By Cleon Rickel
Kevin and Debbie Heidt lived a parent’s worst nightmare.
It was after midnight on that dark, winter night and their 21-year-old son Derrick was speaking desperately into his cell phone, saying that he was being chased by another car. In his twists and turns along empty rural roads to evade his pursuers, Derrick Heidt, an Ottawa University student, told his parents he was completely lost.
Sitting tensely in his Colorado home, Kevin Heidt grabbed a Kansas map and tried to calm and coach his distraught son more than 600 miles away. He instructed his son to look for landmarks or road signs as he raced along the rural roads. Finally, Derrick saw a landmark that gave the elder Heidt a clue that he was near Vssar, a small east-central Kansas town on the banks of Pomona Lake, nearly 30 miles away from Ottawa.
He started giving him directions to get him back to Ottawa when Derrick’s phone went dead.
"I lost the connection," Kevin Heidt said. "That was the last time I talked to him.“
Nearly 24 hours later, Feb. 25, 2006, the sheriff and coroner of the Heidts’ Colorado county turned into their driveway.
“I knew exactly what they were going to say,“ he recalled. “My son was dead.“
But the Heidts’ nightmare wasn’t over.
Kevin Heidt and one of Derrick’s brothers immediately headed for Osage County, where Derrick died, to meet county authorities, look at the death scene and then take Derrick‘s body home. Almost instantly, they were skeptical of Osage County authorities’ decision that Derrick’s death was an accidental drowning. A Kansas coroner concurred.
Kevin Heidt was surprised. His son Derrick played soccer for Ottawa University and was an Eagle Scout who was an avid sportsman and expert swimmer who loved to be out on the water.
And as he talked to county investigators and looked at the site where Derrick died, his surprise turned into suspicion.
He thought the investigators were too quick to label his son’s death as an accident and appeared to miss things at the scene that would indicate otherwise -- signs that his son ran and crashed through shrubs and underbrush at the lake and at one place, a depression where he might have hid, odd footprints in deep, gooey mud that didn’t seem right for an accidental death verdict.
Kevin Heidt kept probing and what he found disturbed him:
- The sheriff‘s department received a cell phone call from an unidentified woman reporting that she saw a body on the shore of Pomona Lake, a popular fishing spot.
Heidt said he was told that the woman had seen the body from 70 yards away. But Derrick’s body was heavily encased in the thick gooey mud at the site. “There was no way you could seen his body from any more than 10 feet away. Even experts had trouble picking out Derrick‘s body from the surrounding mud in photos taken of his body at the scene, the elder Heidt said.
The woman appears to have vanished into thin air and was never positively identified, he said.
Derrick’s cell phone was never found after his death. Heidt said he believes the mysterious woman used Derrick's cell phone to make the report although authorities have refused to release his cell phone records.
When he saw the condition of Derrick's body, Heidt was shocked. Underneath the mud, Derrick’s body was severely bruised and battered.
Their hometown funeral director was shocked, too. Despite assurances from Kansas authorities and the Kansas pathologist that the bruises were a normal consequence of Derrick’s accident and death, Heidt said the funeral director was adamant that the marks on Derrick's body were unnatural and were inflicted by some sort of trauma.
The Heidts hired their own forensic pathologist in Colorado, a national expert, who expressed the opinion that Derrick was killed rather than drowned.
The Colorado forensic pathologist said she found no evidence of drowning; instead, she told the Heidts that the thick, gooey mud was jammed tightly into his throat and vocal cords --consistent with having his head forced into and held in the mud or by having the mud deliberately pushed into his mouth and down his throat.
Shortly after his death, the Heidts found out that Derrick‘s ATM card was used to withdraw money from his account after he he died.
While he was in Ottawa, the elder Heidt was told by Derrick’s landlord that almost immediately after his death, two acquaintances entered Derrick's apartment and searched it.
Because of a learning disability, Derrick had trouble with directions and had to painstakingly write down directions to his intended destinations in ruled school notebooks, Kevin Heidt said.
When he examined Derrick’s notebooks later, he found that several pages had been ripped out.
Kevin Heidt also knew that Derrick kept personal papers in a particular part of a particular drawer in his dresser in his apartment.
The drawer had been rifled and there were no papers, he said.
Heidt also noticed something else strange about Derrick’s apartment in Ottawa.
