The day Ali was born was the happiest day in Roger Kemp’s life. She was his little princess, a remarkable kid whom he described as hard-working, kind, and loving. Never in his worst nightmare did he imagine he would need to spend two years of his life chasing down her killer. At only 19 years old, Ali, who seemingly had the whole world in her hands, was killed at her local pool.
You would assume that nothing could go wrong lifeguarding at a small neighborhood pool. There was seemingly no danger there. But Ali’s case proved otherwise. And when police came up empty-handed, Roger took matters into his own hand and, incredibly, found the subhuman who took his daughter’s life.
Here’s how it played out.
Date: June 18, 2002
Location: Foxborough pool, Leawood, Kansas
Leawood is probably one of the most lovable, quiet communities in America. It’s a tiny suburb where everyone seems to know everyone. You know your neighbors, your neighbor’s neighbors, their kids, their kids’ kids, etc. So, how such an unthinkable horror happened in such a tranquil neighborhood is, to this day, unfathomable.
One of the neighborhood kids was Ali Kemp, a 19-year-old Kansas State University student who had just finished her freshman year and come back home for the summer. She worked at the local pool along with her brother, Tyler, and her high school sweetheart, Phil.
June 18th was a cloudy, quiet day, with not many people in the pool. Ali arrived at around two, relieving her boyfriend, Phil, from his shift. The young couple had arranged to have a date later on that evening, so it was scheduled that Ali’s brother, Tyler, would replace her at about five p.m. so she could get ready for it.
But when Tyler came to work, his sister was nowhere to be found. Her books were spread out on the table, along with her homework and phone; everything looked like it had been deserted, which was very unlike Ali. In a matter of minutes, panic kicked in. Tyler called his dad at 5:15 to report the news.
Ali’s dad, Roger, immediately drove down to the swimming pool with a sick feeling in his gut. “It just didn’t sound right,” he said of his son’s phone call. Roger pulled up to see Tyler, worried and confused, standing at the gate. The two scoured the pool grounds frantically, but there was no sign of Ali.
Roger peeked in the deep end of the pool, but she wasn’t there either. Finally, he walked into the pump house and found a leg sticking out from under a tarp. His mind went blank. He threw the tarp off to uncover his little girl, black and blue, lying in a pool of blood.
“Every parent lives in fear that something will happen to their child,” Roger explained in an interview, “But this… this far exceeded any nightmare that any parent out there could ever think.” He pulled Ali up to his chest, held her closely, and cried to her, “You need to fight through this. Come back to me.”
Roger’s 911 call is heartbreaking. Unable to stomach the situation, he stumbles over his words as he tries to explain to the police the horrific scene playing out before him. “I think my daughter’s been murdered,” he manages to blurt out.
Tragically, Ali was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at St. Joe’s hospital. Medical professionals reported that the young student had several broken fingers and numerous bruises all over her body, the most significant one being the strangle mark on her neck, which was eventually ruled as the cause of her death.
Investigators who arrived at the scene reported that the pool room was in a state of chaos, with stuff strewn everywhere. “It looked like a grenade went off inside that building,” Deputy Craig Hill told interviewers. It was evident that Ali fought for her life in that room. Sadly, she lost the battle.
The crime scene personnel recovered quite a bit of stuff from the scene: body fluids, blood, covers, tarps. What they were longing for the most, though, was the killer’s DNA. With no murder weapon to yield forensic evidence, all that the detectives had to get them closer to the suspect was his blood.
Amidst the clutter in the room, one unusual item caught their attention – an ointment cap which would normally be found in a first aid kit. They weren’t sure what it meant exactly, but it was still an important piece of evidence that needed to be bagged.
The fact that the attack took place in the middle of the day, at a local pool, made the incident a whole lot harder to digest. Someone could have walked in on the killer at any point during the assault, yet they went ahead and did it. Detectives believed it must have been a regular at the swimming pool who felt like they could pull it off unnoticed.
The disturbing part was that Ali led a completely drama-free life. There was virtually nothing about her lifestyle that could have tied her to anyone who could do something like that. She didn’t do drugs. She wasn’t involved with sketchy people. Nothing.
By the time reporters arrived at the scene, the place was swarming with people. But despite the full-on frenzy, police remained focused and alert because, as far as they knew, the killer could have been standing right in front of them.
Detective Craig Hill methodically scanned the mass for any suspicious or nervous faces. But it was hard to pinpoint anything out of the ordinary because in that huddled mess of people absolutely everyone looked worried.
In order to find out who did it, the police began a process of elimination, beginning with, of course, Ali’s inner circle – her boyfriend, her family members, her next-door neighbors, and her best friends. From that short list of suspects, the detectives started with her longtime boyfriend, Phil.
