Susan Leslie Stuckey died violently the morning of March 31, 2010, shot three times by a Prairie Village Police Department sergeant who had forcefully entered her apartment.
The shooting wasn't supposed to happen. Though Stuckey, a 47-year-old woman with a long history of mental illness, had told the police officers outside her apartment that she wanted them to kill her, they planned to pin her against a wall and have her involuntarily committed at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
That plan became difficult after officers abandoned negotiations and had a hard time getting into the apartment, where they encountered a baseball-bat-swinging Stuckey.
Police feared that Stuckey might set her apartment ablaze, a concern escalated by reports that an immobile 90-year-old woman living in a nearby apartment could not quickly evacuate, as other residents of Prairie Village's Kenilworth Apartments had early that morning.
Byron Roberson, a veteran PVPD officer, entered Stuckey's apartment first. He said later that she reached for a knife after he took her baseball bat and, after that, a broomstick.
Fearing for his life, he said, he shot Stuckey.
Bullets entered her neck and back and grazed her right forearm. Stuckey stepped toward a couch. Within moments she was dead.
The shooting made headlines and evening newscasts during the spring of 2010 as the Johnson County multi-jurisdictional Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Team (OISIT), composed of members of neighboring police forces, looked into it. The results of that inquiry went to Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe's office, which was satisfied that none of the officers had acted incorrectly. The ones who responded that day would face no criminal liability under Kansas law.
But Stuckey's family is now seeking remedies under federal law.
Beverly Stewart, Stuckey's mother, has filed a civil lawsuit against the PVPD and several individual officers for their roles in what she says was an unnecessary shooting and a violation of her daughter's constitutional rights.
The federal lawsuit comes after Stewart's attorney, Cheryl Pilate, convinced a Johnson County District Court judge that the PVPD's records of Stuckey's shooting should be open to the public. The police in Prairie Village had sought to keep the Stuckey files sealed.
With Stewart's federal lawsuit in its pretrial phase, the now-unsealed records raise a number of questions about the PVPD's official account of what happened at Kenilworth.
Why did the PVPD rely on two patrol officers, untrained in hostage or barricaded-suspect negotiation, to carry out about two hours' worth of discussions when there were two trained negotiators on the scene not talking to Stuckey?
Why did police abandon negotiations after little more than two hours?
Officers said during the police investigation that Stuckey had threatened to burn the apartment down, but sworn testimony by some of the same officers expressed differing accounts about whether she made those threats and when.
Stewart's attorney has raised the possibility that the 90-year-old neighbor, whose safety was a major pretext for entering Stuckey's apartment without a warrant, was not on the scene.
Prairie Village Police Chief Wes Jordan tells The Pitch that he's unable to discuss the case, citing the lawsuit.
Michael Seck, an Overland Park attorney representing the police, was unavailable for comment but supplied The Pitch with a report from a police expert who reviewed the case and who largely endorses how police handled the situation that day.
In Kansas, many basic records are often off-limits to the public or difficult and costly to obtain. The story that follows, supported by court filings, evidence and police records obtained by The Pitch through an open-records request, is a rare look into the investigation of a local, officer-involved shooting.
Beverly Stewart says she had a special bond with her only daughter.
She was proud of the way a young Susan Stuckey took care of other children around her, loved animals, did well in her studies, and performed as a standout singer and softball player.
"Everybody tried to get her on their team," Stewart tells The Pitch.
Stewart recalls happier times in her daughter's life.
"In fact, she used to tell me when she was younger, 'I'm so happy, Mother,' " Stewart says.
Sometime in Stuckey's early teens, though, Stewart noticed a stark change in her daughter. She could think of no explanation for it, and her daughter offered none.
"She loved good music and she would be listening to her music, and I could hear her and see her ... she would be in the family room and she just looked so sad," Stewart recalls. "So I would say, 'Susan, what's wrong, honey?' And she would always say, 'Nothing, nothing.' "
Stewart contacted her doctor, who in turn referred the family to a psychologist.
Despite her withdrawal, Stuckey did well at Shawnee Mission West High School, from which she graduated in 1980. From there, she went to the University of Kansas and studied psychology and broadcasting. After graduating from KU, she set out on a successful sales career.
It wasn't until a visit to her mom's house when Stuckey was 30 that Stewart began to understand what had distressed her daughter for so long. Stuckey revealed that the father of two girls, for whom she had baby-sat in her early teens, had sexually assaulted her.
