Community remembers crime as parole hearing nears
Jan. 20, 2012
By Mary Pechar
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.