Kathy Allen and her father, Ken. (Courtesy of Kathy Allen)

The homecoming trip was a long haul, nearly 2,000 miles from Berkeley, Calif., to the courtroom in Union, Mo., and Kathy Allen had no clue what to expect once she landed. The odds were stacked against her, the whole journey could be a bust.

Still, there she was Friday, in the Franklin County courthouse, hoping her voice could nudge the legal system in a different direction.

Last November, her father, Kenneth Allen Jr., 70, was found dead in his home. Three people — Blake Schindler, Timothy Wonish and Whitney Robins — were arrested for the crime. Police said it was a home break-in gone awry. Prosecutors offered to resolve the matter with a plea deal.

But when Allen learned her father’s killers would only serve 10 years as part of the agreement, she pushed back. She read a searing open letter to the court. She started a Facebook page asking for justice for her father. She investigated the details of the crime. Ultimately, Allen challenged the idea of how much influence a victim should have determining punishment in the justice system.

Due to the sheer volume of arrests churning through the American courts, nearly 90 percent of criminal cases are resolved with plea agreements, creating a functionally closed circuit mechanism operating at a rapid clip — and outside the influence of victims. Family members like Allen are often pressed up on the other side of the glass, looking in at the process.

But Allen was determined to have her say.

That meant wading through lingering questions about her father’s death, his fight with local law enforcement in the months before his murder and even ugly allegations about his own behavior.

Everything came down to Friday, when a Franklin County judge was scheduled to determine whether to accept the plea deal.

Allen made the trip, and although she had not called Franklin County home since 1990, suddenly she found herself among friends. From her seat in the first row of the courtroom, Allen surveyed the packed room. She spotted her father’s co-workers and friends. A former teacher. Even her old summer league softball coach. “I saw all these familiar faces, it was like ‘This Is Your Life,’ that old game show,” Allen told The Washington Post this week.

A little after 2 p.m., Circuit Judge Gael D. Wood sat on the bench, quieted the courtroom, and prepared to deliver his decision.


Kathy Allen and her father, Ken. (Courtesy of Kathy Allen)

Kathy and Ken Allen were tied together by a unique bond that went beyond the typical father-daughter relationship. When Allen came out as gay in her freshman year at Yale University, her father was the first person in the family she told.

A short time later, Ken came out to his daughter. Despite his revelation, Ken remained married to Allen’s mother, Jan.

Later, Allen, a tech employee with various San Francisco start-ups, encouraged her father to move somewhere more gay-friendly than Franklin County, a rural stretch of central Missouri about an hour west of St. Louis. Ken, however, wanted to stay. “He always wanted to keep his private life private,” Allen told The Post.

Ken was integrally involved in the region’s court system. A probation officer and parole supervisor, he served for years in the county’s drug court. He and his wife later opened a substance abuse treatment program. Beginning in 2000, the business contracted with the Franklin County drug court, offering counseling and treatment to offenders.

“There were people Dad would help who the rest of the professional community had written off,” his daughter said. “He would give them more tries, he was always fighting for the underdog. He was always extremely generous with people, and sometimes it bothered me. I saw people using and abusing his generosity, and he would turn the other cheek.”

Ken’s professional relationship with the drug court, however, would sour. According to a federal lawsuit he filed in August 2016, Ken began noticing his court clients were failing drug tests and missing counseling. The reason, Ken would later claim, was that drug court participants were being forced to work as confidential informants for Jason Grellner, a Franklin County sheriff’s officer who served as commander of the regional narcotics task force.

Ken allegedly confronted Grellner about using the participants for police work. Shortly after, Grellner and others began spreading rumors that Ken was “anti-Drug Court,” the lawsuit alleged. In August 2013, the county cut the Allen contract prematurely — retaliation, the lawsuit alleged, for questioning the drug task force’s use of participants. The suit named Grellner, the county, a Franklin county prosecutor, and judge among the defendants.

Grellner called the complaint “100 percent incorrect,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

But Ken’s legal claims never made it far. Within two months, he was murdered.

A friend discovered Ken’s body at his home on the morning of Nov. 3. The house had been burglarized. Ken was hogtied with lamp and phone cords. He seemed to have been asphyxiated. Due to the lawsuit against Grellner and other members of the local court system, the investigation was immediately handed over to the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis. Quickly, investigators zeroed in on three suspects: Schindler, 17; Wonish, 30; and Robins, 28. Ken’s credit cards and checkbooks were found in their possession, investigators said.

All three were charged with first-degree burglary, possession of stolen goods and second-degree murder.

Kathy Allen was in for a whole new series of shocks as the case entered the legal system.

Last August, the family learned the unsettling details of the plea agreement. Under the arrangement between the defendants and prosecutor Robert Parks, the murder charge was knocked away. Instead, the three would plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter and burglary. The assumption under the deal was that Ken had accidentally suffocated during the robbery. The defendants would serve 10 years.

When Allen heard the details — technically, the accused would serve more time for the burglary than the death — she was outraged. According to Allen, when she pressed Parks on why he was offering what she considered a lenient deal, the prosecutor opened up with a shocking allegation: Ken had been under investigation for the last 18 months, Parks said, for sexually abusing young men.

“I asked him specifically, ‘My dad is dead, I cannot ask my dad about these charges of pedophilia, I need to know more about the root of these accusations,’” Allen told The Post. The prosecutor, however, offered no further details. “We have no idea if there is evidence or if there isn’t any evidence,” Allen said. “We have no idea how credible it is.”

At the same time, she began to look into her father’s death, specifically the results of the autopsy. The documents noted Ken had died of “asphyxiation from neck compression.” In a conversation with the medical examiner, Allen said she was told her father’s death was from human pressure applied to his neck — not the accidental death caused by the tying.

Armed with this information, Allen returned to Franklin County for a court hearing where she read a victim impact statement beseeching the court to reject the deal. “The possibility my dad’s killers might be back on the streets in less than 10 years, and maybe as few as two years, despite their long string of offenses, despite their violence, despite their utter disregard for the suffering of another human being, is beyond belief,” she read.

Allen also hit back at the allegations about her father. “My dad was not a pedophile. My dad was not a child molester. My dad was gay,” she told the court. “Being gay, and being a pedophile or a child molester, are not the same thing. . . . Mr. Parks seems, in his own mind, to have already tried and convicted my dad of pedophilia and found death to be an appropriate sentence. ”

After the September hearing, Allen traveled the 2,000 miles back Berkeley to wait for the October sentencing.

Then last Friday, she found herself back in the first row of the courtroom in Union, Mo.

A little after 2 p.m., Circuit Judge Gael D. Wood sat on the bench, quieted the courtroom, and prepared to deliver his decision.

Wood announced he would not accept the plea agreement.

Allen felt a vindicating rush of relief.

This week, prosecutor Robert Parks told The Post the defendants are back on the docket and the case will continue. He declined to provide any specifics on the investigation into Ken Allen, but also defended his choice in the now-defunct plea agreement.

“I can’t comment on the family’s feelings. But I told them when we first started, I want their input on the case. But I have the final say on plea negotiating. If we do not agree on that, I will explain why I did what I did, but I am the one that makes the final decision, not the family.”

Allen is worried. She is adamant she wants second-degree murder returned to the charges against her father’s killers.

“It’s a twisted kind of triumph,” Allen told The Post. “My dad is still no less dead, and we’re still suffering.”

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