'Hold your heart open': Officers, community members attend funeral for Kansas City cop, K-9
Police Chief Stacey Graves said officers brought K-9 Champ to the hospital and laid him with Officer James Muhlbauer so the two could pass on together
By Andrea Klick, Matti Gellman
The Kansas City Star
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A funeral and public visitation Wednesday honored a Kansas City police officer killed in the line of duty last week.
Community members paid their respects to Officer James Muhlbauer, 42, and his police K-9 Champ at the visitation at Municipal Auditorium Wednesday morning. A funeral service, filled to capacity, followed the visitation. After the funeral, a procession transported the fallen officer from the Municipal Auditorium to the funeral home.
Muhlbauer was patrolling with Champ on Feb. 15 when they were struck by another vehicle near Truman Road and Benton Boulevard. Both Muhlbauer and Champ were killed.
Police said the impact caused a secondary collision that killed pedestrian Jesse Eckes, 52. A Tonganoxie man is facing charges in the crash.
‘He served with honor’
More than 100 people filtered through the auditorium to watch the procession to honor Muhlbauer and Champ.
Everyone stood in silence for 10 minutes after gun shots rang out in honor of Muhlbauer’s service. A flag was folded and removed from his caskets.
“He served with honor and distinction,” an officer said over a speaker as her voice cracked. “Jim and Champ rest easy, we’ve got it from here.”
Officers broke formation and walked down 13th Street past Central Avenue.
As they walked away, the crowd relaxed, turning toward their neighbors and hugging. Tissues were passed around. Many hurried toward their cars, still wiping their eyes.
‘These funerals ... force us to reflect’
As the bagpipes played Wednesday afternoon, grieving community members filtered into the main lobby of the auditorium in a procession.
Retired KCPD Officer Ben Kenney explained that the pipes are a tradition at Scottish funerals.
In the Bible, bagpipes played as people ascended into heaven, he said. The instrument was not allowed inside, but the music broke every barrier, reverberating throughout heaven so even those long gone could still listen and know their presence was missed.
Holding the bracelet enshrined with the fallen police partner’s name, Kenney struggled to catch his breath.
“We reflect on [Muhlbauer], but these funerals also force us to reflect on those gone before.”
He pressed his fist against his lips to collect himself, then gave a reluctant smile. Despite attending the funerals of 14 fallen officers and playing for nine as part of the Coast Guard’s Pipe Band, he still does not know what to say to comfort the grieving.
He did offer one guiding principle, which he said has helped him cope with loss: “Hold your heart open.”
More than 100 people walked through the main lobby headed toward the funeral procession. Officers stood in formation on 13th Street as the hearse sat parked behind the band.
‘We never know when our loved ones won’t make it.’
Nine officers from the K-9 unit gathered on stage to share stories about Muhlbauer and Champ.
“You were such a good boy,” one officer said of the canine officer, “and your life was taken too early for you to show what a champ you were.”
Muhlbauer, he said, would come into work with resting bitch face every day. They’d try to make him laugh, but realized he wasn’t actually in a bad mood.
Through sniffles, an officer thanked Muhlbauer for taking the time to make the canine officers and the unit better. He recalled the arguments they got in about who was taller and their talks about his family and friends and his favorite hobbies, hunting and fishing.
He told Muhlbauer’s children that his father was proud of them, and that the law enforcement officers at the funeral would be there for Muhlbauer’s wife and children.
“I wish this was all some bullshit bad dream we were experiencing,” he said, “and we could all just wake up from it.”
A representative spoke for Muhlbauer’s wife Cassie also spoke at the funeral. She said Champ was Muhlbauer’s favorite partner, and they were meant to be together.
She recalled how the two met at Tomfooleries Restaurant & Bar and talked into the morning hours. After that, she lost the napkin where he wrote his phone number, but Muhlbauer tracked her down on MySpace. Her husband, she said, loved to bike, hunt and fish alone, probably to get away from the stress of policing.
She used to get upset that Muhlbauer acted like a teenager, spending hours playing video games and yelling at them with Ayden. Muhlbauer and Makenzie would gang up on Cassie Muhlbauer and make fun of her cooking, she said.
