SHOT IN THE HEART
by Bruce Rodgers
In the early morning hours of April 21, 1991, Gregg Sevier sat
on the edge of his bed. The bed faced his dresser and mirror.
To each side, on wall pegs, were assorted cowboy hats. A $900
stereo, that he had paid off in two months with his part time
maintenance job, nudged the dresser on the right. Nearby was
his custom pool cue, colored beads covering the handle in a
feather design. It was a tidy bedroom, Gregg's possessions
neatly arranged in their place.
Within Gregg was turmoil, a
power amplified by alcohol. What he felt, or was precisely
thinking, no one will ever know. Beyond his closed door Willie
and Orene Sevier were concerned. The stereo was on and loud.
Gregg had mentioned to his father that he might be breaking up
with his girlfriend. There were fears about Gregg's emotional
state. Willie went to ask Gregg to turn down the music. He
opened the door. Willie saw Gregg holding a butcher knife at
his side. He said nothing and slowly closed the door. Not
knowing what to do, Willie spoke to his wife, Orene, who decided
to call 911. It was 2:28 a.m.
"I just wanted someone to talk
him down," said Orene. "I wasn't hysterical, Gregg was in his
room. I was afraid he was going to hurt himself. He needed
someone to talk to him."
The dispatcher asked if there was a
disturbance. Orene said "nothing was going on, nothing was
Five minutes and 27 seconds later, Lawrence police
officer Ted Bordman radioed that he was at the Sevier house.
One minute and 36 seconds later, Officer James Phillips arrived.
A few minutes later, 22 year old Gregg Sevier was dead with two
bullet wounds to the heart.
The circumstances behind the killing of Gregg Sevier are, like
the deaths of three other members of Lawrence's Indian community
in the past two years, shrouded in controversy. Despite an
investigation by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, only
theories surround the mysterious deaths of Christopher Bread,
Cecil Dawes Jr. and John Sandoval. The facts in those deaths
are yet to be uncovered.
After the Sevier shooting Officers
Bordman and Phillips were placed on administrative leave, with
pay, pending the outcome of a coroner's inquest. That inquest
was held on April 30 and May 1. Six jurors heard testimony to
determine whether the death was an accident, of felonious
intent, or a justifiable homicide. The jury ruled the shooting
justifiable but included this notation with the verdict: "We,
the jury, have concerns about how the events were handled from
the time the police arrived until the final confrontation
between Gregg Sevier and the officers."
Concerns about the inquest began before it was convened.
Lance Burr, a Lawrence attorney representing the Seviers without
pay in a possible civil rights violation suit, wrote Douglas
County Coroner Dr. Carol Moddrell requesting a postponement of
the inquest until an independent prosecutor could be appointed
to assist her. Burr, a former assistant attorney general for
Kansas, objected to District Attorney Jim Flory's conducting the
questioning of witnesses.
In the letter Burr stated that Flory
"is a former law enforcement officer himself and that he knows these
police officers quite well." Burr asked that Flory
disqualify himself. Burr also asked that the jury "see and
examine" the scene of the shooting. The jury did not visit the
Sevier house. In making the point that Flory should disqualify
himself, Burr wrote that when Flory met with the Sevier family
prior to the inquest "he (Flory) stated that while he had not
reviewed all the evidence, he had reviewed a great deal and at
the time he felt there was a 'good likelihood to find
Flory, now an assistant U.S. attorney in
Kansas City, Kan., agrees that he told the family of such a
"likelihood" but said he was taken out of context. "When asked
by Don Bread (father of Christopher Bread, whose death in March
1990 remains unexplained) whether I had made up my mind, 'I said
no, I haven't made up my mind.'" Flory states that he did not
meet with Officers Bordman or Phillips prior to the inquest. He
said he "might have met with Sgt. George Wheeler," shift
supervisor, who witnessed the shooting and testified at the
inquest, but "had no recall" of such a meeting.
Flory vigorously defends his role in the inquest. "I have no concerns
it was mishandled; it was done right and well," he says. He
says he gave the jurors all the instructions they needed to ask
questions, investigate, and go to the Sevier home if needed.
Three police reports were introduced as exhibits at the inquest.
