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Kansas Man Arrested for 1980 Murder of Mother and College Student After COVID-Stricken Detective Spent His Recovery Poring Over County’s Last Homicide Case


Steven L Hanks (L) and Mary Robin Walter (R)

Mary Robin Walter was just 23 years old when she was shot and killed at her home in Great Bend, Kansas. Now, over 42 years later, police say they’ve finally found and arrested her killer.

“At 42 years and 10 months, we believe this is the oldest homicide arrest in the state of Kansas,” Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir said at a press conference on Friday, according to Wichita, Kansas NBC/Telemundo affiliate KSNW.

Steven L. Hanks, 68, was always a person of interest in the death of the wife, mother, and nursing student, authorities now say, but he was never charged. Bellendir surmised that prosecutors at the time probably thought they lacked the evidence to make a decent case.

That apparently changed – and fairly recently.

“After taking a fresh look at the case, it became evident that some information had been initially overlooked and some had been added at a later date,” Bellendir said in comments reported by The Wichita Eagle. “This was unknown to the original investigators.”

The death of the Barton County Community College student who went by “Robin” became a cold case, authorities said, despite a substantial amount of information collected. The investigation had been looked into by various detectives over the decades, since at least 1982, Bellendir said – the year he joined the department.

In April of this year, the sheriff said, Walter’s murder was formally reopened by Detective Sergeant Adam Hales. After that, the sheriff’s office assigned multiple deputies to conduct interviews throughout the country – extending as far as the Pacific Northwest.

The locus of that desire to re-open the case was Hale’s COVID-19 diagnosis, according to Hutchinson, Kansas, CBS affiliate KWCH. While recovering from the illness, he sat down with the case, Bellendir told the TV station. The two conferred and the investigation took shape from there.

Two months ago, new evidence was uncovered that led to Hanks’ arrest on Thursday by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

“In October this year, new evidence was obtained that allowed the sheriff’s office to submit the case to the Barton County Attorney, Mr. Levi Morris, for review,” Bellendir said. “After approximately four weeks of review, Mr. Morris obtained an arrest warrant for murder in the second degree.”

Authorities, however, are keeping mum as to what led them to arrest and charge the man from Burden, Kansas.

“Whether it’s the old evidence or the new evidence, we’ll just save that for court,” Morris said in comments reported by the Eagle. “And we’re not going to make any comment on what it is at this time.”

Walter was discovered dead on Jan. 24, 1980, at Nelson Trailer Park, which no longer exists, ten years before the county had 911. The site, just west of Great Bend, is adjacent to the Great Bend Municipal Airport, and is now near an intersection, KWCH reported.

“I’m proud of my officers for clearing this case. Hopefully, it brings closure for the family and brings justice for the community,” Bellendir said. “These are long, complicated investigations and are tedious. The credit here goes to my people.”

According to KSNW, the victim’s daughter, Pamela Walter Cooper, wasn’t particularly interested in any solace.

“She said she forgave him (the suspect) a while ago and feels no different today,” the TV station reported. “She says that everyone who would have received comfort is, unfortunately, dead.”

Walter’s niece, Leslie Schrag, took a different stance on the news.

“We are grateful for detectives’ efforts to bring Robin’s murderer to justice,” she said in a statement obtained by KWCH.

“Robin was truly beautiful inside and out,” Schrag continued. “This world was robbed of her presence, and we will never know how that has shaped our lives. [Friday’s] news is bittersweet. Many of those who knew Robin are gone. Her parents, husband and a sister will not get to share in our collective relief that Robin’s case will have a conclusion.”

[images via Barton County Sheriff’s Office]

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