It’s been nearly 10 years since two Great Bend women were found murdered in the Dolly Madison bakery outlet store at 1004 Harrison St. Store employee Mandi Alexander, 24, and customer Mary Drake, 79, were killed on Sept. 4, 2002, and the crime remains unsolved.
Alexdander’s mother, Karen Sunderland, spends much of her time these days reaching out to troubled teens and prisoners at the Barton County Jail. On Monday she’ll be riding with some youths in the Hoisington Labor Day Parade, on a trailer decorated with collages of Mandi. They’ll be sharing a message about making good decisions, and they’ll be handing out fliers that explain the growing home ministry Sunderland calls “Karen’s place.”
In a town the size of Great Bend, Karen Sunderland hates going to stores because she’s bound to run into someone she’d rather not see. But she readily opens her heart and her home to young people. Teenagers are curious about Great Bend’s unsolved double murder, and Sunderland does share the story with them.
“I forgave her murderer before I buried her, because I felt like if I didn’t do it then I never would.” In Sunderland’s mind, the person who killed her daughter is also dead — perhaps literally but certainly to her.
In spite of a joint effort by the Kansas Bureau of Information, the Great Bend Police and the Barton County Sheriff’s Office, law enforcement officers haven’t been able to reveal much about the double homicide in the last 10 years.
The evening of Sept. 4, 2002, a truck driver stopped at the bakery store to make a delivery, and discovered Drake and Alexander’s bodies inside. Both were face down in pools blood in a small office area in the back of the store, and although the driver didn’t realize it, their throats had been cut.
Money from the cash register was missing, but Mary Drake’s purse and wallet were still on the store counter, with a loaf of bread, Sunderland said. She believes the killer robbed her daughter, killing her in the office area that was out of sight, and that Drake came in a short time later and was killed, too.
Sunderland also believes the killer was a transient who spent that night at a local motel not far from the crime scene. Later, when police released a sketch of a “person of interest” seen standing outside the store in the time frame when the murders occurred, a motel employee recalled that a man fitting that description — white male, 30-35 years old, standing about 6-feet-1 and weighing about 175 pounds, with light brown to blond collar-length hair — had checked in on Sept. 4. But when he checked out the next morning, that man had shaved his head.
That’s what authorities told the Sunderlands 10 years ago, she said. But other than releasing the “person of interest” sketch, investigators released few details on the case — not even the cause of death. Almost a month after the murders, when federal officials arrested two suspects in a series of multi-state sniper attacks, local authorities checked for a possible connection but finally disclosed the women had not been shot, but were killed with “a sharp object.”
The families were also warned not to release information, Karen Sunderland said, but after all this time she believes some of the facts need to be known.
“I thank law enforcement for all they did,” she said. “They’ve done good work, but they also made mistakes. Please acknowledge the mistakes you’ve made.”
Mandi Alexander was a single mother and had also made some mistakes, but in 2002 she had found a church. She got a job at the bakery store in August, and friends said her life was taking a turn for the better. “She was drawn back in that direction,” her mother said.
That’s what Karen Sunderland hopes to do with her ministry to teens. When they spend time together, they do fun things, or she helps them learn to cook or budget their money. She’s looking forward to joining them on Monday for the Hoisington Labor Day Parade, she said. “The theme this year is, ‘Our children, our future.’”