Then the psychologist Stuckey had been sent to raped her as well.
Stewart tells The Pitch: "When she left, I called the psychologist's office, and the receptionist answered the phone, and I said I want to talk to Mr. So-and-So [Stewart declines to identify the psychologist], and she said, 'He's with a patient now,' and I said, 'I don't care who he's with, I'm on the phone. I'm Susan Stuckey's mother. I demand that I talk to him right now.'
"So I guess he went to someplace private, and I told him my daughter had been there and in my house and what she had told me — that he raped her. He admitted it. He admitted it to me.' "
Stuckey's depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, Stewart says, stemmed from these events and eventually led to her going on disability in the two to three years before her death.
The last month of Stuckey's life appears to have been among her most troubling periods. Her behavior was by then marked by heavy drinking, run-ins with neighbors, and a fire in her unit that caused smoke and soot damage. An April 1 eviction hearing had been set for her in Johnson County District Court.
"She was going downhill fast, very fast," Stewart says. "She even told me at one time, and I quote this, 'I'm broken, Mother. I need help.' "
In the weeks preceding Stuckey's death, the Prairie Village police made several visits to her apartment, on the 4100 block of West 93rd Terrace.
On March 18, 2010, Prairie Village police officer Benjamin Micheel was dispatched to Kenilworth Apartments when a resident there reported suspicious activity. The man who summoned police told Micheel that, as he was leaving his apartment the previous evening, Stuckey asked him where he was going. She spoke to him from her second-floor balcony. The man, who hadn't met Stuckey before, told her that he was on his way to a local restaurant.
"When you get back here, I'll be here," Stuckey told him, according to a police incident report.
The man later learned from a neighbor that Stuckey had looked into his windows. "I know he's in there," she said, according to the neighbor.
Micheel tried to confirm this with Stuckey; she told him to call her lawyer. She provided neither a name nor a phone number.
The next day, another Prairie Village officer returned to Stuckey's apartment. This time, she had called police herself to tell them that Kenilworth's management had stolen her pressure cooker. A manager told police that the pressure cooker had been taken because it was the source of the fire in Stuckey's apartment.
A Kenilworth resident went to the PVPD on March 24, a week before Stuckey's death, to report that Stuckey had chastised her for parking in a no-parking zone while unloading items from her car the day she moved in. The woman said Stuckey had threatened to call the police while yelling at her and taking cell-phone photos of her as she drove away.
On March 29, two Johnson County Mental Health staffers checked on Stuckey, who didn't open her door until they started to leave. At that point, they reported, Stuckey followed them, yelling and threatening to report them to police. Prairie Village police arrived to speak with Stuckey, but she insisted that she would call 911 if they remained near her apartment. One of the officers warned her that if she kept calling 911 (she had made several 911 calls the week before)‚ they would arrest her for making a false report.
The last time Prairie Village officers left Stuckey's apartment with her still alive was March 30, 2010, the night before her death.
A downstairs neighbor had called police, concerned after overhearing Stuckey yelling in her apartment and tossing a bag of trash out her back door. When officers Steve Steck and Craig Caster knocked on Stuckey's door, she insisted that they were untrustworthy and said she didn't care to speak to them, according to police records.
Stuckey warned Steck and Caster that she had a bat and would knock their heads off. She said the only way she was leaving her apartment was "suicide by cop," according to the incident report that the two officers filed.
Steck and Caster left, only to return after another Kenilworth resident reported that Stuckey had threatened to hit her with a softball. The officers noted in their report that Stuckey was agitated, yelling that Kenilworth was miserable. At one point, she tossed an ironing board out the window.
Stuckey told Steck and Caster that she would calm down if they brought her cigarettes. Joy Urich, an assistant manager at Kenilworth Apartments who had some rapport with Stuckey, went to fetch a pack of cigarettes. There was no answer at Stuckey's door when she returned, and Urich left them for her. After about 20 minutes of silence, Steck and Caster left.
Their colleagues would be back a few hours later.
Sgt. Byron Roberson slept about five hours before he woke up March 31, 2010, to get his twin sons ready for their day.
His routine was interrupted by a phone call from dispatchers telling him that Prairie Village Police Capt. Wes Lovett wanted to talk to him about the latest trouble with Susan Stuckey. Roberson knew about Stuckey because she was frequently on the police blotter.
Around 7 a.m., Stuckey had called police in Overland Park and Leawood and said officers were going to have to kill her.
