THE BEAUTY'S HALF-NUDE BODY TOLD A TALE OF MURDER
By Steve Hamilton
When 23-year-old Linda Colleen Leebrick, an art teacher at the Hill City, Kansas, high school, was not in her classroom by 8 a.m., April 21, 1976, the initial reaction among other teachers was that she must be seriously ill. Miss Leebrick was one of the most dependable teachers at the school. Her failure to notify the school principal that she would be late or was going to miss a day was unbelievable.
When the young woman did not answer a telephone call to her home, the high school principal became even more concerned. He and another instructor drove to her apartment, located on the lower level of a two-story dwelling which contained several apartments. What they found there did nothing to ease their fears for Miss Leebrick's well being.
Her yellow Opel was parked in front of the house, as usual, but the front door of the apartment appeared to have been kicked in with enough force to shatter the window in the door. There was broken glass on the front steps and inside the neat, comfortable living room.
The teachers called Linda's name several times, but there was no response. After finding the other rooms empty they could only conclude that Linda had been forcibly taken from the apartment.
Graham County Sheriff Don Scott was called and within minutes he and deputies arrived at the residence. Except for the battered front door there was no other sign of a struggle inside the apartment. There was no blood nor was any of the furniture overturned.
The stereo and television sets were in place. There was a blanket and pillow on the divan and an art book on the floor nearby, indicating that Miss Leebrick had been lying on the divan reading.
The girl's glasses were on an end table at the end of the divan and her purse was on the floor near the table. It did not appear that anything had been taken from the apartment. None of her personal belongings were disturbed.
While deputies searched the apartment and the yard outside, Sheriff Scott notified the nearest office of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation in Great Bend, Kansas. Agent Bob Clester, chief of the office, and six other KBI agents responded to the sheriff's call. The KBI is a state controlled law enforcement agency that investigates major crimes in Kansas.
Among the first persons the agents talked to was another teacher, who lived in the apartment above Linda's. He told them he'd heard a slight commotion and what might have been a scream around midnight. He explained that he did not investigate because the house was occupied by young persons and late night activity was not unusual.
A neighborhood investigation failed to turn up anyone who heard or saw anything unusual around the woman's residence. Linda was a pretty girl, five feet eight inches tall with a statuesque figure and long, dark hair. She was known to her neighbors and friends as a pleasant, quiet girl, deeply religious and dedicated to her teaching. Her apartment had never been the scene of loud parties or isturbances, the neighbors said.
Later that day groups of volunteers were organized to assist the deputies and KBI agents in searching the countryside around the town. Hill City is a farm community of about 2000 persons located 46 miles south of the Kansas-Nebraska border in western Kansas. It is typical of the small towns in Kansas where there is a closeness in the community not duplicated in the large cities. Residents there are accustomed to helping one another and banding together in a crisis.
But despite the efforts of the volunteers and the law enforcement officers, no leads to the whereabouts of the attractive, young school teacher were developed. Because of Miss Leebrick's background and the damaged door officers were convinced that she was the victim of an abduction and had not decided impulsively to leave town without telling anyone.
"She just wasn't that kind of a girl. We can only hope that we find her alive," a deputy remarked grimly.
But it wasn't to be that way. The next morning, April 22nd, volunteer searchers again fanned out around the small town and at 10 a.m. three high school students found the partially clad body of their teacher in a heavily wooded area a mile east of the small town. The young woman, her dark hair matted with blood, was lying on her back in a pile of leaves. Beside her were several bloody tree limbs which apparently had been used to batter her head and upper torso.
The girl's body was nude from the waist up and her blue jeans were unzipped. About 35 feet from the body the officers found her panties and bra.
Sheriff Scott and the KBI agents immediately cordoned off the crime scene which was about 150 feet from a country road near the Solomon River. Fortunately, the officers were able to secure the area before any evidence could inadvertently be destroyed.
While they awaited the arrival of the KBI's mobile crime lab the officers meticulously searched the area including an alfalfa field, which bordered the murder scene. The search paid off when they found fresh tire tracks near the body.
