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Home » News » Community remembers crime as parole hearing nears

Community remembers crime as parole hearing nears

Community remembers crime as parole hearing nears

Jan. 20, 2012

By Mary Pechar
newsdesk@lstribune.net

As 1975 dawned, the lives of two Lee’s Summit families were forever changed and the community of 14,000 was forever changed.

Sheila Curtright, 14, a freshman at Lee’s Summit High School, was spending her New Year’s Eve babysitting for 2-year-old Jeffery Berger. As was their practice when she babysat for someone new, Sheila’s parents had talked with Jeff’s parents, friends of a friend and were comfortable with the situation. What they didn’t consider was the man living on the other side of the Berger’s duplex.

The Bergers were celebrating the new year with a dance at the Community Center, as was their neighbor, James Love, 25. Shortly before 11 p.m., Love left the dance to take money collected there home for safekeeping. Around 11 p.m., a friend of Sheila’s called her at the Berger home. Sheila cut the conversation short because someone was at the door.

A short while later, the same friend called again but received no answer. Then, Sheila’s mother tried calling the Berger home and also received no answer. After numerous tries, her parents headed to the Bergers to make sure everything was OK.

What the Curtrights found, they would relive over and over through numerous trials, appeals and parole hearings.

As they drove up at approximately 11:45 p.m., they noticed smoke coming from vents near the eaves of the duplex. Mr. Curtright had worked with the Kansas City Fire Department and knew how to respond and ultimately how to preserve a crime scene.

After breaking down the front door, Mr. Curtright proceeded through the living room into a kitchen awash in carnage. He quickly told his wife not to touch anything and to go get help, the fire department, paramedics and police. After finding Jeff with no pulse, he focused on trying to keep his daughter alive.

Paramedic-Firefighter Charles Wycoff and EMT Driver Joe Dir soon took up the fight, and after bringing Sheila back once, they quickly transported her to what was then Jackson County Hospital now Truman Medical Center East. Despite their efforts, Sheila died.

It took less than 45 minutes to destroy lives and change families forever.

A short time later, James Love – who had returned to the dance and left for a second time – was arrested and ultimately charged with two counts of murder in second degree.

Rather than sentence Love to life sentences, he was sentenced to 150 years on each of the charges – 300 years total, and he wouldn’t be eligible for patrol for 100 years. But then the laws changed.

It would be hard to find one of the 14, 000 residents living in Lee’s Summit in 1975 that doesn’t remember or feel some impact on their lives.

In 1975, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp was in high school, older than Sheila but younger than her brother.

“This happened to all of us,” Sharp told the LS Tribune. “The memories still haunt a lot of people. When my daughter wanted to babysit, she didn’t understand our scrutiny of who and where and when.”

“He’s a sociopath,” states Lt. Detective Robin Wycoff with the Claycomo Police Department. Wycoff, a former officer with Lee's Summit Police Department and member of the Metro Squad, still has vivid memories of a case he didn’t work.

Prior to the New Year’s Eve murders, Love was arrested in the murder of his landlady but released on a technicality.

“With Love, it’s all about me and all about now,” Wycoff said. “Just because you make him mad, he pulls out a gun and shoots you. I don’t believe you can change people with that type of mindset. He had reflection time, time to plan and then act.”

Former Paramedic Charles Wycoff has carried Sheila with him ever since that night.

“As I reached across the small kitchen, I could see Shelia was still alive, and she too reached out for my hand,” he said.

“She was able to grasp the first two finger of my right hand. She was able to squeeze them. At this, she became my child.”

You would hope that after almost 40 years, the family would be able to find some small sense of closure. They find strength in each other and together face the impact of the changes in law which made Love eligible for parole in far less than the 100 years. Not more than 15 years later, they began to attend bi-annual parole hearings. Now, it’s every four years. The families relive the nightmare over and over again.

Some years they sit in the same room with him. Others, he is separated. Each time they explain to the Parole Board about the cool detachment that tore their lives apart and changed a community.

