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Headlines for Monday, May 8, 2023

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Emily Fisher

Organized Retail Crime on the Rise in Kansas; Attorney General Vows to Crack Down

WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach says organized retail crime has been on the rise across the nation, and Kansas is one of the worst states for the crime. KSNW TV reports that across the nation, the numbers have increased rapidly over the last five years. “In pre-2019, typically, you might see around $60 billion worth of merchandise being stolen by these organized retail gangs or organizations,” Kobach said. “Now, it’s over $500 billion worth of merchandise every year.”

Senate Bill 174 was recently passed in Topeka. Beginning July 1, the Attorney General’s office will be the primary prosecutor in the state rather than the district or county attorney. The bill includes a category of cases that involve a series of crimes in multiple counties. “That’s typically how these organized retail crime networks work,” Kobach said. “They’re not just operating in one county. They’re hitting store after store after store, and they’re crossing county lines. And so in a case like that, it’s more appropriate to bring the greater resources of the Kansas Attorney General’s Office rather than expect one county to prosecute when you’ve got a criminal gang operating in multiple counties in a single day.”

Kobach says he has seen the issue most prominent in northeast Kansas. But it is happening across the state, including Wichita. “They’re looking for a concentrated amount of really expensive stuff that they can steal quickly, so it tends to be areas that have those stores,” Kobach said. Sergeant Trevor McDonald, with the Wichita Police Department, says retail crime in Wichita is up by 35% this year. He says the that increase can be separated into two categories: shoplifters paying for an addiction and organized retail crime. “Just because they’re stealing from a retailer doesn’t mean that it’s not affecting each and every one of us because the dollar has to come from somewhere,” McDonald said.


Herington Teacher Arrested on Child Sex Charges Now Faces Additional Charges

DICKINSON COUNTY, Kan. (KPR) — The Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) and the Dickinson County Sheriff’s Office have arrested a Herington man on child sex charges. The KBI says 61-year-old Russell L. Thomas was arrested for three counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child and misdemeanor battery. The arrest occurred this (MON) morning in Herington. Agents also arrested Thomas in April for aggravated intimidation of a witness connected to the investigation. He was released after bond was posted. Following today’s (MON) arrest, Thomas was booked into the Dickinson County Jail.


Kansas Senator: Wichita Needs to Expand Aviation Efforts

WICHITA, Kan. (KMUW/KNS) - Kansas Senator Jerry Moran says Wichita needs to expand beyond commercial aviation to retain the title of Air Capital of the World. His comments came Monday during a stop at a Rotary Club meeting in Wichita. Moran spoke about his efforts to attract companies like SpaceX to the state, saying Wichita and Kansas should both delve further into the military and space industries. “Where better than the air capital of the world can we find opportunities for companies either to start, to grow, to alter their business plan, to do more than just care for general aviation and commercial aviation?" he said. Manufacturing accounts for about 14% of the state’s economy, thanks in large part to major aviation manufacturers like Spirit AeroSystems. Moran also spoke about the potential for Amtrak expansion in Kansas, as well as the development of nonstop flights from Wichita to the nation’s capital.


Elevated Cancer Rates Found Near Kansas Chemical Spill

WICHITA, Kan. (AP/KNS) — Kansas health officials have identified elevated levels of liver cancer among people living in several historically Black neighborhoods in Wichita where groundwater was polluted by a rail yard chemical spill. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment released a study Friday that found a liver and biliary tract cancer diagnosis rate of 15.7 per 100,000 people in the contamination zone, which was more than double the statewide rate of 6.4 per 100,000, The Wichita Eagle reports. Among non-Hispanic Black residents, the diagnosis rate was even higher, at 23.9 per 100,000. (Read more from the Kansas News Service.)

Experts believe that the spill of trichloroethene (TCE), a common solvent that is used to clean off paint and remove grease, could have happened as early as the 1970s, although it wasn't identified until 1994. It created a plume of polluted groundwater that runs for 2.9 miles (4.67 kilometers) from the Union Pacific Railroad rail yard site. TCE can cause cancer in humans — "especially kidney cancer and possibly liver cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma," according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But State Epidemiologist and Environmental Health Officer Dr. Farah Ahmed cautioned that there is no way to know definitively if TCE is responsible for the outsized number of liver cancer diagnoses. "The study can only really report on whether an increase was observed, not the cause of the increase," Ahmed said.

According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment report, all but one of the nearly 2,800 properties in the contaminated area were connected to city water before the spill is believed to have occurred, meaning it's unlikely people would have drank directly from contaminated groundwater wells. But there are other risk factors for TCE exposure, which occurs when a person breathes, ingests or touches the chemical. According to the EPA, water is contaminated if it contains more than 5 parts per billion of TCE.

Two thirds of the 66 water quality tests conducted in May 2021 — 40 to 50 years after the chemical spill — found samples with higher-than-acceptable levels, including samples of as much as 823 TCE parts per billion.

Sedgwick County Commissioner Ryan Baty was critical of health officials during a briefing Friday.

After hosting a forum about the contamination site in 2003, the state did not hold another public meeting about it until November 2022, when community members learned about the presence of TCE for the first time and asked for a health study to be conducted. "This is really a systematic failure of communication," Baty said.

Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson said the city and county are working to secure free cancer screenings for residents and former residents of the affected area. Officials want Union Pacific to contribute to the cancer screening fund, but the railroad could not be reached for comment by the paper. The railroad is already on the hook to pay $13.9 million for the cleanup, which started nearly a decade ago. (Read more.)


Forensic Genealogy Leads to Arrest in 2007 Kansas Rape Case

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Police in Kansas have arrested and charged a man in a 2007 sexual assault by matching a DNA sample to data submitted to genealogy websites. Fifty-two-year-old Ted Foy, of Augusta, is jailed on $500,000 bond. Foy was charged last week with rape, aggravated sexual battery and aggravated criminal sodomy. His attorney, public defender Sonya Strickland, hasn't responded to an Associated Press email seeking comment. The Wichita Eagle reports that it was the Wichita police department's first arrest using investigative genetic genealogy.

The process received widespread attention after it was used in 2018 to track down a California serial killer who was responsible for at least 13 killings and dozens of rapes in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, the method has led to the identification of dozens of suspects in cold cases, though some critics have voiced privacy concerns. "With these sorts of dragnets, you are using probable cause against one person to invade the privacy of millions," said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a privacy and civil rights organization.

Investigators reopened the November 13, 2007, case in 2020 and spent well over 100 hours on it, said Capt. Christian Cory. The assault happened less than 5 miles from McConnell Air Force Base and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Cold Case Team was involved. Cory declined to explain how the the base was involved, saying only that the team had a special interest in the case.

More details could emerge if a judge releases the probable cause affidavit. Cory said, in general, that connection to a distant relative is only the start of the investigation, which would often require getting DNA from closer family members, and hopefully the suspect, and creating a case that shows the person could have committed the crime. The police department is using genealogy to investigate five other cold cases, all murders and sexual assaults, he said. Cory expects some of the other cold cases will be solved. "I'm very happy that there's another tool that we can use to bring justice to the victims in these cold cases," he said.


Storm Tears Roofs Off Buildings in Northern Missouri

TRENTON, Mo. (AP) — Severe storms tore the roofs off several buildings in northern Missouri and pelted the region with softball-sized hail. Grundy County Emergency Manager Glen Briggs told KSHB television that several buildings in Trenton, about 100 miles north of Kansas City, sustained serious wind damage when the storm moved through Saturday night. The National Weather Service says hail nearly 4-inches in diameter was also reported in the area. No injuries were reported. Most of the roof of the Wesley United Methodist Church in downtown Trenton was damaged. Pastor Steve Martin says people used tarps to cover the "big gaping holes" in the sanctuary.


