Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Mysterious Death of Alonzo Brooks

UPDATE, June 11, 2020:
The FBI has re-opened the case and is offering a reward of up to $100,000 to anyone who has information about Alonzo’s disappearance.  If you know something, please call the FBI at 816-512-8200 or 816-474-TIPS or submit a tip online at

The Mysterious Death of Alonzo Brooks
by Susan Gonzalez and Paul Fecteau
Sept. 5, 2010

On a remote back road in Linn County, a desolate farm house and the woods and creek that surround it hold a secret about the death of a young man. On an April night in 2004, this remote setting may have witnessed the foulest of deeds. A group of young people probably know what happened but to this day remain as silent as the trees that flank that forlorn creek.

Those young people came together at that rural home a couple miles outside of La Cygne in east central Kansas on the night of April 3 for a party. Quite a few of the guests came from out of town, including two carloads that made the trek down from the Kansas City suburb of Gardner. One of the young men in one of those cars was a 23-year-old African-American named Alonzo Brooks. He was one of only a few blacks at the party.

Brooks had graduated from Topeka High and moved to Gardner to work for his stepfather’s janitorial company. He had a reputation for being mild-mannered and good humored. He often babysat his nieces and nephews. He occasionally spoke of one day owning a farm.

On the night of the party, he dressed in a short-sleeved dress shirt, jeans, boots and a hat. His ride pulled up around eight. A white kid named Edward Smith, who accompanied Brooks that night, had long been a close and trusted friend.

At the party, Smith and Brooks remained together most of the time. Smith recalls nothing out of the ordinary. He and Alonzo talked, drank, danced a little, and got high.

Some time between midnight and one, Smith decided he wanted to go home. He called Brooks over and the two huddled beneath a tree, talking about what to do. Brooks decided he wanted to stay and could get a ride back with the other car that had come down from Gardner. Smith told him to have fun then drove home.

The next morning, Smith phoned Brooks and was shocked to hear his mother say that her son had not returned. Staying out all night was out of character for Alonzo. Worried, Smith immediately drove back to La Cygne. He walked into the farm house and quizzed the party’s hosts. They had not seen Alonzo, they said. When Smith returned to Gardner, he continued to try to contact kids who had been at the party. The owner of the other car that had gone to the party from Gardner confirmed that he had promised Alonzo a ride home--a promise he was unable to fulfill because he had left the party to get cigarettes and gotten into an accident.

Alonzo’s family notified the Linn County Sheriff’s Department, and in the days that followed their investigation did little to settle anyone’s fears. Party-goers provided sketchy information regarding a fight that may have taken place around 3 or 4 a.m. Some said racial slurs were hurled. Deputies visited the party house and nearby found Alonzo’s hat and boots. In the ensuing weeks, the F.B.I. joined the investigation because of the implications that Alonzo had been targeted because he was black. Kansas City Star reporter John Dvorak went to La Cygne and found the townspeople reluctant to believe that any of that hatred could be homegrown. They pointed to a rumor circulating that the authorities had a suspect who came from Nebraska.

Smith learned little else from the kids who had stayed at the party that night and turned his attention to helping the family in its efforts to keep Alonzo’s disappearance in the public eye. Kansas City mayor pro-tem Alvin Brooks, no relation to Alonzo, and his anti-crime group Move Up got involved. Family members circulated T-shirts and posters that bore Alonzo’s picture and the phrase “Lost but NOT Forgotten.”

The authorities conducted six searches of the land surrounding the party house. Low-flying helicopters buzzed the tree tops. Sherriff’s deputies marched through the brush shoulder to shoulder. Cadaver-sniffing dogs were brought in. Divers from Lee’s Summit Underwater Rescue and Recovery explored the muddy bottom nearby of Middle Creek. These efforts produced nothing. No more searches were planned.

On May 1, with Alonzo gone nearly a month, more than fifty family members and friends, many from Topeka, arrived to conduct their own search. They outfitted themselves in orange vests, passed out walkie-talkies, and prepared for a long day. It took less than an hour, however, before they discovered Alonzo’s body.

A group approached Middle Creek and saw the body lying on a tangle of brush.

The remains were transported to Shawnee County where seasoned pathologist Dr. Erik Mitchell performed the autopsy. He found nothing indicating that Brooks had suffered any fatal wounds. His report listed the cause of death as undefined. Not all aspects of his findings have been made public.

