Pockets of Wildfires Raging Across Kansas
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Firefighters have been battling dozens of wildfires in Kansas and Nebraska that erupted since the weekend, but calmer winds on Wednesday helped crews extinguish nearly all of them. In Nebraska, a burned man was found crawling in a McCook farm field Tuesday afternoon as 50 mph wind gusts whipped flames down a ravine toward the Red Willow County community of 7,500 people. The man, who had camped out in the area, has been transferred to a burn center. Kansas authorities said 50 fires have burned about 40 square miles (103.6 square kilometers). Improving weather conditions Wednesday left crews in 13 Kansas counties fighting blazes that were contained or almost out. But by late afternoon, Kansas had just two fires burning in Wabaunsee and Greeley counties. "Things are looking pretty good," said Katie Horner, spokeswoman for the Kansas Adjutant General's Office. A blaze that broke out earlier Wednesday near Hamilton in Greenwood County prompted the Kansas Army National Guard to send Black Hawk helicopters to assist with the firefighting operations, helping to bring extinguish that blaze. By late Wednesday afternoon, two Black Hawks were still deployed to Wabaunsee County to help with tamp down that blaze. This year's wildfire outbreak in Kansas pales in comparison to March 2017 when some 2,000 firefighters battled a series of blazes that consumed more than 1,000 square miles, killed a truck driver, forced thousands to evacuate, and damaged or destroyed dozens of structures. Thousands of cattle also died. Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer said the state has learned a lot in the last couple years. "This is something that can get out of control very easily, so we're quite concerned still," Colyer said. "But we're dealing with it." The governor attributed the successful efforts this year to improvements in coordination between state and local emergency responders. "They've experienced a lot together after the last couple of years," Colyer said. "They know each other by name now. They're closer." In southwest Nebraska, crews were dispatched to eliminate dangerous hot spots left by a wildfire that destroyed a house and blackened hundreds of acres as it threatened McCook. As officials called for evacuations, students and staff at McCook Elementary School were taken to McCook Senior High School several blocks away. People at the state prisons' Work Ethic Camp spotted the fire and reported it to local officials around 1:20 p.m. Tuesday, but camp spokeswoman Cristy Schwartz said the 189 inmates and nearly 50 staffers didn't have to leave the grounds. Chief Bill Elliott of the Red Willow Western Rural Fire Department said wind gusts knocked a power line into a shed about 2 miles from town, and sparks from the resulting short ignited dry brush below. The blaze never entered the city proper, but the flames did destroy a house on the edge of town while the residents weren't home, Elliott said. "The house right beside it — only 30 feet away — was not damaged," he said.
The Kansas City Star reports that nearly 50 wildfires have erupted in Kansas since the weekend, burning at least 40 square miles of land.
Trial in Lawsuit over Kansas Voting Law Enters Second Day
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — The former co-president of The League of Women Voters of Kansas says a state law requiring prospective voters to prove they are U.S. citizens devastated the organization's registration efforts. Margaret Ahrens of Topeka testified Wednesday in the second day of a lawsuit over whether Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has the authority to implement the law's requirements. She said the League stopped taking voter registrations immediately after the law took effect in 2013 because it didn't want liability for handling voters' personal information, such as birth certificates and passports. Registrations resumed before the 2014 elections but Ahrens says workers have encountered thousands of people who couldn't vote because of the law's requirements. Kobach, who heavily promoted the law, has said it's prevented thousands of noncitizens from voting.
