Rebecca Beach didn’t kill the drug dealer from Topeka. But she’s in prison for life because Kansas’ felony murder law says she did.

A Bad Trip 

Rebecca Beach didn’t kill the drug dealer from Topeka. But she’s in prison for life because Kansas’ felony murder law says she did.

Rebecca Beach had bad taste in men -- and Jose Arevalo was no exception. Sweet-talking, brown-eyed and slender, he had a nice smile and he paid attention to her, which was something she craved. In the spring of 2000, 22-year-old Beach was feeling even more vulnerable than usual. Her brother had died a few months earlier, she was having money problems and she had two small children to feed.

Arevalo, who was a little younger than Beach, started telling her he loved her. He didn't tell her, though, about the time he'd spent in prison on robbery and drug charges. And she didn't take a hint from his nickname, "Rascal." Later, in court, Arevalo's friends would testify that he had used her, lied to her and then dumped her.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Arevalo was a really, really bad boyfriend. According to Beach's later testimony, he plotted a murder and left Beach to take the blame for it.

Now Beach, who had never been in trouble with the law, is sitting in the Topeka Correctional Facility doing life with a hard 20 -- no chance of parole until she's in her early 40s.

Unless a clemency petition filed in May by the University of Kansas Law School is successful, Beach will have decades to wish she had never met Arevalo.

Beach's life had started to go bad months before, on January 15, 2000, when police visited the Raytown home that Beach and her two young children shared with Beach's mother, Carla Simpson. It was about 3 a.m. Beach didn't hear the knocking, but she woke up to the sound of her mother screaming. Officers had just informed Simpson that her son, Beach's 20-year-old brother, Joseph Beach, known as "Bo," had been shot and killed at a house in Kansas City, Kansas.

The killing appeared to be drug-related, and police later arrested two men in connection with the shooting. A brief in The Kansas City Star with the headline "Man Slain" said Joseph Beach Jr. had been the city's third homicide of the year. The family buried Rebecca Beach's brother a few days after she turned 22.

Beach and her younger brother had always been close. They'd navigated a rough childhood that left Beach seeking love and attention from any man who'd give it to her. As grade schoolers growing up in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas, they'd watched their alcoholic father yell at and hit their mother, then rip the phone out of the wall so she couldn't call the police. After the family moved to Roeland Park when Beach was in fifth grade, the other girls made fun of her clothes and stuck gum in her hair on the bus. When an older boy offered her a ride home from Taco Bell one afternoon when she was 13, she let him take her to his house to watch a movie and ended up fighting him off when he tried to rape her, she says.

By the time she was 15, she wasn't doing well in school anymore. Soon, she met a guy at the mall, a 19-year-old who drove a convertible. She got pregnant and dropped out of school but broke up with him when he grew possessive and started fights over her. Then, before her son was born, she started dating a guy named Joey Burke, whom she'd known from Argentine. He treated her decently, and when Dylan was born he acted like a father -- as much as a teenage boy could. She got pregnant again, and by 16 she had a daughter, Maranda. She and Burke didn't have much money, and they constantly moved in and out of friends' and relatives' homes with their kids. In the mid-'90s, they split up, and Beach lived with Burke's parents for a while.

"My kids forced me to grow up," Beach says. Though she couldn't provide them with the most stable home, she spent almost all of her spare time with them and tried to make sure they didn't have to go through the same sort of childhood she'd had. Family photos show Beach in the backyard on Easter, smiling as her kids collect colored eggs in baskets. And on New Year's Eve 2000, all three of them are dancing around the living room in their pajamas. "They had to wake me up at midnight," Simpson recalls.

After Bo's death, Beach's mother fell apart. She temporarily quit the waitressing job she'd held for four years, because she couldn't handle breaking down in tears every time regular customers asked how she was doing. She started doing meth, and she would take the family's only vehicle -- Bo's car -- and drive to North Kansas City to hang out at Harrah's, Argosy Casino and the Isle of Capri, leaving Beach unable to get to her job at Wal-Mart. "I didn't have any money, but you can sometimes find money in the machines, so I'd do that and just wander around there so I didn't have to go home," Simpson says. "I hated going home. I hated thinking about it."

"I was the one that had to be strong and keep everything together," Beach recalls. But with no car and no one to care for her own children and her brother's daughter, Beach lost her job. The bank started threatening to foreclose on the family's Raytown house.

