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SIOUX CITY COLD CASES
Kenneth Harker had survived a horrible car wreck, owned a dog and was passionate about building motorcycles. He also disappeared in the fall of 1996, never to be heard from again.
By Jody Ewing
November 17, 2005
This is the third in a five-part series on Sioux City cold cases.
* Due to the ongoing nature of this open investigation, certain names have been changed.
Jim Hathaway, Jr. vividly remembers his going away party the fall of ’96. The 34-year-old Sioux Cityan was heading out to Phoenix, Ariz., for classes to become a motorcycle mechanic. He’d invited his closest friends, all of whom shared his passion for Harley-Davidson bikes.
His best friend, Kenneth (Kenny) Harker, had come to say goodbye and express some concerns about his own cycle’s motor. The two of them, along with friend Jim Peterson and Jim Hathaway, Sr., had held a recent contest at Jim Sr.’s shop where the four built their bikes from scratch. Jim Sr. — the now retired National Guard Fire Chief who responded to 1989’s Flight 232 aircraft crash — beat his three younger rivals in producing the coolest, fastest bike.
Kenny later took his motor to a local bike shop for repairs, and the time had long passed since it should have been finished. Jim Jr. remembers what led up to the last conversation he had with his friend.
“[Kenny] had bought some cases and some flywheels, and we’d got them together, and this *Mikey — Michael Bush (pseudonym) — was supposed to get a hold of his motor guru and have it sent off to do a little machine work,” says Hathaway, who’d known Harker since kindergarten. “Well, he sent it off and it never come back and never come back, and that Mikey was all spun out on crank. I kept asking Kenny, ‘Where’s your motor?’ and he said Mikey shipped it off to get some machine work done. And I said ‘Kenny, I think he sold your motor for dope.’ And he said ‘No, no, no.'”
Harker hadn’t wanted to believe him, Hathaway recalls, because Michael Bush was supposed to be Kenny’s friend. Yet Hathaway says he had reason to believe differently; Bush was spun out to the point where he carried a gun on his side because he’d ripped off so many other people. Hathaway tried a different approach.
I said ‘Well, get it back. I’m going to school, and we’ll just finish it ourselves when I get back. We don’t need them guys anyway.'”
Hathaway wished him luck before leaving for Arizona, and regretted he couldn’t do more. After all, Kenny would give anyone the shirt off his back. He’d been the kind of friend who would come and mow Hathaway’s yard before he got home from work.
Marie Harker waited for her son to arrive. They’d made plans to get together, and when he didn’t show up, she could only surmise he’d forgotten all about it and was hanging out with his friends — probably playing guitars. An auto accident had left Kenny disabled and unable to hold a full-time job, but over the years he’d learned to play guitar and loved playing with friends almost as much as he loved working on bikes.
While she waited with hopes he’d still arrive, the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Office found Kenny’s 1977 white Chevy Suburban parked on K-42’s gravel road, its doors open, tires flat and out of gas. They tagged it as an abandoned vehicle.
Marie tried to reach Kenny Sunday and Monday, and again on Tuesday. Though he’d sustained a head injury in the earlier crash, he’d worked hard toward achieving an independent lifestyle and even succeeded in buying his own home. She didn’t want to smother him with an overactive imagination, despite a nagging feeling something wasn’t right. While she told herself she’d give him one more day, Plymouth County officials were towing his deserted truck away.
The instant she let herself into Kenny’s house, Marie confirmed her worst fears; not only was Kenny gone, he clearly hadn’t been there in days. His Australian shepherd, Kilo, hadn’t been fed nor attended to, and Kenny hadn’t taken his medication, something Marie closely monitored. The time had come to go to the police. She didn’t yet know his truck already had been found.
Jim Hathaway had been in Phoenix just three weeks when he got the call from Sioux City police. Kenny was missing, the detective said, and wondered aloud as to whether Kenny might be there in Phoenix with Hathaway. He wasn’t, responded Hathaway, who then asked what they were doing about Kenny’s disappearance. Without a body, the detective told him, they had no evidence a crime had been committed.