Two, eight years apart, dealt with domestic disturbances between
Gregg and his sister Judy. One, in April 1989, was a police
call over an attempted suicide by Gregg Sevier. Flory called
those reports "relevant in background of his (Gregg's) state of
mind and approach." Burr contends that those reports are
prejudicial and not admissible in the fact finding process
dealing with the specific incident.
Though statements by Officers Phillips and Wheeler were
introduced, Flory said none of the police department's
investigative reports covering the
shooting were included as exhibits. He called this "not a
Also absent was any statement by Officer
Bordman made immediately after the shooting.
Flory stated that there was no written statement given because
Bordman "wasn't asked"; instead a "detective made notes" from an
oral interview and that report was introduced. Records from the
inquest do not indicate any such report entered as an exhibit.
Burr points out that at the time of the inquest the jurors were
only presented with a drawing of the wounds on the body. That drawing,
according to Burr, was done by Moddrell and does not necessarily
agree with the findings of Kris Sperry, an Atlanta pathologist
who assisted in the autopsy. Also, Burr said, the narrative
accompanying the autopsy drawing was not filed with the county
courthouse until after the inquest, and there are discrepancies
between the drawing shown the jurors and the narrative in the
number and location of the wounds.
Under Kansas law a driver is considered intoxicated with a blood
alcohol level of 0.10 or more. Moddrell testified that Gregg's
level was .278 and that he was standing when shot.
The functions of a coroner's inquest are limited. It is not a
judicial proceeding. A verdict is
reached, but not a determination of guilt or innocence. Burr
was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses. Though he did
challenge two jurors as to their impartiality, his role was
mainly that of a spectator.
"Mom, I love you"
Many in the Native American Indian community in Lawrence believe
that it was the questions not asked at the inquest, mainly those
dealing with how Officers Bordman and Phillips reacted to the
situation, that tainted the fact-finding procedure.
"I believe there was more a concern to vindicate the actions of the police
department rather than see what happened. The whole process was
fundamentally flawed," said Dan Wildcat, president of the Board
of Directors of the Lawrence Indian Center.
The Lawrence Police Department completed an internal affairs investigation
into the actions of Bordman and Phillips. No public release of
that report is planned, said Police Chief Ron Olin.
"We did a very careful investigation. It will not be made public. It
deals with personnel matters," he said.
Prior to receiving the Sevier call, Bordman states in the
inquest transcript, he was in the supervisor's office at the
Lawrence Law Enforcement Center. Burr, in an interview, wonders
if Bordman was being "dressed down" criticized by a superior.
That question was not pursued at
the inquest, nor was Bordman asked what his mood was before he
left for the Sevier house.
The Seviers remember being outside waiting for the police.
Orene Sevier was on the porch, her
husband standing near the driveway. Bordman testified at the
inquest that he approached Willie Sevier, who identified himself
as Gregg's father and said his son "was still in there with the
knife, that he (Willie Sevier) was concerned for him because he
was upset about his girlfriend."
In a recent interview Willie Sevier said:
"I was trying to talk to Bordman, to fill him in he
just kept walking. He didn't say anything, didn't identify
himself as a police officer."
Bordman testified that he conversed with Willie
Sevier for a "brief amount of time."
Questions about the specifics of that conversation were not
addressed in the inquest. Bordman testified he could not
remember if he saw Orene Sevier: "That's something that I can't
be certain of, as to whether she was actually in the driveway or
Orene Sevier, in an interview, remembers that Bordman "barged
right in, he didn't say anything to me. I was standing on the
porch. He walked right past me. I said, 'Gregg has been
drinking.' Bordman didn't acknowledge."
Bordman testified that he asked Willie Sevier
where Gregg's room was. He found the
door locked. At this point Bordman was asked why he didn't wait
for Officer Phillips, his backup unit, who was on the way. "My
primary concern was to get the door open and to make sure he
(Gregg) was okay and the he had not, had not wounded himself and
that he wasn't in need of immediate emergency care, and that was
why I, I approached the door prior to my back arriving; I wanted
to make sure he was all right."
A section in Lawrence police procedural
instructions states: "In the event of encountering
difficulties or violence, request assistance through the
dispatcher by the quickest means available. If possible,
refrain from further action until the arrival of assistance."