They were high school sweethearts who had split during Ali’s first year of college yet reunited when she came back home for the summer. “Phil was a great young man,” Roger recalled, “and I couldn’t have picked anyone better [for Ali].”
Phil told police that after his shift at the pool, he proceeded to his second job and then spent the afternoon playing video games at a friend’s house until he received the call that Ali was in the hospital. After verifying his statements with Phil’s second job and his friend, police concluded that he was telling the truth.
An important bit Phil shared with the police was that Ali had attempted to contact him at 2:52 pm. He didn’t pick up, so she left a voice mail. And when he tried to return her call a while later, there was no response.
After further inspection, all of Ali’s inner circle were in the clear. Bottom line, police didn’t find anything in her background that would cause her to become a victim of such a crime. She was an honor student, a great friend, and a kind daughter.
From that point on, authorities began questioning all Leawood’s residents, asking neighbors whether they saw anything suspicious on that day or in the weeks prior to it. One witness said that a week before the murder, while they were at the pool, they thought they had seen someone in the bushes with a camera and binoculars. But it couldn’t be verified.
One of the first things deputy chief Craig Hill remembers when he got to the scene was seeing a handful of lawn and garden maintenance personnel. He took the opportunity to ask them whether they saw anything out of the ordinary that day, and, luckily, they had.
What they’d seen was an odd, beige Ford pickup truck driving in and out of the parking lot for several hours. They recognized it while they were sitting in their cars on a break, and none of them had any idea what the driver’s intention was.
As police set out on a hunt after the suspected truck, the normally peaceful community of Leawood Kansas feared a killer was on the loose. It was a terrifying time. Nobody talked about anything but the vicious murder case, a case everyone wanted to be solved.
Leawood residents flooded the police with heaps of leads on the suspicious pickup truck, but nothing came of it. What they did manage to discover though, was valuable information about a surprise visit at the pool by Ali’s friend, Laurel.
Laurel told officers she stopped by to visit Ali at the pool that afternoon. She entered the parking lot at around 3:15 and honked continuously as a joke, thinking Ali would run out and yell, “What are you doing?!” but, instead, Laurel spotted a guy peeking out of the pool room.
Laurel instantly ducked her head, thinking that he might be Ali’s boss. The man then came out from the pump house, strolled casually down the driveway and waved at her. He sat in his car, as cool as can be, and drove off. Laurel entered the pool’s grounds, scanned the area, and left, assuming Ali might have split from her shift.
From the phone call made to Phil at 2:50 p.m. to Laurel’s arrival at 3:15, police had a timeline of when the homicide took place. Laurel was taken in by the police to help craft a composite of the person she saw, who ended up being described as:
White male, mid 30s, 5’8 to 6’0, heavy set, short brown hair. Slowly but surely, police felt like they were gradually tiptoeing towards capturing the deadly mystery man. They hung posters of the sketch all around town, hoping to find a match between the composite and the beige pickup truck.
Deputy Craig Hill was overwhelmed by the number of tips he received. “People were meeting me at a restaurant handing me pictures of their brother-in-laws, going, ‘he looks just like him.’ People were turning in relatives. It was unbelievable,” he confessed.
But despite the downpour of leads, investigators were careful not to get their hopes up too high. Their sketch was relatively “general” in the sense that there were thousands of men who looked like that. Still, out of the bunch, police managed to find one individual who stood out the most.
Arguably one of the most alarming tips that they received was about an individual named James Strader who looked exactly like the composite. He was the spitting image of their sketch, and on top of this, he had an old pickup truck that looked just like the one from the crime scene.
Strader worked as a mechanic at a shop in Olathe, a city which is about a 20-minute drive from Leawood. So far, he was the most reasonable option. When detectives arrived at his place, he argued that he had nothing to do with the tragedy, and his claim was verified by his manager, who assured them that Strader was at work on the day of the murder.
With Strader in the clear, detectives were back to square one. Before they could fall into despair, the DNA lab called with some promising news – the blood sample on the ointment tube’s cap wasn’t Ali’s, it was likely the killer’s.
The next move was to run the blood into CODIS—the national database for DNA, which includes offenders and samples from other unsolved crimes. They were hoping to find a match and put an end to the nightmare. But, sadly, nothing showed up.
Ali’s dad, Roger, went through every person’s greatest nightmare, yet throughout the whole, lengthy (and at times, despairing) investigation, he remained calm and polite. In fact, Roger cooperated in such an impressive manner that detectives set up a coffee cup for him in the investigation unit. He came in if not every day, every other day.
Roger was so committed that Major Craig Hill eventually told him that the team had decided to include him in their investigation. And when you think about it, it’s pretty unbelievable. That a father would have enough strength to collect himself and investigate his daughter’s murder case in such a professional manner is mind-blowing.
