A single patrol car arrived, followed by the homicide detectives and crime scene investigators. Mike Shoman, the veteran lead detective, asked a police cadet who’d tagged along to take a good look at the dead girl. He seemed about the same age—who knows, maybe he’d recognize her.
He did. Even with all that blood.
It was Sarah DeLeon, an 18-year-old girl he’d passed once or twice in the halls of Washington High. Her cherished black Mustang was found about 2 miles away, parked up a curb by a highway underpass.
She’d been on her way home from her boyfriend Matt Uland’s house, the last night of Christmas break before Matt was due back at Kansas State. She’d left his house around 1 a.m., Matt and his mom confirmed to police. Two more minutes and she’d have made it home.
The first theory was Deleon had been killed in a “bump and rob,” where someone hits you from behind to force you to get out, then steals your car. Only the whole point of a bump and rob was to, well, rob. The mint condition Mustang had been left exactly where it’d been stopped.
Then there was what was done to her.
“The neck presents evidence of multiple stab and laceration wounds,” the autopsy stated. “Toward the front, they are more deeply penetrating until a large irregular gaping wounded area is noted, some 2-3 inches in greatest dimensions, characterized by ragged cut edges, widely opened with exposure to the skeletal muscles of the neck. The left carotid artery has also been widely opened.”
Twenty-six stab wounds in all.
No, the police realized after the autopsy, it hadn’t been a bump and rob—it’d been a butchering.
Kansas City P.D. put together a Metro-squad—involving police from every precinct, to show a restless public they were taking this one seriously. There was some talk about a jealous ex-girlfriend of Matt’s threatening to get Sarah drunk and cut off all her hair, but Shoman passed it off as catty high school gossip. Two weeks later, the squad quietly disbanded after coming up with nothing.
That winter, KC suffered through a deep freeze. Cows froze standing up, cars turned into ice sculptures, the mercury plunged to a record 23 below.
It was entirely fitting.
That’s how cold the case went.
Five years later, just across the river in Independence Missouri, 26-year-old Diana Ault returned home from watching the Super Bowl at her in-laws, 4-year-old Josh and baby Katie in tow.
Someone was waiting.
A bullet from .44 magnum revolver ripped into her neck, according to the police report. While Diana bled out across the carpet, the masked killer picked up Josh, pressed him tightly to their body, and gently deposited him into the bedroom closet. Trying to remember it years later, Josh had the awkward feeling the killer was trying to shield him from the horror. It didn’t work. Josh and his sister were sitting by their mom’s lifeless body when the police walked in, their clothes saturated in her blood.
Police left Diana’s kids with her in-laws after interviewing them. Diana’s dad Bill and her sister Sharon drove down to the police station at 3 a.m., where the detective told them it looked like “a robbery gone bad.”
Diana’s husband, Tim, was already there, having finished his shift at the post office and returned to a cat’s cradle of rippling police tape. In his statement to police, he said had no idea who’d want to hurt Diana and assured them there were no problems in the marriage.
“Wrong on both counts,” Sharon told The Daily Beast she remembers saying to police. “Diana’s marriage had been nothing but problems.”
Tim had been having an affair, Sharon told the police, with a co-worker at the post office. He’d walked out on Diana on Christmas Eve of all nights, she told them, but had come back to Diana just a week before the murder. Years later Tim would own up to the affair in court. “I was a bad husband,” he said.
Even before Tim returned home, Diana had complained about obscene phone calls allegedly from Tim’s mistress, threats about raising her kids without her, even a message she’d found scrawled on her bathroom mirror in blood-red lipstick: “thanks for the use of the bed.” A single dollar bill had been left stuffed in a glass as if it were a tip jar.
Sharon told police to check their records for the complaint she’d practically forced her sister to file just two weeks earlier. Detective Bob West found the complaint about the ongoing harassment, but the accused woman had an alibi—she’d been seen at a Super Bowl party 100 miles away in Manhattan, Kansas, the night Diana was killed. There were no other suspects, no witnesses, and no DNA evidence. There was a terrified woman, a friend of Tim’s mistress, who phoned police and told them a story that was almost unbelievable.
Maybe that was the problem.
