KAHLER KILLINGS: Slain woman had troubled marriage with suspect

Monday, November 30, 2009 | 6:46 p.m. CST; updated 6:32 p.m. CST, Friday, December 4, 2009
James Kraig Kahler is handcuffed Monday after his first court appearance on a capital murder charge in connection with the shooting deaths of his wife and their two daughters in eastern Kansas. Kahler also faces charges of attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of his wife's 89-year-old grandmother, Dorothy Wight.

*CORRECTION: Kraig Kahler was at his first court appearance on Monday. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the name of this proceeding.

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.


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"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.

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Abernathy Graves December 5, 2009 | 11:38 a.m.

We are all suffering the loss of this family. However, I am angry. If Karen knew that Kraig was capable of harming anyone, especially their children, she should have ended the affair she was having. Along with everything he lost, this affair was constantly being thrown in his face. Kraig was a good father. Controlling...yes. Abusive...yes. But think about it...he lost EVERYTHING. His family, his job, his money, his reputation and possibly custody of his children. He was angry. He snapped. We all get angry but we don't go around killing people. BUT...if you know that the person is potentially dangerous, why would you keep your lover around to visit, ESPECIALLY, during the holidays? Why? That little boy is left without his family because two women felt the need to bypass the angry husband. He was extremely angry with the fact that he lost everything...especially his wife to another.

I'm angry with Karen. I'm angry with Sunny. I'm angry with all those that accepted this affair and did not tell them that they should either end it or wait until the dust settled after the divorce. Karen knew he was potentially dangerous. Because of the selfishness of their own needs, Sean is left without a family.

I loved Karen. I loved the whole family and I'm am still so devastated by the loss. The loss of thier lives could have possibly been prevented had smarter choices been made. I KNOW it wasn't just the affair that caused reason for divorce, but it played a very big part in his anger.

Forgive me for sounding harsh and cold, I'm not. I'm just venting. My memories of my friends will be with me forever.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin December 5, 2009 | 1:15 p.m.

Whomever you are, you have GOT to be joking! Or are you simply as mad as Mr. Kahler apparently is?

You've just spent the better part of three paragraphs blaming the VICTIM of some of the most heinous crimes I've ever seen.

You admit Kahler was abusive and controlling, and then you make an argument that makes not a wit of sense.

I've known about this for months, long before Kahler left the city, so I speak from an informed perspective. She was doing what she could to get away from him, and her friends were doing what they could to help.

I've also lived with abusers. I lived in two abusive homes as a child. The abusers were bullies, unchecked because for whatever crazy reason, American society rarely checks bullies, wherever they may appear.

Bullies don't attack for any rational reason. They attack because they feel powerless, and they bully people they believe to be weaker than they. They'll use every excuse in the book to justify their attacks ("my wife as having an affair")
but those excuses are merely ruses, designed to rationalize the irrational.

I decided, late in life, that I would never tolerate another bully in my life. That I would never be afraid again, and that I would fight back with everything I had. That was the wisest decision I've ever made.

You, on the other hand, enable bullies like Kraig Kahler by making the uninformed assumption that he was expressing normal anger, and that his wife could have actually done something to prevent the anger and this horrible tragedy: End an (as yet unconfirmed, rumored) affair with a woman named Sunny.

You've also turned on its head reports that Kahler himself was throwing this "affair" in everyone's faces.

That HE was the person sending strange emails supposedly incriminating his wife; that HE was the person fabricating evidence of this affair in order to blackball her in a future court appearance.

Regardless, none of this matters. He wiped out his entire family, leaving a 10-year-old boy to pick up the pieces.

No one even remotely sane does something like this, and there was nothing -- nothing -- Karen Kahler could have done to prevent the handiwork of a madman.

Stave it off for another month, maybe, but not prevent it. They were due in court shortly, and he was due in court on the March assault charge this month. Those two events alone could have precipitated this attack.