Meanwhile, the Wyandotte County district attorney's office charged the man who had killed Beach's brother, Benjamin Tribble (then 24), with involuntary manslaughter and possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell. A judge sentenced him to one year in jail. His companion was not charged in the killing.

It was a few months before she began dating Jose Arevalo, and Beach needed an understanding friend. So she started writing to a distant cousin who had been in and out of prison and had gone back in shortly after her brother's funeral.

"He wasn't exactly the kind of guy your mom would approve of, but I've known him practically my whole life, and he was someone I could talk to and say what I needed to say," Beach says.

Her cousin told her that if she needed to make extra money, he knew a guy named Land Grant from Topeka who was looking for a meth supplier in Kansas City. If Beach could find one and hook him up, she'd be paid for each transaction. It would be easy money.

Beach had never dealt drugs; the worst legal trouble she'd ever been in was a speeding ticket. She was apprehensive. But she told her cousin she could probably get in touch with the meth dealers her brother had known.

"Land and I first agreed to meet each other without the drugs, just to see if we felt OK with each other," Beach tells the Pitch. They agreed to do a deal that March. It was simple: Grant would call Beach whenever he planned to come through town, then Beach would contact her brother's old friends and tell them how much to have available. Grant usually would buy 2 to 4 pounds of methamphetamine for $6,000 a pound. Grant would pick up Beach and drive her to the suppliers' house in south Kansas City. She'd go inside and trade tens of thousands of dollars for drugs. And Grant would pay her $1,000 for her time. Grant and Beach trusted each other -- neither one carried a weapon.

"At the time, $1,000 seemed like a dream," Beach later wrote in a letter to her mother. "I didn't even know enough about dealing drugs to realize I should have gotten a lot more than that. It sounded like a lot to me. I would only have to do it a few times and maybe by then mom would be back in the real world, and being caught up on things, we could get our lives back together."

Beach and Grant did three or four deals.

Then, sometime in late spring, while her children were visiting their grandparents, Beach went to hang out at a friend's house in Kansas City, Kansas. There, she met Jose Arevalo. He started flirting with her right away, and she was hooked.

"I don't know why, but I'd be with any guy who paid the smallest bit of attention to me," Beach now says. Arevalo was attentive -- he acted smitten right away, saying he wanted to be with Beach all the time. Soon he, too, grew possessive; he asked to carry her pager so he could check for messages from other guys. Beach was flattered. She told Arevalo all about her life and even confided in him about her money problems and the drug deals with Grant.

One day in June, though, Arevalo got involved in the business, and everything went wrong.

Land Grant was a drug dealer in Topeka. With a friendly smile, a gold chain, cornrows and enormous biceps, he drew attention from women when he flashed his money at the Cabaret USA strip club, just off Interstate 70, west of Topeka. That's where he met Margaret Thomas, a delicate, 20-year-old blonde who worked at the club. Perhaps because of her meth habit, she looked a little older.

Sometimes Grant would call her for companionship, and she'd go somewhere with him in exchange for drugs. Occasionally she bought from him. She later told police that she hadn't known about the 37-year-old Grant's criminal history in Shawnee County, a record that dated back to his 20s.

In 1985, prosecutors charged Grant with battery on a law-enforcement officer, and he was sentenced to probation. In 1986, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated, earning more probation. In 1987, police caught him with cocaine and the district attorney charged him with possession, but a judge gave him a suspended sentence that included three years' probation, alcohol counseling and full employment training.

But he was arrested again in 1991 and charged with possession of narcotics. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison at the Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing.

That's where Grant had become friends with Beach's cousin, himself a frequent inmate.

One Friday morning, June 23, 2000, Grant called Beach to tell her he'd be coming through Kansas City that night and would want to make a buy.

Beach agreed to make the deal. But this time, she couldn't reach her brother's old contacts. Frustrated, she was about to call Grant and cancel the deal when Arevalo stopped her. "I can get some," she remembers her boyfriend telling her. Arevalo knew a guy in Kansas City, Kansas. All they had to do was go pick him up.

"I trusted Jose," she later testified.

She shouldn't have. Court testimony later revealed that Arevalo and a friend he'd met in prison, Gerald Zugelder, had talked about faking a drug deal -- they even imagined wrapping up flour in blue plastic -- to lure and rob Grant the next time he came to town.

On this night, Arevalo and Beach took Bo's car -- a bright-green Dodge Stratus with glitzy, gold Dayton wheels. Arevalo told Beach where to drive. As they rolled down Kansas Avenue, Arevalo spotted his friend Jesse Jimenez driving toward them in an SUV. Beach pulled over.