In 2014, the 19-year-old police cadet who’d helped identify Sarah’s body 25 years earlier, was nodding off in front of the TV, when he saw her again. Suddenly Jeff Cheek was wide awake, watching a story about a vigil on the anniversary of Sarah’s murder.
It was bait, Jeff realized, the kind of thing desperate families do to smoke out new info.
Instead it ended up smoking out Jeff. It nearly consumed him.
He’d never forgotten what Sarah looked like that day. Those crazy number of stab wounds. How could someone so young have made someone so angry?
Jeff, now a corporate security consultant, tracked down Sarah’s brother and mom, and offered his services to them pro-bono. He researched new DNA techniques—maybe getting the police to test the blood evidence found at the scene would open the door to a new investigation? He put together a file on everything he learned and handed it off to Kansas City’s assistant chief of police—an old buddy from the academy.
He thought it’d end there.
Jeff told The Daily Beast how he spent the next three years pushing and prodding the Kansas City police. He put hundreds of miles on his beat-up Jeep, searching countless leads, conducting numerous interviews, and building a case that quickly outgrew its industrial size Kinko’s folder.
Jeff managed to locate that frightened woman who’d called the Independence police about Tim Ault’s mistress 20 years ago. Jamie Locke told him exactly what she’d told them, Jeff recounted.
Locke stated she was damn certain her friend murdered Diana Ault, according to Jeff. But there was something else.
Five years before she became Tim’s mistress, Locke said her friend dated a boy named Matt Uland—until he dumped her for Sarah DeLeon.
Her name was Carol Coon.
Jeff said the scariest story he heard about Carol was from a retired detective. She liked to take part in those marathon contests where everyone puts their hand on a car and the last one standing gets to take it home. Carol won twice, the last time by offering to split the car with the only other person with her hand still attached to it. On the count of three they’d both let go.
Jeff thought if Carol could be that eerily focused and win-at-all-costs for a car, what was she capable of doing for a boyfriend or to a rival who maybe stood in her way?
Plenty, Jeff heard from Locke and others.
Erin Doleshol later testified in court to what she told Jamie: Carol hooked up with a boy in high school who dumped her for Doleshol. Carol showed up in Doleshol’s driveway, she testified, where Doleshol’s shiny new car wound up covered in fish guts. Doelshol also testified that Carol used to follow her car, as she drove to her job and to Carol’s ex-boyfriend’s house.
Maggie Lovett testified that Carol invited her to a supposed Valentine’s Day party her new boyfriend, Carol’s ex, was throwing at a hotel. Carol allegedly booked a room and a stretch limo to pick Lovett up in. Carol’s friend Jamie told police they got Lovett drunk in the hotel room, before Carol asked Jamie to put on a pair of gloves. Jamie said she bolted from the room in hysterics. Maggie later testified she felt as if she might have been drugged.
Sarah and Matt came after.
When Matt dumped her, Carol was furious. At Sarah.
Sheldon Oots testified in court that Carol asked him to lure Sarah out of the house, get her drunk, and cut all her hair off. He declined.
Jamie testified that the day after Sarah’s murder, Carol picked her up in a freshly cleaned car. Jamie said Carol told her she’d cleaned up a spill. When Jamie asked Carol about a scratch on her neck, the answer was “the cat.”
Later that day Carol showed up at Matt’s house full of sympathy for his tragic loss. She was there for him, she told him. Then proved it—six months later registering at Kansas State.
Five years later, it was the same movie, different cast.
Carol managed to get Tim Ault to leave his wife and kids on Christmas Eve, but he left her three weeks later. According to several people Jeff interviewed, Carol had been telling them she was going to marry Tim and they were going to raise his kids together. According to Sharon, Carol had said the same thing to Diana during those threatening phone calls.
Tim’s brother and cousin told Jeff that Tim taken Carol shooting with the very gun used to kill Diana two weeks later. A neighbor had called the police about a suspicious vehicle lurking around Diana’s house close to her murder—a dark Mustang—Carol’s make and color. A few days before that, Carol had received a speeding ticket for going 100 mph on the highway to Manhattan—Jeff said he wondered if it was a test run? Diana had told Sharon that Carol boasted on the phone about researching Social Security death benefits in the event of her death. And one more thing—4-year-old Josh had been sent to a child therapist to see if he might remember anything more from that night. He had—a tendril of blonde hair peeking out from behind the killer’s mask.
