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.”