A Familiar Face

Date Published 11.01.11
It was a hot summer afternoon in Missouri.  Not as hot as the day before, when the steaming oppressiveness led the woman to accept the ride from the stranger.  She had walked to the payday loan store on Highway 291, and was making her way back home when the middle-aged man with short-cropped hair pulled up alongside her in a newer model black Jeep.  He asked if she wanted a ride.  Weather reports warned of excessive temperatures.  She lived near the center of town, not far.  This was Harrisonville, 45 minutes southeast of Kansas City but farther still in terms of feelings of small-town security.  She said yes and got in.

Later, when he was attacking her, hitting her brutally on the side of the head, the man would tell her she was stupid to accept a ride from a stranger.  He picked her up, he said, because he knew she was vulnerable.

Twenty-four hours after the attack the woman was still terrified.  She spent the night at a friend's apartment, and in the morning her friend drove her home.  But she didn't make it inside:  a black Jeep was parked outside her home.  Her attacker was in the driver's seat, waiting for her.

She called police.  They took her to the hospital, and a rape kit exam was done.  The woman told Harrisonville detectives that the stranger had taken her to his home to attack her.  She could lead them there.

The details the victim provided must have seemed familiar to Det. Stan Belk almost immediately.  She said the man shook and told her he had "palsy," and that he had retired from a government job due to medical problems.  She noticed a badge on the console of the Jeep.

When he missed the turn, he told her he needed to drop a package off at his church.  By the time they pulled into his garage, the door closing behind them, she knew she was in trouble.

"Just don't kill me," she begged him.

She struggled as he hit her repeatedly and cut her dress off with scissors.  When he retrieved a black belt and came at her she thought for sure he was finally going to kill her.  Thinking fast, she told him there would be no trouble if he said she was a prostitute.  He'd done nothing wrong, she assured him.

Astonishingly, it worked.  He gave her $100 and drove her home.

Det. Belk likely guessed the identity of the alleged rapist before he actually pulled up to 2904 Twin Pines Drive.  He knew a man who had retired in 2005 from a government job because of a similar medical condition.  In fact, a year before he'd helped the man unload a BBQ grill at this very address.  But for two reasons pulling up to Jeffrey Dean Moreland's house must have been shocking for Det. Belk.

Moreland was an ex-cop.

And the police had been at Moreland's home exactly two weeks before trying unsuccessfully to get a DNA sample from him.

He was also the main suspect in two murders.

*********

Paige Hueser had been the one to find her mother.  Nina Whitney, 75, was known as "the frog lady" to her neighbors in southeast Kansas City for the decorative frogs she kept outside her house.  On Friday, Oct. 29, 2010 Paige went over to her mother's and immediately saw something out of place --- a coat rack lying on the basement stairs.  She turned on the light and discovered her mother's body on the basement floor.

The crime scene was puzzling.  There was no sign of forced entry, leading investigators to believe Whitney knew the suspect, but she had no apparent enemies and was an unlikely target of violence.  And the scene suggested a great deal of violence.  The attack had apparently begun in the bathroom, where someone had filled the tub.  Whitney had been strangled, stabbed 22 times and, several reports allege, sexually assaulted.

Fortunately a police canvas netted a witness.  A neighbor had seen an unfamiliar man walking near Whitney's house.  He was described as a white male between 45-60 years old, around 5'8, 200 lbs, with a crew cut and glasses.  He walked with a slight limp.  The witness observed the man leave the scene in a newer model black Jeep Liberty.


Nina Whitney

The suspect didn't ring a bell with Paige.  She couldn't think of anyone who would want to hurt her mother.  A composite sketch was generated and erected as a billboard on U.S. Highway 71, a north-south route that runs through western Missouri.

In May, while driving Highway 71, Paige happened to glance up and catch sight of the looming sketch of her mother's murderer.  She had racked her brain before, but now the connection came, she said later, like a bolt of lightning.

In particular what struck her was the suspect's chin.  In the late 1980s Paige had dated for three years a police officer she met in a criminal justice class.  Her former boyfriend was charming, polite, and gentle.  Her mother had adored him, and often said over the years that Paige should have married him.  His name was Jeff Moreland.  Paige hadn't been in touch with him for decades.

But now she recognized the suspect's chin as Moreland's, and the mysterious face calling out to highway drivers, the face of the man who had brutally killed her elderly mother, as her ex-boyfriend's.

Meanwhile, a DNA match had determined that the same man who killed Nina Whitney had also killed young mother Cara Jo Roberts, 30, two years before in Harrisonville.