K-State Offers Students Amnesty for Reporting Drug-Related Emergencies

MANHATTAN, Kan. (KNS) — A new policy at Kansas State University will let students report drug-related emergencies or other concerns without fear of being punished for breaking the law. K-State’s new amnesty policy goes into effect in August. It lets students report safety-related incidents such as alcohol or drug-related emergencies, assaults, sexual harassment or hazing. And the person making the report will not be sanctioned for minor violations, such as underage drinking. The policy echoes Good Samaritan or whistle-blower laws that offer legal protection to people who assist others or report criminal behavior. It’s one of several new policies at K-State that deal with campus organizations and student conduct.


Kansas Man Dies After Crash on Turnpike

WYANDOTTE COUNTY, Kan. (KAKE) - A Kansas City, Kansas man has died after crashing into a truck on the Kansas Turnpike. The Kansas Highway Patrol says 38-year-old Michael Gaskin was driving erratically on I-70 Saturday morning. He was heading west when he lost control of his Mercedes-Benz S-Class and crashed into a truck. Gaskin spun and hit the median barrier. The truck lost control after being hit and crashed into the median barrier and the Mercedes causing it to roll on top of the wall. KAKE TV reports that a third car was involved but wasn't hit. Gaskin was taken to KU Med were he later died. The driver of the truck was uninjured.


North Kansas City Police Identify 2 Killed in Suspected Murder-Suicide

NORTH KANSAS CITY, Mo. (WDAF) — Police say the victim of a suspected murder-suicide in North Kansas City reported she’d been kidnaped less than two weeks before her death. Investigators have identified the victim of Friday’s shooting as 27-year-old Riley N. O’Laughlin. Police say the suspected shooter is 36-year-old John C. Hadley. WDAF TV reports that O’Laughlin worked at a North Kansas City warehouse. Her family believes Hadley shot and killed her, and the crime is a case of domestic abuse. Police also confirmed O’Laughlin made a police report on April 22, 2023. The report said O’Laughlin had been kidnapped from the same warehouse where she died. Friday morning's fatal shooting is under investigation as a murder-suicide. O’Laughlin’s family is raising money for her memorial fund. Donations are being accepted through the Riley O’Laughlin Memorial Fund.


AP Source: K-State Close to $44 Million New Deal for Chris Klieman

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP/KPR) — Kansas State and Chris Klieman are finalizing a new contract that would give the Wildcats' football coach a substantial pay raise while keeping him tied to the program for the next eight seasons. A person familiar with the deal tells the AP the contract will have a total value of $44 million, making Klieman one of the better-paid coaches in the Big 12. The agreement was first reported by ESPN. Klieman led the Wildcats to the Big 12 title last season before losing to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Klieman's previous contract ended after the 2026 season, so the new deal adds four years to it. His average pay will go from $4 million annually to $5.5 million per year, or slightly more than Texas is paying coach Steve Sarkisian. The 55-year-old Klieman led the Wildcats to a Big 12 championship last season, beating TCU in the title game before the Horned Frogs went on to play in the College Football Playoff. It was the first conference title for K-State since 2012, when Hall of Fame coach Bill Snyder was in his second tenure in Manhattan, and a big breakthrough for the Wildcats.

Along with hiring Klieman, Kansas State Athletics Director Gene Taylor also hired men's basketball coach Jerome Tang, and negotiations have begun on a new contract for him after leading the Wildcats to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament during his first season.


Man Dressed Like a Bud Light Can Pulled over in Kansas for DUI

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Kan. (KC Star) - A Franklin County sheriff's deputy pulled over a suspected drunk driver on Cinco de Mayo. Nothing too unusual there but in this case, the driver was dressed like a can of Bud Light. The Kansas City Star reports that the driver was headed northbound on I-35 when he was pulled over last Friday. The driver was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.