Bordman testified that Willie Sevier informed him that the lock
could be picked. He states that Willie Sevier gave him a
plastic toothpick. Bordman then unlocked the door. The
question was not asked if Bordman ever considered knocking on
the door before picking the lock, though when asked if he tried
to talk to Gregg through the door, Bordman
testified, "The music was extremely loud and there would have
been no way" to communicate.
Bordman stated that he opened the door with his
flashlight and shined it in the room. To his
recollection there were no lights on in Gregg's bedroom. He
stated that he could not see all of Gregg's body and in
following police training when dealing with someone armed,
Bordman asked "Gregg to show me his hands." Bordman stated that
he continued to repeat the command until Gregg "produced a knife
and put it into his hand and squared himself into the doorway."
Bordman testified that he then drew his revolver and realized
that Phillips was in the hallway.
With the knife was raised and "off the pinky,"
Bordman testified, he pointed his weapon "with
the flashlight underneath it and I'm going, Gregg I didn't know
what his name, I didn't even know what his name was I'm going,
drop the drop the, drop the knife, drop the knife, and all I can
remember is he's not talking back to me, he's just
going, Mom, I love you, I love you, and it seemed like we told
him that and kept repeating it and I eventually thought to
myself, well, this, this isn't working, me telling him to drop
the knife. I then began to try and talk to him. I said, Gregg I
said, we don't want to take you anywhere, we don't want to hurt
you,we just want to talk to you, and it was not much longer
after that that he said something, I don't at the initial time
that I was interviewed on this I couldn't recall what it was but
after thinking about it I think the last thing he said was, Mom,
I love you, and that is when he had the knife like this
(indicating) and lunged at me and ran at me, and that's when we
fired; that's when I fired."
Bordman stated that Gregg was four to five feet
away as he lunged at him as he was backing away
into the parent's bedroom across from Gregg's room, "I shot
Gregg because I felt that my life was in danger and that he was
going to stab me," Bordman testified.
Officer Phillips testified that he heard Bordman give the
commands to drop the knife and pulled his service pistol after
Bordman indicated that Gregg still had the knife. The transcript
states that Phillips did not have a full view of Gregg.
Phillips testified that when Gregg entered the hallway, he saw
the knife but could not see Bordman, who was backed into the
opposite bedroom. After another command from Bordman to drop
the knife, Phillips pulled his baton. From "approximately four
feet" Phillips testified, his "initial thought was to try and
use the baton to hit the upper part of his wrist and possibly
knock the knife out of his hand."
Phillips, with his weapon still drawn, put
the baton away and "I did not feel that I would
have had enough time to get in there and effect a strong enough
strike without putting myself in any further danger." With
Bordman still beyond the sight of Phillips, Phillips testified
he heard Gregg say, "Mom, I love you," and raise the knife and
start toward Bordman.
At this point Phillips fired three times.
Sgt. Wheeler was behind Phillips. He did not fire and testified
he had reholstered his pistol because he couldn't shoot past
Phillips if he "had to shoot." Wheeler, like Phillips, stated
that he could not see Bordman, but testified that Phillips "had
absolutely no option but to fire his weapon."
Willie and Orene Sevier were standing in the
hallway. "I didn't see the scene," said Orene Sevier in a later
interview, "I saw Gregg's feet sticking out of the hallway.
"Even after he was shot, to show
you how much confidence (I had in the police), . . . it didn't
dawn on me they would shoot to kill, I thought they wounded him.
I was composed. I still had confidence."
Shoot to kill
Law enforcement officials interviewed defend the actions of
police in learning to shoot at what is called "center mass" the
chest or torso of an individual.
Bordman has been a Lawrence police officer since
January 1989 and received his initial
police training at the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center in
Hutchinson. Phillips, a police officer in Lawrence for over 13
years, received his training at the Lawrence academy which the
Hutchinson center oversees.
Dan Lehr, an instructor at the center, testified at the
inquest that "the only way that we can
assure that aggressive activity is going to stop is to hit major
organs and cause the action to cease, either by blood loss (or)
a hit to the central nervous system."
He also testified that no specific defensive tactics are
taught against knife attacks, though officers are aware of a
"zone" limit in which to be cautions. Lehr called that a
"reactionary distance" of 21 feet.
He testified that inside that distance "a person advancing
towards you with a knife has the apparent ability to use
the knife against you would be a lethal threat."
Larry Welch, director of police training at Hutchinson, said that a knife
is potentially a more dangerous weapon than a gun. "People who
say officers should wrestle away a knife, have never tried to
wrestle away a knife," he said.
Welch said that the center mass policy is standard with police
departments through out the country and that drawing a weapon is
a last resort defensive decision.
"Police aren't paid to take the first round," he said.
In the Sevier case, Lawrence Police Chief Olin believes, his officers
had to consider: 1) whether their commands being issued were
being obeyed; 2) the proximity of the weapon; and 3) the
enclosed area where the incident was occurring. "The issue was,
was there an immediate threat, was the officer in danger of
The "Use of Lethal Force" section from the
general orders of the Lawrence Police Department states:
"Warning shots are prohibited. "An officer may discharge a
firearm "when the officer reasonably believes deadly force is
necessary to effect an arrest when all other alternative methods
of apprehension have been exhausted . . ."
An issue of sensitivity
Few in the Lawrence community deny that there is, at times, a
clash of cultures between the Native American Indians and the
dominant white structure. However, Dan Wildcat said that one
"can't generalize," and that it's "hard to make a blanket
characterization of the Indian community." He called the overall
atmosphere one of frustration but with a mixed reaction in how
his community members deal with city officials.
He said, "Some make an effort to work with the
city; others have tried, are fed up and think it's futile and
want to bring on more drastic action by applying political
pressure from outside of Lawrence; and some are still grieving
from past incidents and violence."
Wildcat said that he, like many others, was not expecting the
decision the coroner's jury arrived at.
Olivene Henley, a Native American Indian counselor in
Kansas City, Kan., said that there is a lot of prejudice from
"There's stereotyping that the Indian is lazy, alcoholic,
a drunk, . . . a savage to be feared. The labels are still
there," she said.
She tries to get her clients to take more interest in their
culture in order to build self-esteem while "accepting the path
that's gone on forever." Henley, a Kickapoo and SaukFox, lost
two sons to suicide.
"Suicide by police" was a phrase brought up in the
interview with Larry Welch, director of police training in
Hutchinson. Though he did not elaborate on its meaning, the
assumption is that an individual would be in a particular
emotional state and present himself in such a threatening way
that the means of his death would fall on the police officer.
Welch said there was no specific police training for dealing
with "suicide by police" situations. "Shoot if you can't
retreat. You can't worry about him using me (an officer) as a
suicide," he said. He said courses do cover abnormal behavior.
A course description list provided by Welch indicated that
"cultural awareness" is taught under a Human Relations heading.
According to Welch, the courses do not separate various cultures
in specific learning situations. "We teach officers to be
sensitive no matter who they deal with;' that's the whole
premise of the criminal justice system," he said.
Following the Sevier incident Lawrence Mayor Bob
Walters sought to address public concern about police procedures
and possible discrimination. The city commission set up a review panel of
local citizens and outside law enforcement leaders to study the
use of force and suggest policy changes. Another group, made up
only of city' residents, will hear complaints about
These steps don't satisfy Wildcat. He wants a
performance evaluation of Lawrence Police Chief Olin specifically,
his relationship to the Indian community, and a citizens'
complaint review board.
Olin said that complaints that he hasn't been responsive to
all cultures "misrepresent the truth"
and "don't hold water." He said that a citizen review board is
inappropriate, and "not in the best interest of the city or the
police department." He called that a "knee-jerk reaction" rather
than a rational way of looking at how police officers handle a
Olin also said that the city manager, city attorney
and police department are finalizing a report to respond to the
"several dozen" questions being asked by the Sevier family and
others. He did not know when that response was forthcoming.
Lance Burr, the Seviers' attorney, has called upon the new
Douglas County District Attorney, Jerry Wells, to reopen an
investigation into the Gregg Sevier killing; and Wells has
"I wasn't involved, I'm not educated concerning the
case," said Wells. "I think it would be inappropriate pending
the outcome of the FBI investigation, and I will not comment
until that report comes out."
The FBI began its investigation of
the Sevier case in early May at the request of Lee Thompson,
U.S. Attorney for Kansas. The agency will determine if any
federal civil rights laws were violated. FBI spokesman Max
Geiman said that agents will be looking into possible violations
in the use of illegal and excessive force. He said the Sevier
report should be completed in August 1991, and that agents also
have been accepting comments and information dealing with the
unexplained deaths of Native American Indians Bread, Dawes and
Willie and Orene Sevier, along with many in the
Lawrence community, await that FBI report. "At some point in
time someone must be held accountable in this community," said
Protective Son, LOVING FAMILY
The Sevier home sits in a quiet northeast Lawrence
neighborhood, an area near Haskell Indian Junior College.
The family is of modest middle class means. Willie, a former
baker and full blood Creek, now works as a custodian at the
college. Orene, a Choctaw, is an
employee with the Hallmark facility in town. The family is
tight knit but accommodating to strangers. Bitterness and anger
seem alien to this family.
The Saturday before Gregg's death
there was a ball game at Haskell. Afterwards, everyone went to
Lion's Park for a picnic for the Indian men in Operation Desert
Storm. Orene didn't see much of her son that day. She
remembers taking a nap and Gregg coming in and asking her what
jacket to wear to the picnic. Gregg, his girlfriend Rhonda,
Gregg's sister Julie, her daughter and husband Mark all went.
Gregg's other sister Judy didn't attend.
Gregg returned home with the others around 7 or 8 p.m.
"Everything seemed normal, like a normal day," said Orene.
"Gregg was talking about who all was at the picnic."
Orene started sewing, the men went to the basement to shoot darts.
Rhonda and a girlfriend left and later Gregg and Willie went to
shoot pool and have a few beers.
It was something he and his father did frequently.
Communication was building between the two.
"We would talk before I went to work," said Willie.
"Gregg told me he liked working outdoors and was looking for
a full time job." Gregg wanted a truck so he could carry around
his two Chow dogs. "Get me a truck and everybody will know me
because of my two white Chows," Gregg told his father.
Willie described his son as a "self trainer." Gregg was athletic, six
foot and slightly over 200 pounds. "He was quiet and bashful
until he got to know you, then he would joke and kid," Willie
said. Willie remembers Gregg being proud of how he looked,
"even folding his clothes a certain way."
Gregg had emotional moments. Twice, in 1982 when
Greg was 14 and in April 1990, Judy had called police over
fights with her brother. In April 1989 police had been called
to the house after Gregg cut his wrists. Orene prefers to
remember him as shy and low key, a boy who loved baseball. In
1980 Gregg was named The Most Valuable Player at the Eudora
Invitational baseball tournament.
The family sent Gregg to Oklahoma. He graduated from Sequoyah
High School, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. "Gregg had too much
peer pressure," said Orene. "Getting out for a time, away from
Lawrence, helped him grow."
Gregg was getting involved in Indian tradition and
ceremony. Sometimes at night he would sit at the gazebo at
Haskell beating a drum and singing Indian songs with other
Native American Indians.
Willie said Gregg was very protective
of the family. In 1990 while Gregg, Willie and son-in-law Mark
were at the Indianapolis 500, Gregg caught a man going through
their belongings. The man pulled a gun and held it to Mark's
head. Gregg wrestled the loaded gun away, pinned the man to the
ground and held him until the police came. Thinking of that
incident, Willie calls the way Gregg died "unbelievable,
Before Gregg's death, he gave his father an eagle
feather. An Indian woman had given it to Gregg for protection.
It had been through "ceremony." Willie tied the feather to his
car mirror. After his death, the Seviers "smoked the house by
burning cedar. "To keep away evil spirits," said Willie.
"In the Indian world there is good medicine and bad medicine." In
the ceremony an eagle feather is waved pushing the smoke
throughout the house and on to the people living there.
At the funeral, a friend, Henry Collins, gave Willie a spirit stick to
signify' Gregg's spirit. He also gave Orene a white eagle
feather for protection. "In the Indian world the spirit is
alive; Gregg is still with us in spirit," said Willie. "I keep
the stick with me all the time."
Gregg is buried on his grandmother's land in Oklahoma near
Hitchita, which means "look" or "see" in Creek.
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