A jazz pianist pleads guilty to child-porn charges – and tries to explain 

It was an early spring evening when agents came to Bill Laursen's front door. His daughter had lived with him for about one year, and the two had just returned from Brookside to their home north of the river.

A jazz pianist who most recently had been playing with the Scamps, Laursen taught music part time at his daughter's school, the Kansas City Academy. After classes let out for the day, he gave piano lessons while his daughter waited for him at the Roasterie coffee shop.

Jess (her name has been changed in this story to protect her privacy) had been living with her mother in a small Missouri town but missed being near a bigger city. So she moved in with Laursen, then in his mid-50s. Before she moved in, they rarely spoke — at first, he didn't even know what foods she liked. But the relationship was improving.

"We were finally able to be really close, like much closer than some parents and kids," says Jess, a 15-year-old with honey-colored hair who wears a necklace with a miniature harmonica and has a blue-ball tongue piercing that flashes when she speaks. Jess also played the piano — and sang. "Most kids lie to their parents because their parents don't trust them, but with him I could talk."

They were making dinner when Jess saw two men on their porch, dressed in polo shirts and tennis shoes, as though they were planning a round of golf. Laursen met them at the door.

The men showed him badges and said they were agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Laursen says the lead agent told him, "We want to talk to you about immigration."

Laursen didn't believe him. After all, he thought, anyone could get a badge.

Laursen says he argued with the agents at the door for a while, refusing to let them in. Then he shifted his weight and let the door swing open a bit, and the lead agent grabbed the handle and pushed his way in.

"You might want to have your daughter in a different part of the house," the lead agent told him when he saw Jess in the living room.

Laursen looked at her. Jess could tell from his expression that she shouldn't argue. She went to her room and started writing in a notebook that she kept for song lyrics.

In the computer room, the lead agent was asking her father if he ever looked at pornography. If he ever looked at child pornography. The agents wanted to take his computer back to their lab.

Laursen knew he had child porn on his computer. Most of the images were girls about Jess' age in various states of undress.


On September 30, 2008, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Laursen's indictment on five counts of receiving child pornography over the Internet and one count of possessing child pornography, it was all over the TV news.

In addition to his job at the Kansas City Academy, Laursen also taught music at Community School #1 Elementary, a private school in Prairie Village. And there was his seat with the Scamps, the city's longest-running jazz band.

"It shocked the jazz community because he was so well-thought-of," says one close observer of the scene. "He wasn't one of the top players — there are a lot of good piano players in town — but he was a really nice person. People were just shocked."

Even if he wasn't one of the top players, he had to be good to get into the Scamps.

Laursen was trained as a classical pianist. But in 1981, when he was 27 and living in Warrensburg, he read a magazine article that said musicians in Kansas City were the real thing. He headed to town with dreams of making it big.

His first public tryout was during a jam session at the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

"I went up onstage and I was thinking, 'This is how people find their way. This is how they make it.' And I just fell flat," he tells The Pitch.

Oscar "Lucky" Wesley was in the crowd watching. If Laursen wanted to move up in the Kansas City jazz scene, there wasn't a better example to follow than Wesley, the Scamps' bandleader, singer and upright-bass player.

"I got offstage, and Wesley, this guy who looks like Don King, comes over to me and he told me why I bombed," Laursen remembers. "He just sort of explained rough music theory. You know, learning to pattern what chords and where and how to play jazz. Everyone respected him there. He was the guy who helped the Scamps spring forward with their arranging style, which is what they were known for."

Laursen remembered the lesson and started learning old jazz and blues standards and studying theory. He played everywhere he could: at churches and schools, in bands, as a solo act. He carved out a niche for himself as a good piano player — talented, friendly and, most important, reliable.

The Scamps, meanwhile, continued their run as the oldest jazz band in the city.

Begun in the 1930s as a vocal act, the band broke up briefly during World War II and regrouped immediately after its members returned to the States. So many musicians played in the band over the years that, when asked to recount them, the current sax player, Dwight Foster, just sighs. "Good grief," says the 66-year-old jazzman. "I don't know if anyone could name all of them."

In May 2002, the City Council passed a resolution praising the band. It declared that "The Scamps are not really scamps at all, but Kansas City's 'gentlemen of jazz,'" and it honored all members past and present but specifically Wesley, Arthur Jackson, Orestie "Rusty" Tucker, Jimmy "Coots" Dye, Earl Robinson, Allen Monroe, Wallace Jones and Rudy Massingale. The block of Eighth Street between Central and Broadway now bears the honorary street name of Scamps Alley.

