PITTSBURG, Kan. — Last month, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation was brought in to help investigate the death of 23-year-old Tylei Messer of Pittsburg following an initial response to a 911 call by the Pittsburg Police Department. Two days later, the two agencies declared the death a suicide.
Some who knew Messer protested, however, launching a social media campaign and street demonstrations to voice their suspicions about the investigation. Messer, who was transgender, died amidst what USA TODAY recently reported has been a record-breaking year for murders of transgender people.
The cause of death, according to several people who say they were close to Messer, was a slit throat — a claim supported, but not entirely confirmed, by a police report obtained by the Morning Sun, which includes a “type of injury” code indicating Messer suffered a “severe laceration.” Pittsburg Police Lt. Ben Henderson said Thursday that he could not confirm that this specifically referred to a slit throat. The report also indicates that there was no known hate or bias motivation in the case.
Henderson also said that there was at least one error in the police report, which he said likely resulted from a software issue. The first page of the report includes a box marked “dispatched,” meaning the call was assigned by the police dispatch center, while two other pages have boxes marked “on view,” which would mean that an officer on routine patrol or working an assignment made a report without action being initiated by the dispatch center. Henderson said those boxes should have been marked “dispatched” throughout the report.
“That should be uniform,” he said. “So I don’t know where that’s coming from.”
On Monday, Oct. 5, the Morning Sun attempted to formally request records relating to Messer’s Sept. 15 death through procedures outlined in the Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) from the two law enforcement agencies, but has had limited success in those attempts.
“As of today’s writing, we are waiting for additional documentation, including the final autopsy report from the pathologist’s office and evidence analysis reports from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s forensic laboratories,” Pittsburg Police Chief Brent Narges wrote in a letter dated Oct. 8 and accompanying the police report provided in response to the Morning Sun’s records request. “Therefore, this report remains a criminal investigation citing K.S.A. 45-217(c) and 45-221(a)(10) (B).”
Although the KBI said in a Sept. 17 press release — two days after Messer’s death — that following “interviews, processing of evidence at the scene, and an autopsy, investigators have concluded that Messer’s death was the result of a self-inflicted injury,” KBI Communications Director Melissa Underwood said in an email last week that it is not uncommon for the bureau to come to a conclusion about a cause of death before it has received a final autopsy report.
“It is typical for a KBI agent to attend an autopsy and/or work cooperatively with the coroner to ascertain as much detail as possible about the death as soon as it is available. Additionally, following an autopsy, a preliminary autopsy report or provisional anatomic diagnosis may be provided by the coroner or the coroner may offer a cause/manner of death at the time the autopsy is performed. At other times the coroner will wish to wait until all laboratory testing has been completed and is returned before he/she makes the determination,” Underwood wrote.
“For some cases, the laboratory reports, for example the toxicology report, may be very significant to identifying the cause of death. Regardless, the final autopsy report will not be available until approximately 5-8 weeks after the autopsy is conducted because that is how long the additional testing takes.”
A nearly identical records request to the one sent to the Pittsburg Police Department that the Morning Sun attempted to send to the KBI through its Open Records Requests email form on its website on Monday, Oct. 5 , meanwhile, was apparently not processed by the bureau. The KORA requires Kansas government agencies to respond to records requests within three business days.
When the KBI had not responded by Thursday afternoon, Oct. 8, the Morning Sun followed up with a phone call and an email, to which the bureau responded with an email, sent at exactly 5 p.m., saying it had no record of the record request and asking the Morning Sun to resend a copy of it.
In a second emailed response to the Morning Sun on Oct. 9 following additional calls made to the KBI, Laura Graham, general counsel for the bureau, wrote that “the KBI is now processing your records request sent at 5:15 p.m. on October 8, 2020 — outside regular business hours — and therefore received this morning. We will look into your request and will be back in touch by no later than Wednesday, October 14, 2020,” to provide either the responsive public records, a fee estimate for the records, a request for clarification of the records request, or a status update on the KBI’s efforts to comply with the records request.
At 5:15 p.m. Oct. 14, Graham sent a response to the Morning Sun’s records request, stating that the KBI’s file on the Messer case did not contain police reports, crime scene photos, documentation of evidence, or correspondence on the case.
“Our review found that the KBI played only a limited role in the investigation; it sent agents and the KBI’s crime scene response team to assist Pittsburg Police Department (PPD),” Graham wrote. “To date, the case remains open, pending completion and approval of several reports.”
As Pittsburg Police Chief Narges noted in his letter last week, Pittsburg Police Lt. Henderson also said Thursday that the department’s investigation was still ongoing.