4 dead in shootings at Hesston, Kan., business

Feb 26, 2016 by and

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This story has been updated with additional details.

Three people were killed and more than a dozen injured in a series of shootings Feb. 25 in Newton and Hesston, Kan., that culminated at a Mennonite-owned business in Hesston.

Hess­ton police chief Doug Schroeder, a member of Alexanderwohl Mennonite Church in Goessel, confronted the shooter and killed him when he returned fire.

Excel HesstonCedric Ford of Newton, a worker at Excel Industries in Hesston, killed three people inside Excel and wounded 14 others — at least five critically — before police chief Schroeder fatally shot him a little before 5:30 p.m.

Excel produces lawnmowers and is owned by the Mullet family. A Hesston Mennonite Church representative said Excel president and CEO Paul Mullet’s family has a long history with the congregation. His brother Bob is vice president at Excel and a member of Whitestone Mennonite Church in Hesston.

“The Excel family is deeply saddened by the horrific event that occurred yesterday,” Paul Mullet said in a statement Feb. 26. “Our hearts go out to our employees and families who are enduring this tragedy.”

Those who died were Renee Benjamin, 30; Josh Higbee, 31; Brian Sadowsky, 44; and the shooter, Cedric Ford. Sadowsky’s memorial service is 2 p.m. Friday at First Mennonite Church in Newton.

Hesston College was on lockdown for a little more than an hour, though Ford did not pass by the campus, located about four blocks away.

A Bible and candle sit on a table in the Hesston Mennonite Church library, where people gathered for prayer throughout the day Feb. 26 after the shootings at Excel Industries.

A Bible and candle sit on a table in the Hesston Mennonite Church library, where people gathered for prayer throughout the day Feb. 26 after the shootings at Excel Industries. — Paul Schrag/MWR

The campus community gathered the evening of Feb. 25 at Hesston Mennonite Church for an update from President Howard Keim, and a prayer ser­vice led by Keim and campus pastor Todd Lehman for the shooting victims, their families, the Excel community and the entire Hesston community.

A Hesston College news release noted a “long history of close friendship and partnership” between Excel and the college.

Close call in Newton

Ford shot and wounded two people in cars with an AK-47 type semi-automatic rifle in Newton before stealing a vehicle at the edge of town, driving to Hesston and shooting someone in the Excel parking lot.

Edna Bartel Decker, 74, a member of Hesston Mennonite Brethren Church, was the first to encounter Ford when the ordeal began in Newton. He forced her vehicle to stop and ordered her to get out. When she refused, he raised a gun and fired a shot at her windshield. She laid down on the seat, his shot exited the rear window, and she departed the scene in her vehicle when other vehicles came by.

“He probably thought he hit me, and that’s probably why he walked away,” she told MWR. “My body went flat, and he was aiming straight at my head. The bullet went through the windshield straight at my head.”

After checking for blood and not finding any, Decker sat up and saw him working with his gun. She said she drove her vehicle in reverse for about a hundred feet but was shaking too much, so she turned around and returned south through neighborhoods to lose him before parking at ­Koerner Heights Mennonite Brethren Church to call 911 and a family member.

“I almost felt guilty that I ­wasn’t injured. Does that sound crazy?” she said. “You survived and others didn’t. …

“I’ve asked God that, I really have. I’ve thanked him tremendously for his angels protecting me and him being there for me, but I’ve also said I was ready to go. Some others may not have been. But I’m a born-again Christian, and I know where I’m going.”

By Feb. 29, Wichita hospitals reported two patients remained in critical condition, another in serious condition, while others had been upgraded to fair.

How it could happen

Harvey County Sheriff T. Walton said Ford was served a protection from abuse order Feb. 25 in the Excel plant. He said it was filed south of Harvey County in Sedgwick County. The Wichita Eagle reports it was filed by his live-in girlfriend, who accused him of assault and being “an alcoholic, violent, depressed. It’s my belief he is in desperate need of medical and physical help,” she wrote in her petition.