When Laursen finally joined the group full time two years ago, the core of the band was Wesley, drummer Jones and Foster.

It had taken Laursen a decade to earn that seat, mostly by sitting in on Saturday nights after the band's regular piano player got a night job at Stroud's.

He also had a regular engagement accompanying singer Teri Wilder every Tuesday night at Café Trio.

"Sometimes we'd play on the Plaza with some other musicians, and he always had charts and books for everyone to look at," says Wilder, 53. "He just took over the role of bandleader. He took it all very seriously."

Fallout from the news of his indictment was quick. He lost his teaching and tutoring jobs, all but a few friends, and everything musically except for his seat with the Scamps.

At press time, Wesley was in the hospital and unable to comment. But Jones, 81, says the child-porn indictment "just don't fit" with Laursen's personality. "He's a very, very nice fellow. If I needed a ride after I'd take my drums down, he'd come get me. You'd look over at him, and he'd be into it, man, and when he's playing that piano, he heats up them keys."

Foster was similarly perplexed by the news.

"I didn't know what was going on with it," he says. "I didn't want to ask him and I didn't ask him. It wasn't none of my business, and he never said anything to me."

Though others say news of Laursen's trouble shocked the community, Foster doubts that the news spread very far. Kansas City might pay homage to its jazz history in murals and tourist brochures, but few of its residents recognize the names playing in the clubs.

"A lot of people don't even know me, and I've been around," Foster says. "Years ago, maybe. Now you got an altogether different set of people. Young people who try to copy off artists and don't even know their instruments. They don't know what it means to sound like yourself. Bill Laursen ... he sounded like Bill Laursen to me."

The last time drummer Jones saw Laursen was when the band played a June gig at the Phoenix. Laursen's mother and brother were there, and he told Jones that he'd be going to prison the next Tuesday.


Laursen pleaded guilty to the charges on June 23 of this year. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Laursen faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison without parole or as many as 110 years without parole, plus a fine of $1.5 million.

He reported to the St. Clair County Jail in Osceola, Missouri, where he'll be held until his sentencing. (At press time, his sentencing had not been scheduled.)

But before he went to prison, Laursen had some things he wanted to say to Kansas City.

In early June, before he gave himself over to the authorities, he sent a six-page, single-spaced letter to his friends, many of whom are in the Kansas City music scene. It was a combination of confession and complaint.

I can only imagine how hard it has been for you to watch me go through what I have and not be really rattled by it, he began. I'm sure that my actions surprised you at the very least and in some cases, made you and your families uncomfortable. I am sorry beyond words. And I'm also sorry that I have not been able to try to help you understand any of it.

So now he tried to help people understand.

I found my way to a really great psychotherapist who has helped me recognize that I have been carrying severe emotional pain for most of my life. This pain that had been left untreated for 40 years has brought me to this difficult place I now find myself.

Two traumatic events had occurred when he was a teenager, Laursen wrote. First, his father was killed in a small-plane accident. Almost two years after his father's death, while driving drunk, he had a car accident that left one of his best friends dead and two others injured.

I tried to move on with my life the way people did during the late 1960s in the small Missouri town where I was raised; that is, by bucking up and not looking back. Meeting with psychiatrists and psychologists branded people as mental in those days and was to be avoided at all costs.

His own home remedy for this illness was looking at porn. He figured it wasn't hurting anyone. That seemed to be the beauty of it. Looking at porn, which later turned into surfing for porn online, seemed a totally private activity, one that didn't involve or infringe on other human beings in any way. I wasn't aware that my desire to do what was described in my world growing up as a "man"-like activity was actually a compulsion driven by emotional pain; or perhaps more accurately stated, as my failure to find a way to properly relieve my emotional pain in a socially acceptable way.

From there, Laursen quickly turns his analysis on the legal system. Early in the proceedings, he writes, a court-appointed therapist told him that it was too bad he wasn't busted by state authorities, because he probably would have received just a year of probation rather than the decade he faced with the federal indictment.

Since I did have images of naked minor girls on my computer, my attorney said that to go to trial would get me an automatic 10 year minimum sentence that he would not be able to mount a strong defense against.

