BURLINGAME, Kan. — It’s been a difficult year for Osage County, Kan.
The killings Saturday of Karen, Lauren and Emily Kahler in Burlingame are the second triple homicide to rock the county of almost 17,000 people this year.
The first occurred Jan. 12 in Scranton, Kan. A man shot his three children while his wife was away, then set his home on fire, committing suicide.
Sheriff Laurie Dunn of Osage County, Kan., just south of Topeka, Kan., said she has seen several other domestic violence cases and murder-suicides during this past year, though no others besides the two triple homicides have involved the deaths of children.
Without knowing the exact number of domestic violence cases the sheriff’s office has handled, she estimates it to be in the hundreds.
“It’s certainly been an outrageous number,” Dunn said, comparing the figures from Osage County, to those of surrounding counties.
Scranton Police Chief Jon S. Reed said the number of such cases he has seen has been about average, but the violence has been "about as bad as it gets."
“When you take small towns like Scranton and Burlingame, violent crimes like this impact everybody,” Reed said.
Since he joined the police department about a year ago, Reed said he has gradually increased officer patrols throughout Scranton, which has led to a lower crime rate overall.
In Burlingame, the weekend homicides coincided with traditional post-Thanksgiving activities, leaving many residents unaware of the crimes.
Many didn’t find out about the shootings until they received a concerned phone call from out of town or heard the news Sunday morning.
They then learned that James Kraig Kahler, a former Columbia city official, was in custody on a capital murder charge. He is accused of killing his wife and two teenage daughters and attempting to kill his wife's 89-year-old grandmother.
At the Santa Fe Cafe in the heart of Burlingame, a popular spot for many of the locals, Darrel Hotchkiss, Alton Mills and Greg Fast all agreed that the town knew very little about the killings until hours or even days later.
“If it hadn’t been for my friend picking it up on the scanner, I wouldn’t have heard about it until the next day,” Fast said.
Mills said the town’s residents were completely “left in the dark.” With businesses moving to the more populated Topeka area, many of the town’s meeting places for senior citizens, such as the grocery store next door to the cafe, have been lost.
In addition, the town’s dynamic has changed for some of these older residents.
“Everything’s changed, nothing stays the same,” Hotchkiss said. “Everybody worked here, stayed here, but in the last 30 or 40 years, I don’t know anyone.
“I know everybody on my block,” he clarified. “And that’s it.”
Complicating matters, many of the city’s firefighters and police officers were attending Saturday's wedding of Burlingame Police Chief Jon Schaefer in Topeka when the call was dispatched about shots being fired.
Ashley Anstaett of the Kansas Attorney General’s office said Osage County, police do not have an automated emergency notification system, and must knock on doors to inform citizens.
The Shawnee County, Kan., police, who assisted the Osage County police, do have an automated system and were able to notify residents in the area where Kahler was sighted after the incident.
Those who lived close to the residence in Burlingame where the homicides occurred said they were confused by the flurry of emergency dispatch and activity in the area.
Diane and Robert Wilkin, who own a tract of land opposite the residence, watched a helicopter land on their property — they thought it had crashed — and were taken aback by other helicopters circling the grounds, the police cars and the ambulances.
“I saw the helicopter circling, looking somebody,” Diane Wilkin said Tuesday. “And I thought, something bad’s happening here.”
The Wilkins searched their own home once they heard about Kahler’s getaway.
“Things like this just don’t happen,” Wilkin said. “It feels like they’re family. It was a pretty sleepless night for all of us.
"I couldn’t turn my mind off; no one could. My phone was ringing constantly."
Carol Kurtz, who was in the beauty shop Wilkin owns in the center of Burlingame, was circumspect about the incident.
“Things happen in New York,” she said. "And they can happen here."
Wilkin said that in Burlingame, everybody looks out for everybody, and the citizens began to figure out a lot of the details on their own.
Kurtz sees this as an advantage to living in a small community.
“We’ve already activated the prayer chain,” she said.