Did His Dad’s Caretaker Frame Him for Her Own Murder-Suicide?
A dead woman accused of fraud. A jailhouse informant. A seemingly solid alibi. And a man stuck in limbo.
Kathleen Schroll came home from work on the evening of April 6, 2008, and got changed in the living room of her Kansas City home. The 45-year-old bank clerk left the clothes she’d worn that day in a pile on the floor beside a computer table and put on brand new nursing scrubs.
Later, at 2:21 a.m., she called her mom.
“Peter is here in the house and he said he stole the lawn mower,” she told her. “He said he is going to kill Carl and he said he is going to kill me and he said he has his tracks covered where no one will know who did it.”
There were no background noises and Schroll was not yelling, but she sounded scared. When the line suddenly went dead, her mother got a relative to call 911. Police arrived to find Schroll’s husband, Carl, shot dead in bed, and Schroll shot once in the back of the head. Both were killed with the revolver Schroll carried in her handbag, which was now lying near her left foot. There was no sign of forced entry or of a struggle.
The next morning, as he was driving his kids to school, Olin ‘Pete’ Coones was arrested for the double murder. He would later be acquitted of Carl’s murder but convicted of Kathy’s based on her late-night phone call fingering him, a longstanding financial dispute with Schroll, and the testimony of a jailhouse informant. He’s serving 25 years for killing a woman prosecutors described as a devoted friend and caregiver to Pete’s father, Olin Sr.
“We’ve never had birthday celebrations since, no Christmases, Thanksgivings. Christmases were always at Kathy’s house,” Schroll’s brother, Scott Horton, told The Daily Beast.
However, more than a decade later, Coones’ lawyers say they’ve unearthed evidence that paints a vastly different picture of Schroll as a grifter accused of embezzling money who faced scrutiny for fraud and financial abuse of Olin, Sr. The case, they say, is the latest in a string of wrongful convictions that relied on dubious jailhouse informants—a prosecution tactic that is being questioned increasingly across the country.
Everything, down to the nursing scrubs, was part of a “Machiavellian” plot by Schroll to frame Coones for what was actually her own “strategically planned” murder-suicide, attorneys from the Midwest Innocence Project and University of Kansas School of Law said. A judge in Wyandotte County District Court has granted Coones an evidentiary hearing next month in a case with outsized significance—it's the first to come from the county’s new conviction integrity unit, set up by Wyandotte’s first black district attorney.
“The state repeatedly portrayed Kathy as a devoted caregiver [and] Kathy set the scene for this by wearing brand new medical scrubs at the time of her death despite not being a healthcare worker,” Coones’ attorneys wrote in a recent petition to overturn his conviction, filed in district court. “Kathy was never a healthcare worker. She was a bank employee who used a connection to the Coones family to defraud Olin, Sr.”
Wyandotte’s District Attorney Mark Dupree declined to comment for this story, as the case is ongoing. The original prosecutor, Ed Brancart, now an assistant Kansas attorney general, didn’t respond to interview requests. But Schroll’s family were disgusted by the allegations raised in Coones' petition, Schroll’s brother, Scott, said. “It’s all bullcrap, everything was lies,” he said, adding that it was “damn straight” prosecutors nabbed the right person.
Schroll met Olin, Sr. around 2005 when she started doing regular housekeeping for $300 per month for her friend, Patsy VanVleck, and Patsy’s father, Olin Sr., a war vet with Alzheimer’s. However, after VanVleck died in 2006, Schroll appeared to begin cutting Olin, Sr. off from his family and increasingly controlling his finances, Coones’ lawyers said.
In six months, $28,421 in checks had been made out to Schroll from his account, a credit card had been opened in his name, $12,000 in cash had been withdrawn, and Schroll’s name had been put on the deed to his house. By the time the bank froze his account, out of concern he was too impaired, there was almost nothing left, according to the petition.
Coones reported Schroll to government agencies and the police, alleging neglect and financial abuse. Then, when his father died in 2007, he discovered she’d also been made beneficiary of Olin, Sr.’s $43,000 life insurance policy six months earlier—without power of attorney. A civil dispute opened up between the pair over the money, becoming increasingly bitter in the lead-up to Schroll's death.