Walton said Ford got the order at 3:30 p.m., and “at 5 o’clock we get the first shooting. . . . They said he was upset, but nothing greater than anyone else who gets served a PFA.”

In addition to the rifle, Ford was also carrying a .40 caliber Glock handgun. Sarah Jo Hopkins of Newton, mother of two children with Ford, is facing federal charges of purchasing both weapons at a Newton pawn shop and transfering them to him. She is alleged to have known him to be a convicted felon.

Walton said chief Schroeder confronted Ford near Excel’s front office area.

“That particular officer is a hero in all of this. There were probably 200 more people in the building when this happened,” he said. “He was not going to stop shooting. He only stopped because that officer was there.”


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  • Bruce Leichty

    We are reeling from this tragedy in a town closely associated with our people, but of course there are an increasing number of such horrifying events in our nation, even where we don’t have personal associations. We deeply lament such violence and mourn with the families of the shooting victims, once again. Good reporting is at a premium after an incident like this; we must always hope to learn something from such events — and not just how to “bulk up security” to an even greater degree. Some will say that these events are just unpreventable. Maybe so. Having just represented an individual with a long history of mental illness who was served with a restraining order — somewhat unfairly I thought because there was no history of violence — I hope MWR continues to report the facts and investigate the causes. Was a restraining order the only and best option? Did this individual already feel victimized by the courts or society? (not saying he was, or that any such feelings would have been justified, but sometimes we have to deal with people as they are, not how they should be.) I have not seen anyone report on what happened in Newton, my former place of residence, where it seems likely that the domestic problems arose and court proceedings took place. Without in any way excusing the actions of Mr. Ford, it is a tragedy that this man did not get the help he needed, in time.

    • Jacob Landis

      Hi Bruce, Responding to the restraining order piece, a local news station reported that there was violence in the relationship causing the need for the PFA. It has also been discovered that Mr Ford has a long history of criminal activity in Florida, so likely he was feeling victimized by the courts and judicial system. These too common events are a good reminder to care for those most neglected in the communities around us. http://www.kwch.com/news/local-news/PFA-served-against-shooter-before-Hesston-mass-shooting/38209558

      • Bruce Leichty

        Thanks for the additional detail, Jacob. Someone with a long rap sheet may well deserve it. For me, no one should feel victimized unless he or she didn’t get a fair shake in the system. That doesn’t necessarily include all black men, but the judicial system in many counties can be skewed against poor black men (or women). Also poor or working class people in general. Some are coerced into pleading guilty through poor representation, or more rarely they get pled into a more serious crime than what they actually committed. Attorneys don’t organize or put on the kind of defense that more affluent clients get. Some are set up or fingered by more favored accomplices. And some really did the crime, so they have to do the time. Which one best describes Cedric Ford, I do not know, but the outcome here was horrific.

        Somewhere along the way, there may have been societal failure, we could even call it sin. And there has been individual sin on the part of the shooter irrespective of the societal failure. Some sin is a function of our humanity, and some is preventable. I agree very much that we have to care for those most neglected in our communities, and I would gently suggest that Mennonites have largely neglected the judicial and legal dimensions of that duty to care, and have failed to make sure the system is fair and accountable — partly through not supporting enough “good information” which means having conscientious media — and perhaps also in not making sure that there are good rehabilitation options for criminals, not to be naive about the prospects for rehabilitation in some cases. What a terrible circumstance to be faced by Police Chief Schroeder as well. More than feeling heroic I would imagine that as someone steeped in Mennonite teachings he is feeling anguished about what he thought he had to do and about his inability to “keep the peace,” so we need to keep him in our prayers, too.

  • Keith Wiebe

    I was told today (by someone in that congregation) that the daughter of the shooter and ex wife are attending a mennonite church in Newton and perhaps Edna is attending the same church. The first three shootings occurred very close to where I work.

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