One of the blackest deeds in the modern criminal annals of Kansas; that's how the Wichita Daily Eagle described the fire that destroyed the records in the Harvey County Register of Deeds' office vault on March 23, 1893.
What followed was a wild series of events, and a veritable legal circus, recounted by Newton City Manager Bob Myers at Bethel College Life Enrichment on Wednesday.
Describing "Harvey County's Foulest Crime and Greatest Legal Battle," Myers outlined plenty of details that escalated the situation, from the Harvey County Commission offering a $2,000 reward for the apprehension of individuals in relation to the fire — eventually collected by sitting Wichita Chief of Police Rufus Kone — to the hiring of the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency of Chicago.
Kone brought two individuals forward for arrest on July 31, 1893, including Wichita's George Shirley and Newton's George W. Rogers, both of whom Myers said were characterized as "gamblers, sure thing men and jointists (those who operate liquor joints)."
Rogers held several jobs in his time, including being a lender of short-time papers — this, Myers noted, being a precursor to payday loans — and was worth $40,000 (or $1,000,000 by current standards). Through the failure of payment on a short-time loan to George Holmes, Rogers came to own the abstract records, which were the only real estate records in the county outside of the Register of Deeds office.
The county approached Rogers about using the abstract records to restore its own, but he was asking no less then $20,000 when an independent party had valued the records at $500.
Once Rogers was arrested for the crime of burning the Register of Deeds vault, a trial was scheduled and a preliminary hearing was held on Aug. 10, 1893, with things getting interesting quickly.
"The legal maneuvers began immediately," Myers said.
After the state moved the defense identify its witnesses immediately so they could be sequestered, lawyer for the defense Cyrus Bowman began to inspect the courtroom at the county courthouse and stated fear regarding the safety of the floor, asking if there were any construction workers who could inspect the supports.
While it was a ploy to remove the witnesses from the courtroom without having to identify them, some individuals took Bowman seriously and found fault with the support, leading to a change in venue. Once the hearing began, though some of the testimony against Rogers and Shirley was questioned, a trial and bond ($5,000) was set for both individuals.
Bond was posted for both Rogers and Shirley and in Dec. 31, 1893, it appeared that Shirley had fled the country to South America. While the individual who posted his bond, Jay Wright, put up an award for his return, the legitimacy of his intentions was called into question and even characterized as a scam when he tried to get Harvey County to add $10,000 to the award he was offering.
As the trial proceeded, Mickey Slade testified that Shirley had hired him to burn the Register of Deeds records and Rogers was convicted on March 2, 1894, and sentenced to five years in the state penitentiary — after Rogers was assured he would be acquitted by a spiritual medium.
Motion for a new trail was brought forward by defense lawyer Ed O'Brian on the grounds that Kone had tampered with the jury, but the motion was denied. More shenanigans ensued as a counterfeit bond attempt from O'Brian was blocked by Harvey County on May 11, 1894.
In February of 1895, though, the Supreme Court overruled the indictment and sent the case back to trial — though this time the proceedings were moved to Hutchinson.
"Part of the change of venue was due to local public outrage," Myers said.
Once the new trial began, more hijinks followed with it as Rogers acted ill while trying to put off the testimony of Slade, who was in Harvey County on a bond from Iowa for a limited time. A deal was worked for the county to continue holding Slade for the duration of the trial, but Rogers continued his charade — being brought into court on a cot multiple times and even feigning an inability to speak for himself.
"He was so weak that he could only speak in a low voice and his attorney had to repeat his testimony," Myers said.
Typical of the wild proceedings, closing arguments in the trial lasted eight hours over two days, but Rogers was convicted and sentenced to five years in jail again, with the Supreme Court upholding this second ruling and brining an end to the "greatest legal battle" in county history.