Gathered in the first-floor rotunda of the Barton County Courthouse Friday morning, Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir said the arrest of Steven L. Hanks for the murder of Mary Robin Walter over 40 years ago should bring some long-awaited justice and closure for the victim’s family, thanks to dogged efforts of his officers and other law enforcement agencies.
Bellendir, Barton County Attorney Levi Morris and Kansas Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Cory Latham and Great Bend Police Chief Steve Haulmark held the joint Courthouse news conference. Bellendir on Thursday evening announced Hanks, 68 of Burden, had been arrested in Oxford by the KBI for the January 1980 killing and transported to the Barton County Jail.
He remains in custody on a $500,000 bond and charged with second-degree murder.
“This case has been open ever since I got a law enforcement officer. I started with the Sheriff’s Office in 1982,” Bellendir said. “There’s been an irritation to the sheriff’s office that it has never been able to close this case.”
A lot of investigators have tried and were unable to solve it, he said. “My group of detectives worked very hard on this. This was a matter of the right people at the right place at the right time. I’m very proud of my officers for clearing this case.
“Hopefully brings closure to the family and brings justice to the community,” he said.
“This was a joint effort,” Bellendir said. “This is how law enforcement is supposed to work. Everybody had a small piece in it and it worked out very well.”
Morris said Hanks had his first appearance in Barton County District Court as early as this afternoon. The 20th Judicial District judge assigned to the case could set a hearing to modify the bond, and after that would be the preliminary hearing or another status hearing.
Hanks will likely be assigned a court-appointed attorney, Morris said.
As to why it was second-degree murder and not something else, Morris said the facts that they know led to this rather than anything higher or lower. But, he said the charges could be modified as the case progresses.
As far as the nature of the new evidence and whether or not DNA was involved, Morris said he couldn’t comment.
Hanks’ exact whereabouts for the past 40 years was not available, but Bellendir said they believe he had remained in Kansas.
“Several law enforcement agencies including the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Great Bend Police Department assisted the Sheriff’s Office with the investigation,” Bellendir said. Numerous interviews of witnesses and follow-ups of leads were conducted.
A long investigation
“A substantial amount of information had been gathered and a person of interest, Steven Hanks, had been developed, but the case went cold,” he said. “Law enforcement was not able to submit the case for prosecution.”
Mary Walter still has living relatives who have been made aware of the arrest, Bellendir said. But, who they are and where they live is being withheld to protect their privacy.
Mary Walter, a 23-year-old Barton County Community College nursing student, was shot multiple times with a small-caliber weapon in her trailer home at Nelson Mobile Home Park, just east of the Great Bend Municipal Airport during the day on Thursday, Jan. 24, 1980, authorities said.
Douglas Walter, 24, the victim’s husband, found his wife dead in the back bedroom where the killing occurred when he returned home from work at 6:45 p.m. that day. He had left for work before 8 a.m.
Authorities estimated the time of the shooting to be between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
The couple had a daughter, Pamala, who was 6 years old at the time. She was at a babysitter’s home and school during the day.
Hanks was a neighbor to the victim at the time.
How it went down
Over the years, numerous detectives have looked at the killing, he said.
Then, “in April 2022, while recovering from COVID, Detective Sgt. Adam Hales of the Barton County Sheriff’s Office reopened the Mary Robin Walter homicide case,” the sheriff said. “After taking a fresh look at the case, it became evident that some information had been initially overlooked and some had been added at a later date. This was unknown to the original investigators.”
After reviewing the case with Hales, he directed that the other two detectives, Detective Alex Lomas, Detective Bryan Volkelm, as well as patrol Sgt. Travis Doze be assigned to the case as time allowed. Lieutenant David Paden supervised the operation.
“The Sheriff’s Office tracked down numerous individuals that had been involved in the case in the 1980s and many interviews were conducted as far away as the Pacific Northwest,” Bellendir said. Several meetings were held with the KBI who assisted with this investigation.
In October of this year, new evidence was obtained that allowed the Sheriff’s Office to submit the case to Barton County Attorney Levi Morris for review, he said. After approximately four weeks of review, Morris obtained an arrest warrant this week.
On Thursday. KBI agents arrested Hanks at a location in Oxford without incident. They turned Hanks over to Paden and Hales to be transported back to the Barton County Jail.
“At 42 years and 10 months, we believe this is the oldest homicide arrest in the State of Kansas, it may be one the oldest homicides cleared by arrest in the United States,” Bellendir said. “This also clears the last known homicide in a non-incorporated area under the jurisdiction of the Barton County Sheriff’s Office.”
Assisting the BCSO and the KBI were: The Great Bend Police Department; Cowley County Sheriff’s Office; and police departments in Oxford, Winfield, Burden, and Everett (Washington State).