James Love’s next parole hearing is scheduled for Feb. 16. The Board has told that family that letters make a difference. Please add your voice to the plea to keep James Love behind bars.

Send your letters to Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, Attn: Chairman Ellis McSwain, 3400 Knipp Dr., Jefferson City, MO 65109.




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Comments

  1. Charles Wycoff says:
    January 21st, 2012 at 04:50
    It's interesting to finally see so many pieces placed together. Each of us working this scene had his or her own vivid memories. Called as a wittness by J.D. Williamson the District Attorney I remember the determined faces of the Curtright male family members. When asked how they thought the case might turn out; reportedly one softly said; "It doesn't make any difference". The meaning was clear.
    I know most of the different faiths of the world ask; What kind of mercy we would like on judgement day? All I can say, is after four decades of the indoctrination of fear and hatred of a prison, how does one relate on the other side of the 'walls'. Perhaps James Love would find prison easier and mayby safer then outside.
  2. JC Conners says:
    January 21st, 2012 at 05:16
    What exactly was the change in the law that allowed him to be eligable for parole so soon with a sentence that long? Also, was he sentenced to consecutive, or concurrent sentences? And one last thing, even when the law changed why was it retroactive? I feel it shouldn't have affected him since he had already been sentenced before the change. I feel for both families. God Bless
  3. Earl Connors says:
    January 21st, 2012 at 05:19
    I worked the case and photographed the scene. I went to Fulton and talked to Loves examiners and was told he would kill again with opportunity.
    West Memphis PD considered him a suspect in a 1974 homicide while he was there on leave from his job at Bendix. He has been diagnosed as a sociopath.
  4. Carol Perry Hawkins says:
    January 21st, 2012 at 08:10
    Shelia and I went to school together at Pleasant Lee Junior High at that time, and road the bus together, usually sitting together. Before Christmas break we were learning self defense in PE class and Shelia was my partner. She had very long fingernails and was always scratching me by accident. On New Years Day when I heard of the incident, my first question was, "How bad did Shelia scratch him?"
    Shelia was one of the sweetest, kindest, soft spoken person I had ever met in school, always concerned about everyone else.
    I think of her so often, ecspecially on New Years Eve.
    He took one of the good ones from this world!!!
  5. Floyd (Andy) Bowlin says:
    January 21st, 2012 at 11:42
    My family went to church with Sheila and her family. We would play tag after church. I had a huge crush on her and we had a blast running around the church yard! I hope Love rots in prison.
  6. Jaqui A Barney says:
    January 21st, 2012 at 18:50
    I remember thah night. I lived a block away. I remember the flashing lights and the the road being blocked. We found out the next day that it was Sheila, a girl that we knew from school. It was sad and terrifiying and I had been babysitting that night too. I didn't babysit anymore after that
  7. Rene' Bond says:
    January 22nd, 2012 at 02:48
    I grew up with Sheila's brothers and remember that night like yesterday. Why do we let killers out of jail after the first time they kill, they never change. It's to bad it took another killing of two inncent kids to get him in prison, hopefully for good. Should have killed him after he killed the first time. An eye for an eye! Good luck Curtwright family, you are in my thoughts and prayers. I will write a letter. Hopefully everyone else who remembers will too.
  8. Barbara Ward says:
    January 22nd, 2012 at 04:10
    I remember this like it was yesterday, My parents never let me babysit on New Year's Eve after that, not even if it was someone we knew. This incident changed everyone in Lee's Summit at that time, they were a little more suspicious of single men. If they lived around places where girls were going to be babysitting, the parents wanted to know more about them before they left their daughters alone around them.
  9. Patty Ruark English says:
    January 22nd, 2012 at 04:23
    This brings me chills even after all this time. I was babysitting a block from where Shelia was that night. The little boy's family also went to our church. I was watching three of my young cousins and I had nightmares of what would have happened if he had come to a different duplex that night. Such a sad thing to happen and affected many of us that went to school with her.
