Rashomon meets Chinatown
About the only thing everyone agrees on is that Kansas City, Kansas police officer, John Cheek, shot Milton Foster Jr. four times at Ziffel's in Bonner Springs and killed him. Beyond this, all is murky and contested. Sorting through events that October in 1994 is like watching the classic Japanese movie Rashomon: each participant has a story to tell, and each tells it as though there were no other.
In the first trial, the prosecution's story prevailed: John Cheek was a cold-blooded killer. In the second trial, a patient, Solomonic jury wove together its own story: John Cheek was a reckless cop, guilty of voluntary manslaughter, but not of premeditated murder.
As in Rashomon, however, there is a third story. The Cheek camp tells it with surprising clarity and conviction. What follows is that very story--gleaned, as they say in the business, from "sources close to the defense." You be the judge.
On top of the world
On the night of October 29, John Cheek's stars seemed to be in near perfect alignment. He and his bride of five weeks had a beautiful house, a boat, two horses and a gleam in their eyes. In good spirits, John and his wife, his brother Jeff and some friends headed off to dinner. After some debate, they choose Ziffel's, just 10 minutes from John Cheek's house.
The Cheeks had "absolutely no idea" that Milton Foster worked at Ziffel's. They got there before he did in any case. When Foster did arrive about fifteen minutes later, perhaps after a call by the bar's owner, he headed in the direction of the Cheeks, eyed them menacingly and flexed his not inconsiderable muscle. The Cheeks noticed that Foster was armed.
The Cheeks had something of a history with Foster, but not the much reported "long-standing feud." Jeff Cheek had first run into Foster some eight months prior when he pulled him over for flashing police lights on his rear dash. When stopped, Foster had a gun but no license. He resisted arrest and was found guilty of the same. Between them, Jeff and John Cheek would stop Foster four more times. On one occasion, not atypical, John Cheek stopped Foster for driving without his lights on and issued only a warning. Foster had filed a complainst against the Cheeks which was dismissed as unfounded. As the Cheek camp contends, "Violators do get stopped."
Foster, as the Cheek camp sees it, was your classic violator. They considered him a "police wannabe," with flashers in his car and a gun in his holster, a bully and a thug. Earlier that same year Foster had been tried and acquitted for rousting a young couple from a lover's lane and molesting the juvenile girl. The Cheeks weren't the only cops on Foster's enemies list. As they tell it, Foster stalked the police officer who testified against him in the molestation case. The police were forced to stake out the officer's own house. Alarmed, John Cheek instructed his wife never to stop if an unmarked police car tried to pull her over.
So when the Cheeks saw Foster at Ziffel's that night, they were concerned. They believed his gun-toting to be illegal. A waitress verified that, yes, Jeff and John approached her to ask where the phone was. They intended to call the Bonner Springs police. They never quite did.
93 seconds of hell
Foster followed the Cheeks into the foyer. John Cheek stepped outside to see if Foster had brought along any friends. As he did, Foster karate-kicked Jeff Cheek out the front door, striking both Cheeks with his steel baton. About this time, a patron called 911. All else that follows took place in the breathless span of 93 seconds as recorded on the 911 tape.
Sensing a commotion, four or five patrons, including the bar owner, rushed out to help Foster. "This wasn't a fight," the Cheek camp insists. "It was an attack." Photos taken by the State Police of the Cheeks attest to its severity. At some point Foster pulled his gun and reputedly yelled, "I'll kill both of you M*&%$* F*&%ers."
John Cheek's wife followed the crowd outside. Foster trailed her with his gun when she emerged, scaring the bejeezus out of Cheek. She threw Cheek his keys. He opened the car door with his remote and withdrew his own pistol.
John Cheek and Foster were now pointing guns at each other. Cheek identified himself as a police officer and told Foster he was under arrest, a claim the second jury believed. In Cheek's book, Foster had committed "at least 7 felonies." John Cheek's friend and fellow officer, Greg Lawson, also pulled his gun on Foster. Both refrained from shooting at this point because there was "nothing safe about this parking lot." It was no place for a gunfight.
Foster then backed into the restaurant. A friend of Foster's told John Cheek he called 911 but a suspicious Cheek was reluctant to believe him. Cheek followed Foster inside, both now with their guns tucked away. When Cheek cornered Foster, Cheek's gun now drawn, Foster started swinging the potentially lethal baton again and grabbed for the gun. Cheek ordered Foster to surrender the gun and drop the baton. Foster did not. Cheek fired.
The 4 shot sequence
That Cheek would shoot Foster four times horrified the public and the first jury. They were unaware of Cheek's training. The first judge had not allowed testimony on this question. The second judge did. It made a difference. The KCK police weapons trainer claimed that officers, when called upon to shoot, were taught to fire four quick shots, an armed suspect being more dangerous wounded than not. Cheek had practiced this maneuver a thousand times. He took only 1.3 seconds to fire all four.
When Foster went down, Cheek disarmed him and helped an off-duty EMT tend to him. When the Bonner Springs Police arrived, he handed over his gun. Cheek himself went to the hospital, where he would spend the next two days with a concussion and other wounds, and where, to his shock, he would be arrested. This much-decorated, 11 year police veteran was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to a hard 25 in a hellish, "horrible" state pen a thousand miles distant. There was nothing redemptive about it. Cheek's was the second life to be destroyed that mystery-shrouded night.
The Cheek camp believes that if Foster had been white, John Cheek never would have been arrested, let alone convicted. Post-Rodney King, prosecutors buy racial peace at whatever price they have to pay. Foster supporters believe the opposite. In their eyes, Cheek's skin color and police connections bought him a reprieve from a first-degree conviction not accessible to a black man on the street.
But there is an unspoken something neither camp understands. Respectable Kansas City doesn't care about either Cheek or Foster, justice or injustice. KCK has become our "Chinatown," a media and moral no-man's-land, a twilight city with a murder rate fully 50 times higher than Johnson County's, peopled by stereotypic rogue cops and unsympathetic thugs. Humanity be damned. To the rest of us, it doesn't really matter which story is true. No one chooses to see or hear it anyhow. And this, finally, may be the only truth that endures.
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