Prairie Village officers Micheel and Brian Dennis were the first to arrive at Stuckey's apartment. She told them to "fuck off" when they announced who they were, according to Micheel's interview with the OISIT.
While Stuckey directed a line of profanities at Micheel, officer Adam Taylor — who was planning to take crisis-negotiation training — tried to strike up a conversation with her. He told her that he was there to help her, and he offered her cigarettes and coffee, according to a written transcript of police-radio traffic that day. He brought up the upcoming Royals home opener, and the birds Stuckey kept in her apartment.
Early in the conversation, Stuckey said, "I want you to kill me." She later gave police her mother's phone number. An officer told Stuckey that they had been unable to reach Stewart.
Stewart says she didn't hear from police that morning.
Otherwise, the transcript shows that Stuckey remained largely uncommunicative. What comments she made were, for the most part, unintelligible.
The patrol-car recording of the conversation starts at 7:07 a.m. and lasts until 9:10 a.m., about a half-hour before the shooting. The transcript indicates no clear threat by Stuckey that she planned to start a fire, and it shows no reaction by Taylor to suggest that she had made such a threat.
Taylor testified in his deposition that she made threats about using an iron and a stove to set the apartment on fire, but those came toward the end of the two hours he spent talking to her.
Micheel said in his deposition, when asked whether Stuckey had made threats to burn down Kenilworth: "Not that I specifically recall, no."
But Roberson, who was in charge of the Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT), said Lovett told him that Stuckey was agitated, threatening herself and officers, and threatening to burn the apartment down.
"[E]n route, that's why he [Lovett] was a little hurried, because she said, you know, 'I'll burn down the place,' " Roberson said in an interview with an OISIT investigator. "I said, 'Well, she's, you know, if she's gonna do it, she'd already done it. So have the fire department stand by in case you see something, but I think it's a threat at this point.' "
Roberson developed an operations plan with other members of the CIRT. They would split into two groups, with one covering the front door of Stuckey's apartment and the other her balcony.
They would set a deadline for Stuckey to come out peacefully. Short of that, they would enter through her front door, immobilize her against a wall using a shield, and have her taken in for commitment at KU Medical Center's psychiatric ward.
Lovett had decided that Taylor and Micheel, both untrained negotiators, could not get through to Stuckey. But two trained negotiators were on-site. One was Corp. Jason Kuder, whose role at the scene was shift supervisor. He did not participate in negotiations; in his deposition, he defended his approach:
Q: Is there a reason you were not involved in that, given your training within the department and that you're the only negotiator in the department at that time?
A: Right. Everything that I saw that was going on on scene, they had not developed any kind of dialog [sic] with her. And as a negotiator, there is no special training that I had that they didn't have that was going to magically make me make her talk to me.
Q: Was there anything preventing you from going up and engaging her?
A: Because I felt my responsibility as the shift supervisor superseded that, yes. Like I just expressed to you, the two of them were trying to get a dialog [sic] going with Ms. Stuckey and had not even begun to that — to do that. And they were doing everything that they could, doing it right, as I was back listening to them or getting updates on the radio or talking to them, as I said earlier, that they were doing everything they can.
According to a deposition by Tim Schwartzkopf, a PVPD captain who was at the scene, Kuder provided some oversight of the work that Taylor and Micheel were doing to engage Stuckey. Schwartzkopf could not recall what the department's other trained negotiator, Darrell Thompson, was doing.
The use of untrained negotiators during the standoff with Stuckey is, not surprisingly, being cited by experts hired by both the plaintiffs and the defendants in the civil trial against the PVPD.
Vincent Faggiano, a longtime officer with the Rochester, New York, Police Department, writes in his report to Stewart's attorney: "At best, Officer Taylor should have been engaged in this secondary role with Corporal Kuder as the primary negotiator. The failure to utilize Corporal Kuder in his trained role is not in compliance with accepted police procedures and diminished the opportunity to peacefully resolve this incident."
Steve Ijames, a 29-year law-enforcement veteran used by the PVPD's legal team as an expert, says in his report that a lack of negotiation training wasn't a critical problem in this case.
"[T]he information provided suggests that Ms. Stuckey was affected by mental illness and in a state of agitation that precluded productive dialogue," Ijames writes. "... [I]t is my opinion that had a trained negotiator been used, their efforts at a negotiated resolution would have had the same negative result as Officer Taylor['s]."
