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.