But, he contends, the agents who arrested him engaged in "a series of unlawful actions." In fact, he writes, "they had to strongly deny actions they carried out and things they said in order to keep their case alive."

He spends several paragraphs complaining about the agents' conduct and imagines his readers will agree that law-enforcement officers must follow "the guidelines and procedures that come with their job descriptions."

He'll appeal, Laursen writes, but he has run out of money to pay his lawyer. He explains that he has gone into such detail about the legal process because friends keep asking him if he has exhausted all possible means of defense. He says he has had good representation. Now it's time to face his scary future.

I will be able to get through this.....I will find a way to continue being artfully creative.....this too shall be behind me at some point and I will thrive again.

After a few more efforts to counter some of the damning details in media reports and court records, Laursen returns to the revelations of therapy.

Although there certainly were a lot of naked girls and women both above and below legal age and a little (very little) underage sexual activity depicted on my computer that the authorities hauled away, my psychotherapist and I discovered that I preferred viewing girls around the age of 15 but covered (clothed or in swimming suits). This has proven to be a significant finding in helping me begin a path to true emotional healing. My therapist explains that this shows a propensity on my part of trying to seek out the last time in my life when I existed without the powerful emotional pain that began with my father's sudden death in the airplane accident.

After several paragraphs discussing the nature of rationality and feelings of hopelessness, he again acknowledges that he shouldn't have had the images on his computer, but again claims a measure of innocence. He can't help noticing that some people convicted of violent crimes have received sentences shorter than his. I saw on CNN the other day that some well-known rapper was just sent to prison for 1 year for attempting to purchase unregistered machine guns, silencers and other related gear. He received less than 1/10 of what my sentence will be. Wow!

He leaves readers with three thoughts.

First: Looking at pictures of naked people is not the same as molesting children....

Second: We need to get things like this legal action against me moved over into the realm of where it belongs: not prison sentences but required psychotherapy with perhaps a little probation thrown in that will assure that emotional weaknesses like this are properly dealt with....

Third: If the slow movement of American societal evolution when it comes to this delicate issue persistently remains stalled at focusing on punishing instead of curing, let's better educate the general populace that looking at naked images of minors will, without exception, get you a federal prison term of at least ten years.

His finishes by requesting that friends write letters to the judge in support of his character (but advises them to "not grumble about our legal system"). Twenty letters would be helpful; 100 "should definitely make a difference."

Finally, he issues an invitation to a going-away party at Wilder's house. It is really going to be a lot of fun and I would love to see you and yours.

Have Great Days Always~~Bill


"It's not unusual for defendants to try and have family members or friends or work associates, or even pastors, write letters of support for them to the court," says Don Ledford, public affairs officer for the U.S. Attorney's Office. But, Ledford says, it's unusual for a defendant to plead guilty without a plea agreement. "I'm assuming he's hoping to receive some credit for accepting responsibility."

At the very least, Laursen will see five years. Each of the five counts of receiving child pornography over the Internet carries a mandatory minimum of five years and a maximum of 20 years; judges have the discretion to impose those sentences consecutively or concurrently. The count of possession carries a maximum of 10 years but no minimum.

Ledford says the agents who worked on Laursen's case are prohibited from discussing it.

But others who investigate child pornography say it's anything but a victimless crime, especially when the images depict children in sexual situations.

"Every time one of these images is traded, it's a crime-scene photograph of a victim who was raped. Every time that picture is downloaded and looked at, that's re-victimizing that child," says John Shehan, director of the Exploited Children Division of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia. His office serves as a clearinghouse for information received through a Web tips line — cybertipline.com — set up in 1998 for people to register reports about online crime against children. Of the more than 706,000 tips he has received since the tips line was established, he says roughly 89 percent have been related to child pornography. Many depict girls in violent, abusive situations, in photos that have been taken against their will. "These aren't Playboy types of images people think of," he says.

"The trend in recent years has been for victims younger and younger, and the abuse more graphic. There's a trend towards the pre-verbal, so the victims can't identify accusers."

Laursen insists that he would never harm an underage girl.

"In the world I deal with, in the waking world where I'm walking around, the more you're involved with pornography online, the more safe and separate from the real world it seems," he says. "I know someone's being exploited at the initial point, though. The stuff I was looking at was not sexual activity. I know there was some on there, but I didn't download that intentionally and I stand by that. Anyone who surfs porn knows what you download isn't always what you think it is. And even if you delete it, once it's on your hard drive, it's there.