When the lab technicians arrived the tracks were photographed and examined thoroughly. The officers found five prices of bloodstained tree limbs that obviously were used in the murder. They removed two slivers of the limbs from the victim's hair and the right side of her head. Strands of the girl's long, dark hair were found snagged in the limbs.
"He must have used one limb until it broke and then grabbed another and kept on beating her," an agent mused as he inspected the pieces of broken limb.
The agents also found other significant evidence on the limbs. Two footprints apparently made by a corrugated rubber soled shoe were discovered on one of the bloody limbs.
Finally, the evidence was secured and the woman's body was taken to the Ellis County Law Enforcement Center in nearby Hays, Kansas, where an autopsy was conducted by Dr. L. William Halling. It was determined that Linda died from a skull fracture.
Because the woman's undergarments were found several feet away and the body was partly nude the officers assumed that she had been raped before she was slain. The autopsy, however, disclosed that she had not been raped nor was there evidence of any kind of sexual activity.
The residents of Hill City were stunned by the murder of the popular school teacher. They already had been buffeted by six other murders--all unsolved--within the last 18 months!
In November, 1974, the skeletal remains of three children were discovered by a hunter in a field. They later were identified as Beth and Berry Betts, 5-year-old twins, and their sister, Elise Betts, 8 years old.
Because of the conditions of the bodies a cause of death could not be determined. The children were last seen alive by their mother when they left on a trip to visit their father who lived in cPherson, Kansas. Subsequent investigation revealed that the father also had been missing since that same time.
Then, on January 13, 1976, the bodies of
two young women were discovered in an abandoned farmhouse near Interstate
70 highway. They had been shot to death. They were identified
as Cheryl Lynn Young, 21 years old, and Diane Lynn Lovette, 19. The
frozen body of Mrs. Young's
three-year-old son, Guy, was found in another part of the old house.
A car owned by the women had been found abandoned with a flat tire December 13, 1975, on Interstate 70 by the Kansas Highway Patrol It was believed that the women and the boy were returning to Fort Madison, Iowa, after a trip to Denver, Colorado. No leads on the killer had been developed.
The impact of the previous murders was, of course, severe. But the fact that the victims were not members of the community softened the shock somewhat.
"But this is different," Randall Weller, the Graham County District Attorney, said. "It really shook the pillars and hit everyone's living room. This town is frightened."
Weller said the emotions were particularly high because of Linda's popularity. "She was a very well-liked girl even though she hadn't lived here long," he explained.
Linda was a 1975 cum laude graduate of Kansas State University. She began her teaching career in Hill City that fall. Besides teaching art she sponsored the Kayette Club and was a co-sponsor of the school's pep club. She was active in church work and Bible classes.
"I can't figure out why anyone would abduct or hurt her. She has many friends and no enemies," a neighbor said.
"She didn't even dance. She just wasn't the kind of person to get caught up in something like this," the father, who last saw his daughter when she left home to return to Hill City after the Easter vacation, said.
Ralph Scott, the high school principal, echoed the father's thoughts. "Miss Leebrick had high morals. I hold her in extremely high regard. She was very honest and sincere."
A former classmate described her as "a fantastic artist." The school superintendent commented on her popularity among the students and faculty members adding that "she did a fine job in her teaching duties."
But now the pretty, talented girl had become the seventh murder victim in the area in a year and a half, a startling statistic for such a sparsely populated area. Although some townspeople speculated that the murders might in some way be connected, law enforcement officers, while not discounting the possibility, were skeptical.
"The only thing they have in common at this point is that they all happened in this area," Agent Clester remarked.
D.A. Weller agreed that there was nothing in the Leebrick slaying to tie it to the other murders," but he added, "anything is possible."
Whether or not the murders were linked the emotional atmosphere of Hill City definitely was affected. A farmer who had lived most of his life in Graham County expressed concern about the emotional state of the town.
"Folks are locking their doors. They're getting their guns out. I don't much like that--it only means more trouble. For it to do any good a gun has to be loaded and by your bed. When a member of the family gets up in the middle of the night and trips over a waste basket, well..."
The pastor of the FIrst Christian Church where Linda was a regular also was cognizant of the undercurrent of fear in the town. "They are concerned and fearful. This incident has the earmarks of a local problem. People I have visited with are taking extra precautions."
