Trials of civilian life brought ex-soldier down — (Kansas City Star)

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The Kansas City Star

December 23, 1991

 Author: JOHN NORTH; Staff Writer

Police killed the armed man, who had lured them.

The police dispatcher tried to keep Ken Booker on the line.  But Booker, who’d called 911 to report that an armed man was in his apartment, had nothing more to say. His plan was moving.

Prairie Village police were on their way.

“Goodbye,” he said, and hung up.

Wearing a camouflage jacket, black face paint blending with his brown hair and mustache, Booker gripped a loaded .38-caliber revolver and stepped into the woods outside the Prairie Village apartment.

Time to finish the mission.

Moments later, two hours before dawn Oct. 28, police shot and killed the 37-year-old former Green Beret.

Authorities last month cleared three Prairie Village officers of wrongdoing for killing the armed man. They think Booker staged his own death, although they leave it to others to decide why.

In recent interviews, family and acquaintances said the weight of a lost military career, a failed marriage, bankruptcy, alcohol and an anti-depressant drug brought Booker down.

“He was unable to relate to being a civilian,” Booker’s former wife said. “He didn’t have the camaraderie. No one understood him. ” But times weren’t always so bad for the aloof, independent soldier. His life once was rich in mystery and adventure.

Top-secret assignments Booker grew up as a military brat. His father was a career serviceman, stationed for many years in Europe.

After he joined the Army himself, Booker was stationed at Fort Riley, Kan., in the mid-1970s when he met his future wife, a student at Kansas State University. The woman, who no longer lives in the Kansas City area, asked in a recent telephone interview that her name be withheld.

The couple married in 1976 and moved to West Germany, where Booker was assigned as a weapons specialist.

He left the Army briefly in the late 1970s. But he returned a short time later as a member of the Army’s elite Special Forces, which specializes in guerrilla warfare. His muscular build and average height gave him the versatility to handle a variety of military assignments.

Police say those jobs included parachuting into the world’s political hot spots: Beirut, Nicaragua, Panama. Booker would disappear for several months at a time.

When his wife did hear from him, their contact was veiled and secretive.

Booker’s letters frequently were hand-delivered to avoid identifying postmarks. Other than the men on his Special Forces team, he had few friends.

Even his wife became guarded. She learned to watch what she said on the telephone. The enemy could be listening anywhere, she said, even at a McDonald’s.

When Booker did come home, the couple found relaxation in activities that were reminiscent of his career: camping, traveling, sky diving and mountain climbing.

Drinking and depression. The good times ended in the mid-1980s.

Although no one will say why, Booker had to leave the Army with a general discharge, a level below an honorable discharge.

He started drinking.

The couple, now with a son, settled in Lawrence to be near relatives. Enrolling at the University of Kansas, Booker planned to get a dual degree in languages and environmental science. He worked part time at a Lawrence liquor store to pay bills.

The drinking worsened and in 1989, his wife filed for divorce and took custody of their son.

Booker became depressed. He couldn’t pay his bills and filed for bankruptcy.

In January, Booker took a job as a security officer at the Country Club Plaza, working for the J.C. Nichols Co. He apparently hid his personal problems well. Co-workers at Nichols found him to be pleasant and reliable, said William Bell, who coordinates administration and planning for Nichols.

“He was a very up person,” Bell said.

When Booker initially was denied residency at a Nichols apartment development because of his bankruptcy, Bell intervened to make sure he got in.

But there was another side that his employer didn’t see.

Booker, battling depression, tried to kill himself but was interrupted by family members, authorities said.

He began taking Prozac, a drug used to combat depression, and police speculate that could have altered his behavior.

Critics say the drug can cause violent, irrational acts. Some say Prozac has driven users to kill themselves and others. Eli Lilly & Co., which makes the drug, disputes those claims.

While on the drug, police say, Booker continued to drink heavily.

In mid-October, he became engaged to a woman he had known before his divorce.

Planned death The night of Oct. 27, a Sunday, Booker went drinking at a Westport bar.

That night, the television news program “60 Minutes” broadcast a report about Prozac. Police don’t know whether Booker watched the program.

They do know that he stopped by his Plaza locker about 2 a.m. the next morning, Oct. 28, and picked up his revolver.

At his apartment, Booker scrawled a one-page note. Police say it is hard to read, except for the opening lines: “To Whom It Concerns: I have been drinking and I suppose too much, however, this letter is not because of self-pity. ” He wrote about failures in his life. He was disdainful of co-workers at Nichols.

About 3:30 a.m., Booker’s fiancee called his apartment to check on him, said Prairie Village police Lt. Terry Grove. In a rambling conversation, he told her he had no future. He spoke of suicide.

He said he had some things to take care of.

At 4:17 a.m., he dialed 911.

Prairie Village police arrived at Booker’s apartment building at 3512 W. 83rd St. a few moments later but found no armed man.

Peering in Booker’s sparse, ground-floor apartment, officers saw a gun holster on a bed.

They searched outside in the dark for several minutes. Then an officer heard a noise from some brush about 10 feet away.

Booker, drunk and armed with the gun, fired a shot toward the retreating officer, Grove said.

Another officer returned fire, aiming at a flash point in the woods. Police ordered the gunman to put down his weapon.

Booker ignored the command. He fired two more shots into the air and waved the gun in a wide arc before pointing at police.

Three officers fired.

Four 9mm slugs struck Booker in the right thigh and back.

Shotgun pellets pierced his heart, lungs, liver, stomach and colon.

He was pronounced dead a few minutes later.

Booker’s former wife is certain – and police agree – that he never planned to shoot the officers. With his military background, he easily could have killed one of them, she said.

But he couldn’t accept life outside the Army, Booker’s former wife said. When he’d had enough, he called police rather than take his own life.

“A person who commits suicide, that’s something that only they can decide to do,” Grove said.

“But here he got other people to help him do what he wanted.

His purpose there that night, in his mind, was to die. ”

Record Number:  69112