  10. Mandy Webb-Malm says:
    January 22nd, 2012 at 05:02
    There is not a New Years eve that goes by that I dont think about Shelia she was a great friend of our familly. I remember going to babysit with her sometimes. She is truly missed to this day. Shame on that person who ruined two families. Love you Shelia.
  11. Dennis E. Postel says:
    January 22nd, 2012 at 21:01
    I was a member of the Lee's Summit Police Department and my assignment was to secure an outside perimeter. I knew James Love from high school and recall speaking to him as he was rambling about the crime. I immediately apprised a detective of Love's ramblings.
  12. Kimberly Starlin Fanning says:
    January 23rd, 2012 at 01:12
    We lived across the street from the Curtwright family and rode the bus with Shelia.Our lives changed because we didnt know things like this could happen.We were so scared and so sorry for her family.Me my sister and brother spent the next 4 years sleeping with my mother.I think about her and her family every New Years Eve.This also has had alot to do with the kind of parent I am.Everyday I tell them I love them and I always check on them over and over wherever they are.So in a sense Im still scared.No one should ever be released that could do this to a family and a community!
  13. Sherry Williams Honer says:
    January 24th, 2012 at 14:22
    I was a Jr. in high school had just gotten my drivers liecense in October. That rocked Lee's Summit hard. To my knowledge nothing so brutel had ever happend. Lee's Summit was a safe place. Never again. My parents would not let me go out alone after that I had to have a friend. I had never babysat and after that I knew that I never would. Years later I got the great gift of meeting Carol thru my son at Prarie View Elemetary where she worked and I drove a bus. Carol became the aide for my bus. Carol and her family don't deserve to have to go thru this every 4 years nor does the Curtwright family. James Love is an evil person with no since of remorse why the judge did not give him life is something I hope haunts him as much as it does my friend Carol
  14. Rashelle says:
    January 25th, 2012 at 17:54
    This story is devastating and so horrible for both families. There's a lot of mention about Sheila and her family, but please let's not forget about the Burger family and their loss as well. As a mom of a 2-year old myself, I can only imagine the pain that Baby Jeffrey's parents must be going through and for both families to have to relive this every 4 years is so unfair. My heart goes out to BOTH families.
  15. Linda Runnebaum (Story) says:
    January 26th, 2012 at 14:48
    This forever changed the small close-knit town of Lee's Summit. This terrible act put us in the same category as big cities in other parts of the country. We were innocent anymore. James Love took that away. I never babysat again. I was scared to death. A very good friend of mine was best friends with Sheila. Nobody, especially a young teenager, should ever have to go through such an ordeal. I've got questions,too, about the laws and why they were retroactive for such a case as Love's. Those changes should never have pertained to him. Such a tragedy.
  16. Beaelyse Beeson Hein says:
    January 28th, 2012 at 22:31
    Sheila was a wonderful girl and everyone was her friend. She was baby sitting only a couple blocks from my house. Both Sheila and Jeff were never given the right we all have to become adults. They missed out on finishing school, getting married, becoming parents. I can not begin to understand how anyone could take the lives of these 2 wonderful people. I babysat on the same street a couple of duplexes down from where this happened. My parents felt it was safe. I was with in walking distance of our home. That changed for ever. I never went back. How could laws be changed that would even give a possibility that anyone that has done something so horrible, could be released. If they think people will forget, they are wrong. They will never be forgotten.
  17. David Gardner says:
    January 31st, 2012 at 16:25
    It is good to know that people still remember after all these years. I did not know either family, but my sister knew Sheila. Lee's Summit was so small back then, it seemed like everyone had a connection to everyone else. Thank you LS Tribune for printing this article. I hope the Tribune will continue to remind us about the parole hearings so we can writer letters to the state board of pardons and parole. This man should never be released from prison.