Linn County Sheriff Marvin Sites initially declared that Brooks had been murdered, but a few days later retracted that statement and stipulated that his office was conducting a death investigation. The location where the body was found had been previously searched numerous times, Sites acknowledged. His account of how the body wound up where it did was a little cryptic: “Nature had to take its course,” he said.

The subsequent investigation seemed to stall quickly. The F.B.I. ceased its involvement due to lack of evidence that a hate crime had been committed. The case slipped from the headlines. Edward Smith was left to muse over what might have happened to his best friend, and Alonzo’s family had to go on with a hole in their lives where their loved one had been.

Now, over six years later, their loss remains as painful as ever, but Alonzo’s friends and family have not given up hope. Neither has current Linn County Sheriff Barry Walker. The investigation remains active and buoyed by the chance that someone who was at the party that terrible night will put aside whatever fear or misplaced loyalty might be preventing him or her from coming forward.

If you have any information that could help, please call the FBI at 816-512-8200 or 816-474-TIPS or submit a tip online at

The Brooks family will be providing updated information at and via the Facebook group Justice for Alonzo Brooks.

Editor’s Note: The name “Edward Smith” has been used to conceal the privacy of the individual to whom it refers.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

35 Years Later, Coldest Case Not Forgotten

by Paul Fecteau
This article originally appeared in the November 13, 2008, issue of tmiWeekly.

On a mild, mid-August night, the lazy drone of traffic that settled upon the edges of Kansas City like fog was split by the cry of sirens. Flashing lights warped the shadows as they surrounded a single, stationary vehicle on the side of Antioch Road. Neighbors and motorists told a ghastly tale.

A woman was driving north on Antioch. A red car followed, suddenly pulling up along side the woman’s car. The woman accelerated, but the red car caught up with her. As the two vehicles approached the stop sign at Merriam Drive, a gun shot rang out. The red car sped away.

The witnesses who raced to the woman’s car at about 11:15 p.m. on the night of August 14, 1973, found the woman slumped to the passenger seat. She had been shot in the head.

The woman was 20-year-old Dana Whisler. An ambulance rushed her to Shawnee Mission Hospital and then another to K.U. Medical Center where she died. The bullet had entered her left temple and exited the right. She had no other injuries.

At about 1:30 a.m., a man phoned the Shawnee Mission Hospital and asked a nurse if a woman had been admitted with a gunshot wound to the head, neck, or shoulder. The nurse said she couldn’t give out information, and the man hung up. He has never been identified.

Back at the scene of the shooting, Overland Park Police Patrolman Steve Denton had been the fi rst member of law enforcement to arrive. He found the victim’s driver’s side window partially rolled down. The passenger’s side window was up, and both doors were locked. Denton discovered a bullet from a large-caliber revolver in the front seat. Other officers arrived, canvassed the area around the car, but discovered no more evidence.

The red car described by witnesses had vanished. The area seemed tailor-made for such a getaway. The intersection was on the edge of Overland Park, and if the vehicle continued heading north, as onlookers indicated it did, it would slip into the dense residential neighborhoods of Kansas City, Kansas. If the car turned around, I-35 was just three blocks south. In the ensuing days, police put out an alert for a red 1965 or 1966 Ford with square taillights.

Captain Ronald Jackson, Overland Park’s Chief of Detectives, worked the case in conjunction with the Kansas City Metro Squad. A team of 34 detectives conducted 675 interviews, mostly with Dana Whisler’s co-workers, friends, and family.

As the investigators profiled the victim, the press was not far behind. Kansas City Kansan reporter Gloria Vobejda interviewed her parents. Kansas City Star reporter O.D. Smith interviewed her boyfriend. The portrait of Dana Whisler that emerged made it clear that Kansas City was all the poorer for her loss.

Dana had graduated in 1971 from Turner High School where she had been on the honor roll and a member of the student council. She resided with her parents and worked as a bookkeeper for the Public Finance Corporation. Everyone she had contact with liked her. Detectives began to suspect that Dana had not known her killer, that she had been chosen primarily because she was young and beautiful.

On the night of the murder, she had worked late, covering the duties of a coworker who was on vacation. She left at about 7 p.m. and, as was her routine, went to the home of her boyfriend. The twenty-one year old worked the late shift as a switchman for Santa Fe.