The day after Miss Leebrick's body was found the pastor held a voluntary prayer service with students at the high school. More than three-fourths of them attended. The following Sunday a memorial for the girl was part of the Sunday worship service at the church.
District Attorney Weller called on the residents
of the community to pass along any little bit of information they had to
KBI agents or the sheriff. "All tips will be kept in the strictest
Sheriff Scott's deputies and the KBI agents working the case carefully considered the evidence they obtained at the crime scene. They knew they were looking for a car with a relatively short wheel base that still had snow tires on the rear wheels.
From the force with which the apartment door was kicked in and the viciousness of the assault on Miss Leebrick the officers surmised that the suspect would be a strong individual. From the footprints on the tree limbs they concluded he probably was wearing tennis shoes.
The fact that Linda apparently uttered only one scream during the abduction lent further credence to the theory that her assailant was strong. The viciousness of the attack indicated that the killer probably was emotionally disturbed.
Unfortunately, many persons in the community had not yet removed their snow tires although it was April. It was a question of finding the right tires, a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. But, KBI lab technicians had detected a defect--a piece of tread missing--that set apart one of the tires on the killer's car.
A second, even more thorough, neighborhood check was launched by the officers. They found it difficult to accept that no one in the neighborhood saw Miss Leebrick being dragged from the house. They conceded that she might have been so terrified by her assailant's unexpected attack that she was not able to continue screaming for help.
During the second neighborhood investigation the Sheriff Scott again talked with Dennis Sanders, a 21-year-old man who lived with his girl friend in an apartment directly across the street from Linda. Sanders was asked again if he was positive that he hadn't seen or heard anything unusual the night Linda was abducted.
Sanders insisted that he hadn't. He said he knew the girl only on sight. On one occasion, he said, a package mailed to him inadvertently was delivered to her house. She brought the package to him and that was the only time he talked to her, he asserted.
As Sheriff Scott was leaving Sanders' apartment he noticed that the snow tires on a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle parked in front of the dwelling had tread similar to the tracks found at the murder scene. And, when he inspected the tires more closely they discovered that one tire had a defect in the tread similar to the track!
The agents asked Sanders if he would give his permission for them to inspect the car and its interior. Sanders shrugged and said he didn't mind. He added that he wanted to do whatever he could to aid the investigation.
The car was thoroughly processed by KBI lab technicians and an impression of the defect in the tread was made. Other evidence almost as significant as the tire was found under the vehicle. It was a strand of alfalfa discovered clinging to the brake cable.
Recalling that an alfalfa field was adjacent to the spot where the boy was found an agent asked Sanders if he recently had driven the car through an alfalfa field. Sanders said that he had not, adding that he hadn't driven the car out of town for several days. When he was asked if he owned a pair of tennis shoes Sanders said he never wore tennis shoes.
Back at the sheriff's office the officers totaled up the results of the afternoon's work. They now were convinced that they had a solid suspect in Sanders. The impression from his tire and the strand of alfalfa along with another strand taken from the field were turned over to Steve Couch in the KBI lab in Great Bend.
The following day, April 30th, Agent Raymond Macey was sitting in the sheriff's office when Sanders unexpectedly walked in carrying a pair of tennis shoes.
He told the agent that the shoes were his and that he probably should have told the agents about them the day before but he didn't consider it important. "I lied to you about them before, I don't know why. It's crazy, but I did," Sanders said.
Macey examined the shoes and saw that the tread on the soles were similar to the prints on the tree limb. He then advised Sanders that he was a suspect in the murder investigation. After Sanders was advised of his Constitutional right to remain silent and to have an attorney present he was interrogated by Macey and other officers. Sanders denied having any knowledge of the murder; he knew the victim as a neighbor but had nothing to do with her; he insisted that he did not hear or see anything the night of the abduction despite living directly across the street from the girl.
Finally, the agents released Sanders. They instructed him not to leave town because they might want to question him again. Sanders replied that he had no intention of leaving and would be available any time the officers wanted him.
The tennis shoes were rushed to the KBI lab and the following morning the lab report was ready. It was conclusive, to say the least.
