Sunny Reese testifies her relationship with Kahler's wife never a secret

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 | 10:03 p.m. CDT; updated 10:36 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 25, 2011

LYNDON, Kan. — During Kraig Kahler's murder trial on Wednesday, Sunny Reese told the Osage County District Court that she loved Karen Kahler "too much” and that she wanted her to be safe — "with or without me.”

During her hour and 45 minutes on the witness stand, Reese testified about the details of her relationship with Karen Kahler. She said they met in January 2006 at Powerhouse Gym in Weatherford, Texas, where the two were instructors before the Kahlers moved to Columbia. That contradicted testimony from Karen Kahler’s divorce attorney, Dan Pingelton, who testified Tuesday that Karen Kahler told him her husband had “introduced Sunny sexually” to the couple.

Reese did say that Kraig Kahler was “very much in favor” of her relationship with his wife, and that he had texted her about a threesome at one point. Kahler had also given her and Karen bouquets — orange and red roses for Reese and pink roses for his wife.

“There was never any secret; there was never one moment when he didn’t know,” Reese testified. “When things became different, Kraig knew from the get-go and was very accepting and wanted to be involved. But that wasn’t an option.”

Kahler, 48, the former director of the Columbia Water and Light department, is charged with capital murder in the Nov. 28, 2009, shootings of his wife, Karen Kahler, 44, daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16, and his wife’s grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89. He is also charged with aggravated burglary in connection with the break-in at Wight’s home that night.

Reese said several times during her testimony that she was nervous. She had trouble remembering dates, often responding that she wasn’t sure when certain events in her relationship with the Kahlers took place. Her eyes were wide throughout her testimony, giving her the appearance of being startled.

Dressed in a light pink button-down shirt and black pantsuit, Reese answered questions slowly and winked nervously at the jury and spectators when the attorneys approached the bench. She looked to Chief Judge Phillip Fromme for help when Osage County Prosecuting Attorney Brandon Jones objected a handful of times during defense attorney Tom Haney’s cross examination, which took up the majority of Reese’s time on the stand.

Haney sought to bolster his opening statement of Monday, in which he told the jury he would show that Reese was a serial home-wrecker whose affair with Karen Kahler had driven Kraig Kahler to violence. He asked Reese about text messages, emails and cards she and Karen Kahler exchanged and trips they’d taken together. Reese responded that while she spent a significant amount of time with Karen Kahler, it was out of concern for her well-being.

“We became extremely close, and the closer we got, she revealed to me some things that were disturbing to me,” Reese said. “When you tell someone intimate details of your life, you become emotionally closer.

“Much of it had to do with her relationship with Kraig and her children and her mother and father,” Reese continued.

When Haney pressed her for details about when her relationship with Karen Kahler became romantic, Reese showed some exasperation.

“It was such a close friendship and bonding,” she said. “It’s not like I wrote down a specific date when something physical happened.”

Reese became argumentative when Haney questioned her about wanting to break up the Kahlers’ marriage so that she could be in a relationship with Karen Kahler,  unencumbered. As he’d done during his opening statement, Haney brought up a New Year’s Eve party after which Reese had apologized to the hosts for “inappropriate conduct” with Karen Kahler.

While Reese said she did apologize, she told the court that wasn’t the reason she went to see the party’s hosts the next day. She wanted to “protect Karen from Kraig,” noting that there had been an "altercation" between them after the party.

“She was shell-shocked and rocking on the back porch in a little ball and crying,” Reese said of Karen Kahler.

Reese sent a text message to Kraig Kahler telling him that his wife no longer loved him.

“You can’t force, threaten or humiliate Karen like you did yesterday and expect her to love you for it,” said part of the message, which Haney asked Reese to read aloud. “She doesn’t love you, Kraig, not like you think she does … Ask her, and you’ll see that I’m right by the look in her eyes.”

Reese also took issue with questions Haney raised about why Karen Kahler didn't seek medical help or report domestic abuse in the first 23 years of the marriage. Reese described Karen Kahler’s relationship with her husband as “very abusive,” saying a lack of formal complaints “happens all the time in domestic violence cases.”

Reese further testified that the Kahlers’ children often intervened when Kraig Kahler physically abused his wife. She said the children had told her their mother often called them to “save her” during fights.

She said she also played a protective role in Karen Kahler's life and wouldn't back down.

“If I was out of line, then I was — but I loved her too much,” Reese said. “I would’ve loved for her to be with me if the circumstances were right, but the circumstances weren’t right.”

The court also heard from four other witnesses Wednesday, including:

John Brady, Daren Fox and Terry Schmidt: At the time of the shootings, Brady was the vice president of Life Alert, an Encino, Calif.-based company. Brady testified that the company received an alarm from a tripped smoke detector in Wight’s home at 6:07 p.m. the night of the shootings. He said he later got a request for a recording of the Life Alert call, which he called “extremely disturbing,” from Kansas Attorney General’s Office agent Daren Fox for Fox’s investigation of the shootings.

Brady also said that gunshots, if fired close enough to the smoke detector, could have set off its alarm.

