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Now-retired KCK police detective Roger Golubski has been accused of putting an innocent man in jail and terrorizing Black women for decades. KCUR 89.3 and the Midwest Newsroom will continue to follow developments.

This Juneteenth, a Kansas City, Kansas, man who was incarcerated for 25 years is finally free

Brian Betts, newly-released after 25 years in Kansas prison, held a community barbecue last Friday at a Riverside park.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Brian Betts, newly released after 25 years in Kansas prison, held a community barbecue last Friday at a Riverside park.

Brian Betts, 46, says he was wrongfully convicted thanks to disgraced former KCKPD Detective Roger Golubski. Today Betts will call for new leadership of the local criminal justice system.

Getting stuck in traffic? He smiles. Waiting in line at the grocery store? He smiles. Taking out the garbage for his mom? He smiles.

Brian Betts, just two weeks out of prison after serving 25 years for a crime he says he didn’t commit, relishes the things that frustrate the rest of us.

After a quarter century of gray captivity — the daily humiliations of chains around his hands and feet, the torture of seeing his family leave after their regular visits to the prison — freedom for Betts is about the technicolor choices we rarely notice. Clothes, food, where to drive. He calls those the small, “beautiful joy” of freedom.

But Betts also has his eye on bigger things. That’s why today, Betts will take Juneteenth, the federal holiday honoring the emancipation of enslaved Americans, to call for a change in the local system that kept him incarcerated.

At a press conference Monday, Betts will call for firing Mark Dupree, the Wyandotte County district attorney who fought his release. Betts will ask local voters to oust Dupree during the next election, in 2024. A group is organizing around a Facebook page called “Fire Mark Dupree."

“I believe that with this freedom, you have to fight to preserve it,” he said. “You have to do your part to preserve it for others.”

A representative for Dupree had no comment.

Former KCK detective's involvement

Betts, 46, was released from the Winfield Correctional Facility on June 1, on parole. Last December a Wyandotte County judge refused to give Betts, along with his cousin Celester "Les" McKinney, a new trial. That was despite what the judge called "this new cloud of doubt" surrounding disgraced former Kansas City, Kansas, Detective Roger Golubski, who Betts and McKinney say was involved in framing them.

Golubski was arrested last September on federal allegations of civil rights violations for kidnapping, sexual assault, and in a second case, being paid to protect a sex-trafficking ring of underage girls.

Golubski’s alleged corruption was also at the center of the 2017 exoneration of Lamonte McIntyre, who was released from prison after 23 years when Dupree found that McIntyre had suffered a “manifest injustice.”

Betts’ and McKinney’s convictions resembled McIntyre’s — with the large exception that McIntyre was exonerated and released, while Betts and McKinney spent every minute of their sentences. McKinney was also recently paroled.

Betts and McKinney were convicted in 1997 of the murder of a 17-year-old who happened to be Golubski’s nephew by marriage. At the center of the cousins’ request for a new trial was the recantation of their uncle, who said he had been coerced by Golubski into identifying his nephews as the shooters.

Golubski denied those allegations at Betts’ and McKinney’s hearing last October, saying he “never” pressured witnesses into false testimony.

Betts is friends with McIntyre, who he met in prison, along with John Calvin, another KCK man his family says was framed by Golubski. Calvin died in prison in January.

A ‘modern day slave era'

Betts is now living the daily, beautiful joy of freedom at a house in Kansas City, Kansas, that was set up by his mother, Ellen. On Friday, the family had a large community barbeque, where Betts manned the grill and his sister, Violet Martin, worked on all the sides: baked beans, potato salad and sweet corn.

“I believe freedom is the ability to choose. Freedom is the ability to be safe,” Betts said, “and freedom is the ability to, what they say? To eat, drink and be merry. The liberty to not feel threatened, to be who you are. And to help.”

Betts has decided he will help not only those still in prison, but the Kansas City groups who are working to free the wrongfully convicted, like the Midwest Innocence Project and MORE2, a KCK social justice group. He calls these efforts the “new Underground Railroad.”

“These organizations that are committed to helping people that have been wrongfully convicted and falsely imprisoned, I believe that we are all part of the new Underground Railroad. Because (in the past) it was a network of people that brung that to be, of all colors, of all walks of life, committed to undoing that injustice.”

Betts said he’s doing it because he believes the U.S. is in a “modern-day slave era.”

Black people make up 38% of all incarcerated people in the U.S., despite being only 12% of the population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. And a new study suggests that the percentage of Black people behind bars increased slightly during the pandemic, despite a decline in the overall prisoner population.

“I see an eerie similarity to the slave days when Blacks were enslaved because of (today's) mass incarceration,” he said.

Former Kansas City, Kansas, Police Detective Roger Golubski, left, enters the federal courthouse in Topeka on June 14, with his lawyer, Chris Joseph.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Former Kansas City, Kansas, Police Detective Roger Golubski, left, enters the federal courthouse in Topeka on June 14, with his lawyer, Chris Joseph.

Golubski in court

Last Wednesday, Betts saw Golubski in person again, in federal court in Topeka, where Golubski had a status hearing on his two federal cases. Betts said it gave him a “settling” feeling, because he never thought Golubski would have to face the legal system.

“To see him in the courtroom was like a settling situation for me. I am seeing it. It is real,” Betts said.

Betts and McKinney are appealing their convictions.

'Freedom is air'

Each member of the large family surrounding Betts says that the two weeks he’s been free has been a dream. They’re all trying to understand that he’s home again, finally. His mom, Ellen, has been quiet, thinking about the joys of having her only son home, but also about all that was lost during the 25 years.

His first week out, Betts got to celebrate his son’s birthday for the first time, a son who was eight months old when his dad went to prison and is now 26 and has four children, Betts’ grandchildren.

Violet Martin, right, helps her brother, Brian Betts, at a June 16 community barbeque in a Riverside park.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Violet Martin, right, helps her brother, Brian Betts, at a June 16 community barbeque in a Riverside park.

Betts' sister, Violet Martin, who had a baby five months ago, is introducing her other children to her brother. Martin’s daughter, 7-year-old Naomi, was the first to jump from the van and reach her uncle the day he was released from prison.

That day, the family took Betts to lunch at a restaurant at Legends Outlets, a large shopping district northwest of Kansas City, Kansas. Betts was astonished, seeing such a development where he remembered only prairie, and he’s still trying to get used to what he calls a new city.

Martin, who was just 15 when her brother went to prison, has created a career out of criminal justice, studying it at school and working in a local jail and as a mental health professional. She’s a board member of MORE2, the KCK social justice group.

Asked what freedom means to her, Martin wondered why anyone would seek to take it away from others.

“Freedom to me is like air. You need it. Everyone needs it to function,” she said. “And those civil rights and those liberties that we have, that's what freedom is. Air, water, life, it is, evolving, evolution. No restraints and beyond the sky.”

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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