Believing that Stuckey might set her building on fire, police positioned snipers around the apartment complex. The snipers could see into Stuckey's apartment, and they reported seeing her appear to pour some kind of liquid onto the floor.
Police also moved to evacuate tenants. And it was then that a man, never identified in the records, told Lovett that his 90-year-old mother was in an apartment and had medical issues that would make her evacuation problematic.
This elderly woman seems to have weighed heavily in police decision making. But Lovett said in a deposition that he was never sure where this woman lived or what her condition was:
Q: Did you know if this woman was bedridden?
A: I don't know.
Q: On oxygen?
A: Don't know.
Q: Did anyone verify that that information was in fact correct?
Q: Did you ever ask anyone to go knocking on doors to see if they could find her and find out what the nature of her infirmity was?
Q: It was your impression that she lived very close to Susan Stuckey?
Q: How close?
A: I don't know.
Q: First floor?
A: I don't know.
Q: Same building?
A: Same building.
The OISIT canvassed the area after the shooting. Their report makes no reference to a disabled elderly woman who was immobile.
Stewart's lawyers note, in a recent court filing, that there was a 90-year-old woman living on the first floor of Stuckey's building but she had "readily" gone to a neighbor's apartment at 8:30 that morning an hour before the CIRT arrived.
Even so, the fire threat was serious enough to short-circuit discussion of getting a warrant before entering Stuckey's apartment.
Roberson said in his OISIT interview: "There was some talk about the warrant but because of, I think, the exigent circumstances of when she made the threat about burning the place down, I think that kind of took it to another level. I think we probably would have handled it more like a barricade and trying to negotiate a lot longer. Maybe even use some gas, which we had on the scene. But it didn't seem like that was gonna be something that we were gonna be able to wait for."
After Stuckey's death, police did obtain a warrant to go through her apartment and collect evidence.
The CIRT arrived around 9:30 a.m., more than two hours after officers initially arrived at the scene. A few minutes later, officers deemed that negotiations were fruitless and decided to enter Stuckey's apartment, after giving her a final two-minute ultimatum to get out on her own.
Faggiano, the New York police veteran providing an expert opinion for the plaintiffs, writes in his report that ultimatums in barricaded-suspect situations are bad ideas, short of what's known as a "triggering event" — something that requires an immediate response.
Ijames, the expert for the police department, acknowledges in his report that deadlines are discouraged but maintains that the officers' handling of the plan was reasonable.
Lovett has denied issuing an ultimatum. But other officers, including Roberson, were under the impression that a two-minute deadline was part of the plan.
Roberson's team approached Stuckey's second-story apartment. Officer John Olson had the shield, Officer Dan Stewart was behind him, and Roberson was behind Stewart. Trailing them was Officer Seth Meyer, who carried a breacher to knock down the door.
Roberson told Taylor to let Stuckey know that she had two minutes to come out of her apartment. He said her response was more banging on the door and more threats to kill officers.
Roberson started counting down the first minute on his watch, then notified dispatch that they were going in.
In front of the door, the shield went up, and Officer Stewart put a key in Stuckey's lock.
Stuckey had chained the door, but officers could see her swinging a bat.
Roberson said in his interview that she had a look like "nobody's home." He went on: "And it wasn't like somebody you maybe be able to calm down and talk nicely to and get her to calm down. She didn't, she didn't appear to be reasonable."
Lovett said in his OISIT interview that Stuckey's voice had changed markedly from the time he was at her apartment the night before. The morning of March 31, he said, she sounded almost like a man.
Another member of Roberson's team worked to take the door off its hinges until it dislodged at an angle.
Roberson could now see Stuckey from the waist up. He stood in the doorway while the officers around him told Stuckey to put down her baseball bat. He held a Taser gun in his right hand, sizing up whether to use it to temporarily debilitate her.
The presence of that Taser contradicts the police officers' reported belief that Stuckey had created a fire hazard in her apartment. A Taser gives off an electrical charge and its use is discouraged near flammable liquid.
Roberson managed to take Stuckey's bat from her while firing a Taser round at her. He saw the Taser prongs hit her; the weapon had no effect, he said later. People hit with a Taser don't usually remain on their feet for long.
Stuckey fetched a broom handle while Roberson reloaded. The second Taser shot also proved ineffective. (Stuckey's autopsy report indicated that the Taser prongs never pierced her skin.)