Now, she would give anything to have another family meal or argument with her husband. She’s grateful that her son so closely resembles her husband, so that she’ll always have a piece of him with her.
“The thing is, we never know when our loved ones won’t make it home again,” she said. “Please hug your spouse, children, family members or friends a little tighter tonight and every night moving forward. You just never know.”
Muhlbauer’s parents, Vern and Chris, said their son was proud to be a police officer and they were proud of him. The last week, they said, has shown them that their son had an additional family in the police force.
‘Kansas City was safer ... because of Jim’
Muhlbauer’s sister, Laurie Muhlbauer, said her brother ‘Jimbo’ was stubborn and hard-headed as a teenager.
She remembered her older brothers shooting bottle rockets while she tried to ride her bike, refusing to let her play their video games or getting into fights and wrestling matches that scared her so much she called her mom at work.
She said she appreciated those memories, and thanked her parents for raising her and her siblings to become good people as adults.
Muhlbauer rarely bragged about his accomplishments and work, but his sister said he was proud of his kids and was best friends with his son Ayden.
Laurie Muhlbauer said she’s proud of her brother’s life and career, and she’ll miss calls from him with stories of his family’s adventures.
Makenzie Allison, Muhlbauer’s stepdaughter, said she and Muhlbauer grew close, even if they argued when she didn’t turn the lights out after leaving a room. At night, she said Muhlbauer would play ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and oldies hits in the garage for Champ so that he never felt lonely.
She said she was lucky that Muhlbauer treated her like his own daughter and always sent her congratulations texts when she accomplished anything.
Ayden, Muhlbauer’s son, said he, his dad and Champ went on walks together often while he rode his bike. Champ would get tangled around light poles with his leash and was scared of a neighbor’s dogs. After, they would all play together in the backyard.
Police Chief Stacey Graves shared a story from 2014 of when Muhlbauer chased a homicide suspect on foot, took him into custody and learned the suspect was hiding a shotgun in his pant leg. When he got home, he told his wife that he was just doing his job.
”Kansas City was safer that night because of Jim,” she said.
With not much information, Muhlbauer and Champ searched the area of a robbery, and the K-9 detective found a suspect.
Muhlbauer loved Champ so much that he recently got a tattoo in his honor, Graves said. She thanked the North Kansas City officers who brought Champ to Muhlbauer as he died in the hospital. K-9 officers laid Champ on Muhlbauer so the two could pass on together.
Graves said Muhlbauer was a stoic man, but he had a soft spot for his wife and kids.
”We are all people behind this badge with beating hearts, with love and care for others,” she said. Graves wiped tears as she thanked Muhlbauer, Champ and all officers for their service despite the risks.
Jeff Hunter, who grew up next to Muhlbauer and his family, shared his condolences with Muhlbauer’s family and said every community the officer touched is grieving with them.
He remembered listening to Garth Brooks with Muhlbauer on outings and even some live performances. Brooks’ song “The Dance” has been stuck in Hunter’s head since he learned about Muhlbauer’s death. He wondered why, and came across a 90s interview where Brooks said the song is also about those who lost their lives pursuing their dreams. That message, Hunter said, describes Muhlbauer perfectly.
Kansas City police officer Ben Cassel said Muhlbauer’s friendship had to be earned. But once someone broke through his shell, he said they had a friend in and out of uniform.
When they used to patrol together, Cassel said he always let Muhlbauer drive. With some nights without calls, the officers spent lots of time talking and goofing off. He said he’ll miss Muhlbauer’s monotone voice and dry humor.
Muhlbauer hoped to join the K-9 unit, Cassel said, and he was excited for him when he finally got his opportunity to work with the canine officers.
”Lord knows he was not a people person,” Cassel joked.
The last time the pair patrolled together in January, the officer said Muhlbauer perked up when he told him he was having a son, too. Many of their conversations, he said, focused on Muhlbauer’s pride in Ayden.
‘A very sad day’
Father Andres Moreno, a chaplain for the police department, began the service with a prayer for Officer Muhlbauer and the community. He appeared in a white cloak and dark-colored scarf. A photo of the fallen officer in his KCPD uniform covered the podium.