The two men greeted each other and chatted for a few minutes in Spanish, according to Beach's testimony. Then they both got into Beach's car. Arevalo told Beach they were going to Jimenez's house at 714 Homer, where he kept his drugs. On the way there, Beach got a page from Grant. Beach dropped off the two men at Jimenez's place and headed for what was then the Chaplain Truck Stop on 18th Street near I-70.

Grant was waiting there in a rented Cadillac with bags of money -- $36,000 in all. Margaret Thomas, whom Beach didn't know, was sitting in the passenger seat.

Beach and Grant chatted for a few minutes, and Beach used a pay phone to call her mother and say that she was OK and would be home in an hour. Then Beach told Grant to follow her. She drove down Central Avenue to 7th Street, then made a right onto Homer, a dead-end street across from a deserted soccer field and next to what was then the 7th Street Café. Beach pulled into an alley beside Jimenez's house, a tiny, run-down bungalow on a scraggly patch of grass, and Grant parked nearby.

Beach walked over to Grant's car to get $12,000 for 2 pounds of meth. Thomas would later tell police that Grant asked Beach if she wanted her $1,000 now or later, and Beach told him he could just give it to her later. Beach walked off toward the house as Thomas watched.

Beach knocked on the door of the house. "Hello?" she called out. Nobody answered, so she pushed the door open and walked inside.

Within seconds, two men -- Thomas later identified them as Arevalo and Jimenez -- ran from behind the house, at least one of them shooting at Grant's car. Thomas ducked against the floorboard. "Get down!" she told Grant. But he was slumped over, not moving.

Inside the house, Beach later testified, she heard gunshots and dropped to the floor in a fetal position. During her trial, Beach said she had been terrified, not knowing what was happening or who was shooting.

Grant had been shot eight or nine times at close range. (The coroner testified that he couldn't tell how many times Grant had been shot, because the wounds were so extensive.) Thomas, who had escaped the first shots, saw a man's face in the driver's-side window. She later testified that Arevalo said, "Bitch, you're gonna die," and shot her in the chest.

After the gunfire ended, Beach opened the door of the bungalow and walked outside. She saw Arevalo slowly backing away from something, she later testified, but she couldn't see what. She heard a girl screaming.

"Come on!" Arevalo yelled at Beach, but she remembers that she just stood there and shook her head no. Jimenez later told police that she looked "frozen."

Though injured, Thomas managed to reach over and shift the car into drive. It rolled down Homer and out into traffic on 7th Street before crashing into the brick wall at the entrance to the Pala Vista apartment complex. Bleeding, Thomas stumbled out of the car and tried to flag down cars before passing out in the street. A medical technician on his way home from work stopped to help.

Back on Homer Street, Beach wasn't moving, so Arevalo pointed his Luger 9-mm at her, cocked it and told her to get in the car, she later testified. She got in on the driver's side, and Arevalo sat on the passenger's side. As she drove up the alley, Jimenez appeared in front of the car and then jumped into the back seat.

"Man, why didn't you tell me it was gonna go down like that?" Jimenez shouted at Arevalo, speaking in English for the first time, Beach later testified.

Arevalo didn't answer. He told Beach to drive to the home of Gerald Zugelder, who lived in Independence. At Zugelder's house, Arevalo and Jimenez went inside with the bag of money Grant had given Beach. They were in the house for about 20 minutes, Beach said. Beach didn't know that Zugelder had originally planned to be there, too, as one of the shooters.

They dropped off Jimenez at a friend's house, and Arevalo told Beach they'd drive back to her house -- and that she'd better act normal so her mother wouldn't get suspicious.

The next morning, Beach's mother mentioned a story she'd seen on the evening news the night before: A black male from Topeka had been shot and killed in Kansas City, Kansas. Beach didn't say anything.

Arevalo stopped telling Beach he loved her after that, but he kept calling and stopping by to make sure she hadn't told anyone about the crime. "He said, 'You don't want to go to war with me, 'cause I live for this shit and I'll take you down with me,'" Beach says he told her.

The only other witness, Thomas, was in a coma at KU Medical Center after hours of surgery to remove bullet fragments and a damaged spleen and to repair wounds in her stomach. When she woke up more than a week later, she described the two gunmen, the woman who had met her and Grant at the truck stop, and the distinctive green car with gold wheel rims.