Prosecutors argued Coones was furious he’d been cut out of his father’s estate and was mired in court battles, thus feeling the need to take matters into his own hands. But “the crime that was alleged was improbable to the point of being impossible,” Coones’ longtime post-conviction lawyer, Branden Bell, told The Daily Beast.
No physical or forensic evidence tied Coones to the scene. Plus, he had an alibi. At the time Schroll made her 2:21 a.m. call, Coones said he was at home with his wife and kids, unable to sleep and on the computer. His daughter and her boyfriend testified that Coones got up in the middle of the night as they were watching a movie and spoke with them before jumping on the computer. Usage logs showed someone was on the computer at the time using Coones’ password-protected profile.
Bell said the prosecution’s case required Coones—a 250-pound chain smoker who’d suffered two strokes and a heart attack—to have climbed out the back window, maneuvered a van blocked by a neighbor’s car, been let into Schroll’s home, allowed her to make an incriminating phone call before killing her with her own gun, and then to have left without a trace before climbing back through the window. “It just doesn’t make any sense,” he argued.
A jury convicted Coones based largely on Scholl’s phone call and the testimony of a jailhouse informant, who said Coones confessed when the pair shared a cell for two days.
What was not revealed to the jury, however, were gunshot residue tests that came up negative for Coones’ steering wheel but positive for Kathy’s left hand, consistent with firing a single shot in the back of her head. The jury also never knew that another county attorney had told prosecutors that he felt the informant was “not reliable at all.” The informant’s story was filled with inconsistencies—for example, he said Coones told him there was no gunshot residue in his van because he’d used his postal carrier Jeep, but Coones had actually sold the Jeep a year earlier when he quit work over ill-health.
Coones’ first hearing in his wrongful conviction case, which was reported on by the Kansas City Star, came on the same day state lawmakers heard from two exonerated men lobbying for more transparency in the use of jailhouse informants. Recent investigations by The New York Times and ProPublica have raised serious questions about the use of dodgy inmate testimonies, and some research suggests they’re the biggest cause of wrongful convictions in capital (or potential death sentence) cases.
Most significantly, though, the jury in Coones’ case never knew that Schroll had been embezzling money from her workplace, that detectives had found credible evidence of her financial abuse of Olin, Sr. and that the state Department for Children and Families had sent her a letter saying they’d corroborated the abuse, according to the petition. Without that, Pete’s accusations of fraud looked like the angry claims of a man cut out of his father’s estate, his lawyers said.
“One of the arguments that the prosecutor made during the trial was this couldn’t be a murder-suicide, this woman had no reason to commit suicide,” Bell said. “But what they hadn’t disclosed or what they didn’t know at the time was this woman had a lot of reasons to take her own life.” (Her family has vehemently disputed this.)
The day after she died, Midwest Credit Union found she’d embezzled $11,695 by fudging checks, according to the petition. One of those checks was said to be in her purse when she died, along with the DCF elder abuse notice and Patsy VanVleck’s wallet and death certificate.
Court filings from Schroll and Coones’ civil battle, reviewed by The Daily Beast, show that, three months before Schroll’s death, Coones had filed a list of witnesses he’d call, including two detectives, a DCF official, bank employees and a handwriting expert.
Coones’ lawyers claim Schroll framed her death as a suicide so her daughter, Blair Hadley, would still get the assets. When Coones was locked up, Hadley received Olin, Sr.’s life insurance and house, which she sold for less than half of market value.
Hadley wouldn’t answer emailed questions about the alleged financial abuse but responded with a one-line statement rejecting Coones’ case. “They… made my mom look like a crook and a liar which she isn't by the way,” she wrote.
Judge Jenny Orth Myers will preside over an evidentiary hearing in the case on March 23. Advocates for Coones hope to prove that Schroll had masterfully refashioned her own problems into a criminal justice disaster.
“The walls were closing in on this woman,” Bell said. “The gig was up.”