Kansas Secretary of State: Law Halted Up to 18,000 Noncitizen Votes
KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach defended his state's voter registration law Tuesday in federal court, claiming the measure he championed has prevented between 1,000 and 18,000 noncitizens from casting ballots. During opening statements in a federal lawsuit challenging his authority to implement the requirements, Kobach said one of his experts will testify that the higher end of that range is more likely. He argued the law, which requires people to provide documents such as a birth certificate or passport at motor vehicle offices to register to vote, was much more effective than previous policies that required registrants only to check boxes saying they were over 18 and a U.S. citizen. "Just having to sign something saying you are a U.S. citizen is nothing," Kobach said. Kobach said his office has been able to document 129 noncitizens who voted or tried to vote since 2000, although documentation earlier to the court had the number at 127. He said that number is "the tip of the iceberg and we know the iceberg is much larger." Dale Ho, director for the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, argued in his opening statement that the law has kept an estimated 22,000 people from voting — most of them young or independent voters. He said of the 127 cases Kobach cited earlier, 43 successfully registered since 2000 and only 11 actually voted, most through clerical errors or misunderstandings. He said even if Kobach's numbers are true, only 0.007 percent of Kansas' 1.8 million registered voters should have voted illegally. "This case is about the most fundamental right in democracy and a law that has deprived thousands in Kansas from using that right," said Ho, who compared the law to "taking a bazooka to a fly."
Charles Stricker testified Monday that he thought he was registered to vote until he showed up to the polls in 2014. He told the court how he felt confused and embarrassed as he filled out a provisional ballot at a designated table. His vote didn't count. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Stricker testified he made two trips to the local motor vehicle office on the final day he could register for the 2014 general election. He was initially told he needed additional documentation such as a birth certificate and a piece of mail showing he lives in Kansas. When he returned, nobody asked him to provide the documentation and he left assuming he was registered. He testified that when he called the Sedgwick County elections office to ask if he could vote in 2016 an employee told him his status was "complicated" pending unresolved legal issues. That experience motivated him to participate in the trial. "I don't think the average Kansas citizen should have to sue the secretary of state to get registered to vote," he said.
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson must decide whether Kobach has legal authority to demand the documentation. The lawsuit requires Kobach to show that Kansas has a "substantial" problem of noncitizens registering to vote and the definition of "substantial' is the central legal question of the case. Kobach, the vice chairman of President Donald Trump's recently disbanded commission on election fraud, argues the law is necessary to prevent voter fraud and says even a small number of noncitizens voting could sway a close election.
Plaintiffs in the case say incidents of noncitizens registering to vote are extremely rare and argue that such Republican-backed laws hurt voter registration efforts and disenfranchise minorities and college students who may not have the documentation readily available. Since the law took effect in 2013, about one in seven voter registration applications in Kansas were blocked for lack of proof of citizenship — with nearly half for people under the age of 30, according to court filings. Robinson in May 2016 temporarily blocked the law's implementation for people who register at driver licensing offices, a ruling that was upheld by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Independent Orman Chooses Kansas Lawmaker as Running Mate in Governor's Race
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Independent candidate Greg Orman has picked a western Kansas legislator as his running mate in his campaign for governor. Orman announced Wednesday that state Senator John Doll of Garden City is leaving the Republican Party to run for lieutenant governor. Doll was in his hometown to register as an unaffiliated voter. Orman is a Kansas City-area businessman at the center of a national movement to elect independent candidates. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014. Doll is a former Garden City mayor who served four years in the House before winning his Senate seat in 2016. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006 as a Democrat. Doll resigned from his Senate committee assignments. Republican Senate President Susan Wagle said chamber rules prevent an independent lawmaker from serving on committees.
Kansas Legislators Advance Bill to Restore Teacher Tenure
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A bipartisan group of Kansas lawmakers is pushing to restore job protections for public school teachers that conservative legislators previously stripped from them. The House gave first-round approval Wednesday to a bill that would guarantee tenure for thousands of teachers statewide. The 72-48 vote advances the measure to another, final vote Thursday. The bill would require school districts that do not want to renew a three-year teacher's contract to allow the teacher to have the matter decided by an independent hearing officer. Teachers statewide had such a right before conservative Republicans enacted a 2014 law leaving the issue to local school boards and most decided against such reviews. GOP conservatives argued that the change made firing bad teachers easier. But the bill's supporters said Kansas needs to respect teachers.