Even though Beach wanted to tell her mother what had happened, she kept her mouth shut. She says she could imagine Arevalo harming her or her mother or children if she went to the police.

Soon, though, Kansas City, Kansas, police caught up with Beach. They had retrieved a cell phone from the floor of Grant's car, and her home phone number was all over it.

A few weeks after the murder, in July, Detective Bob Howard grabbed another detective and drove to the home that matched the phone number.

Beach answered the door and let the detectives in. At first, she told them she didn't know Land Grant. When the detectives told Beach her number had come up as one of the last ones Grant had dialed before he was killed, she admitted that her cousin knew him.

The detectives heard some rustling in the back bedroom -- Arevalo was there -- and began to feel uneasy, so they asked her to go down to the station with them. On the way, she admitted that she had acted as a go-between for Grant. She said she was supposed to set up a drug deal for him on the night he was killed but that he never showed up.

Howard realized that Beach matched Thomas' description of the woman who had met Grant at the truck stop, and the detectives asked her to give a formal statement. She still claimed she didn't know what had happened to Grant, and she made up an absurd story about leading him to 714 Homer and then getting hit on the head with a skillet. The detectives took her home.

They arrested her the next day, July 21, 2000. On the phone from the Wyandotte County Jail, she told her mother the whole story.

"I told her, 'Just tell the truth. Tell them what happened,'" her mother says. After that, Beach was ready to talk.

She gave police a full statement, which stayed consistent throughout her trial: Beach had known nothing of the plot to rob and murder Grant; she had gone into the house on Homer to get the drugs for Grant; she heard gunshots, and when she came out Arevalo was standing there with a gun telling her to get in the car and drive.

After she began cooperating, police hinted that she would be their star witness against Arevalo, Beach's mother says.

And Beach probably would have been the state's main witness -- if Arevalo, tipped off by a friend who worked at the Wyandotte County Court House, hadn't fled after learning that the district attorney's office had issued a warrant for his arrest. The clerk, Angelica Guerrero, was fired and charged with aiding a felon in August 2000. But that didn't help Beach, who had told police everything she knew without asking for an attorney.

She didn't know that she could be charged with a crime she didn't commit.

But under Kansas' felony murder law, a defendant can be charged with first-degree murder for any killing -- even if the defendant didn't kill anyone -- if the murder happened during the commission of a dangerous felony.

The law is designed to deter criminals from committing felonies, or at least from acting in a way that might lead to a death. But like Beach, many criminals don't know about the law, and opponents argue that it doesn't have much effect on crime. The statute dates back to English common law from the Elizabethan period of the 1500s, though England stopped enforcing it in 1957 because it was considered too harsh. Most states have a version of the law, though a few have abolished it. In Missouri, the law is slightly more lenient, classifying felony murder as second-degree murder.

Established by territorial government in 1855, Kansas' law states that murder in the first degree includes any killing that happens while the perpetrator is committing, attempting to commit or fleeing from any "inherently dangerous felony" -- that is, a felony during which a criminal could foresee that someone might be killed. Since the late 1990s, the list of inherently dangerous felonies has included kidnapping, robbery, rape, child abuse, arson, treason and endangering the food supply.

For example, it was enforced in May when a jury convicted a 22-year-old man for a second time for felony murder in the 1999 death of a Lenexa couple. (His first conviction was overturned because of improper jury instructions.) Benjamin L. Rogers was a teenager when he and two friends stole motorcycles from an Olathe dealership and, with police in pursuit, crashed their getaway truck into the couples' car.

At her trial, Beach took the stand and told her version of the story. But prosecutors had offered Zugelder a plea bargain for his testimony against her, and he testified that Beach had known about the plan to rob and murder Grant. That contradicted his testimony at a preliminary hearing, when he'd said Arevalo hadn't told Beach about the plan because he was afraid she'd back out.

In February 2001, a jury acquitted Beach of aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit murder.

But they found her guilty of felony murder and of attempted second-degree murder in the case of Thomas. Judge J. Dexter Burdette didn't inform the jury members that they had to agree on which underlying felony Beach had committed at the time of the murder, just that they had to agree she had committed a felony. The following month, Burdette sentenced Beach to life in prison with a "hard 20" -- no possibility of parole for 20 years.

The details of the trial are fuzzy in juror Brenna Palmer's memory. "There was some argument," Palmer remembers. "Anytime someone's life is at stake, there should be argument. Some of us didn't feel she should have been blamed for all of that."