Toxic Algae Blooms Return to Kansas Waterways for the Spring and Summer

LAWRENCE, Kan. (KNS) — Toxic algae blooms have returned to Kansas waterways for the spring and summer. Ted Harris is an assistant research professor at the Kansas Biological Survey. He says blue-green algae blooms are getting worse, and that appears to be fueled by climate change. “Around the year 2000 in lakes like Marion, Milford (and) Perry – some of our lakes that are the worst bloomers in the state – we saw a rapid expansion," he said. "And so what that attributes to is longer blooms, more intense blooms.” Blue-green algae are currently blooming at Melvern Lake, south of Topeka. The blooms are sometimes toxic, so people should stay out of the water and keep pets away.


Kansas State Employee Virtual Job Fair Set for May 17

TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR) – The state of Kansas is hiring. Job-seekers are invited to attend the State of Kansas Agencies Virtual Job Fair Wednesday, May 17 (8:00 am to 5:00 pm). This virtual fair, which is hosted by KANSASWORKS, will focus on highlighting employment opportunities within many of the state’s 98 government agencies.

Registration is required to participate in the event, regardless of previous participation. The Virtual Job Fair portal features a job-seeker training video, a list of participating employers, and channels for attendees to register and log in. Job-seekers are encouraged to dress professionally, as employers might request to engage in a video interview. Candidates can participate via any digital device. Any individual with a disability may request accommodations by contacting their nearest workforce center at (877) 509-6757 prior to the event.

Click here to register for the May 17 State of Kansas Agencies Virtual Job Fair.

KANSASWORKS links businesses, job candidates and educational institutions to ensure that employers can find skilled workers. Services are provided to employers and job candidates through the state’s 27 workforce centers. KANSASWORKS is free for all Kansans to use. State employment opportunities can be found at jobs.ks.gov.


Kansas Angler Receives Multiple Citations After Attempting to Fish with Handgun

GARDEN CITY, Kan. (WIBW) - An angler in Kansas received multiple citations after he attempted to fish in Garden City with a 9 mm handgun. According to WIBW TV, game wardens, with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, say that Finney County officials seized a 9 mm handgun that had been used to take fish in Garden City. Authorities noted that it is illegal to use firearms to catch a fish.


Chase County Featured in Kansas Ghost Towns Documentary on PBS

CHASE COUNTY, Kan. (Emporia Gazette) - Humanities Kansas recently awarded a $10,000 grant to PBS Kansas, based in Wichita, to support the “Kansas Ghost Towns Documentary, Part 2.” The Emporia Gazette reports that the documentary is part of a continuing exploration of towns that have disappeared across the state. Humanities Kansas is an independent nonprofit spearheading a movement of ideas to empower the people of Kansas to strengthen their communities and our democracy. “The humanities connect people to place over time and across generations,” shared Julie Mulvihill, Humanities Kansas Executive Director. “This documentary will create a space for important conversations that will help us see more clearly our past and plan for our future.” “Kansas Ghost Towns, Part 2” features insightful interviews with expert scholars including author Sandra Wiechert; Jay Price, Wichita State University History Professor; and others. Part 1 of Kansas Ghost Towns premiered in September 2022, and viewers requested a sequel. The documentary is scheduled for broadcast during the station’s Summerfest membership drive. It will premiere on Thursday, August 31 at 7 pm.


Kansas Loses Legal Fight over Voting Law Passed in 2021

MISSION, Kan. (AP) — Kansas has lost a legal fight over one of the voting laws that its Republican-led Legislature passed in the wake of the 2020 election. U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil ruled last week that it was unconstitutional to make it a crime for groups to include voter’s name, address and other information on advance ballot applications. Two national nonprofit groups, VoteAmerica and the Voter Participation Center, sued after two voting laws were passed in 2021 over the veto of Democratic Governor Laura Kelly. One of them included the restriction on prefilling ballots, even if the voter provided the information and requested an advance mail ballot application. The groups, whose mission is to promote voting among traditionally underserved groups, including young and minority voters, argued that there is a higher response rate when the group prefills the applications. Nearly 70,000 Kansas voters submitted an advance mail voting application provided by the Voter Participation Center to their county election official in the 2020 general election, the lawsuit said. But the state countered that the groups’ mailing efforts led to a flood of duplicate applications during the 2020 presidential election. Election officials testified that the flood of applications led to confusion, with many voters repeatedly requesting mail-in ballots.