The apartment had the air of student-ambience: rumpled, a bit untidy and scruffy. In the kitchen, there was the same ambience -- on one side.
"It was like you drew a line right down the middle," Heidt said.
The other side was spotless, Heidt said. So spotlessly clean that there were no fingerprints on that side of the kitchen, he added.
The Heidts' own theory is that their son’s death was drug-related.
They said when he moved to Ottawa, Derrick fell in with a group of friends who were fellow fishing and outdoors enthusiasts but who had a more unsavory hobby -- according to local authorities they were probably low-level marijuana dealers.
Like his friends, Derrick smoked marijuana, Kevin Heidt said.
“He was frustrated by his disability,” he said. “I think he was probably self-medicating himself.”
Derrick, who had a reliable car, was unwittingly used as a mule for the drug ring; he was often asked by his friends to drive them to Kansas City where they picked up marijuana and conducted other drug-related business. Heidt said the pages torn out of his notebook probably detailed Derrick’s directions to himself on how to get to the pickup points in Kansas City.
Derrick told his parents he discovered he was being used and that he ended his association with them, Kevin Heidt said.
Three days before he died, three of those acquaintances were arrested on drug offenses, the elder Heidt said.
"He was worried that they thought he turned them in," Kevin Heidt said.
Derrick was an athlete at Ottawa University and had just been named a student ambassador. However, immediately after he died, rumors started swirling around campus about Derrick's connections and the possible causes of his death. It was those rumors that caused OU to scale down a memorial service for him to very low-key event, he said.
The Heidts told investigators their theory and what they had found.
However, local authorities weren’t interested, Heidt said. They refused to consider any other cause other than accidental death, he said.
“It was almost like, ‘They live out of state, they can’t bother us’,” Heidt said.
However, after a year of relentless pressure from the Heidts, the Osage County sheriff asked the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to re-examine the death.
The Heidts said they had reason to hope they would be vindicated. An agent picked up a few leads and even located a woman who might have been the woman who first called authorities about seeing a body. Heidt said he was told the woman had ended up in a Texas prison on a drug conviction.
But to the Heidts’ horror, the KBI ended the investigation.
After more attempts at pressure and more unreturned phone calls, the Heidts hired a high-powered Colorado legal firm with strong connections to the Colorado governor’s office and a satellite office in Kansas City.
Threatened with a potential lawsuit, KBI officials and a representative of the Kansas attorney general’s office agreed to meet Heidt and his two other sons in October in Topeka.
At first, the meeting didn’t go well, Kevin Heidt said. The Heidts asked for case notes done during the KBI investigation. They began laying out their case for a homicide as the Kansas officials listened in polite but icy silence.
At one point, top officials got up and started to leave the room.
“I asked, ‘Where in the hell do you think you’re going?’” Heidt recalled. “They said, ‘this meeting is over.’.
“I told them they promised me a full day and we went there expecting a full day.
“I said ‘Sit your ass back down. We’re not done yet’.”
Heidt reminded them that prior to the meeting, he had sent the KBI several pieces of evidence.
“I asked them if they had checked for fingerprints on Derrick’s wallet. They looked at each other. It was one of those blank, deer-in-the-headlight looks.”
Pausing, he asked if the KBI had examined any of the evidence.
“It was real clear they hadn’t checked anything,” Heidt said.
Heidt put them on the defensive and relentlessly kept them on the defensive, pressing them to reopen the case.
After a long afternoon, the KBI officials agreed to assign a new agent to the case.
Heidt said he’s been satisfied with the KBI’s performance since the agency reopened the case. The lead agent, Mark Malick, is a trained homicide inspector, and he’s been tracking several leads in several states.
Heidt said in the past, he’s been critical of Kansas law enforcement officials but he doesn’t regard them as enemies.
“I’m trying to help them get to the bottom of things,” he said.
The Heidts know that because it’s been three years, investigators may never find any useful evidence.
“What I hope is that maybe someone saw something or knows something and calls us,” he said.
Heidt said those who might know something about Derrick’s death are asked to call Malick at (785) 296-7785 or the KBI’s main number at (785) 296-8200.
“We just want to get whoever it is off the street,” Heidt said. “We don’t want another family to go through what we went through.”
Derrick's parents have set up a website for more information: