Kent and Dottie Richards were ecstatic about spending time in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. They were familiar with this jewel of the Caribbean from having performed on cruise ships that visited the vast port of the capital, Charlotte Amalia and from a show they did at the magnificent Caneel Bay Plantation on the neighboring island of St. John. Now they were back in St. Thomas vacationing and performing. The year was 1973 and The Virgin Islands Daily News described them as "all of the things illusionists ought to be, but younger, fresher, (and) less hardened 'show biz' in their approach." Kent was said to have "an air of self-confidence and a quality of elegance," while Dottie "seemed to find life both amusing and challenging."
Like so many magicians, Kent's interest in magic dated back to when he was just a small boy. He told a reporter how he bungled his first performance when assisting his Cub Scout troop leader. Kent had the task of hiding under a table and passing props up through a hole into the bottom of a hat. Kent said that he messed up by passing the wrong props to the magician and then continued to botch the performance by accidentally knocking over the entire table.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Kent was hooked on magic. As he grew older he began to visit the magic shops in his hometown of Philadelphia, learning magic the old fashioned way by befriending those more knowledgeable. When he turned seventeen, Kent dropped out of high school and joined the Navy during which time he met another sailor, Mike Rogers, who credits Kent with igniting his passion for all things magical and helping to begin his own storied career. It was also during Kent's time in the Navy that earned his high school equivalency diploma and then made the decision to attend college.
The Richards had met each other while they were students at Temple University. Dottie was majoring in music, but Kent's love of magic soon had her joining him in performances. Her slender build was perfect for the type of stage illusions they did so masterfully and once they were married they began building a career in magic. Their area of expertise was stage magic and their shows were an amalgam of productions, levitations, transpositions, and escapes. They were innovative and exacting in their approach to illusions, honing their skills as they worked their way from nightclub circuits to cruise lines. They even had the honor of performing for President Lyndon Johnson when they were hired to do a show at a National Press Club meeting.
And so by the early 1970s their careers in magic were at an all time high. In addition to gaining recognition from the audiences they astounded with their magic, they also impressed their peers having performed at Abbott's Get-Together in 1970, 1972, and 1973. In fact, at the 1972 Get-Together they were awarded the Jack Gwynne Trophy for Excellence. At the MAES Convention of 1972 (Magicians' Alliance for Eastern States) Kent was awarded the Dr. Roth Trophy for Excellence in Magic and Dottie received the Past President's Award for Best Assistant. They had also performed at one of the Tannen's Jubilees and at NEMCON (the New England Magicians' Convention). They were young, captivating, and by 1974, already quite accomplished.
The evening of February 6, 1974 in St. Thomas had begun with a fiery sunset in the western sky and then the stars emerged in all their splendor; three hundred and sixty degrees of brilliance unimpeded by the kind of ambient light the Richards had come to know in their native New Jersey. That night sky was a breathtaking metaphor for Kent and Dottie's future; the stars were aligned and teeming with possibilities.
Kent had returned from a day of scuba diving in the waters surrounding St. Thomas. No doubt he had reveled in the remarkably clear Caribbean, abundant with the kinds of tropical sea life that inhabited the island's many reefs. As he strolled with a friend down a street not far from the local police station, Kent innocently hailed a taxi. The details of what transpired next are somewhat in dispute, though one fact is clearly not: Kent Richards was fatally struck down by a bullet to the head.
Ironically, the man who shot Kent was an off-duty policeman, moonlighting as a cab driver. Leon Lenhardt claimed that Kent had punched him through the window of his taxi though witnesses said only that there had been an exchange of words. Kent Richards' life was taken the instant the shot rang out and Patrolman Leon Lenhardt was shortly thereafter arrested and charged with murder.