Couch's examination showed that the tire tracks at the murder scene were made by the tire on Sanders' Chevelle and that the tread on the shoe soles was identical to the prints on the tree limb.
Gary Dirks, another technician who specialized in blood analysis, said that blood found under the sole of the tennis shoe was A-positive, Linda Leebrick's blood type.
After receiving the lab report the agents moved rapidly. They obtained a warrant for Sanders' arrest and went to his house where they took him into custody. He was taken to the Graham County Courthouse for questioning.
As soon as the interview began Sanders admitted to the agents that he had abducted Miss Leebrick and beat her with the tree limbs. He said that on the night of April 20th he left his own apartment and walked across the street to his car. He said she fought with him at first but subsequently gave up the struggle.
He as first asserted that she got into the vehicle voluntarily but later admitted that he forced her into the car. He said he did not hit her. He said he drove to the murder scene, which was known as a lover's lane.
He insisted that Miss Leebrick undressed herself, took off her bra and undid the fly to her jeans. The next thing he remembered was beating her with the tree limbs.
The interview was interrupted when Sanders said he wanted a lawyer before saying anything more. But before a lawyer could be called Sanders started crying, then suddenly started screaming and ran for the door. It took all three of the agents to subdue the strong youth.
When he regained his composure Sanders slumped into a chair. A this moment his girl friend entered the room and asked:
"Dennis, did you do it?"
"Yes, yes I did!" Sanders yelled at her, and he started to cry again.
That afternoon Sanders was arraigned on a first degree murder charge and ordered held in the Graham County jail without bail.
Surprisingly little was actually known about
Sanders. He had lived in Hill City about a year and was employed
as a laborer for an irrigation company. He apparently did not know
Miss Leebrick well and had never talked to her for any length of time.
The victim's father said he had
never heard his daughter mention Sanders' name.
He couldn't explain why he invaded the girl's home or why he killed her. He admitted hitting her with the limbs but couldn't remember how many times. As to why he killed her, Sanders simply said: "I don't know. I just made a big mess of things."
Neighbors who knew Sanders said he seemed to be "a pleasant young man." His girl friend said they planned to be married within a month or two.
Judge C. E. Birney of the Graham County District Court appointed an attorney for Sanders and ordered that he be examined by psychiatrists at the High Plains Comprehensive Mental Health Center in Hays to determine if he was mentally competent to stand trial. After the examinations were concluded Judge Birney held that Sanders was competent and set the case for trial.
The trial started October 26, 1976, before Judge Birney and a jury of eight men and four women. His attorney, Kenneth Havner, moved unsuccessfully for a change of venue. When that motion was denied Havner told the jury in his opening statement that the state's evidence might show that Sanders was responsible for Linda Leebrick's death but that he would prove through psychiatrists that Sanders was insane at the time of the slaying.
Weller told the jury that since Sanders pleaded innocent by reason of insanity the state must prove that he was sane at the time of the murder. He reminded the jurors that under Kansas law the test for sanity was whether or not the defendant knew right from wrong when he committed the offense.
Weller's first witness was Sheriff Scott, who identified pictures of Miss Leebrick's partly nude body as it was found by the students. He was followed on the witness stand by the KBI agents and laboratory technicians.
Under direct examination by Weller Agent Thomas Lyons told the jury about Sanders' confession made the day he was arrested and taken to the courthouse.
"He said he had done the things we were accusing him of and that he would tell us about it," Lyons testified.
He said he went to the victim's home and, without any preliminaries, kicked the door down. He grabbed the girl and pulled her up the stairs to the street.
"He said he picked up a tree limb and started hitting her. He didn't know how many times he hit her. When I asked him why he killed her he said he 'didn't know.'" Lyons said.
Agent Macey gave testimony relating to the Sanders confession and the emotional exchange that occurred when his girl friend asked him (Sanders) if he killed Miss Leebrick. He told the jury he was impressed by Sanders' strength during the struggle with the agents.
Macey said he had to use both hands in an effort to control Sanders' right arm while the other two agents wrestled with him. He also recalled Sanders' admission that he originally lied to the agents about the tennis shoes.
Other key witnesses called by Weller were Couch and Dirks, the forensic specialists from the KBI laboratory.