Hathaway immediately suspected Mikey, and after making some calls discovered the bike shop owner disappeared shortly after Kenny went missing.
“They were friends,” Hathaway says of Kenny’s initial relationship with Bush. “He was building a motor for Kenny, and then the motor disappeared. They weren’t enemies at the time, until the motor come up missing when we were building the Harley for him. We were all building Harleys at the time.”
Whatever happened most likely went down in the shop, says Hathaway, because he doubts they would have gotten his friend to go anywhere else without his dog.
“He and that dog were like the left and right hand. You couldn’t see one without the other being right there,” Hathaway says, “and so I thought that was weird. It must have been just one of those rare times where he didn’t take his dog with him, because his dog would probably have ended up shot too, because that dog wouldn’t let nothing happen to him.”
When Hathaway discovered they’d found Kenny’s dog at home and it hadn’t been fed in four or five days, he knew right away something was going on. “Kenny would never do that to his dog,” he says.
Marie also suspected her son’s disappearance had something to do with the missing motor.
“Mikey claimed Kenny had picked up the engine, and I said no way, because my son would have been over the moon with it and wanting me to come see it,” says Marie. “So I knew that wasn’t true. He’d worked on it too long and put too much money into it to let it just slide by like that. He would have been crowing with excitement that he finally got it done.”
The mother of three wasn’t prepared to lose her oldest child and only son; she’d just lost her husband and mother-in-law a few short years before.
Despite suspicions, the Sioux City Police Department faced a major obstacle with the number of days passed since anyone reported having seen Harker. One week had lapsed between the time he last visited a friend and the missing person report filed, which gave any perpetrator ample time to destroy evidence.
According to Investigative Service’s Lt. Lisa Claeys, police searched Harker’s 504 Colon Street residence, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Detectives also stopped by Bush’s residence on numerous occasions and left messages with anyone and everyone who might know him, but were unable to make contact with him.
“Michael Bush did call and left a voice mail for Detective [Mike] Lefler saying essentially that Kenny had picked up his motorcycle and was supposed to return the following day but never did,” says Claeys. “The message said that Bush knew nothing of his whereabouts.”
Shortly thereafter, Bush packed up and moved. Claeys says Bush’s ex-wife told police she didn’t know where he’d gone, though Det. Lefler and Det. Jim Clark — who’d been assigned to the Investigative Service Bureau in January 1997 — knew she was lying.
Acting on a later tip, police secured a warrant and searched a rural property where Harker allegedly had been buried.
“We searched property that was this Michael Bush’s sister’s property up by Merrill,” says Claeys, who’d only recently been assigned to investigative services and participated in the search. “We actually brought in cadaver dogs.”
Neither dogs nor police found any trace of Harker, and they hit yet another dead-end when a search of the Plymouth County area where they’d found Harker’s abandoned Suburban yielded no clues.
“We’ve got no evidence to indicate it’s a homicide, so it’s [classified as] a missing person,” Claeys says. “Obviously, it’s suspected, but we need something more.”
Unconvinced Mikey wasn’t involved, when Hathaway returned from Arizona he decided to pay a visit to Bush’s home.
“As soon as I got back into town I went out there and they had a fence around that place like a fort, like an 8-foot tall privacy fence all the way around it,” Hathaway says, “and that wasn’t there when I left, I know that.”
Bush and his belongings were gone, and Hathaway — like Lefler and Clark — didn’t believe the ex-wife’s assertion that she didn’t know where Bush had gone.
