Innocent men imprisoned for the murder of corrupt KCK cop Roger Golubski’s nephew

·11 min read

This is one twisty, mucky story, so put on your hiking boots and meet 50-year-old Celester McKinney, yet another man who has been in prison half his life for a Kansas City, Kansas, killing that the evidence says he did not commit.

McKinney and his 43-year-old cousin, Brian Betts, were convicted 23 years ago, entirely on the testimony of yet another witness who has been saying since even before their trials that Kansas City, Kansas, police and prosecutors threatened to charge him in the murder, too, if he didn’t say what they wanted him to say.

If you guessed that one of those accused of coercing this witness was Roger Golubski, all you win is the bitter knowledge that this still powerfully protected former cop continues to slither around at his liberty. Yes, after spending his entire professional life setting up poor Black men like McKinney, his cousin Brian and his brother Dwayne, who was charged in the murder, too, but was found not guilty.

Bet you didn’t guess, though, because it’s beyond imagining, that the 17-year-old boy McKinney was convicted of murdering was Golubski’s own nephew by marriage, Greg Miller. One of the two main witnesses against McKinney, Jimmy Spencer, Jr., was also an uncle of Miller’s, and Golubski’s brother-in-law. According to court filings, Spencer told one friend that Golubski had shown him crime scene photos and other information to help improve his testimony. (And Golubski’s then-wife, in case you’re wondering, has since said that he terrorized her for years after they broke up.)

It’s the incestuousness of KCK that makes its corruption possible. This one man is not some lone, rogue monster who fooled his four-square colleagues all those years. No, Golubski has gotten away with all that he has because the system he was part of is so gothic that he was really only a symptom of its rot. “They’ve been doing this a long time to people,” Betts’ mother, Ellen Betts, told me. “We’ve got to plow through and be strong, but it’s plain, in-your-face mutilation and modern-day lynching.”

Celester McKinney as a young man, with his mother, Patricia McCoy
Celester McKinney as a young man, with his mother, Patricia McCoy

Who was in charge? ‘Detective Golubski. I believe.’

In October, the Kansas Court of Appeals ruled that this new information about Golubski’s role in a case involving his own family should at least entitle McKinney to an evidentiary hearing on a new trial.

Yet the still way too get-along, go-along Wyandotte County district attorney’s office isn’t hurrying to right this wrong. Instead, in an unusually tart and head-tossing brief, an assistant DA answered that there’s no proof in the official record that Golubski had anything to do with the investigation. On the record, there’s only this: At McKinney’s trial, Detective Michael J. Shomin, who was called to the murder scene, was asked whether the main detective on the case was Detective W.K. Smith. He said, “Detective Smith and I believe Detective Golubski. I believe.”

If Golubski had any reason to cover his tracks, of course, that his name isn’t in the file is just what you’d expect.

But even if he was involved, the brief from the DA’s office said, it’s too late to do anything about it at this point since McKinney’s appeals on those grounds have already been denied. Seriously, given all that’s now known about Golubski, who also spent decades sexually exploiting poor Black women? Including some women whose murders he later investigated, but could never seem to solve? Way to go to the mat for justice, guys.

Carter Betts, the uncle of Brian Betts and Celester and Dwayne McKinney, says that two detectives, Smith and Golubski, pressured him to change his story. He’s also accused the original prosecutor in the case, Daniel Cahill, of pressuring him to buff up his testimony. And Cahill is now a judge in the same courthouse where Judge Wesley K. Griffin will decide some time this summer whether McKinney should get a new trial.

Betts has previously testified that Cahill came to the Shawnee Mission Holiday Inn where he was staying and “said I should change a few things in the story. He said I should say that my nephews confessed to me and that they had to all be confessing together, looking at one another and agreeing all there at the same time he said or else the judge will probably throw it out as hearsay.” Cahill testified that he did visit Betts that night, and could see that he was “jittery,” but never coached him on what to say.

‘Heroin-selling, prostitute-killing detective’

When I talked to McKinney on the phone this week, from his cell at Norton Correctional Facility, he said that some of his fellow inmates who knew a lot more about the crime than he had when he was first convicted have since told him that the victim was working for Golubski, selling drugs, at the time of his death. They told him, too, that Greg Miller was really killed for stealing drugs from Uncle Roger for his own consumption. “The streets told me the whole story,” McKinney told me.

I don’t know if the streets got that right, though the autopsy did show there were opiates, PCP and pot in Miller’s system when he died. But McKinney’s new pro bono attorney, Sarah Swain, who was one of a bunch of lawyers whom the previously unrepresented McKinney sent blind letters, begging for legal help, puts it this way: “With a heroin-selling, prostitute-killing detective, anything is possible.”

That Golubski and other KCK officers had lucrative side hustles in the drug business is not a new allegation, and I’m hardly alone in suspecting that that’s why his old department is still so carefully protecting him.

In a recent deposition in the civil suit being brought by exoneree Lamonte McIntyre, Golubski was asked if he had a sideline in selling drugs while he was a police detective in KCK. In response, he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.

Every case Golubski touched during his decades at the KCKPD is suspect now, or should be, though no one inside the department seems to see that.

Nancy Chartrand, spokeswoman for the department, says, “I just don’t know that we could make an educated comment” on anything to do with McKinney’s case or Golubski’s role in it. “I doubt there’s anyone still here.” And then, “if it’s being reviewed, I’m not sure it would be appropriate” to weigh in. So, it’s both too old and too current?

What we know for sure is that Miller’s murder, like so many others in KCK, was never properly investigated. At trial, both main witnesses recalled seeing, hearing and knowing a lot more than they had when they were first interviewed.

And did I mention that the entire civil rights division of the DOJ could and should be fully employed for the rest of their hopefully long lives looking into Golubski and his friends? Of course I did, and will keep doing so until somebody with a badge and cuffs rolls up on this guy.

Brian Betts with his wife Keyronta Betts and son Shuron Hodge. Shuron has been in the U.S. Army for the last seven years and has kids of his own now.
Brian Betts with his wife Keyronta Betts and son Shuron Hodge. Shuron has been in the U.S. Army for the last seven years and has kids of his own now.

Phony story about payback for a burglary

Meanwhile, though, let’s go back to the early morning hours of December 29, 1997, when a boy named Greg Miller lost his life and McKinney and his cousin Brian Betts, who were asleep at the time, lost life as they’d known it.

Les McKinney, as Celester is known, was 27 at the time, and he and his younger brother Dwayne McKinney had been in KCK only a few weeks. They’d come up from Atlanta to help their uncle, Carter Betts, with his janitorial business.

That night, Brian was in his apartment at the back of Carter’s house with his girlfriend and new baby. Carter, Dwayne and Les had been cleaning a car dealership in Raytown. They hadn’t gotten home until almost midnight, and then had gone straight to sleep in the house they shared.

That’s what Carter Betts told police the first time they asked — that he’d heard some shots, but since that was an almost-every-night occurrence, he’d gone right back to sleep.

Later, that story turned into this one: He heard the shots around 3 a.m., then heard his front door open and close. When he went down to the basement to see what was happening, he found all three of his nephews with the murder weapons — an SKS assault rifle and a shotgun, neither of which police ever found.

In this perfect new version of the narrative, his three nephews all said they’d killed Miller because they’d suspected him of breaking into Brian’s apartment.

There was no such burglary. None of these men had ever been in any legal trouble, yet after a night of hard physical labor and caring for a newborn, they’d grabbed a rifle and a shotgun and shot a young neighbor 18 times in retaliation for something that never happened. Really?

“I never even heard of an SKS,” Carter Betts later testified. “Detective Smith told me what type of gun was used.”

No physical evidence linked any of these three men to the crime. And since the only door to the front part of the house was locked from the inside, only Carter Betts had a key and there were bars on the windows, Les and Dwayne said they couldn’t have gone out if they’d wanted to.

The other main witness, Golubski’s brother-in-law, Jimmy Spencer, initially said that he’d heard shots but had seen nothing.

Later, he not only remembered hearing “up to 16 to 17 shots” but could tell that “they sounded like 12-gauge shotgun and an SK.”

Ellen Betts stands in front of the Kansas City, Kansas, house where her son and two nephews were staying when they were wrongly accused of murdering KCK police detective Roger Golubski’s 17-year-old nephew.
Ellen Betts stands in front of the Kansas City, Kansas, house where her son and two nephews were staying when they were wrongly accused of murdering KCK police detective Roger Golubski’s 17-year-old nephew.

By the time of the trial, he’d remembered that after hearing the shots and running to the door “I can see through a light that somebody was standing there shooting a gun” and standing over his nephew’s body. Given where Ellen Betts showed me Miller’s body was found, that would have been impossible. Both before and since, Spencer has spent stretches in prison on multiple drug charges, and for breaking into and stealing from neighborhood churches.

A third man, Alfred Burdette, initially told police he’d heard shots as well, then saw two men running up an alley behind the Betts house. His story was airbrushed, too; later, he decided he’d actually seen these men run into the house where Betts and the McKinneys were living.

Only real evidence is recanted testimony

The testimony of both Spencer and Burdette, who is no longer alive, was so unbelievable that prosecutors have since acknowledged that the tearful and long-recanted testimony from McKinney’s uncle is really the only evidence against him. Police and prosecutors also pushed McKinney’s mother, Patricia McCoy, to testify against her two sons and nephew, she told me, but that backfired on them when she testified in Dwayne’s case that they’d always told her they weren’t involved. “They were trying to put things in my mouth,” she said. “It was a nightmare.”

During all these years behind bars, her son Les has been working on his case. Right now, he’s taking a college class in renewable energy and is working towards his associate degree. The friends he’s made in prison include a couple of men you’ve heard of, exonerees Lamonte McIntrye and former KCK mailman Pete Coones, who was released last November after serving 12 years for a murder he didn’t commit, either. Coones, who died of cancer in February, after only 108 days of freedom, “used to be my neighbor up here, and I liked the old man,” McKinney said. “Good dude. Innocent.”

The boy who was murdered, Greg Miller, was no one he’d ever had any problems with, McKinney said. “He was just a kid. He’d come by to speak to me and talk about girls, but I didn’t hang out with him. He was a baby” when his uncle found him face-down in the snow in his blood-soaked white jeans and blue and white North Carolina jacket.

McKinney tries hard “not to dine on the past,” and says, maybe to himself more than to me, that “God sent me here for a reason.” That wasn’t God, though, even if that’s how Roger Golubski and his esteemed colleagues saw themselves.

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