“This is a very sad day for this community for the loss of our brother Officer James Muhlbauer,” Moreno said.
He expressed his sorrow for Muhlbauer’s family, including his wife and child. The community, he said, is also grieving Muhlbauer’s untimely death.
“We stand together in grief,” he said. “Left alone we would fall down in despair, but together we pray and support each other.”
Muhlbauer’s death doesn’t make sense to anyone, Moreno said, and everyone should continue praying and working toward justice and peace for the officer’s loved ones. He thanked police officers for their service and said they take on the job knowing their lives may be taken in the line of duty.
Moreno called on the audience to reflect on Officer Muhlbauer’s contributions to the community, and went on to speak about his love for the outdoors, family and friends in a prayer with the funeral goers.
Before Kansas City Police Chief Stacey Graves took the mic, a vocalist sang Michael Crawford’s “On Eagle’s Wings.”
At 11 a.m inside the Municipal Arena, “I Told You So,” by Randy Travis played over the sea of blue police officers seated facing Officer Muhlbauer’s coffin. Blue lights shone over the crowd and an American flag strapped to the ceiling hung over a slide show showing images of Muhlbauer sipping beer at prom, skiing with friends and wearing his wedding tuxedo with cake smeared across his face.
A few officers attempted to get their canine officers into the auditorium, quietly directing them to sit on the stairs of the bleachers.
By 11:10 a.m many of the seats were filled and the slideshow progressed into photographs of Muhlbauer pushing his kid on a swing set and lying asleep next to him in a Superman t-shirt.
At 11:15 a.m., Father Andres Moreno, who is officiating the service, walked into the auditorium. A white scarf draped across his neck, and he wore a cross for Ash Wednesday on his forehead.
The band will play “The Rowan Tree” as the family walks in, followed by the “Going Home” funeral hymn as the casket is moved and ending with “Amazing Grace.”
Law enforcement, community members pay respects
As funeral goers began arriving at 9:30 a.m, the intersections around West 13th and Central streets and West 13 and Wyandotte streets flooded with patrol vehicles. Drivers diverted to alternate routes, causing traffic in the area.
By 9:45 a.m., crowds of pedestrians dressed in heavy coats and rain jackets filtered into the Municipal Arena. At least 60 officers stood in the hallway of the auditorium, smiling and holding trays of coffee.
Canine officers barking in cars parked along Central could be heard from outside.
In the Music Hall, about 30 officers stood in a circle, many with their hats pressed to their chests and their heads down.
By 10:15 a.m., bagpipes played throughout the main lobby. Men standing in kilts off to the side of the lobby crowded into a dark room to practice before the funeral services began.
Inside the arena, a line of visitors wrapped around the hallway. Many inside signed their names in books labeled “friends and relatives” and picked up pamphlets with pictures of the fallen officer.
Among them were Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and other law enforcement officials from around the area.
Ken Hines traveled from Columbia to play bagpipes at Muhlbauer’s funeral. He’s been piping for over 30 years now and played at five fallen officer funeral services in Kansas City. At this point, he said all nine notes on the pipes play out like muscle memory.
His eyes lit up when hearing his bandmates - a compilation of Olathe, Lawrence and Kansas City, Kansas service members - play “Rowan Tree,” as Muhlbauer’s family entered.
Gov. Parson, police agencies share condolences
Gov. Mike Parson and law enforcement agencies across the area shared their respects online as crowds arrived to the visitation Wednesday morning.
“Officer Muhlbauer and K-9 Champ worked as inseparable partners and guardians of the Kansas City community,” Parson wrote on Twitter. “We will forever remember their dedication and commitment to the protection of Kansas City and Missouri.”
Parson previously declared flags would be flown at half-staff at all government buildings in Cass, Clay, Jackson and Platte counties to honor Muhlbauer and Champ.
Local law enforcement agencies, including the Prairie Village and Gladstone police departments, also shared their respects online.
Kansas City Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who represents the third district, also encouraged people to “show our Kansas City love” by donating to Muhlbauer’s family.
©2023 The Kansas City Star.
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