Jeff brought everything to the police. He knew each case buttressed the other—the more it looked like Carol murdered Diana, the more it’d look like she’d murdered Sarah. And vice versa. Most of the circumstantial evidence lay on the Independence side of the river where Diana was killed. That’s where they’d charge first, everyone thought.
Everyone was wrong.
Last November, Kansas City police arrested 48-year-old Carol Heckert (maiden name Coon) for the first-degree murder of Sarah DeLeon.
If you disregarded the prison jump suit and shackled legs, Carol Heckert looked like the blonde suburban mom you’d pass in the supermarket. She was an apparently devoted mom to two school-age kids, with a house in Smithville, Missouri, that would impolitely be termed a McMansion if it was just a little bigger.
She was active in the PTA.
The arrest went worldwide. People read about it Missouri and Kansas, but in Piccadilly Circus too. “The Realtor Mom with a 25-year Murderous Secret” screamed the Daily Mail. The preliminary hearing was packed.
The assistant district attorney, Jennifer Tatum, had already wangled the most important concession from the court; the judge would allow her to bring in witnesses unrelated to the case—other girls Carol allegedly harassed, as part of a pattern of obsessive and threatening behavior. That included testimony from the other side of the river.
They trooped up to the witness stand: Erin Doleshol who’d had fish guts poured over her car, Maggie Lovett who’d been kidnapped to a hotel room, their boyfriends—Erin’s husband, a Kansas cop who squirmed a bit when identifying the wan blonde woman in a striped prison jumpsuit as his one-time high school fling. Sarah’s best friend Alice recounted a story of someone who looked like Carol showing up at Sarah’s house pretending to be a salesperson, and even Matt Uland made an appearance all the way from Montana.
“Were you surprised when Carol showed up at your house a day after the murder,” Tatum asked him.
How about when she showed up at your college?
Diana’s sister Sharon took the stand—recounting the litany of threatening incidents the weeks before Diana’s murder that frightened her enough to force her sister to report it to the police.
Then the star witness herself: Jamie Locke. The woman at the axis of both cases.
Which is about where things started to unravel. Jamie seemed lost up there. Halting, spacey, drifting. She was frankly terrified being that close to Carol again, she later told Jeff.
It didn’t help that Carol’s attorney, J.P. O’Conner, seemed way sharper than the state’s. He picked holes, presented inconsistencies in previous testimony (some of the original police statements had been given 25 years ago, so not all that surprising), and offered a serviceable alternative suspect (a boyfriend before Matt, who’d later been charged with domestic battery).
O’Conner was sharpest at summation, when he appeared almost sympathetic to the state’s lack of hard evidence. The DNA testing Jeff had fought so long and hard for had proved fruitless. O’Conner was able to stand before the judge and say: “They have nothing you honor.”
Before adding with a touch of mock graciousness:
“OK, maybe motive. But in a first-degree murder case, that’s not enough.”
When Judge Aaron Roberts announced his decision, at first it was hard to tell which way he’d rule.
“There’s no doubt Carol is guilty of abhorrent acts,” Judge Roberts began. “Harassment, kidnapping, vandalism. There is reasonable suspicion that Carol Heckert murdered Sarah DeLeon on December 28th, 1989.”
“It’s then up to the police to find the hard evidence to prove it. There’s no DNA. No witnesses. No overheard threat to kill the victim. In the absence of the kind of evidence needed to proceed to trial, I’m bound to dismiss the charges and herewith release the defendant, Carolyn Heckert.”
Sarah’s sister ran crying from the court. Her mom and brother stoically sat there before slowly rising and exiting amid their friend’s hushed condolences. Jeff who’d been nervously waiting at home, put down the phone and stared at his dog-eared file. Maybe it was fitting—a twisted case with one last twist: Carol walking free—right past a local TV news reporter who asked if she’d “murdered Sarah DeLeon?”
“No comment,” Carol said.
But here’s the thing about twists. You can’t see them coming.
Courtroom-goers noticed two people sitting off by themselves during the entire proceedings. Arching forward to hear testimony, intently scribbling down notes, occasionally peering over in the defendant’s direction.
It was only when the two of them followed the crowd out of the courtroom, that someone was able to make out the raised lettering on the gold badges clipped to their belts: