WICHITA, Kansas July 25, 2007 – It's happening more and more in Kansas. Police are charging a suspect with murder when a body cannot be found.
The latest case involves a Wichita man who went missing back in March. Today, the suspect in his murder appeared in court. At the same time, a jury is deliberating in southwest Kansas, even though a body could not be found there.
Thirty-six-year-old Tony Epps was an involved father of two young boys. But that ended on March 21st. That was the last time his family saw him alive.
"You always have that hope that since he hasn't been found that he's going to come back alive, you know,” Emily Epps, victim’s mother, said. “That hope is always there."
Now, police confirm what the family suspected all along. Their son is the victim of murder.
"Even though we have not located his body through our investigation, we believe that Mr. Epps was murdered," Capt. Randy Landen, Wichita Police Department, said.
So even without a body, police say they have enough evidence to charge 31-year-old Jeffrey Salas with first-degree murder. Detectives say Salas, who also goes by the last name Hopper, and Epps were involved in criminal activity.
"A life has been lost, regardless of what the situation is, a life has been lost." Latoshia Holmes, victim’s sister, said. "Two children lost their father. We lost our brother. My mother lost her son. He's a good person. I don't care what they tell us he did. They can never change the good heart he had."
The Epps case will move forward, even without his body. In the past, that was something that rarely happened. Recently, it's becoming more common place.
Buddy Jones is in jail awaiting trail in the disappearance of Michelle Rawls.
In Butler County, Franklin Herrod went missing in 1997. His wife and another woman pleaded guilty in the case, even though his body was never found. A trial for a third man charged in the crime ended in a mistrial.
In Stanton County in southwest Kansas, there's no trace of Michael Golub's body. But now, the murder case is in the hands of a jury.
Jack Focht knows all about prosecutions without a body. He argued the precedent-setting case of State vs. Payle back in 1971. In that case, the victim's body was also missing.
"It was the first one in Kansas, and we think it was the first one in the country," Focht said.
Since then, only a handful of people in Kansas have been charged with murder when there is no body to use for evidence. One of the reasons is the cases are harder to investigate.
"It's a slower process because we don't have the body, which reduces the amount of physical evidence we have in these types of cases," Landen said.
Plus, trying the case gives the suspect an instant defense.
"It really is the classic circumstantial-evidence case, and as with every circumstantial-evidence case, it creates the great risk of the conviction of an innocent person," Dan Monnat, defense attorney, said.
For the family of Tony Epps, it doesn't matter that their son's homicide will now be one of the rare cases in the state's history. All they know is, he's dead, and they still haven't had the chance to say goodbye.
"We don't get that last time to kiss his check, or touch his hand – nothing,” Holmes said. “We can't hear his voice again. We can't argue with him – nothing. It's all gone.”
WICHITA, Kansas, March 26, 2007 – Family and friends of Tony Epps are posting fliers with his picture anywhere they can.
"His children need him, we need him to come home," Latoshia Holmes, Epps sister, said. "We miss him so much."
The 36-year-old father of two has been missing since last Wednesday.
"It's tearing me apart because I can't imagine being without him," Ruby Hollimon, girlfriend, said.
Wednesday afternoon, Epps went to see a friend, then didn't come home and hasn't shown up for work since.
His family tracked his cell phone and found the last call was made at 5:55 p.m. Wednesday. Just before that, he called his girlfriend.
"He called me at 4 to basically tell me he didn't like my haircut," Hollimon said. "That's it. That's the last I heard from him."
The cell-phone company tracked the phone to this restaurant near Kellogg and Rock. There, his car was found locked up, cell phone inside, but no sign of Epps.
"There was nothing else," Holmes said. "That was it. That was the last clue we have."
As the days go by without any word, the family says they realize there's a possibility they might not find him alive.
"He's a good person," Holmes said. "He doesn't drink, doesn't do drugs. He's a good father. We couldn't picture our lives without him. I don't want to believe that, don't want to believe yet, but we have to think about that now. He has two little boys that he was so close to we don't know."
Detectives here at city hall told KSN the disappearance is suspicious, but as of now, it's filed as a missing person case.