Roberson said he watched her reach for a shiny object and realized that it was a knife. Roberson claimed that she had her arm cocked as though she were preparing to throw it at him. He was wearing riot gear but told investigators that he felt threatened.
"Oh, absolutely," Roberson said in his OISIT interview. "I feared if she throws it and it's a lucky throw and it hits me right in the face, that's the end of a knife. You know, if I get hit in the vest, probably be all right, but in the face, where she was it was a pretty good chance, and I thought, if I don't kill her, she's gonna kill me."
Radio traffic picked up an officer telling Stuckey not to pick up the knife. Two seconds later: three gunshots.
Roberson reported that Stuckey threw the knife, which bounced off his helmet or vest. At that point, other officers entered the apartment. One told Roberson to holster his weapon.
Based on Roberson's account, Stuckey hardly seemed to react to the bullets that entered her neck, her back and her arm. He said she walked to a couch in her apartment.
Johnson County Med-Act was told that shots had been fired. Roberson was sent out of the apartment.
Officers Meyer and Taylor went into Stuckey's apartment. They found her slouched on the sofa and unresponsive. They moved her to the floor and applied pressure to her wounds with a towel but couldn't get a pulse.
Stuckey's memorial service took place April 3, 2010, in the Wesley Chapel of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.
Kansas law says police can use lethal force if they reasonably believe that it could prevent death "or great bodily harm to such officer or another person."
Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe reportedly said Stuckey had drugs and alcohol in her system. An autopsy reveals that there was alcohol, and that the drugs were painkillers, muscle relaxants and antidepressants. (Beverly Stewart tells The Pitch that her daughter suffered pain from spinal stenosis, a condition resulting from a narrowing of the spinal canal.)
Dave Bernard, a retired Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department officer who has investigated officer-involved shootings, tells The Pitch that there's no gray area when it comes to the use of force against someone armed with a knife. "A person armed with a knife and they're threatening you, it can become a deadly encounter," he says.
But why and how officers approached and entered Stuckey's apartment make up the basis of the lawsuit against the PVPD. "There's a strong focus on how the situation developed to begin with," Pilate says.
James Greenstone, a 35-year police veteran in Texas whose background includes experience as a crisis negotiator, reviewed some of the police records from the Stuckey shooting. He tells The Pitch that the shooting itself may have been justified under the law if Stuckey indeed threatened an officer with a knife, but he questions why trained negotiators were not the ones talking to Stuckey. He also wonders why negotiations didn't persist; Greenstone says he has been part of crisis negotiations that lasted for 40 hours.
"The thing that rips through my head is, if they were negotiating with her, they already knew she wasn't going to kill herself. She wanted the cops to kill her and she was ranting and raving with the cops for at least two hours," he says. "Why didn't they just keep doing what they were doing?"
In a legal filing, Stuckey's family casts doubt on whether or when Stuckey made threats to burn the apartment. The arson risk was the primary reason that the police used to justify entering her apartment without a warrant. But the filing says a sniper on the scene told members of the CIRT that Stuckey was pouring liquid from a bottle of liquid detergent — an indication that she was not necessarily preparing to set her place on fire.
The family's lawsuit also asks why a bean bag shotgun or a flash-bang device to stun Stuckey — available at the scene — was not considered as part of the CIRT plan.
The filing goes on to say that the 90-year-old woman cited by police as a safety concern may not have been at the scene. (An apartment manager at Kenilworth Apartments, who didn't work there when the shooting happened, tells The Pitch that she cannot disclose the names of residents who lived there at the time.)
Stewart's lawyers have already won once in court.
Last year, Stewart's attorneys filed a lawsuit to obtain Prairie Village and Overland Park police records pertaining to Stuckey after both departments denied their open-records requests, giving the explanation that they were criminal-investigation records, which are exempted from disclosure under the Kansas Open Records Act.
A Johnson County judge ruled that the records were indeed open to the public. The records became the basis upon which Stewart would take her case to federal court.
The Pitch sought the identical records that had been ordered opened in Johnson County. That request was initially met with a price tag exceeding $1,000.
Stewart's federal lawsuit seeks no less than $2 million in damages. The case is set for trial on April 7, 2014.
"Beverly's overarching goal in this case is to find out what happened that day," Pilate says.
Ijames, the expert for the police department, says Prairie Village officers acted properly considering the circumstances. In a deposition, Roberson said he had received a commendation for valor during a roll call after the shooting.