LYNDON, Kan. — Friends of the family and a former colleague of James Kraig Kahler’s testified Monday that the family was just like any other before the Kahlers' marriage began to crumble.
The witnesses were the first called by defense attorneys Tom Haney and Amanda Vogelsberg as they began presenting their case in Kahler’s capital murder trial in Osage County District Court. Kahler’s Columbia family practitioner, Siamac Vahabzadeh, is among the witnesses scheduled to testify this afternoon.
Former City Manager Bill Watkins, who was Kahler's direct supervisor when Kahler was director of Columbia Water and Light, was scheduled to testify Tuesday.
Kahler, 48, is charged in the shooting deaths of his wife, Karen Kahler, 44; daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren Kahler, 16; and his wife’s grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89. He’s also charged with one count of aggravated burglary in connection with the break-in at Wight’s home that night.
Former interim Columbia Water and Light director Michael Schmitz spoke about Kahler’s demeanor from his hiring as the department’s director to the day he was fired, telling the court that Kahler was “easy to work for and easy to work with.”
Schmitz said Kahler was very polite and professional and never showed his temper. He talked about times he’d give up his chair to those who were late to department meetings. Schmitz, who was chief engineer with Water and Light until he was appointed interim director in 2009, worked under Kahler.
“It was a comment I made jokingly that he was too thin and too nice, but if he would stay with me long enough, I could fix both of them,” Schmitz said.
But Schmitz said that as Kahler’s divorce proceedings wore on, he became distracted, texting excessively on his city-issued Blackberry and showing Schmitz albums filled with family photographs in his office.
“He was having a hard time accepting what was going on in his life,” Schmitz said. He agreed with defense attorney Haney when Haney suggested that Kahler was “obsessed” with keeping his family together.
Schmitz told the court he’d seen pictures of Kahler’s wife and children in his office and recalled a day when Kahler brought his family to the department.
“He seemed like a typical father, proud of them,” Schmitz said of Kahler’s interaction with his children.
Schmitz said that he was “stunned” when he received word of the shootings from the department’s public relations person.
“I had to have her repeat it because it just surprised me,” he said.
Don and Marina Coulter, who became friends with the Kahlers when they lived in Weatherford, Texas, testified that Kahler seemed to be a good father and husband.
Don Coulter smiled as he remembered the two families taking camping and boating trips. He described Kahler’s relationship with his son, Sean, and said that while Kahler’s interactions with his daughters were more “serious” and that he “kept them on a fairly tight rope,” he never observed animosity between him and the girls.
The bulk of the couple’s testimony centered on a New Year’s Eve party on Dec. 31, 2008, at which the Coulters said Karen Kahler and her friend, Sunny Reese, were intoxicated and affectionate.
“There had been some comments between my wife and other friends about whether something could be happening there,” Don Coulter said. “We kind of gave it the benefit of the doubt.”
Reese spent the night at the Kahlers’ empty house in Weatherford, which was still on the market. She came back to the Coulters’ home with Karen Kahler the following morning to return an afghan they’d borrowed, he recalled.
“Karen said something about how she was thinking of getting a divorce,” Don Coulter said. “I said to her, ‘You guys really need to slow this down. You need to think very clearly about what you’re doing. You don’t want to break up your family.'”
Marina Coulter said she was “not very happy” about Karen Kahler inviting Reese to the party. She said she didn’t like the way the two of them acted when they were together.
She told the court that she and her husband spent the entirety of New Year’s Day counseling the couple after Kraig Kahler arrived, visibly upset.
“That was one of the worst New Year’s days of our lives,” she said.
She said she’d also asked Reese to leave.
“The matter was between a husband and wife,” she said. “She was just making matters worse.”
She said they continued to try to help the Kahlers after they moved to Columbia.
The couple said they advised both Karen and Kraig Kahler over the phone to take responsibility in working things out.
“I told him what’d happened was not only Karen’s fault, but there had to be some problems on his side that he needed to address,” Don Coulter said.
The Coulters said they didn’t remember hearing from the Kahlers again after that.
Kraig Kahler’s father, Wayne Kahler, took the stand for the second time just before the court’s noon lunch break. He testified for the prosecution last Thursday.
He read to the court a preconception agreement that Karen Kahler had drawn up before Sean Kahler, the couple’s youngest child, was born.
The contract, dated March 30, 1998, states that Karen Kahler would be entitled to “time off on a regular basis” and “reasonable freedom to purchase what I want for maternity clothing, home and nursery without scrutiny.”
“Don’t even think about leaving me with the baby while you and the older girls go out and do fun things like boating or camping,” reads the contract, which was projected onto a large screen for the jury while Wayne Kahler read it aloud.
Karen Kahler also stipulated that the couple would need to begin the search for a larger house no more than three years after the birth of the child.
Wayne Kahler also spoke about his son as a boy, telling the court that he was an “excellent student” who was “very organized.”
Testimony was scheduled to resume shortly after 1 p.m.