  18. Charlie O'Quinn says:
    February 1st, 2012 at 16:55
    As a yound boy 11 living down the street and around the corner I can remember riding bikes with Shelia. I'm 48 today and remember that New Years day news like it was yesterday. Forever etched in my mind!! It is a tremdous burden on both families that Mr. Love continues to have rights that allow him to be considered for parole. They still did a few things right a 150 years ago now didn't they. GOD Bless both of the families.
  19. Curtis Callaway Jr says:
    February 1st, 2012 at 21:57
    I remember ,being 4 yrs old (Im 41 now), my grandma answering the phone crying out loud that morning finding about the murders. She lived on same street as the Curtrights and was friends. My bro was 2 yrs old then (39 now). My mom had Sheila babysit us occasionally. My feeling is that Love knew Sheila was next door that night and wanted to force himself sexually on her, but she rejected him and fought back. He got so pissed, he killed 'em both in a rage! Ironic his name is Love.....because he's heartless.
  20. Marie Driscoll says:
    February 13th, 2012 at 17:29
    Thank you Mary for writing this story. I and my husband have sent a letter to the parole board.
  21. Gena Queen says:
    February 15th, 2012 at 20:50
    Jim Love murdered my grandmother, Lauvina McWilliams, six months before he commited this crime. Unfortunately, all charges were dropped, leaving him a free man. My grandma was 59 when he killed her on June 23rd 1974. I just think that these two deaths could have been prevented if they had locked him up the first time..
  22. Elaine Hines says:
    March 12th, 2012 at 22:31
    I was nine years old when this crime happened. I lived in Independence, my hometown. I never knew Sheila or anyone connected with this case, but it was about the age that I started reading the local newspapers and to me, Sheila was a glamorous teenager. I have never forgotten the story of her death and that poor baby Jeffrey's. How terrified they must have been. I hope that James Love never breathes a free breath again. How they could even consider parole is beyond me.
  23. charlotte rice pulse says:
    March 18th, 2012 at 01:21
    I lived next to Sheila and her family on Maclendon dr. We couldn't go to the party because I was pregnant with my third son.The shock and fear that this could happen to someone in my neighborhood was devistating. If there is anyway i can help at the next hearing I would be more than willing to be there for the familys of those who need it.
  24. Linda Sievert Haynes says:
    March 23rd, 2012 at 16:02
    My best friend, at that time, was babysitting in that same area. When I found out about it I was terrified that she might have been the person who was killed. Even though I was relieved that it was not my friend, it did not remove the terror of knowing this happened in our town. I don't think anyone could ever forget this horrible tragedy. My heart goes out to both families and I wish they did not have to revisit those nightmarish memories every four years in order to keep the murderer in prison.
  25. Chris Thompson says:
    May 26th, 2012 at 22:21
    James Love's mother was my first cousin. She passed away about 6 years before this happened. I grew up with him. My family has prayed for both of these families. We are sorry that the death penalty had been stopped at the time because that is what he deserved. We also hope he rots in jail. No one in my family wants him out and we have nothing to do with him.
    I hope before the next parole hearing comes around the law will change again and these families won't have to go through this ever again. Please know my sister and I think of these families and pray for pray for them often. We have nothing but love for them.
  26. Gena Queen says:
    June 19th, 2012 at 14:37
    Chris,
    I am interested in knowing how his mother passed. My family has mentioned that he may have played a part in her death. My email is lagenahunter@sbcglobal.net
  27. Karen says:
    September 7th, 2012 at 05:36
    My family lived behind the duplex where the murders took place. I was 11 years old. We found out what had happened when the police came by to ask if we had heard or seen anything suspicious. It was all so awful. I can remember driving by and seeing the family's Christmas tree and other household items on the front lawn because of the fire. It is true that this event affected so many people in Lee's Summit. We have prayed for the families involved and have never forgotten what happened.
  28. sandra and mark barnard says:
