR members. Become one today. And follow KPR News on Twitter.