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Kahler murder trial: Son tells court his father 'shot my mom'

Monday, August 15, 2011 | 9:39 p.m. CDT; updated 9:04 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Osage County attorney Brandon Jones, left, showed pictures of Kraig Kahler's two daughters Lauren, left, and Emily, center, along with his wife Karen, during opening statements on Monday. Kahler is charged in the shooting deaths of his wife, her grandmother and his two daughters.

LYNDON, Kan. — Sean Kahler, the 12-year-old son of James Kraig Kahler, made prolonged eye contact with his father just twice during his half-hour of testimony Monday — once while pointing at his father to identify him, and the other after he was asked by defense co-counsel Tom Haney if he still loved his father.

“Not really,” he replied quietly.

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Sean Kahler is the only living witness to the Nov. 28, 2009, shootings that ended the lives of his mother, Karen Kahler, 44; sisters, Emily Kahler, 18, and Lauren Kahler, 16; and great-grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89.

Kraig Kahler, former director of Columbia Water and Light, is charged with four counts of capital murder in the slayings and one count of aggravated burglary in connection with the break-in at Wight’s Burlingame home. His wife and daughters were Columbia residents.

Kraig Kahler flashed a rare smile as his son, wearing a red-and-gray striped polo shirt, walked into the Osage County District courtroom from a door behind the witness stand. As Chief Judge Phillip Fromme was introduced to him, Sean Kahler grinned and waved at the judge. He answered a few simple questions about school and his hobbies from Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley, who stood next to him instead of at a podium she’d been using for other witnesses.

As during Kraig Kahler’s Dec. 21 preliminary hearing, the boy testified that his father "came in and shot my mom" and that he heard "three or four more shots" as he ran from the house to seek help from neighbors.

"I ducked down, and then once he passed, I ran out the door," Sean Kahler said, using a laser pointer to indicate on a large map projected onto a screen at the front of the courtroom the same entrance to Wight's home that his father had used to break into the house.

"I went to the porch door on the south side of the house. I looked through the door window, and I saw my dad’s silhouette go by, back towards the kitchen," he testified.

As he was questioned, Sean Kahler’s voice was calm and seldom wavered. He glanced at the ceiling of the courtroom when formulating answers but otherwise mostly looked up at Hanley and Haney. Both he and his father smiled as Sean Kahler remembered taking family vacations, for instance, or shooting his first deer at age 7.

Kraig Kahler nodded encouragingly at one point as Sean Kahler struggled to recall a particular trip the entire family had taken.

Sean Kahler also said he recognized the gun Kraig Kahler had carried the night of the shootings because of his hunting experience and “always having guns around.” He said he remembered the gun as one his father owned when the family lived in Texas.

Several other key witnesses in the state’s case also testified Monday, including Nathan Purling, an investigator with the Osage County Sheriff’s Office who responded to Wight’s home that night, and Bill Hetrick, Karen Kahler’s younger brother.

Hanley had Purling walk the jury through the scene using a map of Wight's home and a computer screen. He described what he saw when he arrived at the home after a tripped smoke detector caused Wight's Life Alert monitor to call 911. Purling said that he saw Wight, who was bleeding from her side, through a living room window, and that as he moved through her home, he found .223-caliber bullet casings in several different places.

Purling also said he discovered Karen Kahler and Lauren Kahler, both still alive but badly injured. Emily Kahler, whose body was shown in a photograph projected onto the courtroom screen, was already dead.

A recording from a wireless microphone Purling was wearing that night was introduced into evidence. In a clip played for the court, the jury heard Purling’s interaction with Lauren Kahler.

“Hurry,” she says on the recording. “I don’t want to die.”

“Keep breathing, sweetie, keep breathing,” Purling says. “We’re going to get you. We’re going to get you.”

Osage County sheriff's deputies routinely wear the microphones when responding to crime scenes. But half of the exchange between Purling and Lauren Kahler was conveyed to the jury via a transcript. In it, she identifies her father as the shooter, a “dying declaration” testimony entered as evidence on Dec. 23.

“I tried to keep her talking to get her focus off her injuries and to try to keep her alive,” Purling said.

The jurors showed little reaction to the testimony; some leaned forward with their hands on their chins while others sat back with their arms crossed. Some turned to stare at Kahler from time to time.

Occasional sniffles could be heard from some spectators in the courtroom, and a few sat with their hands clasped over their mouths. Among those watching were members of Karen Kahler's family and witnesses scheduled to testify for the prosecution Monday and later this week.

Kraig Kahler, appearing as he had throughout last week in a dark suit and patterned tie, sat at the defense table with his hand on his chin, looking mostly straight ahead.

The court also heard from seven other witnesses Monday:

 

  • Bill Hetrick: Hetrick, Karen Kahler’s brother, testified about the relationships among the members of the Hetrick and Kahler families, saying that Karen Kahler’s bond with Wight was "much like a mother-daughter relationship." "It was common knowledge that they spoke often,” Hetrick said. He said he thought Sunny Reese, the woman whose relationship with Karen Kahler the defense plans to argue led to Kraig Kahler’s mental breakdown, was at Karen Kahler’s sister’s home for Thanksgiving with Karen Kahler and her daughters. Karen, Emily and Lauren Kahler spent the holiday with Lynn and Tim Denton in Derby, Kan., before picking up Sean from Kraig Kahler’s parents’ home in Meriden, Kan., and driving to Burlingame, Kan. Hetrick also testified that he was blind-copied on an email from Kraig Kahler as his divorce proceedings continued about Sunny Reese’s relationship with his wife. Hetrick said he refused to receive information about the divorce. "It was not my business," he said.
  • Michelle Davidson and Trevor Gibson: Gibson and Davidson, a couple whose home is about a block  from Wight’s, called 911 because of a “suspicious” red Ford Explorer parked near their home. Thinking the person driving it was trying to steal from Davidson’s father’s nearby tree-trimming business, the couple gave the license plate number and a description of the driver — a “skinny,” “shooken up” man. That prompted Purling to connect the couple's 911 calls with the shooting at Wight’s home. Purling put out a call to attempt to locate the SUV after he responded to the shooting.
  • Brett Lewis, Theresa Hager and Dawnita Fine: Lewis, Hager and Fine were all dispatchers on duty when Davidson and Gibson called about the suspicious vehicle and when a Life Alert call came through from Wight’s home. The court heard the 911 recordings of the suspicious vehicle call and the Life Alert call after Lewis, Hager and Fine had each testified. "I heard a lot of screaming, and they disconnected the machine,” said the Life Alert representative who called the Osage County Sheriff’s Office. "It sounded like a fight." Fine also received a call from Cynthia Harris, whose house Sean Kahler ran to when he left Wight’s home. 
  • Cynthia Harris: Harris, who lives in Burlingame and knew Wight from checking in on her and taking her to appointments, testified that she missed two calls on her cell phone from Wight around 6:20 that evening. When she called Wight back eight minutes later, Wight told her there was an emergency. "She said, ‘He came into the house and shot us. We need help,’” Harris said. She sent her son Andy Harris to Wight’s home after speaking with her.

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