Sunday, June 11, 2000

Prosecutor's slaying highlights job risks

By Travis Mayo
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Don Buring, commonwealth attorney for Kenton County, left the funeral of a colleague Wednesday with a message on his mind.

        Cathy Capps, the widow of slain southern Kentucky prosecutor Fred Capps, had told Mr. Buring at the funeral to “stay safe.”

        Trouble is, Mr. Buring and other prosecutors say they aren't sure how to do that. As long as they prosecute criminals, they live with threats against their lives and their families.

        “All prosecutors receive threats with some frequency because criminals are criminals and they hurt people, and they know you are trying to put them in the penitentiary, and they don't like it,” said Phil Patton, president of an association of commonwealth attorneys.

        Mr. Patton knew Mr. Capps as a friend. Their court circuits neighbored each other: Mr. Capps was the commonwealth attorney for Adair, Casey, Cumberland and Monroe counties; Mr. Patton serves Barren and Metcalfe counties.

        Mr. Patton said he has received several threats in the past. He said threats are always in the back of prosecutors' minds.

        “It just makes you paranoid, because you don't know if someone might ambush you, or shoot at you from somewhere you can't see them,” Mr. Patton said.

        “But the thought of someone coming into your home, where your family is, is the greatest fear.”

        Police say Eddie Vaughn, 49, was scheduled to be tried on child molestation charges on Monday. Early that morning he blasted his way into Mr. Capps' Burkesville home and shot his would-be prosecutor multiple times.

        Witnesses said Mr. Capps died trying to protect his wife and their two children, John, 16, and Lydia, 11. Two shots from Mr. Capps' gun killed Mr. Vaughn.

        Mr. Vaughn and Mr. Capps knew each other from childhood. Many people in the rural town of 1,800 on the Tennessee border knew where Mr. Capps and his wife, also a prosecutor, lived.

        But Mr. Buring said the risks are everywhere.

        “I don't think it makes any difference whether you're in an urban area, a suburban area or a rural area,” he said.

        Murders of prosecutors are rare. In Kentucky there have been only two other incidents.

        Bell County attorney William S. Tribell was shot and killed in December 1968 while investigating a triple murder. No one was charged and no connection between his murder and the case was proved.

        Samuel K. Baird was gunned down in Shelbyville in January 1921 by R.L. Prewitt, who was involved in a case Mr. Baird was working on. At the time, Mr. Baird, a judge, was the acting commonwealth attorney for Shelby County.

        Louis Ball has been commonwealth attorney for Campbell County for 29 years and will re tire this year. He said he has received death threats, but “You can't just lock yourself up and live in a cage. “To do that would be letting these people get a step up. We're not going to back down because of some animal who could make a threat like this.”

        Mr. Patton said he doesn't think much can be done to provide greater safety for prosecutors beyond ensuring courthouse security. He said most don't want a bodyguard following them around, and that such a step would be too costly.

        “Once you leave the courthouse, you're an average civilian like everyone else,” Mr. Patton said.


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