    December 26th, 2012 at 03:52
    we lived down the street in 1975 , we had been married maybe a year. we where both raised in lees summit, we were so upset, how could anybody do such a crazy thing to 2 young children. on love's first parole
    hearing we had moved to Indiana, my mother called and told us, we turned right around and wrote a very long letter to Jeff City. We do not want love to ever get out of jail. Too bad we can't torcher him the way he did those children. To the family's we will keep him in jail, my husband and I wil do our part.
  29. Richard Curtright says:
    January 13th, 2013 at 06:29
    Now that our father and mother have both passed, my brothers and I are Shelia's closest living relatives. We appreciate all the words of support. We know many of you personally, and we know this was horrific for everybody in Lee's Summit. Yes, Mr. Love is a pathetic sociopath and his freedom does not deserve any further consideration. I wish we could make the hearings stop, but only Mr. Love can do that. I will always love you, Shelia!
  30. Shelly Donovan says:
    August 25th, 2013 at 02:46
    Great story! Great job Mary. He's probably considered a psychopath and we all need to help keep him in jail!
    As young girls we were all terrified to babysit after this incident.
    We will all go to work to help keep others safe!
  31. Michele G. says:
    September 23rd, 2013 at 06:03
    I remember this so vividly, even though I was only 11 at the time. One of my older sisters was friends with Sheila at school. I remember having nightmares for MONTHS after this, and looking at every little blonde haired boy as though Jeffrey was standing in front of me. It was TERRIFYING. Lee's Summit was such a safe place to grow up, until that night. Even now, in my 40's, I will hear a certain song from that era & instantly I'm taken back in time to those horrifying dreams and my heart still breaks for both families. I hope this monster NEVER gets out of prison.
  32. Bear Bruce says:
    November 17th, 2013 at 22:44
    My family lived out in the Country near LS at the time. My brother Ed was in the class of 77. I was in 83. Simply put, if he gets out, it won't be for long. I'm very surprised no one has killed this monster in prison!
  33. Sam Bailey says:
    April 13th, 2014 at 21:33
    I was there the night it happened after 1am. My wife was James Love's sister. We had left your to sons aged 1 and 6 yrs old in that apt earlier. Unknown to us while we watched movies with friends my father in law took the boys to Holden, Mo. for a family get together. When we came back for the children all hell had broke loose. Our feeling of helplisness thinking our children were in the apartment is undescribable. When we learned they were safe we sobbed hard for the loss of those two children. James grew up tormented by others. He had such a high IQ that he stood aside from others. He was a computer programmer in the USMC. This gave him access to the stories told about Memphis and another story about Washington DC not mentioned. He rented a sleeping room where the story came out about the murder of the landlady. He was cleared thru balistics to murder again. And Gena Queen shame on you for starting false rumors about his mother. She died at age 42 from Cervical Cancer. She had been thru a lot with this clown before she died. Last but not least everyone should be aware that this man could have easily have gotten off back then if he had a better Attorney. Otherwise, why would the Prosecutor accept a Second degree Murder Plea??? Present day DNA could solve a lot of answers if they wanted to find out for sure but he's in prison with the possibility of making parole someday. When that happens all hell will be unleashed again.
  34. Gena Queen says:
    June 7th, 2014 at 02:10
    "Story about the landlady?" That "landlady" was my grandma, and it isn't a "story." He shot her through the heart 4 times with a deer rifle in her kitchen. And he was NOT cleared through ballistics. To the contrary, it was proven than it was HIS weapon that was used to kill her. I have the court transcripts. And as far as starting rumors about his mother, I did nothing of the such. If you notice, it was in question form. However, I wish cancer had taken her twenty years earlier and maybe the "high IQ" loser would have never been born.
  35. Evelyn (McWilliams) Barrett says:
    June 7th, 2014 at 07:40
