WaKEENEY — The years might have faded the photograph next to the entrance to the Ellis High School gym, but the feelings still are as strong as ever — even for some who never met Paula Fabrizius.
In 1976, the 16-year-old Ellis cheerleader was abducted and murdered by Francis Donald Nemechek. She was the fifth of his victims in a nearly two-year time span. He was convicted in 1977 and sentenced for the deaths of Fabrizius; Carla Baker, 20, Hays; and Cheryl Young, 21, her son, Guy, 2, and Diane Lovette, 19, all of Fort Madison, Iowa, who were abducted and killed after they stopped on Interstate 70 with a flat tire.
In June, for the fifth time, the Kansas Prisoner Review Board will determine if Nemechek will be released on parole or stay in prison to complete his consecutive five life sentences.
And once again, Kathleen Fabrizius is one of those leading the drive to keep Nemechek in prison.
Paula would have been her sister-in-law. Her husband, Mark, is Paula’s younger brother, by only 11 months.
“He and Paula were very close,” Fabrizius said.
“I guess it takes somebody who can step away, maybe, and deal with all this because the family shouldn’t have to go through all this,” she said Wednesday morning in her office in the Trego County Courthouse, where she is emergency management director.
“I just think they’re too close to this. It’s hard for the family to go through this — even this long after,” she said.
Paula was working as a park rangerette, checking visitor permits at Cedar Bluff Reservoir on Aug. 21, 1976. A park ranger she was paired with said he was going to get something to drink. Paula asked him to bring her some bubble gum. When he returned, she was gone.
Her nude body was found the next day at the bottom of a bluff at Castle Rock, nearly 30 miles away. She had been raped and attacked with a knife, a stab to the heart killing her.
A warranty card for a citizen’s band radio found near the bluff traced authorities back to Nemechek, who grew up in WaKeeney and even participated in searches for Paula and Baker. He was arrested two days later for Paula’s murder and soon confessed to the four other slayings:
• Baker, a pharmacy student at the University of Kansas home for the summer, disappeared June 30, 1976, while riding her bicycle. The bike was found on 27th Street west of Hall Street. Her remains were found nearly three months later at Cedar Bluff Reservoir. In his confession, Nemechek said he exposed himself to her. Her response angered him, and he grabbed her and pushed her into his truck. He attempted to rape her, but she fought back, and he stabbed her.
• The bodies of the Youngs and Lovette were discovered in January 1975 at an abandoned farmhouse in Graham County. Young’s car, with a flat tire, had been found about a month earlier on Interstate 70. Nemechek would later admit he shot out the tire and then stopped to offer help. The women insulted him, he said, angering him. He forced them into his truck with his shotgun. Lovette had been raped and both women killed with the shotgun. The boy’s body was found outside the house. He had frozen to death.
Nemechek’s February 1977 trial was conducted in Saline County. After a week of testimony and evidence, he was found guilty of first degree murder on all five counts.
“To me, he has five consecutive life sentences, that means life. He should not be up for parole,” Fabrizius said.
But she recognizes the state followed the law as it was at the time.
“Today if he did it, he’d have the hard 50. I get a lot of comments he should have been put to death. That’s not an option, either,” she said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 . A subsequent ruling in 1976 reversed that decision, but it wasn’t until 1994 when Kansas reinstated it.
Nemechek was first eligible for parole in 1991. At the time, eligibility for parole came every three years. In 1997, the Legislature passed a law giving the review board the authority to wait up to 10 years before granting another hearing. In that year and 2007 — when the board met in Hays for the first time — it decided to wait the maximum time before giving him hearings again.
That, and the fact he is still in Lansing Correctional Facility and not a lower-security facility, give Fabrizius hope the efforts to keep him in prison will work once again.
But the thought Nemechek, now 66, could be freed on parole is in the back of her mind.
“Definitely,” she said. “I had visited with people that are in the corrections profession, and they say that a lot of times those sexual-predator type killers, that type of individual, as they reach 50 and beyond, they think they’re less of a threat to society.”
But in her mind, he is not a sexual predator. Fabrizius said she has read extensively the court documents on Nemechek’s trial.
“I look at him as a killer for gratification, not necessarily a sexual predator that killed. I think that the killing is the gratification. So I don’t think that ever gets out of your system,” she said.
The 40-plus years that have passed since the killings and trial have not lessened the passion people have for making sure Nemechek stays in prison, Fabrizius said.
She doesn’t yet have a count on the number of signatures on petition forms that are spreading through area communities and even across the country through social media, but said she has received approximately 100 copies of letters people have written to the review board, and there are numerous phone calls every day.
A petition on Change.org had nearly 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
“Without that, we couldn’t get that done,” she said.
Even younger generations who were not alive at the time of the murders or his early parole hearings are signing and distributing the petition, she said.
“I have had so many messages from people who are either children or grandchildren of people who knew the family, and this has been passed on,” she said.
“I think there’s a lot of that because they watch their parents or grandparents react to what this was like and how scared the community was,” she said.
The law enforcement and prosecutors who worked on the case also continue to contribute. Fabrizius said she received a copy Tuesday of a letter from one of the four prosecutors from the trial sent to the review board.
“He talked about things the general public wouldn’t know and how killing is a gratification to this man and according to all the psychology reports, he’ll never quit. It’s amazing 40 years later you have a prosecutor that’s still that passionate about it,” she said.
“When it’s law enforcement and the people who saw the insides of the case, it really makes a difference to the parole board.”
But that’s not to say the public cannot influence them, either. In 2007, 15,000 signatures were collected on petitions to present to the board.
“It really makes kind of a profound statement to the parole board when you can land in front of them 15,000 signatures. It’s pretty hard to ignore that, especially when it’s a county of 3,000 people. So you know there’s way more than just those in the county that think this man should stay where he’s at,” she said.
Even though she never met Paula, Fabrizius said her work through the years to deny the killer parole and through pictures and stories from family gatherings, she feels a connection to her.
That connection came to the forefront just before the parole hearing was announced last week, as family gathered for the funeral of Paula’s father, Leon Fabrizius. He died April 10, and his funeral was April 14. The county attorney and other authorities worked with her to delay the hearing announcement until after the funeral, she said.
“I know when we’re all together it comes to mind, to who’s not there. It does come to my mind a lot what would be different as far as how many more nieces or nephews there might be, how many more grandkids there might be,” she said.
“We’ve gone to her high school reunion and visited with her friends, and all of them, they talk about her.
“She’s never forgotten.”