DNA testing and alibis picked apart all of their leads. Nothing was seeming to come together, no matter how many people they were given. The crew even approached John Walsh’s America’s Most Wanted in the hopes of reaching more people across the nation.
The show did a tremendous piece on it, covering the story from A to Z. The episode led to more leads pouring in from all over the country, yet none of them seemed to click.
Suddenly, about half a year after Ali’s murder, investigators learned more about a familiar face who wasn’t looking so innocent anymore.
In January 2003, the news showed a mugshot of none other than – James Strader! Under his photo was a caption stating that he had sexually assaulted three women. Startled and, quite frankly, frustrated, police went on a hunt to find the guy they had let slip away a few months earlier.
When detectives first approached Strader, they let him off the hook due to his story and alibi. But they never bothered to get his DNA. Now, getting his sample was their top priority. Emotions in Ali’s family were through the roof, but they couldn’t do anything other than wait for Strader to be found again.
“He fit everything,” Roger Kemp explained. But as eager and ready as they were, finding Strader proved to be difficult. One week went by, and nothing. Week number two, nada. Finally, on week number three, just when investigators thought he might have escaped for good, they caught a lucky break.
Strader was pulled over in Utah after he made the dumb mistake of not paying for gas at a gas station. Once captured, Utah’s police contacted the guys in Kansas, who were finally able to access the DNA database and collect his sample.
They sent his DNA to the lab and proceeded to interview him. When the officers handed Strader the composite, he inspected it and said, “I do look just like this guy, but I didn’t do it. And I’ll do whatever I can to prove it.”
Shortly after the interrogation, they got a call from the crime lab telling them some discouraging news – James Strader didn’t match the unidentified male’s DNA at Ali Kemp’s crime scene. So, while Strader was convicted for an unrelated rape charge, he was off the hook for Ali’s murder.
Everyone got so worked up and excited, and then… nothing. It was almost like getting punched in the gut. And while it may have been hard for the police to deal with those ups and downs, it was significantly harder for Roger.
“I felt like I could throw up in a wastebasket because I thought we had him, and it wasn’t the right one,” he confessed. Roger’s worries were justified because when it comes to homicides, the farther away you get from the event, the lower the chances of solving it.
Weeks turned into months, and months turned into one year and then two years, and people still didn’t know who killed her. Still, in spite of the despair, Roger Kemp kept his chin up. He said, “You have to keep moving. You can stay in bed and pull the covers over your head, or you get up and fight the battle.”
The determined dad called America’s Most Wanted and urged them to air the episode again. When producers asked if he had something new, he responded, “No. That’s why I need you to run it.” Roger’s no-nonsense approach impressed them, and they decided to broadcast it once again.
The tips Roger and the detectives received came through a hotline that usually offers small rewards, somewhere around $1,000 per valuable lead. But sensing that the case was growing colder by the minute, Roger decided to up the reward to $25,000.
The city decided to match it, and together, they reached a whopping $50,000. They created a newspaper ad with Ali’s face and a title that read, “Do You Know Who Killed Me?” with the high-paying reward prominently displayed.
Roger felt that a newspaper ad, no matter how much money it offered, wasn’t enough. So, one day, as he was sticking the composite at the front door of a retail store, he turned around and noticed a large, outdoor billboard and thought to himself, “Now THIS is a great way to catch people’s attention.”
Roger was determined to get the predator’s picture up there, so he called the billboard company, which decided to do it for him free of charge. They put his face up on freeways, the best way for thousands of people to see it.
Once again, the detectives were flooded with new tips. From all the potential leads, two came in with the exact same name – Teddy Hoover. He looked somewhat like the composite sketch, drove a truck, and surprisingly, was in the business of pool maintenance.
Hoover checked many boxes, and it wasn’t long before the police came knocking at his door. He seemed a bit nervous when the officers explained their presence, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Most people get fidgety when they’re questioned by the police.
They asked Teddy to try and recall where he was on the day of the murder but asking someone to bring up a memory from two years ago isn’t simple, so the negative response they received was pretty much expected. He told them he owned a pool business, but that he had never done any business with the pool Ali was murdered at.
The investigators then told him that in order to get him eliminated as quickly as possible from the suspects list, they needed a DNA sample. Taken aback by their request, Hoover replied with a definite no and asked to talk to his attorney first.
According to Hoover’s attorney, his main concern was that the moment he would give his DNA, it would go on a database. So, for the sake of the case, the officer in charge assured him they would take his DNA solely for the murder case and promised they wouldn’t encode it in any database.