The two had been dating for over a year and a half. Dana also had a high school sweetheart with whom she stayed in touch. Both men said they wanted to marry her. Both were initially considered suspects but were cleared.

Dana and her boyfriend dined out that night and then returned to his apartment. Just before 11 p.m. they drove separate cars to an ice cream parlor where they drank Cokes. They left, driving side by side down Johnson Drive until they came to Broadmoor where her boyfriend turned on his way to work. Dana presumably drove on until she turned north on Antioch, and some minutes later lost her life in the bizarre shooting.

The killer likely used some ruse that caused her to roll down her window. According to her parents, Dana usually drove with her windows up--particularly her driver’s side window which had a damaged handle that made it tough to raise and lower.

After the initial investigation, the Metro Squad discontinued its involvement. The Overland Park detectives worked on. Nothing developed since has challenged the theory that the killer was a stranger acting at random.

Thirty-five years later, the case is the oldest unsolved homicide in Overland Park, but the detectives have not quit. Police Department spokesman Jim Weaver, though he would not comment on specifics of the investigation, did note that the case file “has been reviewed within the last six months.”

Any one with any information that might help bring Dana’s killer to justice can contact Major Al Sneller with the Investigation Division of the Overland Park Police at 913-344-8711 or the Kansas City TIPS HOTLINE at 816-474-TIPS.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Father Fights for Justice

by Paul Fecteau

This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2009, issue of tmiWeekly.

Fanning out through Topeka’s Central Park neighborhood, a family tacks posters on light poles and trees. The photocopied image of a young black man, holding an infant and hugging a little girl, appears on the letter-sized white sheets. A circle is drawn around the man’s face with magic marker. Below the photo, a caption, handwritten with the same black marker, reads “Murdered.” The fliers are obviously homemade, the product of a budget far less than America’s Most Wanted, but they remind thecommunity that the family of Michael Holley has not given up on justice.

The family hopes that the photo, which shows Michael with two of his three children, might stir the emotions, motivating someone with information about the murder to come forward. If that strategy falls short, the flier also prominently notes that a $2000 reward is offered.

The family distributed the fliers in the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of Michael’s murder. The 24-year-old Topeka native had walked out of Deep Pockets Pool Hall on 21st Street shortly before 2 a.m. on February 23, 2008. He got into his car. A man approached, pulled a gun, and opened fire. Michael was hit several times and died at a hospital about 40 minutes later.

After shooting Michael, the killer walked to a dark four-door sedan parked nearby and began to drive away. Before he left, however, he fired his gun into the air, sending the witnesses who had gathered around Michael’s car fleeing for cover.

Henry Holley, Michael’s father, believes that that the second round of shots served as a message to the witnesses not to cooperate with police. In fact, Henry thinks many people in the community know who murdered his son but are too frightened to reveal the killer’s identity. That conviction has spurred him to tirelessly publicize his son’s case.

Aside from imploring witnesses to be forthcoming, Henry has also shared with reporters his theory that his son’s murder is connected to the deaths of a series of black men slain in the city last year: 25-year-old David Wakes, a relative of Michael’s, who was shot in late April and 17-year-old Farrell Sanders who was shot in early May.

The Holley family even created a My Space page on the Internet dedicated to Michael. The police ultimately asked that the page be taken down due to concerns regarding information that could jeopardize a prosecution. The most inflammatory material on the site appeared in comments posted by anonymous visitors. These posts included some that named a particular individual as the killer. Even with the My Space page no longer online, comments posted on stories on the sites of local television stations continue to accuse this local man, including some posts which call him a serial killer, claiming he is also responsible for the murders of Wakes and Sanders.

Despite these accusations leveled anonymously on the Web, the Holley family worries that the witnesses who could really provide useful information are afraid. The fliers that the family circulated last month acknowledge as much, concluding with a handwritten couplet that may, at first, appear contradictory: “Don’t be afraid! / It could happen to you!” The fear in the community is, in fact, certain to allow further violence which may reach those withholding information.

If you know something that can help Michael’s family find justice, please contact Topeka Police Detectives at 368-9022. You may also call Crime Stoppers at 234-0007 or toll free 1-800-222- tips(8477). Tips may also be submitted online at or via a text message to “crimes” or 274637; enter “tip 128” in the first part of the message.

Roxanne’s Killer Remains at Large

by Paul Fecteau

This article originally appeared in the October 30, 2008, issue of tmiWeekly.