Kansas Bill to Require Transparency Regarding Child Deaths
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Officials with the Kansas Department for Children and Families are pushing a transparency bill amid criticism of the state's handling of abuse-related child deaths. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports that the House Judiciary Committee heard on Tuesday a bill proposed by Gov. Jeff Colyer that would require the release of basic information after an abuse-related child death. The Department for Children and Families disclosures would include a summary of previous reports of mistreatment, the department's recommendation of services for a child, date of the fatality and the child's age and gender. Shayla Johnston is an attorney representing the family of Evan Brewer, a deceased Wichita boy whose case documents agency officials admitted to altering. Johnston says the bill is a smoke-and-mirror attempt to obscure the state's failure to prevent abuse-related deaths.
Kansas School District to Participate in Gun-Control Walkouts
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Parents are working with students in northeast Kansas to stage walkouts to protest gun violence and to honor the school shooting victims of Parkland, Florida. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that students and supporters nationwide are planning walkouts on March 14 that last 17 minutes to recognize the 17 deaths from last month's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Some Lawrence High School students formed a gun-control advocacy group following the Florida shooting and are organizing the protest. Local adults also have been invited to surround the school during the walkout in a show of support and protection. School district spokeswoman Julie Boyle says that absences associated with the walkout will be excused.
Update on Kansas Mother Accused of Poisoning Children
OLATHE, Kan. (AP) — New court documents show that two of the three children a Kansas mother is accused of poisoning would have died if police had not found them. The Kansas City Star reports that Therese Roever of Olathe is charged with attempted capital murder after police say she gave her children some kind of prescription medication. An affidavit released Monday states Roever's ex-husband called police February 19 after she refused to answer her phone or door for over an hour. The affidavit says police found Roever lying with her 7-year-old who was "not alert." Officers found a 5-year-old stumbling and another 7-year-old crying. The affidavit says police found "multiple" pill bottles. Roever is being held in the Johnson County jail and is scheduled to appear in court next month. Jail records don't immediately list an attorney.
Kansas State Senator: Altered Child Agency Records Horrific, Unsurprising
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas state senator said she was horrified but not surprised that someone in the state's child welfare agency altered records in the case of a 3-year-old Wichita boy whose body was found encased in concrete. Department for Children and Families Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel met with Evan Brewer's family on Friday before releasing records, the Wichita Eagle reported. Family spokeswoman Shayla Johnston said Meier-Hummel told the family "there was dishonesty" in a form that was changed. State Senator Barbara Bollier, a Republican from Mission Hills, said she had previously heard about a possible alteration but had no proof. She sits on the state's Child Welfare Task Force. "It's horrific. But unfortunately, the administration we've had, it doesn't surprise me," Bollier said. "I think you dig anywhere, you're going to find things. It will probably take years to unravel what's been done." Records show the agency made a mistake in the lead-up to Brewer's death. They show a report of detailed abuse allegations was not forwarded to a social worker investigating the case. Kansas Governor Jeff Colyer pledged Monday to reform the department and vowed additional transparency. "We're all aware of a couple very specific cases that are emblematic of some of the problems," Colyer said.
Another lawmaker who sits on the Child Welfare Task Force, Democrat Representative Jarrod Ousley, of Merriam, said the administration has done a lot of "verbal identification" of problems, but changes haven't been implemented long enough to see if they're working. He said the last administration also said they were working on the problem for years. Lawmakers created the task force last year to examine the state's foster care system. Its monthly meetings have disclosed that foster children slept in offices while waiting for placement. It also noted as many as 70 children are missing from the foster system at any given time.
The child welfare department is expected to face additional scrutiny on Friday at Meier-Hummel's Senate confirmation hearing. She now is serving in an acting capacity. The agency is supporting legislation that would require, after the death of a child, that the secretary release the age and sex of the child, date of the fatality, a summary of previous reports to the agency and findings, as well as any department recommendations of services provided. A hearing on the bill is set for Tuesday before the House Judiciary Committee. Responding to a question about the dismissal of Wichita DCF regional director Bill Gale last week, Colyer said the agency lost confidence in his leadership. "This is something more than just a couple of cosmetic changes," Colyer said. "In terms of personnel, we're dealing with regional directors or if there are things that clearly are egregious, I won't tolerate it. Period."
