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.