In the meantime, police went through some old reports from the case when they suddenly came across Teddy Hoover’s name in one of their papers. On the day of the murder, the detectives talked to several bystanders to see if they had seen anything and—surprise, surprise!—one of the individuals they spoke to was none other than Ted Hoover.
When police first encountered Ted on the day of the murder, he wasn’t acting suspiciously. But now, his presence that first day made him the police’s top priority. They needed his DNA immediately. After a few days of waiting for him to respond, the police called Hoover’s attorney, who told them:
“Here’s the deal – he’s taken off.” Police had no information whatsoever of his whereabouts, but they weren’t going to give up. They kept checking the computer database system to see if there was an update of any sort, yet nothing came up.
Months later, in August of 2004, investigators received a call saying the guy they were looking for, Teddy, is actually named Benjamin Appleby, and he was living with his girlfriend in Connecticut. Authorities from the state caught him, took him into questioning, and got his DNA sample.
During the interview, Teddy insisted he wasn’t Teddy, but Ben. His dubious argument didn’t fool anyone. Police knew he was clearly the same guy they had interviewed back in Kansas. After an hour and a half of useless chatter, they decided to take action and move him into the interrogation room.
Investigators knew that this was their shot at getting a confession out of Ben (Teddy Hoover) so they set up some props in the room that would make him feel like they knew more about him than they actually did. They put up photos from the crime scene, as well as a poster board with his picture in the middle.
They also put two case file binders with his name on them to make it appear like everything in both of those binders was specifically about him.
Despite walking into the room feeling like he was in charge, the moment Ben took stock of the items in the room, he felt the pressure build up.
Calm and collected, detective Joe Langer sat down and asked Ben, “What do you think is going to happen when we get the results of the DNA?” In a matter of seconds, Ben broke down in tears and cried, “I killed her.”
In between his sobs, he managed to mutter, “I strangled her I guess… and I don’t why I f***ing did it.” Ben’s pitiful explanation was that he went to the pool to check out stuff for his business, and when he saw Ali in the pump room, he decided to hit on her. “She was an attractive young lady,” he told detective Langer.
Ben explained that he reached out to touch her: “Not hard, nothing. Either on the shoulder, the neck, or something.” And when she rebuffed his advances by pushing back, he felt humiliated. That’s when he grabbed her and started punching her until he eventually put his hands around her neck, robbing her of her breath.
Even more devastating is that Ben admitted that he planned on raping her when she became unconscious. That’s why the ointment from the first aid kit was found on the floor when police first came to inspect the area. He needed it as a lubricant. He was ultimately too frightened to move along with his evil plan, so when he heard Ali’s friend, Laurel, honking outside, he took off, but not before waving at her in the parking lot in an unbelievably casual way (as if he hadn’t just murdered her friend).
Shortly after the interrogation, the DNA results came back from the lab. They matched. Finally, after two years, Ali Kemp’s killer was caught. Her father, Roger, admitted that capturing Ben felt good, yet “the feeling wasn’t what you’d think.”
“It just made you sick,” he told interviewers, “You can’t get any lower, any more subhuman than whatever he is. You can’t believe someone like that exists.”
On the night of the confession, Ben told detectives he wasn’t going to cause any problems in court. “I’m not going to put the family through a trial,” he stated, “I feel so bad for what I’ve done.” But within a day, that all changed.
The second they stepped into the courtroom, the once repentant murderer changed his mind. Ben decided to plead not guilty, and he came up with all kinds of excuses to get his confession thrown out. He lied about the detectives threatening him and his family.
Eventually, Ben’s defense attorneys came out and said, “Ok, we’re going to admit that he did this. But it wasn’t premeditated. He didn’t actually mean to kill her. It just, sort of, happened.” Needless to say, people weren’t buying it. Appleby clearly targeted that specific pool by doing a million rounds around the parking lot before marching in and killing Ali.
Moreover, it took a significant amount of time for him to kill her. It was longer than 10 minutes. So, the defense strategy of claiming he didn’t mean to was just ridiculous.
Finally, in December of 2005, Ben was found guilty by the jury of first-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
When Ali’s family was given the opportunity to deliver their impact statement to the judge, Ben asked to be removed from court. The cowardice killer couldn’t even stomach being in the room when the family spoke up. The judge allowed him to leave (though he really should have been forced to stay).
After losing Ali, Roger and his wife realized they never wanted something like that to happen to any other girl again. So, they organized a self-defense class for girls called “Take Defense: the Ali Kemp Educational Foundation.” Until now, tens of thousands of young women have gone through defense training in Ali’s honor.
As for his incredible work on the case, Roger’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. When he came up with the billboard idea, it was an idea that he that had never been done before nationally, so in honor of it, he was invited to the White House, where he was given the citizenship award by former President Barack Obama.