Fox testified that he had sent the copy of the recording he received from Brady to Terry Schmidt, an Overland Park police officer who works with digital evidence, to clarify the sound of the voices on the recording that were masked by dial tones and busy signals. Schmidt said he removed the voice of the Life Alert operator and amplified the volume of the voices in Wight’s home on a copy of the original recording.

That copy was played in court. In the recording, the sound of screaming can be heard. A voice, identified as Lauren Kahler's, can be heard screaming, "He's shooting us! Help, he's in the house!"

Brenda Fund: Fund, a bank operations manager at Denison State Bank in Meriden, said she saw Kraig Kahler the morning of the shootings. She had met Kahler when he moved to Meriden and knew his parents, Wayne and Patricia Kahler, who are expected to testify Thursday. Fund said Kahler “seemed no different that day than every other day.” She described him as a “quiet,” “reserved” man who spoke coherently the morning of the shootings when he deposited about $7,600 into his account.

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Tracy Greever-Rice August 18, 2011 | 9:50 a.m.

Time to out the reporting that dare not speak its name (for fear of selling fewer papers... or just a reflexive, unexamined belief that this particular form of bigotry is still valid).

"Her eyes were wide throughout her testimony, giving her the appearance of being startled."

"Dressed in a light pink button-down shirt and black pantsuit, Reese answered questions slowly and winked nervously at the jury and spectators when the attorneys approached the bench."

A witness cannot be argumentative. Attorneys, both prosecution and defense, can argue with, browbeat, trick and humiliate witnesses. Roles, and the allowed behavior associated with those roles, are pretty clearly defined and applied in US courtrooms. When any party involved, including a witness, acts outside the prescribed roles, the validity of the outcome of the trial becomes arguable. Typically, judges will have none of that.

Attributing argumentativeness to one party or another in an exchange is an inherently subjective act. Considering the artificial constraints on behavior imposed by the roles in the US criminal courts, I have to ask: What is going on, consciously or subconsciously, that would allow a story to be published that attributes argumentativeness to a witness and not the attorney questioning her?

Sunny Reese is NOT on trial for ANYTHING.

Karen Kahler is NOT on trial for ANYTHING.

Karen was brutally murdered in front of and with her children.

Not a single non-violent communication or act exists that can excuse or justify Kraig Kahler's actions - not any act of any other human, his wife, his wife's friends, his daughters, no one.

While I expected Kraig Kahler's defense to use homophobia as its only defense to a rural Kansas jury (an insult to the decency and intellect of rural folks everywhere), and I expected commercial media to exploit the homophobe angle to slush the trough for the Nancy Grace-feeders in hopes of selling a few more copies, I hoped the editorial staff of the Missourian would use this case as an object lesson in teaching emerging reporters to suss out their internal biases and assumptions and not simply swallow the fallacious reasoning of the defense's blame-the-victim(s) argument for not holding Kraig Kahler accountable for his craven, depraved actions.

(Report Comment)
Tracy Greever-Rice August 18, 2011 | 9:51 a.m.

Further, while a physical description of a defendant is fairly common (the public often goes long periods between crime & trial w/o seeing them &/or the courtroom is closed to camera/video), how frequently are witnesses' fashion decisions and personal affect described? Sunny Reese was 'winking' at the jury? What does that even mean? Further, the use of short phrases like "altercation" and "protect Karen from Kraig" by Reese in quotations sprinkled throughout otherwise-reported paragraph narrative is a structure that is now commonly used to question the validity of the words in quotations (i.e., air quotes "!"), as much as it is a method of attribution. In reporting on a murder trial witness's credibility, it might be useful to avoid such confusion. Is the reader to question Reese's description of Kraig Kahler as "very abusive" or is that to be interpreted as a quote? Allowing this ambiguity suggests a bias.

Reese is a witness, sworn to providing truthful testimony. If the reporting implies her testimony is anything less than truthful, the reporting is no longer neutral. It is, in fact, arguing the defense's case - turning the witness into the defendant.

Would this prurience in reporting on this case exist if Karen Kahler's relationship had been hetero? Unlikely, since few defense attorneys would even bother to trot it out, at least in such a purple and exploitative manner. It's been a long time since US juries, even in America's Outback, have had much truck with a hetero crime of passion defense as an excuse for killing one's own children.

Regardless of Kahler's attorney's opportunistic homophobic argument, media outlets get to choose whether they perpetuate this bias, or acknowledge it and refuse to uncritically adopt the rhetoric and narrative of homophobia as a legitimate defense for murder. I strongly encourage the Missourian to at least give conscious consideration to adopting this approach.

There's been much media ado of late about the "It Gets Better" campaign. Will it "get better" for Sunny Reese or will the same-old-same-old, salacious style of criminal reporting allow Kahler's defense to shift these inconceivably hideous crimes onto Sunny Reese for simply loving?

(Report Comment)
Katherine Reed August 18, 2011 | 10:35 a.m.