Roxanne Zwiesler enjoyed life surrounded by friends and lovers, many of whom were well known in Topeka. She had turned 39 and left behind her a whirl of nights at upscale clubs and exclusive parties, venues at which all eyes focused on her. Her allure was due in part to her statuesque beauty--she stood five foot nine in flats and always wore heels--but she also had a reputation for informed, frank, and wildly funny conversation. On June 13 or 14 in 1994, Roxanne’s life ended, and the friends and lovers with whom she had shared so many good times found themselves suspects in the investigation of her murder.

Roxanne spent most of what was to be her last day--Monday, June 13, 1994--at work. The same qualities that had made her social life fl ourish had also helped her career. She had a degree in business from Washburn and an impressive resumé but had settled into a job she loved. She worked in the lingerie department at the Jones Store where she had a reputation for helping women flatter themselves and men do the same for their wives and girlfriends.

That day, someone phoned Roxanne at the Jones Store. A nearby coworker heard her say, “Now I’m in trouble.” The remark may have had an innocent explanation but would seem ominous in the future.

That evening, Roxanne went to dinner with a friend and arrived home at about ten. Three-years divorced, she resided alone in the Brandywine Apartments, near the intersection of 25th and Wanamaker. Her second-floor apartment overlooked an adjacent parking lot to the south. Friends dropping by for a visit often parked there, cutting across the grass to Roxanne’s building. It was, in fact, easy to do so without being seen.

A woman who had the apartment west of Roxanne’s said she heard a disturbance later that night, but she was unable to be more precise. A man who lived in the apartment to the east did not hear anything.

Roxanne had the next day--Tuesday, June 14, 1994--off from the Jones Store and planned to meet a friend for coffee that morning and drop by her sister Rhonda’s house that afternoon. She did not show up at either engagement. When her friend and then her sister called to find out why, they got a busy signal--repeatedly.

Roxanne’s family had always played a vital role in her life. She had three brothers--Bob, Joe, and John--and three sisters--Teresa, Rhonda, and Michele--who were as much a part of her social calendar as her newsworthy friends. At that time, none of her siblings was more involved with Roxanne than Michele, the youngest in the family. When Roxanne’s line continued to be busy,
Michele went to check on her.

As Michele waited for the light to change at 29th and Wanamaker, images of the unthinkable fl ickered in her mind. She pushed them aside. After all, the odds were that something had come up and Rox, as Michelle called her, had taken off on some adventure, not noticing that she had knocked her phone off the hook on her way out the door. Michele turned on 27th, parked in the empty lot, and hurried to Roxanne’s apartment.

The second she touched the apartment door, the reassurance she had mustered in response to her fears faded away. With a slight push, the door swung open--it had not been latched. A note a friend had left wedged against the jam fl uttered down to the welcome mat. Michele called out her sister’s name. There was no response.

Inside, Michele saw a laundry basket on the living room fl oor. A couch that normally sat against a storage closet had been pushed out, and the closet door was open. Michele entered the bedroom, and the unthinkable became real.

Roxanne lay unclothed on the bed. She had been shot in the head.

Michele ran to the apartment next door, and the man living there dialed 9-1-1. In minutes, police swarmed on the scene. One of the patrol cops pointed out that the screen on the front window had been slit.

Later, as detectives examined the scene, they discarded initial impressions that Roxanne had fallen victim to an intruder: the slit in the screen had been made from the inside. The killer had probably cut the screen to make it appear as though a break-in had occurred. He had left the closet door open to make it look like he had been hiding inside. Roxanne had known the person who took her life.

Based upon this deduction, the ensuing investigation focused on the men in Roxanne’s life, all of whom were prominent Topeka professionals. One took a lie detector test which he passed. Another had his office searched, and nothing was found. Detectives never settled on a particular suspect, but their inquiries revealed that recreational drug use played a role in the night life of Roxanne’s social circle. The media reported this fact, and speculation grew that the murder had been drug related.

The investigation’s focus on Topeka’s drug culture yielded no results. The feeling that Roxanne’s murderer would go unpunished grew. Though the killer was in all likelihood a man still prominent in local society, the case went cold.

Roxanne Zwiesler remains alive, still vivacious and elegant in the memories of those who knew her. Unfortunately, her killer is probably still alive too, and may very well be in Topeka.

If you have any information that could help bring him to justice, please contact the detectives at the Topeka Police Department at 368-9400.