Another law passed in 2021 also is being challenged in court. In March, the Kansas Court of Appeals reinstated the suit filed by Loud Light, the League of Women Voters of Kansas, the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center and the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. They challenged provisions of a law that limit how many advance mail ballots individuals can collect and require election officials to match the signatures on an advance ballot to a person’s voter registration record. A Shawnee County judge originally dismissed it after finding the restrictions were reasonable.


KU Researchers Develop App to Treat Eating Disorders

LAWRENCE, Kan. (KNS) - Researchers at the University of Kansas have created a smartphone app that can help treat eating disorders. The app uses existing eating disorder resources, but gives participants more control over when to access those materials. It also includes virtual check-ins with trained providers that can be difficult to schedule in-person due to long waitlists or transportation challenges. Research team member Kara Christensen says university health centers are already overwhelmed and a lot of them don’t have someone trained to treat eating disorders. The app provides a new treatment option. “When students are identified as having a disorder, they're referred out. And that typically means they don't get care,” Christensen said. “We're hoping that this could be a program that could fill some of those gaps.” Christensen says the next step is testing the app on other college campuses across the country. The National Eating Disorders Association says 30 million Americans will have an eating disorder during their lives.


Renowned Earthworks Artist Stan Herd to Create Dole Centennial Artwork

LAWRENCE, Kan. (KNS) - An acclaimed earthworks artist, based in Lawrence, will carve a large portrait of political icon Bob Dole into the ground on the University of Kansas campus this summer to celebrate Dole’s 100th birthday. Artist Stan Herd will use grass, rocks and mulch for the design. The portrait of Dole will sit near the Dole Institute of Politics on the KU campus. Dole served more than 30 years in Congress and was the Republican nominee for president in 1996. He also served critical roles in developing food stamp policy and passing the Americans with Disabilities Act. Herd says Dole’s bipartisan efforts were very important to American democracy and says he’s honored to design the artwork. He expects to complete the piece by Dole’s birthday on July 22. Dole died in 2021.


Hamlin Bumps Larson for Lead on Final Lap to Win at Kansas Speedway

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Denny Hamlin bumped Kyle Larson off the lead heading onto the backstretch of the final lap Sunday, giving him a clear path to the finish line at Kansas Speedway and ending his streak of 33 races in the NASCAR Cup Series without a victory. Hamlin went to the front on the record 38th lead change of a chaotic race at Kansas for his fourth victory at the track and the 400th win for Joe Gibbs Racing. William Byron spent more than 50 laps riding around two laps down before rallying onto the lead lap, and even fighting for the lead down the stretch. He finished in third. Bubba Wallace was fourth and Ross Chastain fifth. Chastain got into a brawl on pit road with Noah Gragson after the race and had to be separated.


Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Pursuing Larger Facility

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KNS) - The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, is pursuing plans for a new home, to be built next to the historic Paseo YMCA building where the leagues were founded. The new, larger, building is estimated to cost about $25 million and will be built mostly with privately raised funds. But museum President Bob Kendrick isn’t ruling out the possibility of public funding at a later date. He says the timetable for groundbreaking will depend on how fast the museum can raise money: "Typically you want to raise half or three-quarters of your money before you break ground because you feel like you’re less likely to fail in raising the required funds to do this," Kendrick said. Bank of America kicked off the funding with a one-million dollar grant. The 30,000-square-foot building is planned for the corner of 18th Street at the Paseo in Kansas City.


This summary of area news is curated by KPR news staffers, including J. Schafer, Laura Lorson, Tom Parkinson and Kaye McIntyre. Our headlines are generally posted by 10 am weekdays and updated throughout the day. These ad-free headlines are made possible by KPR members. Become one today. And follow KPR News on Twitter.