Couch testified about reconstructing the limbs found at the murder scene. He said the limbs were bloodstained and that strands of hair from the victim's head were caught in the wood. Two pieces of wood which came from the limbs were recovered from the girl's head, Couch said.
In response to other questions by the District Attorney Couch said he concluded from his examination of the shoes that they made the prints found on the limbs.
"They have the same class or general characteristics. They could have been the same ones that made the prints on the limb."
He testified that he made "a positive comparison" of a tire taken from Sanders' Chevelle with pictures of a tire print found at the murder scene. The missing chunk of rubber in the tread made positive identification possible, he said.
Dirks told the jury he found blood under the sole of Sanders' tennis shoe that was type A-positive, the same as the victim's. Dirks testified that Sanders had type-O blood.
After the state rested its case Havner called two psychiatrists as witnesses for the defense. They were Dr. John Cody and his associate, Dr. Donald Tiffany, from the High Plains Comprehensive Mental Health Center. They had administered the court-ordered psychiatric tests on Sanders in June.
Dr. Cody said that during a testing session June 12th, Sanders thrashed around on the couch while he talked about the crime.
The doctor said Sanders told him "he felt he had some kind of irresistible attraction to the girl but that it was not sexual."
He said that when Sanders described the abduction and murder "all the while he was asking, 'what am I doing this for?', yet he continued to do it." Sanders told him he felt "like an outside person observing himself--almost like a movie."
"Without any feeling, no emotion, no fear, no rage, no horror. He asked her to kneel down and he began hitting her," the psychiatrist testified.
"An underlying motive, rage, a sexual desire or whatever, was totally separated from his consciousness.
"I think he felt he had only the power to watch," the doctor continued and added that Sanders told him: "I didn't kill her, I watched my body do it. I'm not that kind of person." Dr. Cody said Sanders was "psychotic." - "It's a mistake to say a psychotic doesn't know right from wrong," the psychiatrist added to clarify further.
Dr. Tiffany told the jury that his testing of Sanders showed he had an IQ of 77. He said that Sanders' IQ had dropped eight points from 1971 when he had undergone mental evaluation tests.
"A significant drop is 2.6," the doctor said.
He said that 92 per cent of the population has a higher intelligence level than a person with an IQ of 77. He described Sanders as a "psychopath."
He acknowledged that a "psychopath" in some cases does know right from wrong.
Dr. Tiffany said six hours of testing Sanders showed he was "impulsive, irresponsible, lacking in judgment, weak in self-defense capabilities, explosive and having a low intellectual function.
"He represents an individual with severe conflicts. Part of his mind knows right from wrong. The person killing that girl did not know right from wrong."
On the afternoon of October 28th, after being instructed on the law in the case by Judge Birney, the jurors retired to the jury room. Seventy-six minutes later they were back in the courtroom with a verdict of guilty on the charge of first degree murder.
Sanders raised his eyes only slightly as
the guilty verdict was read. Except for this slight sign of
recognition of what was occurring he sat slouched in his chair, his head bowed, staring at the floor as he had throughout the four-day trial.
After the verdict was returned, Sanders was taken back to the Graham County jail to await sentencing. He seemed philosophical about the trial.
"As far as a fair trial, I think the jury did the best that they could. They think I was sane at the time, Maybe I was," Sanders said.
Sanders said that the results of the trial "might have been different if a few things had been changed." He was asked what changes he was referring to and he replied: "If I wouldn't have done it."
Sanders said he was satisfied with his court-appointed attorney and said he did his best.
"The D.A. did just a hair better," he added.
"Boy, when I f--- something up I do an A-1 job," Sanders said and began sobbing as he thought about the trial.
Sanders also had kind words for the law enforcement officers during his six months in jail awaiting trial.
"Between Hays and Hill City I have never met a nicer bunch of guys. Especially Don Scott (Graham County Sheriff)," Sanders said of the time spent in jails.
"Since the first day I was arrested I haven't caused any trouble and I damn well don't expect to start now," Sanders remarked.
On November 4, 1976, he was sentenced to life imprisonment by Judge Birney. Sanders' attorney said he felt that a reasonable verdict would have been not guilty by reason of insanity and said he would appeal the conviction.