Cara's husband, Jeff, returned home from work on Nov. 5, 2008 to find the door open, a sign that something was wrong as the couple always made sure to lock their doors.  Jeff knew their 2-year-old son was with a babysitter.  Cara Jo had recently been laid off from her job at an insurance company, and she told Jeff she planned to spend the late afternoon putting together a toddler bed.  It was a Wednesday, 5:30 p.m., in Harrisonville, a small town with very little violent crime.  Jeff called out for his wife.  He got no reply.


Cara Jo Roberts

Water was running somewhere, and Jeff headed toward the sound, which was coming from the bathroom.  He pushed open the door.  Cara Jo lay in a bathtub filled with red-tinged water.

Jeff believed for two days that his wife had fallen in the tub.  He didn't realize until he returned to the house and saw a search warrant left behind by police referencing bullet fragments that Cara Jo had been murdered; she'd been shot in the back of the head and sexually assaulted.

Crime scene details that were released later indicated the killer had planned the attack.  A roll of duct tape was found in the bedroom, and plastic zip-ties were left in the bathroom and hallway.

A composite sketch was generated of a man seen walking quickly in the neighborhood around the time of the murder.  The sketch shares similarities with the one that would be released two years later in Nina Whitney's murder; DNA testing ultimately confirmed it was the same man.  But until Paige Hueser happened to glance up at the highway billboard of her mother's killer and think that's Jeff Moreland, her boyfriend 25 years ago, no one had a name to pursue.


The Roberts sketch, top, the Whitney sketch, bottom

Moreland's name wouldn't have made anyone's list.  He'd been a cop in the Kansas City suburb Grandview for 20 years, a former school resource officer and football coach who ran for school board and was friendly with his neighbors.  He threw a ball around the lawn with his kids.

But for a retired cop Moreland was certainly cagey about legal issues.  When detectives, acting on Page Hueser's tip, approached him on June 16 about providing a DNA sample he refused.  Then, on an exceptionally hot day two weeks later, Moreland picked up a woman in his Jeep and instead of driving her home took her to his place where he raped and beat her.  The rape victim's DNA was a match with the DNA from the Roberts and Whitney murders.

When a warrant was issued to search his home, Moreland fled to Des Moines, where he was eventually picked up and returned to Cass County jail.  He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, in addition to rape charges, and is being held on a $1-million cash only bond.

One of the issues in the Moreland story of particular interest to me is the role his medical condition might play at his trial.  While not confirmed, there's indication that what Moreland called "palsy" is actually Parkinson's disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system.

Much has been written lately about the possible disturbing side effects of Parkinson's medications, specifically the type known as dopamine agonists.  In a small percentage of patients the meds can apparently lead to excessive gambling and hypersexuality.  Affected patients increasingly engage in compulsive and risky behavior.

I won't be surprised if Moreland's Parkinson's, either the disease's effect on his brain, or the side effects of meds, is used as a strategy in his defense.  The fatal flaw in this argument is that Moreland wasn't known for inappropriate outbursts or impulsive, uninhibited sexual acting out.  Nina Whitney had changed residences since Moreland knew her 25 years ago.  He had to find her.  That takes planning, as does waiting until a young mother is home alone, breaking in with a gun, and attacking her using duct tape and zip-ties.

If anything, the medication may have triggered a different kind of gambling, one that doesn't involve money or cards.  For an ex-cop Moreland was lousy about evidence --- he left his DNA behind, and risked being seen by witnesses.  He may have developed a grandiose belief in his ability to "win," to keep escaping detection.


Jeffrey Dean Moreland

Does that mean there are other victims?  Moreland is 52, a little late in the game to develop a murder habit.  Since he fled to Des Moines, and has connections there, I would look into the murder of Hazel Reimann, 87, in Sept. 2008.  Her case shares many similarities with Nina Whitney's; both were elderly women found stabbed in their basement with no sign of forced entry.

Another potentially interesting case is the disappearance 23 years ago of a beautiful teenager from rural Creston, Iowa, just miles from where Moreland grew up and then worked as a part-time cop.  Corinne Perry, 17, vanished on April 17, 1983 after leaving a coin-operated laundry.  A man was seen walking out of the business right behind her between 8:30 and 9 p.m.

The Moreland possibility seems to have occurred to others as well.  The moderator of a Facebook group called "Share memories of Corinne Perry" posted the following message on July 12, just days after news broke of Moreland's arrest:

There has been a possible new lead, but I don't want to say much until the law enforcement officials have a chance to work through and see what comes of this.  Keep positive!




The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.