I am the editor responsible for our trial coverage. I take very seriously — and reject completely — your allegations of homophobia and sensationalism in our coverage of this trial. We have described the demeanor and attire of Sean Kahler, Kraig Kahler and Sunny Reese because we think our readers would like to be able to visualize them, and we do not have a photographer in the courtroom. As for describing Reese as "winking" and wide-eyed, that is truthful and accurate reporting. It is not our practice to withhold information from readers that is descriptive. Putting words or phrases in quotation marks does not imply skepticism; these are direct, partial quotes and we have used them to make clear that these are the witnesses' exact words or phrasing. We have included exchanges between witnesses and attorneys that we believe are relevant to the defense and prosecution's strategies (as outlined in their opening statements) and help our readers understand the totality of what the jury is hearing so that when the jury reaches a verdict, readers will have a fuller understanding of the outcome.

Katherine Reed

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 18, 2011 | 10:55 a.m.

KatherineR: I agree with you and believe Tracy is the overly sensitive one here, looking at things that "are there" and extrapolating to something that is "not there." I think she is wrong on all counts.

I regularly have problems with stories the Missourian writes...or doesn't write. This isn't one of them.

The defense is trying to show insanity. The defense is trying to link Karen and Sunny's relationship to Kraig's insanity in the minds of the jury. Personally, I think that's a stretch since the problems started long before, but that's just my opinion. Whatever the case, a probe into the relationship is in order. Nasty and unpleasant, but still in order. It's a valid defense; it remains to be seen if the jury buys it.

It truly is a fine line between salaciousness and reasonable reporting that journalists have to define. I think journalists often cross that line but, again, that's just my opinion. It's also my opinion that the Missourian has not crossed that line with this story. It's a valid position that journalists should help readers "be" in the courtroom when in fact they cannot.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 18, 2011 | 11:00 a.m.

PS: Inferring the Missourian is homophobic or engages in homophobic reporting is like.....

saying Idi Amin was mainly a nice guy.

(Report Comment)
Tracy Greever-Rice August 18, 2011 | 11:32 a.m.

Every description of Kahler's defense strategy needs to explicitly acknowledge that it depends on appeal to jurors' potential homophobia. By not making that explicit acknowledgement, any and all media are implying that an insanity defense rooted in homophobia has credibility. It does not. And, arguing such a defense requires vilifying the victims - living and dead - in order to rationalize the defendant's behavior, this also requires media acknowledgement. The lack of explicit acknowledgement of Haney's strategy as just that, presumes a cultural legitimacy of the substance of arguing his strategy.

Haney's argument amounts to nothing more than the equivalent of blaming a rape victim for being raped because of the length of her skirt. Would the Missourian cover a rape trial where the defense used an explicit blame-the-victim defense without acknowledging the cultural and legal history of such a defense? I don't think so. So, why not acknowledge it in this case?

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire August 18, 2011 | 12:10 p.m.

I think that they did say that the attorneys sought to portray the individual as a "home wrecker" several times. At first thought I sort of wondered whether the author thought that this was a valid defense or intended others to think the same, which lessened my opinion of the coverage. However, to state the obvious, that no ethical anybody should attempt to use such as a defense is a matter of opinion, something to be dealt with in the section of the paper labeled "opinion". That the attorney has stooped to using an issue that probably shouldn't even be petty gossip is a matter of fact and was reported as such, leaving you and I to draw our own opinions. At this point, the only question is whether the electric guy spends the remainder of his life in confinement or whether he gets a seat on an electric chair. I can think of many things that are more newsworthy at this point. I can't believe I'm even discussing this. Somebody please write an article.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking August 18, 2011 | 12:41 p.m.

Tracy Greever-Rice wrote:

"Every description of Kahler's defense strategy needs to explicitly acknowledge that it depends on appeal to jurors' potential homophobia."

I don't see that at all. I see that the defense might be raising a question of Kahler being jealous of Reese (regardless of homo or heterosexuality), and upset not to be included. Jealousy is well known to make unstable people do very unstable things. We already know he was very controlling.

I think you're reading a lot into this case and the reporting that is not justified.

And no, I'm not trying to say he was justified in what he did. That is the real purpose for the trial - not to determine whether he did it, but to determine the context in which he did it. It will make the difference between death and life in prison without parole.


(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 18, 2011 | 12:47 p.m.

Tracy: Every description of Kahler's defense strategy needs to explicitly acknowledge that it depends on appeal to jurors' potential homophobia.

I'm really trying to figure out where you are coming from.

Are you saying this story would have been written differently if Sunny Reese was a dude dressed in a natty suit and winking at the jury?

So far, I don't see it.

Again, the defense is trying to show that "insanity" was induced or exacerbated by a spouse's affair. He is trying to show someone was breaking up a marriage, a stressful situation indeed if you are on the receiving end. In this case, I think the strategy is a bit absurd and won't sell.

It also seems to me you are asking the Missourian to editorialize in their report. I'm not ok with that. I am ok if a Missourian editor wants to do so in a separate column, however. With that article in hand, we can all start to pile onl.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams August 18, 2011 | 12:49 p.m.

oops: pile on, not pile onl.

Spasm in right ring finger...what can I say?

(Report Comment)

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