Bar Shooting that Fanned Immigrant Fears Brings Guilty Plea
OLATHE, Kan. (AP) — A man charged with fatally shooting an Indian immigrant last year at a suburban Kansas City bar pleaded guilty Tuesday to murder in the slaying that fanned fears of anti-immigrant violence following President Donald Trump's election. Witnesses said Adam Purinton, who is white, yelled "Get out of my country!" before firing at two men who had stopped for an after-work drink at Austin's Bar and Grill in Olathe, Kansas. Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed in the February 22, 2017, attack. His friend Alok Madasani was wounded. The men, both 32, had come from India to the U.S. as students and worked as engineers at nearby GPS-maker Garmin. Another man, Ian Grillot, was wounded when he tried to intervene. Purinton faces life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years when he is sentenced May 4 for premeditated first-degree murder.
At the time of the shooting, officials in India expressed concern about their citizens' safety in the United States. Kuchibhotla's widow, who was not at the hearing, issued a statement saying she hoped the guilty plea would "send a strong message that hate is never acceptable." Purinton was asked to leave the bar when he made derogatory comments. He returned a short time later with a gun, according to court documents. Madasani told detectives that the gunman asked the men if their "status was legal" before he opened fire, an affidavit indicated. After the shooting, Purinton drove 70 miles east to Clinton, Missouri, and stopped at a restaurant, where he confessed to the killings to a bartender, who called police.
Purinton, a 52-year-old Navy veteran, was a regular customer at Austin's. Neighbors in the Olathe cul-de-sac where he lived told The Associated Press after the shooting that he became "a drunken mess" following his father's death about two years before the shooting and had physically and mentally deteriorated. He still faces federal hate crime charges. Federal prosecutors have not determined whether to seek the death penalty.
Friends, Family Rally in Support of Deported Missouri Woman
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Friends and family are rallying in support of a Kansas City bar manager who was deported amid a legal effort to keep her in the U.S. KMBC-TV reports that dozens showed up Wednesday in front of the bar where Leticia Stegall worked. Her husband, Steve Stegall, said it's a "travesty" that she was flown to Mexico on Friday. Leticia Stegall's troubles stem from a driving while intoxicated arrest six years ago. She was arrested last week as part of a four-day enforcement operation in the Kansas City metro area. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the operation targeted people in the country illegally who had prior criminal histories. KSHB-TV reports that a judge ordered a hearing next week in the case. But ICE said Stegall already was in Mexico.
Kansas House GOP Leaders Outline Proposals on School Safety
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Top Republicans in the Kansas House have outlined school safety proposals that include new state standards for public schools and state funds for security upgrades. Leaders of the House's GOP majority said Tuesday that their package would set aside $5 million for security grants to local school districts. GOP legislators began work on what they described as a comprehensive school safety package the week after a mass Valentine's Day shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. They said their legislation will direct the State Department of Education to work with other agencies to develop statewide standards for secure buildings. It also will require the state's 286 school districts to adopt safety plans meeting the guidelines. The department also would hire two new employees to review the local plans.
