Man charged with capital murder in 3 Kan. deaths

Liz De La Torre

From The Associated Press

LYNDON, Kan. – A former Missouri city official previously accused of assaulting his wife was charged Monday with capital murder in the shootings of her and their two teenage daughters in eastern Kansas.

James Kraig Kahler, 46, also was charged with one count of attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of his estranged wife’s 89-year-old grandmother and one count of aggravated burglary. Authorities suspect he broke into the grandmother’s home near Topeka, where the shootings occurred.

During Kahler‘s first appearance in Osage County District Court, Judge Phillip Fromme set bail at $10 million and scheduled another hearing for Dec. 10.

Kahler declined to comment as sheriff’s deputies escorted him in handcuffs from jail to the courthouse. He had been scheduled to appear in court in Columbia, Mo., on Wednesday on a domestic assault charge stemming from an altercation with his wife in March that led to the loss of his job as director of Columbia’s Water & Light Department.

A divorce trial for Kahler and his 44-year-old wife, Karen, was scheduled to start Dec. 21, but a settlement hearing was planned for Friday. Court records showed that James Kahler complained of financial pressures and the couple had been sparring over their children.

The Kahlers’ daughters, Emily, 18, and Lauren, 16, were killed Saturday, along with their mother. Karen Kahler’s grandmother, Dorothy Wight, 89, was injured. The couple’s 10-year-old son, Sean, was at Wight’s house south of Burlingame on Saturday but was uninjured.

Dan Pingelton, a Columbia attorney representing Karen Kahler in the divorce, described James Kahler as “controlling.”

“From the facts I heard, I think he was a misogynist,” Pingelton said.

He said James Kahler refused to see his daughters. Emily attended the St. Louis College of Pharmacy and Lauren was an honors student at a Columbia high school.

Pingelton said James Kahler set up a visit with his son over the Thanksgiving holiday.

“He never was interested in his daughters — only his son,” Pingelton said. “And I think that is the reason that little boy is alive today.”

A single capital murder count covers the three killings; Kansas law allows the death penalty for multiple murders arising from a single “scheme or course of conduct.”

But the Kansas attorney general’s office also filed three alternative charges of premeditated first-degree murder in what Deputy Attorney General Barry Disney called a “fallback position” should jurors fail to convict James Kahler of the capital charge.

James Kahler and his family had moved to Missouri from Picker County, Texas, in July 2008 when he took the job in Columbia. His $150,000 annual salary made him the city’s highest paid employee.

But he was asked to resign in September and was paid two months’ salary and one month of severance. In an Oct. 9 court filing, he asked for relief from the temporary monthly payments of $2,030 in child support and $1,500 in maintenance he was required to provide his family.

James Kahler said he expected to remain unemployed “for a substantial period of time,” adding that he was prevented by court order from withdrawing money from his retirement account pending the divorce.

In court on Monday, Fromme asked James Kahler whether he could afford an attorney and Kahler responded that he had “some funds.” Nevertheless, the judge appointed the state’s death penalty defense unit in Topeka to represent him.

James Kahler lived in Columbia until several weeks ago, according to neighbors. On Nov. 25, he notified the Missouri court of his new address in Meriden, Kan., northeast of Topeka.

In her court petition, Karen Kahler described a “history of controlling force” throughout the couple’s 23-year marriage. She recounted a New Year’s Eve 2008 fight in Weatherford, Texas, during which James Kahler pushed her hard enough that she banged her head on the street.

“I’m afraid it will escalate so far that someone is going to be seriously hurt,” she wrote.

Pingelton said Karen Kahler believed her husband was hacking into her e-mail and committing minor acts of vandalism around her home.

“Karen was fearful of him, but really she was honestly more afraid he was going to kill himself,” he said. “Nobody had any idea he would consider doing this.”