One day last fall, a 25-year-old man — supposedly wearing a wire — sat down to dinner.
The older man eating across the table was Burrell Mohler Jr., his father.
The evidence being secretly sought involved a very personal matter — memories of his and his sisters of years of alleged sexual abuse by Mohler, his three brothers and their father, Burrell Mohler Sr.
Authorities won’t comment on that audio surveillance, its existence revealed in a recent court filing, but shortly after that meal, deputies rounded up the four Mohler brothers and the 77-year-old, sermonizing patriarch.
Four months ago Wednesday, the charges filed against the Mohlers dropped jaws across the country.
Uncles raping young girls in a chicken coop at the grandfather’s Lafayette County farm. Incest in a church, bestiality, mock weddings, laments buried in glass jars, incest porn hidden above the ceiling tiles.
If those allegations weren’t shocking enough, then came bizarre stories of a sex slave in the crawl space and of little girls stabbing a 300-pound kidnap-and-murder victim.
Today, an update of the complex case finds that the cases against all men are progressing, and their lawyers are battling back, with some asking for venue changes.
So far, the only trial date set is for Darrel Mohler, in September, while the other Mohler cases continue through the system.
Prosecutors said they remain confident they have the goods against the men: Mohler Sr., of Independence; Mohler Jr., better known as Ed, 54, also of Independence; Jared Mohler, 49, of Columbia; David Mohler, 52, of Lamoni, Iowa; and Roland Mohler, 47, of Bates City, Mo. The older Mohler’s brother, Darrel Mohler, 72, of Silver Springs, Fla., also was charged.
Prosecutors won’t discuss evidence, but records show they have talkative victims. And perhaps the audiotape.
Attorney George Jones wrote in January to Lafayette County Prosecutor Kellie Ritchie that he was aware of and wanted the taped conversation between Burrell Mohler Jr., known as Ed, and his son, a policeman in a Kansas City suburb.
Jones, who represents David Mohler, did not return phone calls for comment. And authorities would not discuss the tape.
With a case so old, so grisly and so seemingly unbelievable, both sides face huge challenges.
“I do think, though, that the prosecution has an advantage,” said Sean O’Brien, a local defense attorney who teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school.
With child victims involved, he said, the inflammatory nature of the charges makes people inclined to believe it happened.
“A jury doesn’t necessarily demand a lot of corroboration,” O’Brien said. “Juries are moved to anger and ready to punish if the evidence is only marginal.”
Jones filed several motions Feb. 9, including one stating his client would use the alibi defense for a couple of the charges against him, meaning he will attempt to prove he was not present when the alleged assaults occurred.
Jones and other defense attorneys also have requested specific times, dates and locations of the sexual molestation. That’s necessary to provide a defense, O’Brien said.
“How do you alibi yourself if you don’t know who, what, when and where?”
But those details could be nearly impossible to come up with, because some of the alleged abuses supposedly took place 25 years ago, when the victims were as young as 5. And it’s tough for the defendants, too.
“I think with anybody, if you try to say, ‘What was I doing 20 years ago?’ it’s hard, and it’s hard to track down things from back then,” said Janeal Matheson, the public defender for Ed Mohler.
Ritchie said case law does not require exact time and location when dealing with years-old abuse of children.
“And we are looking at those cases,” she said last week.
She declined to comment further, saying she “didn’t want to cross a line and draw fire.”
Lafayette County Sheriff Kerrick Alumbaugh discounts concerns the case is too old and evidence too stale.
“This is just like it happened yesterday for the victims.”
But what about the 300-pound man and the sex slave in the crawl space?
No bodies were ever found, and prosecutors never acted on those stories.
Defense attorneys could use the lack of charges to question the credibility of the victims.
After years of incestuous abuse, the sisters said, they wrote notes about the abuse and buried them in glass jars. No jars were found.
Others in the family weren’t surprised. They didn’t buy the sisters’ tale and still don’t.
“I’ve known all those men since they were boys, and I don’t think they did anything these girls are claiming,” Ron Gamble, a brother-in-law of Burrell Sr., said last week.
His wife was a sister to Burrell’s first wife, Alice, who died in 1991. He has attended many of the court hearings and will continue to do so.
“I’ve not seen any evidence. I don’t think there is any.”
Alumbaugh said people need to just wait.
“I’m looking forward to our day in court and the day our victims can tell their stories,” Alumbaugh said. “… We want to make sure these men get a fair trial.
“It’s like anything else, we’re not going to try this in the media.”
Three Mohlers are still in jail: Burrell Sr., Ed and Roland. Only Ed is assigned a public defender.
Two of the cases could stay in Lafayette County, and another two — those of Darrel and Burrell Sr. — already have been transferred to Clay County.
Just last week, the court granted David and Roland Mohler new judges. They also asked for a change of venue.
Since he was released on bond, David Mohler has been back home in Lamoni, Iowa, where friends and neighbors have wrapped him with support. He’s lived in the town for about three decades and worked at Graceland University in computers.
“Most of the community is behind him,” said Bob Ramsey, a neighbor. “I think people feel they do know the kind of person he is.”
Ramsey tells this story: In January, David offered to help him unload his daughter’s belongings from a truck. The only thing left was to deliver a piano to campus for storage.
On the way there, David said he couldn’t go to the campus because his bond prohibited that, Ramsey recalled. It was Christmas break, and nobody was on campus.
“But he had me stop the car on Main Street,” Ramsey said. “That’s how conscientious he is.”
The case, regardless of the outcome, has shattered David and his family’s lives, Ramsey said.
“In so many ways, their lives are not what their lives once were,” he said.
Bill Bruch, a cousin of Alice, agreed. And at this point, he doesn’t see how the stories could be true.
But then he added: “Of course, I realize anything is possible.”