When police finally caught Arevalo, he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and aggravated robbery. In November 2002, a judge gave him the same sentence as Beach for Grant's murder -- life with a hard 20. Arevalo got an additional eight years for his other crimes.

Then 27-year-old Zugelder -- who, a few days before the murder, had discussed with Arevalo a plan to rob and kill Grant but had been unable to make it on that day -- pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder. He received a 13-year sentence.

All of the charges against Jimenez -- first-degree murder, attempted murder, aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit murder -- were dropped. Jimenez had been scheduled for trial along with Beach, but he petitioned the court to give him a new lawyer because his public defender had once represented one of the state's witnesses in the case.

By state law, a defendant's trial must be scheduled within 90 days, and the change of attorneys gave the courts another 90 days to reschedule Jimenez's trial. But the new date fell a few weeks too late, and the district attorney's office neglected to buy more time by requesting a continuance. In May 2001, Wyandotte County District Court Judge Cordell Meeks Jr. dismissed the case, ruling that Jimenez's right to a speedy trial had been violated. The district attorney's office decided not to appeal the judge's ruling.

As of this spring, Beach has been in prison for three years.

Sarah Liggett has spent the past year thinking about how to free her. An articulate law student in her mid-20s, she seems to have little in common with Beach except for her age.

"We've had very different paths," Liggett says. "And I think she's been struggling from day one of her life to make it, with very limited support, and that's part of what led her to where she is today. But I do think it's kind of scary how this law was applied in this case. I think a lot of people could be stuck in her situation."

Liggett, who grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, moved to Lawrence two years ago to attend law school at the University of Kansas. For the past year, she's worked only on Beach's case as part of KU's Paul E. Wilson Defender Project, one of the few programs in the country that handles post-conviction work for free. Professors there pore over dozens of cases, usually after requests from prisoners or their families, and are able to take on only a few cases a semester.

Beach's case had been referred by her appeals attorney, Rebecca Woodman of Topeka, who had been dismayed to lose Beach's appeal in 2002 and thought the Defender Project was her last resort.

Woodman says Beach's case highlights the felony murder law's unfairness.

"It was very unusual because she was the girlfriend of the main perpetrator, and she basically took the rap for the whole thing," Woodman says. "I'm not convinced that she was culpable at all, but she was definitely the least culpable of all of these people, and she was the one that was the most vigorously prosecuted."

Few of the Defender Project's cases involve clemency petitions.

"There are not a lot of cases that come through our office that seem to cry out for clemency, but all of us here have been really compelled by the facts in this case," says Beth Cateforis, the KU law professor who is supervising Liggett's work.

At the end of May, the Defender Project sent a 17-page petition to the Kansas Parole Board for review. The parole board must forward it to Governor Kathleen Sebelius' office within three months. In the petition, Liggett asks the governor to pardon Beach.

Beach lives in a cubicle with three other women. A curtain hangs in front of the toilet they share.

She takes a creative-writing class with a volunteer professor from Washburn University and writes awkward, rhyming poems, sometimes with misspelled words, to express her feelings. In a poem called "Jail," she writes haltingly about living in a tiny concrete room and wearing an orange outfit.

How did this happen to me?/I am in a place I thought I'd never be.

She speaks in a soft voice. "I am miserable," she says.

"I am not a suicidal person," she says. "But when I first got here, I used to wish I was dead. I used to pray I wouldn't wake up. "

She misses her kids. The worst part of being in prison, she says, is seeing them, now 8 and 9, cry when they have to leave after a visit. Her daughter lives in Topeka with Burke, and her son is in Kansas City, Missouri, with his grandparents.

Beach's trip to prison shocked her own mother into making some changes. Simpson says she felt guilty about all the years she stayed with Beach's abusive father and about her frequent trips to the casinos after her son's death.

"I thought, if I had been there for my daughter, maybe none of this would have happened," Simpson says. Now she's back at her waitressing job at Chubby's restaurant in Independence. That's where she met her fiancé, whom she says is the first man she's been with who has treated her well. The two of them recently bought a modest ranch-style house in southeast Kansas City. It's filled with knickknacks and family photos. "It was his idea," she says. "He wanted the grandkids to have a nice place to play."

Simpson sometimes baby-sits her grandchildren. And she tries to assist in the efforts to free her daughter.

"It's too late for Bo, but it's not too late for Becky," Simpson says. Rebecca Beach didn't kill the drug dealer from Topeka. But she's in prison for life because Kansas' felony murder law says she did.

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