KANSAS CITY — Allegations of rape, incest and bestiality led to the arrests of six family members in western Missouri last fall and unleashed public scorn over the unthinkable acts they are accused of committing two decades ago.
But one of the more sensational claims — that one of the suspects forced their young victims to help kill a man — is creating an uphill climb for prosecutors that could sink the rest of their case, legal experts say.
Investigators say the sexual abuse allegations have been corroborated by six siblings, some of whom say they were raped and molested over a 10-year period beginning in the mid-1980s on a farm east of Kansas City.
Still, the case against Burrell E. Mohler Sr., 77, his brother and four adult sons could be compromised by the homicide claim. Authorities have yet to produce a victim or file homicide charges, and officials are mum about whether a homicide investigation is even under way.
Without a body, prosecutors could face larger doubts about victims' stories that defense lawyers could exploit.
"It's easier to discredit what victims are going to say, given the circumstances, than to prove it," said Thomas Nolan, associate professor of criminal justice at Boston University. "If I'm the prosecutor, I've got my work cut out for me."
In November, Lafayette County prosecutors unleashed waves of sexual abuse allegations against the Mohlers. Probable cause statements described how one girl was forced into sexual contact with a horse, while another said a dog was forced onto her.
The case took a drastic turn when another search warrant revealed three victims said they observed "several murders" and were forced to help kill and bury a man in April 1988.
According to the warrant, Burrell E. Mohler Jr. and the children followed a man from a suburban Kansas City shopping center to his home. After abducting the man, Mohler Jr. drove him to his father's Bates City property, where he gave the children knives and ordered them to attack the man, the warrant said.
One child stabbed him, but a stab wound from Mohler Jr. killed the victim, according to the warrant.
The warrant offered no details about the stabbing victim or why he was targeted. No body has been found, and no one was reported missing from the area during that time, investigators said.
If the women's allegations of rape and other atrocities were enough to bring sexual abuse charges against the Mohlers, questions could emerge as to why they weren't enough to also bring homicide charges.
"There are victims in the sex case but no identifiable homicide victims," said Lafayette County prosecutor Kellie Wingate Ritchie.
Multiple sex abuse charges have been filed against Mohler Sr., of Independence; his four sons, Mohler Jr., 53, of Independence, Jared Leroy Mohler, 48, of Columbia, Roland Neil Mohler, 47, of Bates City, and David A. Mohler, 52, of Lamoni, Iowa; and his brother, Darrel W. Mohler, 72, of Silver Springs, Fla.
Darrel, Jared and David Mohler have posted bond; the other three remain jailed. All have denied the accusations.
The Associated Press generally doesn't identify victims of sexual crimes and is not reporting the relationships between the children and the accused.
Cynthia Orr, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, suggested that even without the homicide claim, doubts may linger about the sex abuse case, such as allegations that young girls had to wear special dresses and marry adult family members to have sex.
Victor Vieth, director of the National Child Protection Training Center at Winona State University in Minnesota, said he's rarely surprised by what sex offenders do.
"Sex offenders are only limited by their creativity and what their minds can fantasize," Vieth said.
Vieth thinks this homicide claim could be a burden for the prosecution if allowed in court. The prosecution's best bet could be to have testimony about the homicide claim barred as irrelevant to the sex charges, he said.