“How could she not know when he’d been living there?” says Hathaway, who suspected Bush fled not only because of Harker but also the many other customers he’d ripped off. “It was to the point where he was just going right down the line robbing everybody that came to his shop. He’d robbed another buddy of mine, and it got where [Bush] wouldn’t answer the door. When we went out to pick up my buddy’s motorcycle, Mikey was gone and he had a brand new ex-con — fresh out of the joint — standing there, and the bike log-chained. We said ‘we already paid for the bike so give us the bike,’ and he said, ‘oh, we don’t know nothin’ about that.'”
Hathaway said they reported the incident to police, but since Bush had put a lien on the bike, they were forced to pay him again to get it back.
According to Hathaway — who works as a motorcycle mechanic and builds and races bikes on the side — Bush didn’t just leave a trail of enemies behind; he also left in his wake one or more witnesses and/or accomplices.
Hathaway vividly remembers the first time he met the man he calls *Hammerhead Harry (pseudonym) when he bought a motor from him two months prior to Harker’s disappearance.
“He was a spooky motherf**ker with gray eyes, and he’d look right through you,” says Hathaway, who quickly realized the man belonged to a local cutthroat motorcycle club. “I knew he was one of the Sons of Silence because I saw the club tattoo on his hand.”
Hammerhead Harry lived on the same Merrill farm where Michael Bush’s sister lived and where Hathaway believes those behind Harker’s disappearance disposed of his body. In addition to the sister, Bush also had a brother.
“That dude split town, too, right after all this happened,” Hathaway says. “He’s come back a couple times and left again, and I’m sure he knows something. I know he knows. They gotta know. He had to tell somebody. Something like that can’t go down, where you go, ‘oh my God, I can’t believe what I just did.'”
Both Hathaway and Marie Harker are convinced Kenny didn’t get disoriented and wander off and die due to exposure, because someone out mushroom hunting or a farmer or another individual would have found him by now. And, Kenny’s close attachment to friends and family kept him from wanting to live elsewhere.
“Both his sisters — Glenda and Gayle — live in Sioux City, and he was nuts about his nieces and the nephew,” says Marie. “Glenda has twins and they were three months early. It was a pretty rough time, and there was a lot of excitement around then.”
Marie also suspected something went wrong when Kenny went to the bike shop, and though rumors fueled her suspicions, she says nothing ever panned out to confirm or refute what really happened.
For some time, she made daily trips to Kenny’s home to feed and care for Kilo, but eventually knew she’d have to find the dog a new home. She contacted Lynn Coffman, the woman who’d given Kenny the shepherd as a pup, and Lynn agreed to take him back. She loved him, says Marie.
With the passing of years, Marie says she knows her only son is gone but dealing with the unknown doesn’t make it any less painful.
“I just need to know where he’s at and what happened,” she says. “Just knowing where they put him or where he is, that’s the hard part, not knowing. I hate this word, I really do — the closure — there is no closure because you don’t know. It doesn’t go out of your head. It’s always there.”
For Jim Hathaway, it’s not sufficient just to know what happened, and he follows the case in hopes something new will surface.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t care who or why they did it,” he says. “We had his bike almost done. He pretty much had the whole world in his hands. He could do anything he wanted to. All I want is that if anybody knows anything, to just come forward.”
Hathaway also gets caught up in reflecting on the good times he shared with his boyhood friend who, after the disabling auto accident, not only learned to walk and talk again but helped his father build an all-original four-speed ’55 Chevrolet Belair hotrod with everything chrome plated.
He recalls the “little friendly rivalry deal” where Kenny and the “Three Jims” built motorcycles from scratch and Jim Hathaway, Sr., won.
“Oh yeah,” he says with a laugh. “Everybody’s pitching in helping him with his, and then we’re on our own.”
They wait. And nine years after Kenny closed the door to his home and left his right-hand companion behind, a graying muzzle — his eyes and ears nearly gone with age — perks his head when footsteps approach as he, too, continues to wait.
This article originally appeared in the Weekender on November 17, 2005.
If you or anyone you know has information regarding Kenneth Harker’s disappearance/suspected homicide, please call the Sioux City Police Department at 712-279-6365.