It was a little over 20 years ago that I was promoted from general assignment reporter to managing editor of The Carthage Press. Despite having more than 16 years in the newspaper business at that time, none of my experiences prepared me for the challenge that awaited on Dec. 28, 1993.
The brutal murder of eight-year-old Douglas Ryan RIngler, a second grader at Hawthorne Elementary School, provided the first test of the Carthage Press' new managing editor, as well as a staff that had been cut from a high of eight only a few months before to only five (which I am sure seems a wealth of reporters to today's Press).
This is what I wrote about the death of Doug Ringler in my book, The Turner Report.
It was standing room only at the BYKOTA Church for an early-afternoon service that two weeks earlier no one could have ever foreseen.
I was one of those standing, leaning against a wall in the back of the church, making an estimate of the number of those who were continuing to squeeze their way into the facility, which would be replaced within a year by a larger building.
More than 500 were standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder as the time for the service approached. In the front left corner, a cluster of multi-colored balloons and groupings of flowers surrounded an 11 x 17 photo of a smiling, eight-year-old boy.
Carthage was paying its final respects to Douglas Ryan Ringer, a second grader at Hawthorne Elementary School…and a victim in the brutal murder that robbed the city of its innocence.
I had only been managing editor of The Carthage Press for about three weeks when Randee Kaiser returned from the police beat on a late December morning with the word that police were searching for a missing eight-year-old boy. We ran the school photo of Doug Ringler, his blond hair combed to the right and a smile on his face. It was the first of many times we ran that photo, the same photo that was placed in the front of the BYKOTA church for his funeral service.
Police knew from the beginning they were probably never going to see the boy alive, but posters were distributed all over Carthage. There were not many areas where the people didn’t know Doug Ringler. If they didn’t know the name, they knew the face the minute they saw the posters. They had seen Doug riding his bicycle all over town, his short legs pumping the bicycle hard because he always had more friends he wanted to see. He made a lot of friends during the few years he had.
Friends and family stayed with Norma Ringler, Doug’s mother, as she awaited word. On December 28, 1993, the same day Doug was reported missing, authorities discovered the body of a young boy, burned beyond recognition in a field in Fort Scott, Kan. They had no doubt, even before forensic evidence confirmed it, that they had found Doug Ringler. “There hadn’t been any reports of any other missing children at that time,” Carthage Police Chief Ed Ellefsen said. “We knew it had to be him.” Dental records confirmed it.
Norma Ringler was surrounded by friends when she was told by Carthage police that her little boy was never coming home. She released a statement to the media the following day. “My family and I are deeply sorrowed at the loss of my son, Doug. We will greatly miss his smile, excitement for life, good nature and outgoing personality. As a born-again Christian, I am relying upon the peace and comfort that only God can bring and am confident that Doug is with the Lord in Heaven where there is no pain or suffering. I am comforted by the fact that I will see Doug again. We want to thank the Carthage Police Department, BYKOTA Church, Leggett & Platt, friends and co-workers and the entire community of Carthage for their support, kindness, and generosity.”
On the same day that Mrs. Ringler was told of her son’s death, Terence W. Cupp, 31, Carthage, one of those who had helped distribute the flyers with Doug’s photo, was arrested and charged with first degree murder. On Dec. 31, the police, who had suspected Cupp, a family friend, from the outset, obtained a search warrant for his car, taking evidence to the Missouri Southern State College Crime Lab.
Doug Ringler and his older brother Chris Gentry spent the night with Cupp. The boys slept in Cupp’s living room. Gentry told the police Cupp had said the boys could sleep with him if they got cold. When Gentry woke up, shortly past eight o’clock the next morning, he asked, “Where’s Doug?”
“He just left,” Cupp said.
Cupp took Gentry to the nearby Pancake Hut for breakfast then dropped him by his house. When Chris Gentry entered, Doug was nowhere in sight. A couple of minutes before noon, Norma Ringler called the Carthage Police Department and reported her son missing.
When police questioned Terry Cupp, they quickly noticed his nervousness. At first, Cupp indicated Doug was probably just running around, the way he always did. “Norma lets him walk all over town all the time.”
As the questioning continued, Cupp offered another thought. “I think he may have run away from home,” but he offered no reason for the boy to have run away.
The autopsy showed the extent of Terry Cupp’s brutality. Doug Ringler had been sexually assaulted, his throat had been cut, and he had been strangled. Search warrants uncovered a map in Cupp’s trashcan which showed the route he took to the place where he took Doug’s body. Hair samples matching Doug’s were found in Cupp’s car. A gas station attendant remembered a man fitting Cupp’s description putting a small amount of gasoline in a red, plastic container, the same gasoline that was used to start the fire that burned the boy’s body.
A search warrant later uncovered that container in a vacant house next to property owned by Cupp’s mother, Sharon Hendricks, in Hallowell, Kan.
A gas log book was found in the glove compartment of Cupp’s car. Cupp voluntarily took a lie detector test, and the results of that test, though inadmissible in court, indicated Cupp was lying. Blood and semen samples had also been recovered that tied Cupp to the murder.
Because Doug Ringler’s body had been discovered in Kansas, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) was called to assist with the investigation. The KBI agent on call when the assignment came through was Bill Halvorsen…a Carthage Senior High School graduate.
As Cupp continued to proclaim his innocence, the police called in Cupp’s mother, Sharon Hendricks. “I didn’t do this,” he told his mother, but later in a discussion with his mother, his minister, and Joplin lawyer Terence Prigmore, Cupp started crying.
“I’ve done something really bad,” he said in a halting voice, and he acknowledged he had sex with the eight-year-old, though he continued to insist he had not killed Doug. Cupp did everything he could to keep from making eye contact with his mother, eventually burying his face in his hands.
“Mom, I’m sorry.”
Finally, with his mother and minister in the room, Terry Cupp told the police what he had done. He described, in chilling detail, how he molested the boy, murdered him and disposed of the body. Every few moments, he stopped to say something to his mother or his minister. At another point, he asked to be allowed to smoke a cigarette. Wanting to do nothing to stop the story, the police agreed to the break.
After the cigarette, he told about driving to a remote area where a cattle pen was located.
“I didn’t stop,” he said, “there was a farmer out there working, I had to drive on by.” He drove around for a while, then circled back to the property. “I took Doug out of the car and I put him on the ground,” Cupp said, “then I poured the gasoline over him,” he paused, then added, “and I set him on fire.”
Once the statement was finished, Terry Cupp, the man who single mother Norma Ringler thought would be a good father figure for her sons, was arrested for murder.
Cupp never said why he killed Doug Ringler, but Cupp’s mother had a theory that she shared with KBI investigator Bill Halvorsen. “I think Terry had so much heartache because of his sexual desire for Doug that he might have thought killing him would get rid of the heartache.”
I looked at the two banners surrounding Doug Ringler’s photo. Both signified that he was a “Hawthorne Hero,” the highest honor a student at his elementary school could receive.
“We thank you for the eight years we had with Douglas and the impact that he had on our lives,” Mike Morgan, an elder at BYKOTA Church, said. He said that no obituary could capture the qualities that endeared Doug to his friends, neighbors and second grade classmates at Hawthorne Elementary.
“His sandy, blond hair, blue eyes…and that wonderful smile. He loved being with people. He loved his school, he loved his classmates, and he loved his church. And he was loved by all who knew him.”
People on all sides of me were reacting in the same manner. Nearly everyone had tears streaming down their faces. Mine would come later when I began writing the story.
BYKOTA Church minister Michael Banes, said, “All of us have been deeply violated by this terrible tragedy. We need to choose to release Doug into the hands of the Lord and trust him to that place where there is no more suffering and no more tears. It is my hope that as a family, church and community we will remember Doug as an outgoing, friendly, energetic child that loved to be involved in all that was going on around him. Though his years were short, we all know that Doug enjoyed life to the fullest. We will miss Doug very much. We will miss his smile and the bubbly joy that his presence brought, but our hope rests in the assurance that we will see Doug again.”
When the service ended, I followed the family and church members to Park Cemetery. The balloons that had surrounded his picture in the church were placed above his casket, and after a few words were spoken at his graveside, the balloons were released into the air and buffeted about by the gusting winds.
Prosecutors filed documents in Jasper County Circuit Court indicating they would seek the death penalty for Terry Cupp, whose trial date was set for October 1995. Though he had had brutally murdered an eight-year-old who had never done any harm to anyone, Terry Cupp was not prepared to pay the ultimate price for his crime.
On May 16, 1995, John Bailey, the public defender for capitol crimes, who had been placed in charge of Cupp’s defense, stopped by Norma Ringler’s home.
“How would you feel about a plea bargain?” Bailey asked. The terms of the agreement would have Cupp receiving a life sentence without possibility of parole.
She told Bailey she would not oppose the plea bargain arrangement. “This is the best thing, not just for my family, but for the entire community,” she told me shortly after she talked to the lawyer.
“Having to go through the trial would have been torture enough, but it wouldn’t have ended there. If Terry had received the death penalty, we would have to go through years and years of appeals. That would have been real hard.
“And I was also worried about the trial,” Mrs. Ringler said. “I didn’t want to see the evidence, the pictures of my Doug. I heard they were very gruesome. That’s not the picture I want to have of Doug. I want to remember Doug the way he was the last time I saw him. He was a happy, little boy, so happy, and so excited about life.”
Though a year and half had passed since the murder, it was obvious that Norma Ringler had not come to grips with what had happened and she probably never would. “I just don’t see how someone could have done that to Doug,” she said, and though she was trying hard to fight back the tears, it was a losing battle. “I figure Terry doesn’t even know why it happened. How can there be any explanation for it? I sometimes think that this has been a ploy of the devil to cause problems in this area where people have such strong faith in God.
“I just hope somehow that we can put this behind us. Vengeance won’t do anyone any good. Maybe with this (the plea bargain), we can finally put Doug to rest.”
Terry Cupp, the slight, bespectacled killer who robbed Carthage of its Midwestern comfort and its sense of innocence, officially entered his guilty plea May 17, 1995, in Jasper County Circuit Court. Before the plea was accepted, Judge David Darnold asked Cupp 119 questions, the same battery of questions that anyone entering a guilty plea in his court had to answer. These included questions on whether his plea was voluntary, whether he was happy with the job his lawyers had done for him, and if he understood that his plea meant he could not come back later and ask for a trial.
“With this plea, you are giving up your right to have a trial. Do you understand that?” Judge Darnold asked.
“Yes,” Cupp said, answering that question as he had all of the others before it, in a thin, reedy voice that barely registered.
After Judge Darnold accepted the plea, Jasper County Prosecuting Attorney David Dally (now a circuit court judge), made a statement to the media. Asked if it bothered him that someone who had committed a crime as heinous as Cupp’s was being allowed to live, Dally said, “Life in prison is not going to be a picnic for Mister Cupp. If there is one thing they do not like in prison, it is someone who hurts a child.”
When a person enters a guilty plea of his own volition, that should be the end of the case, but that was not the case for Terry Cupp. A few months after he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Cupp filed a motion in Jasper County Circuit Court, asking that his sentence be tossed out and that he be allowed to go to trial.
Though disgusted by the prospect of a reopening of Cupp’s case, Carthage Police Chief Ed Ellefsen was not surprised by the motion. “They get up there and find out life isn’t easy and they’re going to be up there a long time, so what have they got to lose?”
Judge Darnold dismissed the motion, which was then taken to the Missouri Southern District Court of Appeals, where it was rejected on Nov. 6, 1996.
Cupp tried again on Jan. 12, 1998. In documents filed in Jasper County Circuit Court, he claimed “material evidence” had been suppressed that had an effect on his plea and deprived him of due process. He never said what the evidence was.
Cupp also charged “outrageous misconduct” by the Jasper County Prosecuting Attorney’s office and the police had kept him from receiving due process. Cupp, who served as his own lawyer in filing the petition, said he would supply more information after the court appointed a lawyer for him.
His petition indicated he had witnesses who would testify about his mental condition, information he claimed was kept from him and could have invalidated the statements he made to the police when he admitted to killing Doug Ringler.
Darnold turned down Cupp once more, noting that Cupp had already filed an appeal and that court rules only allow him for file once for post-conviction relief. Once again, the killer took his case to the Southern District Court of Appeals, helped by a public defender, paid for by the taxpayers, including Norma Ringler, whose son he had brutally murdered. The court upheld Judge Darnold’s ruling on Jan. 26, 1999, and Cupp remains behind bars.
On May 20, 1994, Hawthorne Elementary School paid tribute to Doug Ringler with a ceremony dedicating a bench inscribed with Doug’s name. The bench was placed under a tree, where it was surrounded by rose bushes and chrysanthemums. The bench and its surroundings were christened Doug’s Place. “He loved nature,” Hawthorne Principal Charles Paden said. A cadet teacher told Norma Ringler, “I never got to know Doug very well, but he was always bouncing around. He made school a lot less dreary.
“He was an angel.”
Teacher Julie Collier’s second grade class…Doug’s class…made a collage of drawings for Mrs. Ringler of the good times they remembered having with Doug. All of them referred to Doug in the present tense.
“We don’t talk about it much any more,” Mrs. Collier said, but obviously it was still fresh in their thoughts. “They see students move in and out of here a lot and it’s almost like he’s moved away. They know they won’t see him again, but they still remember him like he was. I don’t know if any of them have ever experienced anything like this before, but I know I haven’t. And you know if it’s hard on the adults, then it’s really hard on the kids.”
After the ceremony, Mrs. Collier gave Norma Ringler a photo of Doug taken just before Christmas break, just a few days before his death. Mrs. Ringler had never seen the photo before. She looked at the photo, then she placed it next to her heart. It was the last picture that was ever taken of her son.
A few years later, when Hawthorne Elementary School closed its doors for the final time and was put on the auction block (and later torn down) Carthage R-9 school officials made sure extra care was taken with Doug’s memorial bench.
At first, Kenneth Bowman, who was R-9 superintendent at the time, told me school officials considered moving the bench to Columbian Elementary, the school Doug would have attended had he lived.
Then at the request of Norma Ringler and with the cooperation of the Carthage Public Library Board, the memorial was moved to the E. L. Dale Memorial Library Gardens, where it sits a few feet away from Carthage artist Bill Snow’s Alice in Wonderland statue, in an area designed for children.
School officials, library officials and Mrs. Ringler agreed that it would be the perfect place to put the bench, to make sure that Douglas Ryan Ringler, forever eight years old, will never be forgotten.