GREAT BEND, Kansas — A Kansas man who served nearly a decade in prison for rape and robbery in the 1980s has been charged with the unsolved 1980 murder of a nursing student shot at least 12 times.
Steven Lawrence Hanks, 68, of Burden, was arrested Thursday on a charge of second-degree murder. He is being held in the Barton County Jail.
Hanks was 25 years old on Jan. 24, 1980, when Barton County investigators allege that he gunned down Mary Robin Walter, 23, inside the Great Bend mobile home she shared with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. Barton County Sheriff Brian Bellendir said Friday that Hanks was a person of interest at the time of the crime, but detectives lacked the evidence to make an arrest.
Robin Walter’s daughter, Pamela Walter Cooper, told KSN-TV in Wichita that she has forgiven Hanks, who the family had always suspected of her mother’s murder.
“I already knew who did it. I knew that he wasn’t convicted of it, but we knew who did it,” Cooper said. “We knew it was Steven Hanks, the neighbor.”
It was not immediately clear when Hanks became a person of interest in the case, or why.
Hanks was arrested the following year and charged with rape, aggravated battery, aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary, prison records show. He was convicted in 1983 and served about eight years before being paroled.
His parole ended in 1993.
Watch Friday’s news conference on the Walter case, courtesy of KAKE News in Wichita.
Bellendir said during a news conference that the Walter murder remained unsolved until April, when a detective recovering from COVID-19 decided to use his down time to reexamine the case. Detective Sgt. Adam Hales made a startling discovery.
“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. “This was unknown to the original investigators.”
Additional investigators joined Hales on the case, interviewing multiple witnesses now scattered across the country. The evidence needed to make an arrest was uncovered in October.
Authorities declined to say what that evidence is.
“Whether it’s old evidence or new evidence, we’ll just save that for court,” Barton County Attorney Levi Morris said. “We’re not going to make any comment on what it is at this time.”
Listen to Pamela Cooper speak about her mother’s murder below, courtesy of KSN-TV.
A barrage of bullets
The first sign of anything unusual came on Jan. 24, 1980, when Walter, who went by her middle name, Robin, failed to show up for her 1 p.m. class at Barton County Community College. The Wichita Eagle reported at the time that she also failed to pick up her daughter, Pamela, from the babysitter after classes ended around 3 p.m.
Douglas Walter, unaware that anything was amiss, went to a club with friends after leaving the service station where he worked, according to the Eagle. When he and a friend arrived at the family’s home around 6:40 p.m., they discovered Robin Walter’s body.
Though neighbors at the Nelson Trailer Park, located near the Great Bend Municipal Airport, said they heard nothing suspicious, an autopsy determined that Robin Walter had been shot 12 times in the neck, chest, abdomen and arm. The Salina Journal reported that the murder weapon, a small-caliber pistol, belonged to the Walters.
The gun — which was loaded and emptied twice during the shooting — was found at the scene, authorities said.
Cooper said that as a child, the number of times her mother was shot haunted her. She said she blocked out a lot of the memories of the murder, which gave her nightmares until the age of 12.
“My dad is the one that found her,” she told KSN-TV last week. “And in my dreams, it was me, at the age I was at that time.”
Both family and authorities were puzzled by the apparent lack of motive for the murder. There was no evidence of rape, robbery or forced entry into the home, according to detectives.
Doug Walter told the Eagle in 1980 that he and his wife routinely left their door unlocked.
“We never locked the door. We left the keys in the car,” Doug Walter said. “Now that I think about it, it was stupid, but we never had any cause for alarm before.”
The grieving husband said he struggled to make sense of his wife’s slaying in the trailer park, which he described as a pleasant place full of young couples. The neighborhood no longer exists.
“I don’t know of anybody who would dislike her,” he told the newspaper. “She was a very bubbly, very happy person. She liked people.”
The couple, who grew up in Kingman, married in 1974 and moved to Great Bend two years later. Doug Walter had planned a career in insurance but went to work instead at his uncle’s service station.
Robin Walter was two semesters into her nursing education. She also worked at an area hospital.
“The Tuesday before she died, she helped deliver her first baby in the hospital,” Doug Walter told the Eagle. “She was tremendously happy.”
Robin Walter’s mother, Vanetta Matthews, also could not comprehend why anyone would want her daughter dead. She said she talked to Walter a couple of days before the murder and everything seemed fine.
“She was always smiling. She just wasn’t the type that made people mad,” Matthews said. “We just can’t figure out why, just who and why anyone would want to do this thing.”
Bellendir, who believes Hanks’ arrest is the oldest homicide arrest in Kansas history, said he hopes clearing the case has brought some closure and solace to Robin Walter’s family.
Doug Walter, who remarried two years after his wife’s murder, also died last year. He was 66 years old.
Cooper told KSN-TV she believes her father would be relieved to learn of Hanks’ arrest.
“I just hope that (Hanks) is sorry for what he’s done, that he’s remorseful,” she said. “But even if he’s not, he can’t change my heart as I forgave him a long time ago.”
Hanks is being held in lieu of $500,000 bond, authorities said.
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