Jury recommends death for former Weatherford utilities director who killed 4 family members

James Kraig Kahler

James Kraig Kahler’s attorneys argued that his wife’s lesbian affair with a fellow fitness trainer contributed to his deteriorating mental state

JOHN MILBURN | Associated Press

LYNDON, Kan. A jury recommended Monday that a Kansas man be sentenced to death for killing four family members in November 2009.

The jury returned its recommendation after hearing more testimony about 48-year-old James Kraig Kahler and his state of mind at the time of the fatal shootings. The judge – who is not bound by the recommendation – set sentencing for Oct. 11 in Osage County District Court.

Kahler was convicted Thursday of four counts of capital murder in the killings of 44-year-old Karen Kahler; her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89; and the Kahlers’ daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16. The Kahlers’ son, Sean, now 12, was not threatened during the rampage and testified at trial that he saw his father shoot his mother.

The victims’ family members read a short statement outside the courthouse after the verdict, saying all relatives “still have a lot of healing to do” and that the trial didn’t restore their relatives’ lives.

“For the past year and a half, we’ve had a dark cloud around us that we associated with this trial,” said Lynn Denton, Karen Kahler’s sister. “Now that it’s over, the cloud is still there.

“The cloud wasn’t about the trial, it is about our loss.”

The defense argued for life in prison, saying Kahler was out of control emotionally and suffering deep depression when he went from room to room at Wight’s home in Burlingame, shooting the four victims with an assault rifle.

Defense attorney Thomas Haney declined to speak to reporters after the verdict was read. None of the jurors spoke as they left the courthouse.

Prosecutors said it was difficult to read anything into the speed at which jurors reached their decision, taking just 55 minutes to return. Osage County attorney Brandon Jones and Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley said jurors had the evidence about the highly publicized murders “on their minds for several weeks now.”

“We believe it is the appropriate verdict,” Hanley said.

A former city utilities director in Weatherford, Texas, and Columbia, Mo., Kahler had lost the latter job after his deteriorating mental health caused his work to suffer. He moved back to Kansas just weeks before the killings to live with his parents outside Topeka.

Karen Kahler had filed for divorce in Columbia, Mo., in January 2009, after 23 years of marriage, amid her affair with Sunny Reese, who’d been a fellow fitness trainer at a gym in Weatherford, Texas. Reese testified in court, and the defense contended that the two women’s relationship also had contributed to Kahler’s mental state.

Under Kansas law, Kahler’s mental illness was a defense only if it prevented him from forming the intent to kill or acting with premeditation. Prosecutors presented evidence showing he had been upset with each of the victims and targeted them one by one on the Saturday night following Thanksgiving 2009.

Coroner Erik Mitchell testified during the trial that the four victims were alive after they were shot and that none had been shot in the head.

But prosecutors said Kahler, keeping with the stereotype of his profession, was solving what he perceived as a problem. In closing arguments, they told jurors that Kahler was depressed but was also fueled by anger and decided murder was the way to eliminate the problem of a no-longer-perfect life.

Before the jury began its 55 minutes of deliberation Monday on a sentence, the defense read the panel members two notes from Sean Kahler asking that his father be spared execution.

“I do not want my dad to receive the death penalty because it would be hard on my grandparents,” the first note said.

The second note said, “I do not want my whole family gone.”

Kahler did not speak after the jury’s recommendation was announced Monday. Bailiffs escorted him back to the jail where he was held during the trial. He will remain at the jail until the formal sentencing in October.

Karen Kahler’s brother, Bill Hetrick, said outside the courthouse, “This is not a day of winners.”
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—  John Wright

Slain wife’s lesbian lover testifies at murder trial of former Weatherford, Texas utilities director

James Kraig Kahler allegedly arranged a threesome with his wife and another woman, then snapped after it led to full-fledged affair

JOHN HANNA | Associated Press

LYNDON, Kan. — A former city utilities administrator accused of killing his estranged wife and three other family members in Kansas had encouraged his spouse to have a sexual relationship with a Texas woman but also was an abusive husband, the murdered wife’s lover testified Wednesday in his capital murder trial.