Immigrants Say Working at Kansas Ranch Was 'Like Slavery'
SYRACUSE, Kan. (AP) — Immigrants working on a remote Kansas ranch toil long days in a type of servitude to work off loans from the company for the cost of smuggling them into the country, according to five people who worked there. There are no holidays, health insurance benefits or overtime pay at Fullmer Cattle Co., which raises calves for dairies in four states. The immigrants must buy their own safety gear such as goggles. One worker spent eight months cleaning out calf pens, laying down cement and doing other construction work. Esteban Cornejo, a Mexican citizen who is in the U.S. illegally, left Kansas in November after paying off debt, which he figures was nearly $7,000. The pay stub Cornejo shared with The Associated Press shows he worked 182.5 hours at $10 an hour over two weeks — an average of 15 hours a day with Sundays off. His pay was $1,828.34 before taxes. Also deducted was a $1,300 "cash advance repayment" that he said was a company loan for bringing him into the country. His take-home pay was $207.46, the pay stub shows, or just over $1 an hour working at Fullmer Auto Co. Texas LLC, which does business as Fullmer Cattle. "It is like slavery what they do to those poor people," said Rachel Tovar, another former worker who spoke to The Associated Press. Tovar said she was interviewed recently by a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, who asked about the company's Kansas employment practices, but ICE declined to say if it is investigating. Dean Ryan, the company's attorney, said in an email that the allegations "are simply not true." Ryan said company policy is to give pay advances to workers who have no credit. He said those loans are made so employees can purchase a vehicle or put a down payment on a home. President Donald Trump's administration has cracked down on immigrants living in the country illegally. But it has said less about the companies that employ them, let alone a company accused of using smugglers to bring workers to the United States. The plight of the Kansas workers also highlights the exploitation that immigrants face when a company forces them to pay off debt with work, a practice called "debt peonage." Under federal law, employers do not have to pay overtime to agricultural workers. Erik Nicholson, national vice president for the United Farm Workers union, said it is not unusual for employers to recruit immigrant farmworkers.
Kansas and Other States Begin Surveys for Lesser-Prairie Chicken
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Wildlife managers in several states will begin surveys later this month to track the population of a grouse that has been the focus of an ongoing legal battle over whether it warrants federal protection. Officials say aerial surveys for the lesser-prairie chicken in New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma will start March 16 and run through mid-May. The lesser-prairie chicken was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2014. That decision was vacated two years later as a result of a lawsuit and a subsequent court ruling. Environmentalists then petitioned to have the bird's status reviewed. As part of a range-wide voluntary conservation plan, economic incentives are offered to landowners and companies that set aside land to reduce impacts to the bird and its grassland habitat.
Discovered Body Identified as That of Missing Kansas Teen
HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) — Authorities say they have positively identified a body found Saturday near Haven as that of a Kansas teenager missing since last summer. The Hutchinson News reports that a landowner found the remains Saturday on his rural property. It was identified through dental records as that of 17-year-old Laura Lee Dorey of Haven. Dorey had been reported missing by her family on June 13. The Reno County Sheriff's Facebook page says the cause of death is still under investigation. A posting on the Kansas Missing & Unsolved Facebook page at the time of her disappearance said that the teen was "clinically depressed and does not have her medication."
Leader of Methamphetamine Syndicate Receives Life Sentence
DENVER (AP) — Federal prosecutors say a man who led a three-state drug operation has been sentenced to life in prison. Colorado U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer says Jorge Loya-Ramirez was sentenced on Tuesday after a jury in March convicted him of distribution of methamphetamine, possession with the intent to distribute methamphetamine and other drug conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say Loya-Ramirez was the leader of a methamphetamine syndicate, using violence, intimidation and deadly weapons and a team of employees to distribute hundreds of pounds of the drug. He was arrested in 2015 with more than a kilogram of cocaine and about half a pound of methamphetamine. Troyer's office says Loya-Ramirez was the last defendant tried as part of a 28-person drug conspiracy that operated in Colorado, California and Kansas.
Judge: Idaho Must Allow Gender Changes on Birth Certificates - Is Kansas Next?
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge says Idaho can't bar transgender people from changing the sex listed on their birth certificates. In a ruling issued Monday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale said the rules by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, served no rational government purpose and put transgender people at risk by forcing them to disclose their status when they present identification documents. "A rule providing an avenue to obtain a birth certificate with a listed sex that aligns with an individual's gender identity promotes the health, well-being, and safety of transgender people without impacting the rights of others," Dale wrote. Dale gave Idaho until April 6 to begin considering applications to change the sex listed on birth certificates under new, constitutionally sound rules. The ruling also says reissued birth certificates can't include a record of the gender having been changed. Most states already allow such changes. But Idaho was one of four — including Kansas, Ohio and Tennessee — that prohibited transgender people from changing their birth certificates to reflect their gender identity. The ruling was a response to a lawsuit brought by two transgender women last year who said they faced hostility and harassment at places like grocery stores and government offices because they had to present identification that did not reflect their gender identity. One of the women, identified only as F.V. in the lawsuit, said she looks forward to being one of the first people to update her birth certificate in Idaho.