At his trial, Mr. Lenhardt admitted to being intoxicated. He also did not dispute the fact that he had fired the fatal shot. His defense was centered on the claim that he had felt threatened by Kent Richards and that his actions were ones of self-defense. According to the local newspaper, "Lenhardt claimed at the time that Richards was bigger than him, hit him with such violence that he, fearing for his life, drew his revolver which went off unexplainedly (sic)." His attorney argued that the policeman felt he was in grave danger, and that his level of intoxication was such that he did not comprehend what was happening as the events unfolded. The Medical Examiner testified that Lenhardt was legally drunk, adding credence to the argument that the police officer's actions were in part, a result of his state of inebriation.
The prosecutor countered that if Lenhardt was so incapacitated by liquor, how could he have driven from a nightclub all the way to the police station. He cast doubt on Lenhardt's retelling of the circumstances, questioning if in fact he had been punched at all. Lenhardt's claim that Kent Richards towered over him was proven to be false, though Lenhardt was seated in his vehicle, it turned out that Kent was actually the shorter of the two. The prosecutor also wondered aloud why Lenhardt didn't identify himself as a police officer and simply arrest his aggressor.
It turned out that this was not the first time that Patrolman Lenhardt had been in trouble. Records showed that he had assaulted his wife while she was pregnant and pointed a gun at her stomach, "threatening to kill her and members of her family." In another incident Lenhardt was said to have pointed his service weapon at a superior officer during an argument. Yet, despite his history of threatening to shoot people, Leon Lenhardt remained on the police force and was allowed to continue carrying a gun.
When the jury delivered its verdict some time later, many in the Virgin Islands community were stunned and disgusted. Patrolman Lenhardt was found not guilty, a verdict that the editors of The Virgin Islands Daily News described as "incredibly callous."
In a scathing editorial the News blasted the jury and the entire judicial system of the Virgin Islands: "What the jurors chose to believe, apparently, is that having a few drinks and being punched is sufficient excuse for someone to commit murder. That in itself is incredible enough, but the fact that this incredibly lax standard was applied to a man sworn to uphold the public safety surpasses even the unbelievable."
Needless to say, Dottie Richards was crushed. She had lost the love of her life and watched his murderer go free. Disgusted by the verdict, in May of 1974 Dottie Richards filed a lawsuit against Lenhardt as well as the Virgin Islands government and police officials. The courts found in her favor citing negligence on the part of the police force for keeping Lenhardt employed and armed. The Chief Judge was particularly critical of the Public Safety Commissioner who knew about Lenhardt's history of threatening behavior but allowed him to continue working and carrying a service revolver. He also noted that even if Lenhardt's version of the events were true, they did not justify killing Kent Richards. Sadly though, the Chief Judge dismissed both Lenhardt and the Safety Commissioner as defendants in the suit, finding only that the Government of the Virgin Islands was liable, thus once again denying Dottie Richards some semblance of justice.
Reporter Benita Cannon of The Virgin Islands Daily News had the privilege of meeting the Richards and following their story during the brief time they lived on the island of St. Thomas. (Indeed, this article could not have been written without her exceptional and detailed reporting.) After Ms. Cannon's first interview with the couple she gushed, "No one would wish Salem, New Jersey any bad luck, but the Virgin Islands could make a marvelous headquarters for the very special magic of Kent and Dottie Richards."
Clearly, in a horrible twist of fate, just the opposite came true. Kent Richards' life was taken in the blink of an eye, and the magic that he and Dottie had, and which so many enjoyed, vanished forever.
Cannon, Benita, The Virgin Islands Daily News. July, 21, 1973, p. 22
Cannon, Benita, The Virgin Islands Daily News. Feb. 12, 1974, p. 9
Cannon, Benita, The Virgin Islands Daily News. April, 30, 1976, pp. 1, 14
Endlich, Helen, The Linking Ring. December 1972, Vol. 52, no. 12, pp. 68-69
Marshall, Frances, "Abbotts 35th Get Together 1972"
Rich, Carole, Genii. November 1973, Vol. 37, no. 11, p. 25
The Linking Ring. Nov. 1985, Vol. 65, no. 11
The Virgin Islands Daily News. May 2, 1974, pp. 1, 14
The Virgin Islands Daily News. May 8, 1974, p. 7
The Virgin Islands Daily News. May 13, 1974.