(Actually, I'm wrong. There is one thing Karen Kahler could have done to prevent being murdered herself.

She could have killed him first).

(Report Comment)
Charles Dennison December 14, 2009 | 12:11 a.m.

Kraig did not lose EVERYTHING. He still has his life, something he took from 4 family members; 5 if you count the life his son will never have. Karen had a lot of courage to stand up to Kraig. No one knows what it's like unless you've been there.

(Report Comment)
Sam Brotherton December 16, 2009 | 7:16 p.m.

This is what Abernathy Graves wrote on December 5...."If Karen knew that Kraig was capable of harming anyone, especially their children, she should have ended the affair she was having. Along with everything he lost, this affair was constantly being thrown in his face. Kraig was a good father. Controlling...yes. Abusive...yes. But think about it...he lost EVERYTHING. His family, his job, his money, his reputation and possibly custody of his children. He was angry. He snapped. We all get angry but we don't go around killing people."

My response: In a perfect world, a divorce works out best when only two people are involved, rather than three people. So, would it have been best if Karen wasn't seeing someone else? Karen made a choice, but can't be blamed for Kraig being angry and turning into an insane man. We are ALL responsible for only ourselves. Karen and Sunny in NO way were responsible for what Kraig did. As human beings we have a right to make our own choices and do what is right for ourselves. It doesn't matter if Karen was having an affair with 5 people, that still doesn't justify what Kraig did, nor give someone the right to take the lives of others. You admitted that Kraig was controlling and abusive, and both are signs of a very unhealthy mind. If he was a responsible person, he would have sought counseling for his anger, but unfortunately, when the mind is stuck in "hostility" it can no longer make rational decisions. Instead, he chose to blame someone else for the content of his own mind. We are responsible for our own thoughts, and if they aren't healthy, or harm others, then we need to get help. When a mind is functioning out of hostility, the perception is irritating, and the intention is destructive. Kraig was both irritated and destructive.

My husband had an affair and chose to leave a 38 year marriage. I told him that as a human being, he has every right to do as he pleases, and it's not up to me to keep him from making that choice. If I had gone crazy and killed people because he made that decision, would it have been his fault, or mine? No one but me is responsible for the content of what I choose to place in my own mind. I have a choice, to either accept what is, or argue with actuality. Kraig chose to argue with actuality, rather than be responsible, and now and entire wonderful family is lost, and one little boy's life will never be the same. Do I think Kraig is a bad man? No, not in the least. His behavior and inability to manage his mind is the cause of what he did. The prisons are full of good people who just happened to believe the thoughts they placed in their minds. I am an emotional healing facilitator and I help people learn how to manage their minds, and I know it can be done, but only if people are willing to look at what they are holding in their minds and learn why those thoughts are there. Kraig chose to trust his own thoughts, with devastating results.

(Report Comment)
Use Head December 21, 2009 | 7:56 p.m.

I just learned about all this today. This is the most terrible tragedy.

I knew Kraig very well. I knew him in College. I also knew Karen then. I spoke with then thoughout the years and was a good friend. Last year I slept in the house where the tragedy happened. Kraig, me, Karen and Sunny all slept there that night. Neither he, nor I, knew Karen and Sunny were lovers, although I though if odd after partying that night that Karen and Sunny shared one bed. I visited Kraig and his family last January in Columbia when I first learned the depth of the troubles and the affair.
Kraig will have to face his maker on this one. He is lost, as is his family. There is nothing worse that a man can do.
Having said that, one should not throw fuel to a fire, and in my humble opinion, the lesbian affair was the hottest fuel for the fire. Again, I'm not blaming anybody except Kraig.

But something maybe we can all learn from this is that we should use common sense in emotionally-charged situations and perhaps be discrete or avoid pushing 'hot' buttons until things cool off or there is legal closure, as a little discretion and common sense can sometimes go a long way to defusing deadly bombs.

(Report Comment)

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