COLUMBIA — Karen Kahler was worried about what her husband might do.
It was March 16, and James Kraig Kahler had just been arrested for third-degree domestic assault after an incident at the Kahlers' home in Columbia. Karen Kahler decided to file for an order of protection, and in a written statement detailing several incidents, she said she was concerned about her husband's increasingly violent behavior.
"I'm afraid it will escalate so far that someone is going to be seriously hurt," she said.
Saturday, Karen Kahler, 44, and her two daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16, were shot dead at her grandmother's home in Burlingame, Kan. Karen Kahler's grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89, was also shot in the incident Saturday; she remained in critical condition Monday evening. The couple's son, Sean Kahler, 10, escaped without physical injuries.
James Kraig Kahler, 46, who uses his middle name, was charged with one count of capital murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder and a count of aggravated burglary. He had his first court appearance* on Monday in Osage County (Kan.) District Court, where his bond was set at $10 million cash and his first hearing set for Dec. 10. He could face the death penalty.
Authorities in Kansas have thus far kept a tight lid on the investigation, but court documents in Boone County offer a glimpse into what appeared to be a deeply troubled marriage.
“I have learned along the way that he is capable of using force,” Karen Kahler wrote of her husband when she filed an order of protection. She described ugly fault lines that had developed in the marriage.
Karen Kahler said she had “figured out how to keep things from becoming ugly.” When money was a problem, she wouldn’t tell her husband how much groceries cost. When it came to sex, she wrote that she decided it was easier to comply with his wishes, or he would become "forceful and mean.”
She said she was familiar with his temper, and that’s why she hesitated to divorce him. “I could predict what it would be like,” she wrote.
But after an incident in which she said her husband shoved her and she fell in the street — resulting in a “goose egg” on her head, some scrapes and a pulled hamstring — she said she knew it was time to get out, according to her petition for an order of protection.
A few days later, Jan. 4, she said Kraig Kahler became violent when she refused to have sex with him and wouldn't stop until the couple's daughters heard her screaming, came into the room and separated their parents.
Karen Kahler filed to dissolve the 23-year marriage two weeks later.
But the couple's troubles continued and resulted in police intervention.
In March, according to the petition, the couple had an argument after Karen Kahler told her husband she had made up her mind about the divorce and that she'd signed a lease and would be moving out soon with the children. When Karen Kahler tried to leave the room, Kraig Kahler blocked her path and finally grabbed her from behind, bruising and scraping her. Columbia police came, and Kraig Kahler was later charged with third-degree domestic assault, according to a probable cause statement.
He was scheduled to be tried on Wednesday on that charge in the 13th Circuit of Boone County.
"I'm afraid it will continue and possibly involve the kids when we move out," she wrote in the petition for an order of protection.
She took her son and two daughters to live in a rental home in south Columbia — a small, red brick house that sits on a street corner.
Life at the home was not entirely uneventful. Two burglaries were reported there on May 16 and then on Aug. 18, said Columbia police spokeswoman Jessie Haden. She would not disclose further details about those incidents.
On Monday, a newspaper on the front lawn was the only sign that its residents no longer lived there.
There were reminders of the children all around the property. A bunk bed could be seen through a second-floor window. A Chevrolet Suburban parked in the driveway was adorned with stickers for “Martin Elementary” and “Roo Band” — remnants of the family’s time in Texas, when Kraig Kahler worked as a utilities employee in Greenville and Weatherford.
Neighbors in Columbia said they didn’t know the Kahlers, who had only been renting the house for several months. One man said he would often see the children on their way to and from school. Others had not yet heard about the homicides.
Written on a stone in the front yard is “Sean,” the name of the only Kahler child to survive the violence Saturday. Dan Pingelton, a Columbia attorney who was representing Karen Kahler in the divorce, said that he would work quickly to set up guardianship for Sean. Kansas authorities would not say who has taken temporary custody of the boy.
Pingelton said Karen Kahler had wanted the original order of protection dropped so that Kraig Kahler could at least see his children. The order was modified April 9, but Kraig Kahler was still not allowed to see his wife.
Pingelton told the Associated Press that Kahler had set up a visit with his son over the Thanksgiving holiday.
"He never was interested in his daughters — only his son," Pingelton said in the AP report. "And I think that is the reason that little boy is alive today."
Pingleton's observation was speculation, though. New information on the case was scant Monday; it came almost exclusively from the office of the Kansas attorney general.
Kraig Kahler served as director of Columbia Water and Light from July 14, 2008, to Sept. 9, 2009, when he was asked to resign. In a statement Monday afternoon, Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins expressed "stunned sadness" for the Kahler family and reiterated what he'd said at the time of Kahler's dismissal: "His difficult family issues, in my opinion, affected his focus on the Columbia Water and Light Department in a way that was not likely to change in the near future."
As investigators in Kansas worked to piece together a case against Kraig Kahler, Karen Kahler's friends in Columbia remembered her with admiration. She worked as a personal trainer at the Activity and Recreation Center and was studying physical therapy at MU.
"She's an amazing person," said Cherie Coles, a family friend from Weatherford, Texas, where Karen Kahler had also been a personal trainer. Coles said she and Karen Kahler started working out at 5 a.m. with a group of moms who were too busy to go at any other time.
"Always bringing people together, that was her thing," Coles said.
In Columbia, Traci Wilson-Kleekamp last saw Karen Kahler during a workout session Nov. 24.
"We talked after class," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "(Kraig Kahler) was still bothering her, but the court date was coming up. She was hoping that it would all be over after that."
After Kraig Kahler's trial on the assault charge Wednesday, the Kahlers were set to meet about their divorce Friday.
"I knew what was going on," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "I would call her, make sure she was safe, she was OK. She wanted to restart her life. I clearly knew this was a difficult thing. I tried to be supportive."
"Sad is not even a good description for something like this," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "It’s just so tragic."
Missourian reporters Andrew Denney, Michelle Hagopian, Mina Mineva, Ben Wieder and Matt Willman contributed to this article.