Prosecutors called Sunny Reese, of Weatherford, Texas, as a witness against James Kraig Kahler, who’s charged in the shootings of his estranged wife, their two teenage daughters and his wife’s grandmother. He could face the death penalty if convicted of the slayings, which occurred the weekend after Thanksgiving 2009 in the grandmother’s home just outside Burlingame, a town of some 930 residents about 20 miles south of Topeka.

James Kraig Kahler

Defense attorneys contend that Kahler snapped mentally because his wife was having an affair with Reese and was pursuing a divorce. Kahler, 48, was utilities director in Weatherford, Texas, before becoming water department director in Columbia, Mo., in 2008, though he lived outside Topeka at the time of the killings.

But Reese testified that Kahler, who often went by his middle name, consented to her sexual relationship with his wife, Karen, before it began in 2008. She testified that he once gave the two women roses at the same time.

“Kraig knew for the get-go and was very accepting,” Reese testified. Later, she told jurors, “He agreed to everything. He was very pleased.”

Reese also has been subpoenaed as a witness by Kahler’s attorneys and could testify again when the defense presents its case. Kahler’s attorneys describe him as mentally ill for months before the shootings, suffering from hallucinations and becoming unable to function at work. The killings occurred several months after he lost his job in Columbia, Mo.

Most of the questions Wednesday in Osage County District Court about the two women’s relationship came from defense attorney Thomas Haney, who noted that Reese sent Karen Kahler an email in January 2009 about “how to divorce a narcissist.” Haney also had Reese read to jurors a text message she sent to Kahler around that time, telling him, “She doesn’t love you, Kraig, not like you think she does.”

As for Kahler consenting to the lesbian affair, Haney said, “To keep his marriage alive, he was willing to consent to a sexual relationship between her and you.”

Haney has repeatedly described the defendant as a loving father and husband. But Reese called the Kahler marriage “a very abusive relationship,” saying she’d heard of screaming matches between them. But Reese acknowledged during questioning by Haney that she’d not witnessed incidents herself but based her comments on what Karen Kahler had told her.

“I wanted to protect her,” Reese testified. “I thought I could.”

The victims of the shootings were: Karen Kahler, 44; her grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89, and the Kahlers’ daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16. Emily died in the home, and the other three victims were transported to a Topeka hospital before dying.

The Kahlers also had a son, Sean, now 12, who was at the scene of the shootings but fled without being physically injured. He testified Monday, the trial’s first day, that he saw his father shoot his mother.

Law enforcement and emergency medical personnel have said that Wight and Lauren Kahler also identified Kraig Kahler as the gunman before they died. Prosecutors have spent much of their time presenting physical evidence tying him to the shootings.

Prosecutors played a recording for jurors Wednesday of an emergency call, triggered by an alarm to a private security and medical emergency monitoring system Wight had in her home. The recording, improved by a law enforcement technician, featured a young woman screaming, “Somebody’s going to kill us!” and, in answer to an operator’s statement, “He’s in the home!”

Reese identified the voice as Lauren Kahler’s and bowed her head as she listened to the half-minute recording, shaking at times. Reese appeared nervous throughout her testimony and was often wide-eyed.

But Reese testified that Kahler wanted to bring her into his sexual relations with his wife, proposing it in a text message as the lesbian relationship started.

Karen Kahler’s divorce attorney testified Tuesday that she had told him Kahler had proposed such an arrangement. The attorney, Dan Pingelton, of Columbia, said Karen Kahler told him that her husband had brought the two women together, but Reese said they’d known each other since 2006 from working as fitness trainers at a Weatherford, Texas, gym.

Haney noted that no one has produced a copy of a text message from Kahler to Reese, seeking a sexual relationship with the two women.

Haney asked Reese, “You don’t have anything other than your testimony today that Kraig Kahler suggested a threesome?”

Reese replied, “No sir. It’s my word.”

—  John Wright