"It bothers me, the thought that I'm becoming yet another statistic," Laursen says. "This country is so good at putting people away."


Teri Wilder guesses that about 50 people showed up for Laursen's goodbye celebration at her Brookside home.

"There were a few people saying 'How can you throw him a goodbye party? He's playing on your emotions. This is evil.' But not very many. Most people stood by him."

There was food on the table and music on the stereo. Some of Laursen's students came with their parents. The only thing that might have seemed unusual was the poster-sized photo of Laursen being signed by the attendees. After the party, it would be given to Jess.

Among those who showed up was trumpeter Stan Kessler, 57, who has played trumpet in groups with Laursen since the late 1980s, starting with a funk group called Baby Leroy.

"It was a really joyous celebration," he says. "You'd never guess what it was for. If you didn't know and just walked in, you'd think it was a party."

The guests made small talk and discussed Laursen's situation. Many of those who attended, including Kessler, had written letters to the court speaking of his character and asking for leniency in sentencing.

"You have a guy here who is basically one of the best human beings you're ever going to meet on the planet and who has always dealt with people with kindness and compassion," Kessler says. "Everybody he encounters, he makes them feel good. And it's a shame. It's a shame there's no flexibility in the law for people like him."

Kessler goes on: "The fact of the matter is, it is private, and as long as it's not hurting anybody, my feeling is, I wouldn't do it but I'm not going to condemn a whole person's life because of an odd hobby. To me, it's akin to wearing a fur coat. People think that's OK because they didn't kill the animal ... . Every time I see a Hummer on the road, I get upset, but that's me. I think people that drive them are jerks or stupid or ignorant or all of the above. Why are you driving a fucking military vehicle in the city? You're fucking the Earth driving this gas-guzzling thing."

At the party, Kessler says Laursen played some music and told him, "I hope they let me take my synthesizer with me. If nothing else, as least I'll have time to practice."


Jess never doubted that Laursen was a good father, even though the girls he was looking at were mostly the same age as Jess and her friends.

"He doesn't have that kind of mind," she insists. "He doesn't look at people and go, 'Ooo, look at her.' Even with women his own age, he's respectful. He doesn't like relationships. He's had a few girlfriends, but they always fail because they get too close. He loves kids; he would never hurt anyone, but he had problems. He's dealing with them now."

The night before Laursen went to prison, he and Jess stayed in the house together. The furniture was gone, and the bank had sent a notice of foreclosure, but they had a mattress on the living-room floor.

"That was the best night I had with him," Jess says. "We stayed up till one in the morning. We talked. We took pictures and stuff. We talked about Mom, the past. He's telling me stuff that I should do, like never give up music or fall in step with the rest of the world, just be yourself. But that morning was probably the hardest. He started crying and couldn't stop."

Jess will live with family friends who have agreed to care for her. She'll continue at the same school, thanks to an anonymous donor who has provided the tuition.

On the day that Laursen pleaded guilty, Jess and her mother were there in court. Laursen, in a dark charcoal jacket and brown pants, sat with his attorney. At the prosecution table were two more lawyers.

The judge arrived and checked off the legal questions. Yes, Laursen believed that he had good legal advice; yes, he was in his right mind; yes, he understood exactly what he was doing. His attorney asked him about each picture mentioned in the charges and if it was on his hard drive due to his downloading it. He answered yes to all, appearing almost meek before the judge and apologizing when he didn't hear a question correctly.

In the front row, Jess slumped into her mother's arms. Though she didn't make a sound, her body shuddered.

"You did this knowing it was wrong?" Laursen's attorney asked.

"Yes."

"It was against the law?"

"Yes."

The judge ordered a pre-sentencing investigation and called for officers to transport Laursen to Osceola, where he would be held until sentencing.

The judge was already gone by the time the federal marshal arrived. He told Laursen to get rid of anything extraneous. "Any money, glasses case, anything like that," he said. Laursen took off his tie and belt and passed them to the court officer, who passed them to Jess.

Flanked by the marshal and the court officer, Laursen headed toward the door. He turned to Jess, raised his eyebrows in a sort of "Oh, well" expression, grinned and waved once. Then the door shut behind him.

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