Over the course of almost 25 years, the 1982 murder of David Harmon became the most spell-binding crime story in the history of Olathe.
Harmon, 25, was beaten to death with a crowbar. While sleeping in his bed, he was struck 12 to 14 times with such force that one of his eyeballs was knocked from its socket and ended up on the floor several feet from the bed.
When the beating began, his 24-year-old wife, Melinda Harmon, was in beside him in the bed. Wielding the blows was Mark Mangelsdorf, a man with whom Melinda Harmon had become intimate.
The crime should have been solved in a few days, but it took 24 years to bring the perpetrators to justice.
During that time, both Melinda Harmon and Mark Mangelsdorf went their separate ways, married (he twice), had children and put the events of Feb. 28, 1982 behind them.
Tomorrow, after nine years behind bars, Melinda Raisch will be released from a Topeka prison.
Kansas City Star police reporter Tony Rizzo had an excellent story about Raisch’s pending release in Monday’s paper. Rizzo has followed the story over the years and understands how it deeply resonates, particularly in Johnson County.
Over the years, the story has received national attention, including being the subject of a compelling book, “A Cold-Blooded Business,” written by Marek Fuchs, a former reporter for The New York Times and now a writing teacher at Sarah Lawrence College.
Because of space constraints, Rizzo was not able to explain why it took so long to solve the crime.
The thread that linked David and Melinda Harmon and Mark Mangelsdorf was the Nazarene Church and MidAmerica Nazarene University, then MidAmerica Nazarene College, in Olathe.
The Nazarene Church, or its teachings, also may have held the key to the motive, too. Fuchs suggests in his book that, to Melinda and Mark, murder may have been preferable to Melinda seeking a divorce from Mark. The Nazarene Church strongly discourages divorce.
In 1982, Olathe was not the booming suburban city that it has become. It was, frankly, a podunk town along I-35 that was only distinguished area-wide by the presence of the Nazarenes and their college.
Melinda Harmon’s father, William Lambert, was a high-ranking official with the Nazarene Church, and it was he, ultimately, who thwarted the police investigation.
Full of swagger and self-importance, Lambert so intimidated detectives and an assistant prosecutor that, after three cursory interviews with Melinda, police quit trying to get more from her. Largely because law enforcement officials deferred to Lambert, Fuchs wrote, “The investigation had been a board-certified disaster.”
Melinda’s cover story — incredibly lame, as the police recognized — was that two black men entered her and David’s apartment and demanded that David turn over the keys to a bank where he worked. The men then killed David and knocked her to the ground, leaving a slight bruise on her cheek.
Wanting to interview Melinda at length, Detective Roger LaRue and another investigator went to a home where Melinda and her father were staying after the murder. Melinda agreed to go to police headquarters for an interview, but Lambert announced he was coming along.
Here’s how Fuchs, in his book, describes what occurred next:
When the group got to police headquarters, stashed in a building with other city offices, they took the elevator to the fifth floor. When they stepped off the elevator, LaRue attempted to separate Melinda from her father.
LaRue told Lambert, “Melinda’s going to have to be questions closely. And read her rights.”
“The hell she will,” said Lambert. “She’s coming home with me and right now, you bumbling pieces of shit,” he said, advancing at LaRue, pushing a forefinger into his chest, again and again and again.
At that point, an assistant district attorney rushed out of a nearby office and worked out a compromise, allowing Lambert to be present for the interview. Fuchs wrote that during the standoff with Lambert, Melinda “observed the events around her passively, like a bystander at an accident.”
Before the interview began, LaRue informed Melinda she was a suspect. With that, Lambert grabbed his daughter by the shirt, walked her to the elevator, and they left the building.
And, until two cold-case detectives approached Melinda at her Ohio home in December 2001, she was not interviewed again.
That 2001 interview, which Melinda Raisch willingly agreed to, set the stage for her subsequent first-degree murder conviction and Mangelsdorf’s plea to a charge of second-degree murder.
In 2006, each was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison. David Harmon’s father, 83-year-old John Harmon, was at first pleased with the plea deal but changed his mind after learning that both defendants would be eligible for parole in less than six years. “In a real sense, she destroyed my family,” Rizzo quoted Harmon as saying.
Raisch, now 57, is planning to return to Ohio, provided that Kansas and Ohio officials approve.
Mangelsdorf, 55, is eligible for parole in May 2016.
In every Kansas Department of Corrections mug shot I have seen of Melinda Raisch, she is smiling. Below are corrections department photos from 2010 (left) and from a few days ago.
Accompanying an early mug shot of Raisch in Fuchs’ book is this caption: “Always smiling, she invested in presenting a good front.”
It’s just another oddity in a wholly confounding and ultimately frustrating case that many Kansas City area residents will never forget.