LYNDON, Kan. — A psychiatrist who examined him in the months after his arrest testified Tuesday that James Kraig Kahler was severely depressed and was "under the umbrella of being severely mentally impaired" when he arrived at Dorothy Wight's Burlingame, Kan., home the night of the shootings.
“He wasn’t hearing voices, but his capacity to manage his own behaviors had been severely degraded,” testified Stephen Peterson, partner in Kansas City-based psychiatry practice Logan & Peterson. “He couldn’t refrain from doing what he did.”
But under cross examination, Peterson affirmed that Kahler referred to his daughters as "rotting corpses" in interviews after the shootings and boasted that he had the wherewithal the night of the shootings to kill any Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents that crossed his path.
That testimony brought gasps from some spectators in the courtroom.
Peterson took the stand in Osage County District Court after former Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins, who directly supervised Kahler when he was director of Columbia Water and Light. Kahler’s former assistant from his job as utilities director in Weatherford, Texas, testified earlier.
Kahler, 48, is charged with capital murder in the Nov. 28, 2009, shooting deaths of his wife, Karen Kahler, 44; daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren Kahler, 16; and his wife’s grandmother, Wight, 89. He’s also charged with aggravated burglary in connection with the break-in at Wight’s home that night.
After looking through medical, counseling and educational records that went as far back as Kahler’s school days and conducting interviews and tests about once a month beginning in April of 2010, Peterson determined Kahler had a high potential for suicide, major depressive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and mixed personality disorder.
Peterson also found through testing that Kahler’s IQ, though in the upper average range, was “relatively low” for his engineering background and position as a utilities director. Peterson testified that severe depression can lower a person's IQ.
Peterson said Kahler’s demeanor was “unusual” and that he put on a social facade of being in control but likely had “enormous amounts” of self-doubt he didn’t show.
He also said Kahler developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the shootings. This caused him to be “bland” and “sullen” during the interviews and perhaps in court, Peterson said, noting he wasn’t surprised Kahler had exhibited little emotion during the trial.
“He is focused on proving that he was not wrong,” Peterson said. “He is focused on avoiding, at least in a psychological context, discussing his children, the death of his daughters, in a way that is extremely odd for a man who was devoted to family and devoted to his children.”
Peterson then gave his view of the Life Alert recordings, which captured the sounds of the shootings as they happened and had already been played for the jury. He told the court that the man whose voice he heard on those tapes — whom he determined was Kahler — was “in great conflict about what he was doing” and had “completely lost control.”
Peterson said Kahler “(fit) the caricature of the engineer,” testifying that Kahler wasn’t focused on emotions but rather external success and results. He called Kahler “psychologically unsophisticated.”
“He thinks in black and white ways, yes or no, right or wrong,” he said. “He’s not the kind of man in this engineering mindset who’s going to understand a lot about emotions or delve deeply into them.”
It was Kahler’s inability to perceive emotional nuance and complexities that prevented him from understanding why his “perfect family” could have such a different emotional life, Peterson said. He also noted that the same lack of understanding extended to Kahler’s understanding of his daughters' emotional struggles as teenage girls and his wife’s relationship with her girlfriend, Sunny Reese.
Peterson said Kahler went about trying to fix his broken family life by using what he thought would be effective tactics, including humiliating Karen Kahler publicly and “psychologically (bludgeoning) her back into the relationship.”
Under cross-examination by Kansas Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley, Peterson said while Kahler told him he didn't remember any of events of Nov. 28, 2009, he believed Kahler simply preferred not to discuss them.
Peterson also confirmed statements Hanley read to him from interviews he'd done with Kahler: that Kahler had told him "Karen should've known better" and "she should've realized that she had the perfect life with him."
Former Columbia City Manager Bill Watkins, who also took the stand Tuesday afternoon, said he first saw changes in Kahler’s work performance in January 2009.
“He was unprepared for many meetings, not just with me, but with his staff and presentations to the Water and Light board, as well as City Council,” Watkins said. “He seemed to be just not with it.”
Watkins told the court he hired Kahler in July 2008 after a months-long search prompted by former Water and Light director Dan Dasho’s resignation. He said the job was one of the city’s “most senior, complicated positions,” explaining that the department had an annual budget of around $130 million and that its director oversaw about 200 employees.
Watkins said before Kahler’s marital problems began, he thought the position was “a little over his head.”
“I’m not sure that the Weatherford job had totally prepared him for the complexity of our utilities,” he said.
But Watkins testified he didn’t begin hearing complaints about Kahler’s lack of focus and inability to separate his home and work lives until later. After meeting with Kahler several times, giving him a list of expectations and seeing some results from a free counseling program for Columbia city employees, Watkins said the improvements stalled.
“I think the low point was a presentation he made to the City Council,” Watkins said. “It was a very, very important topic, one that the council had talked about, and he just did not seem to be in command of any of the facts of the situation. I just think I told him that he really blew it.”
Watkins said he "didn’t believe it" when he received word about the shootings.
“Kraig didn’t seem to be that kind of a person that would hurt other people,” he said. “I, frankly, was more concerned about him hurting himself.”
The court also heard from Christine Williams, Kahler’s administrative assistant in Weatherford. She described him as a “professional” and “punctual” person who was always prepared. She also recalled his involvement with his daughters’ band, Daze Off, and with the local Rotary Club, looking often to Kahler, who nodded in agreement at times.
She told the court what quite a few of Kahler’s parents, friends and colleagues have said over the past few days — that Kahler put his family first and was proud of how “perfect” he thought they were.
“They reminded me of the Stepford family,” Williams said. “They were just so perfect. They were always doing things together.”
Testimony was expected to continue at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Victor Holtorf, best man at the Kahlers' wedding, was expected to take the stand for the defense. The prosecution was expected to call William Logan, who is also a partner at Logan & Peterson, for its rebuttal.