Police: Man Shot During Drug Deal in Wichita Has Died
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Police say a man who was shot last month during a drug deal at a west Wichita Dillons has died. Officer Paul Cruz says 19-year-old Chris Coley was found with a gunshot wound to the head around 2:45 am on February 19. The Wichita Eagle reports Coley was taken to a hospital in critical condition and died Monday. The case is the eighth homicide of the year. Police say Coley was at Dillon's with a woman to sell marijuana to a 21-year-old man. The man allegedly shot Coley in the head during the transaction and then drove away from the scene. The suspect was arrested Feb. 20 on suspicion of attempted first-degree murder and other potential charges.
Shawnee County Inmate Sentenced for Attacking Officer
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — An inmate at the Shawnee County Jail who attacked an officer will spend an additional 25 years in prison. Twenty-seven-year-old Allen Thomas Schroeder Jr. was sentenced Wednesday for attempted second-degree murder for attacking corrections officer Lacy Noll with a shank in April 2017. Noll suffered cuts and facial injuries. The Topeka Capital-Journal reports at the time of the assault, Schroeder was awaiting sentencing in an unrelated attempted aggravated battery charge. He was sentenced to 16 months in that case, which Schroeder must serve before the 25-year term. Noll testified earlier that Schroeder became upset because everyone in the module was on lockdown. She told him she was going to write him up for screaming at other inmates to file grievances and Schroeder attacked while she was on the phone.
Brutal Big 12 Tournament Could Decide NCAA Tourney Fates
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Texas Tech spent a good portion of the regular season leading the Big 12 standings, only to watch Kansas rally down the stretch and claim its unprecedented 14th consecutive conference crown. The Red Raiders want another shot at the Jayhawks. Both will have to survive two games this week to set up a third meeting at the Sprint Center. Kansas is the top seed and the Red Raiders are second for the Big 12 Tournament, which starts with a pair of games Wednesday night but truly gets going with a quadruple-header on Thursday. It promises to be one of the most tightly contested tournaments since the league's inception, with nine teams harboring NCAA Tournament hopes — four of which would feel much better about their prospects with a couple wins.
The Jayhawks (24-7) and Red Raiders (23-8) are comfortably in the field of 68, though they still have plenty on the line. Kansas is seeking a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament while Texas Tech is seeking a title.
Even though Kansas has dominated the Big 12 for more than a decade, the tournament has been a different animal. Iowa State has won three of the past four titles, though the rebuilding Cyclones (13-17) are the only team this season that most people don't give a shot at the championship. They play Texas on Wednesday night, while Oklahoma plays Oklahoma State in the other opening game. The Sooners may be the best example of the brutal nature of the Big 12, which was ranked as the top RPI conference in the nation. Led by star guard Trae Young, they were ranked fourth in the nation in mid-January, but went 8-10 in the league and plummeted to the No. 9 seed for the tournament. That puts them in that pack of four teams, all 8-10 in the league and with 18 wins overall, that are trying to solidify their NCAA Tournament hopes ahead of Selection Sunday.
"Some of us have more bruises than others, but I think the Big 12 is the strongest conference from top to bottom in America," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton, whose Cowboys (18-13) are also trying to play their way into the dance. "I'm not sure if it's close."
The Big 12 has landed seven NCAA Tournament bids in three of the last four seasons, and had six teams in the field last year. But if things break the right way in Kansas City, and in other tournaments across the country, it's possible it could qualify eight or nine — something it's never done before. "It just shows you the balance of the league. Even Iowa State, if they don't have the injuries at the end of the year, they might have another win or two in their arsenal," Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. "It's the best league. I've done this 39 years, been in the Big Ten when it's been really good, the Missouri Valley, watched other leagues — it's the best I've ever been part of, one through 10."