    Sam Bailey, you are wrong on several things, HE was never cleared of shooting the landlady 3 times in the back with HIS 309 browning deer rifle on June 22 of 74, in fact it was proven through ballistics that it was HIS gun, HIS bullets, HIS fingerprints on the gun, the landlady's blood on HIS pants HE said "the dog had walked in the blood and had jumped up on HIM, but the white dog had no traces of blood and was an outside dog, never in the house, and that case has gone cold, but still active, as they know HE did it, and yes, DNA could prove that today or any day if HE were to ever be released from prison. I have been assured by HIS parole officer that he will die in prison.
    As far as the "rumors" about HIS Mother, when the police tell you that HE was suspected of having something to do with her death, I don't consider that a rumor.
    As to the second degree murder plea, the P.A. felt he could not prove premeditation beyond the shadow of a doubt.
    I was in touch with Sheila's Mother right up to her death, we shared information with each other about our loved one that HE stole from us, she was always so kind and comforting to talk to, I miss our talks.
    I was in the courtroom every single day of that trial, and there is no attorney that could have gotten HIM off, HIS attorney knew that to start with, he wasn't as unprepared as he seemed in the courtroom.
    As for HIS high I.Q. how stupid or evil do you have to be to think you can get away with murder, even 40 years ago!
    The landlady that has been mentioned several times above has a name, her name is Lauvina McWilliams, she was my Mother.
  36. Deloris Hawkins says:
    June 23rd, 2014 at 04:29
    I want to say the Land Lady was my Aunt Lauvina Mc Williams and I was the last one to talk to her at 9:30 PM that night, and her husband was out of town at my parents’ house in the Country 2 hrs away. It was my parents who drove him back to Indep., MO, where I lived and we took the husband to talk to the police. My brother and I were the one to ID her as they didn't think the immediate family was up to doing it, and my Dad didn't want my Mother to do it as she was so upset. I will never forget that part. One of the hardest things I've ever done or seen.
    I want all of you writing to know that I'm so sorry for the children's deaths and for their families in Lee's Summit.
    However, it was not only the Cartrights and Berger’s (Spelling) lives that were changed and ruined forever, and I'm so sorry about that.
    However, six months (June) before New Years’ Eve, he killed my Aunt Lauvina (Mc Cracken) Mc Williams( the land lady) and was let go for???????? reasons. The Mc William’s family had been going through the pain and suffering. Their lives were ruined also and it changed the lives of the Mc William’s family, her husband, Children and Grandchildren, who were also afraid and scared for their lives as he was still out for the next 6 months until he killed those 2 children on New Year's Eve. Then was finally locked up. That's when we knew he was behind bars and hopefully was never going to get out and we hoped he’d get the death penalty, which is what he should have received. If he had been kept longer than one month for my Aunt's murder, but they let him go on circumstantial evidence. I have always wondered how the Grand Jury people lived with themselves after he killed two innocent children after they wouldn’t keep him for trial for my Aunt..
    Not only the the Mc Williams family lived in fear, many of us did. I made my 3 sons sleep in our bedroom for weeks after Lauvina Mc Williams was killed thinking someone was in the house and knew she talked to me and maybe told me who was there.
    I understand the fear of all the baby sitters and parents who wouldn't let their daughters babysit anymore and I wouldn't either. Because a lot of us lived in fear for 6 months when Aunt Lauvina was killed.
    To this day one of my sons who has 3 sons of his own has rarely let a baby sitter or me, the Grandmother stay with his children at night. He said he remembers what we went through and how I made them sleep on the floor of our room that he has never forgotten it and has always been afraid to leave their sons with someone. He said if his kids aren't invited, or they need to go someplace they either stay at home or one parents goes alone. This has really affected him and he has told me many times, Mom I just can't leave them.
    This is a long story, but every bit of it is true.
    James Love killed 3 people that we know of, but probably more, and has ruined and changed and effected so many families, he should never get out and I hope that he dies in prison, and I will do everything I know to do to keep him there.
    Deloris Hawkins

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