As the man accused of murdering a young Harrisonville mother sat with a look of ambivalence while he got his day in court, 50-year-old Paige Hueser focused on the details of the killer’s hands from the second row inside of a Cass County courtroom.
Jeffrey Moreland, 54, and Hueser have known each other for 30 years.
They dated for three years while they were in college together at the University of Central Missouri. Nearly 25 years after they broke up, Moreland allegedly murdered Hueser’s mother, 75-year-old Nina Whitney.
Both aspiring law enforcement officials, they had met in a criminal justice class at school.
“I kept looking at his hands. That’s the one thing about him that hasn’t changed,” said Hueser, of Kansas City. “I just kept thinking, ‘He used to touch me with those hands. Then he used them to rape Cara (Roberts), put a gun to the back of her head, pull the trigger. Rape (another woman). Tried to rape my mother. Strangled my mother, then threw her down the stairs and stabbed her to death.’
“And he used to touch me with those hands.”
As testimonies were shared for hours on end throughout the trial in Roberts’ death, many thoughts were speeding through Hueser’s mind as she tried to fathom as to what led Moreland to kill Roberts and her mother in the privacy - and innocence - of their quiet residential homes in broad daylight.
Two women. Two horrific crimes. And certainly, too much for either family to bear the burden alone.
In both cases, there are still so many answers that no one will likely ever know because Moreland has remained silent. Since her mother’s death, Hueser has kept asking herself how somebody can change so drastically in the course of time.
“I keep trying to figure out what I missed, what I should have paid attention to, and I can’t come up with anything,” Hueser said. “He was sweet and funny, charming and sarcastic, incredibly intelligent, thoughtful, determined...He was everything you would want a man in your life to be.”
She said Moreland’s entire identity was wrapped up in being a cop.
“I was with him when he got hired with Grandview and he was like a 4-year-old on Christmas morning,” Hueser said. “It was everything to him.”
But how does one go from a career of protecting, serving and helping people, to becoming a murderer?
While it’s assumed that Moreland randomly chose the Roberts’ home as a target, his choice to harm Whitney was more deliberate, Hueser says.
“She adored him,” Hueser said. “My mother had always thought that I should have married him. That is the most heartbreaking part of this.”
Whitney had worked as an assembly line worker throughout her career until she retired about 10 years before her death.
“She was happy to be retired,” Hueser said. “She was the queen of flea markets, thrift stores and antique shops. She just piddled all the time and loved it.”
While dating, Moreland had helped Whitney move into the home he would later turn it into the scene of a homicide. After the couple broke up, Hueser’s interaction with Moreland was limited.
In 1994, Hueser was hanging out with a friend at a Grandview park when Moreland happened to also be there inside a parked patrol car.
Hueser exchanged a few words with Moreland. Nothing about the conversation seemed strange at the time, but Moreland did briefly mention Whitney.
“He said, ‘I patrol by your mom’s house periodically just to make sure everything is OK,’” Hueser recalled. “Stupid me, I was standing near him, thinking, ‘Ahh, that’s so sweet.’”
Today, Hueser is still taunted by his words in the park 20 years ago.
“That’s why I keep wondering how much contact my mother actually had with him over the years that I will never know about,” Hueser said. “My mother would have let him in the house without question because she adored him.”
Being in the criminal justice field, Hueser had learned through hearsay years later that Moreland had medically retired from his career in law enforcement, but again, didn’t think much of it.
Hueser then found her mother dead on Oct. 29, 2010.
A person in Whitney’s neighborhood told investigators that they had seen a man enter the house, and within about 20 or 30 minutes, was seen hurriedly limping back to his Jeep.
Hueser, who had been at work all day, began panicking when she couldn’t get a hold of her mother by phone at 6:45 p.m. Whitney and her daughter were planning to go shopping the next day, and Hueser was trying to confirm details. She said it was unusual when her mother didn’t pick up the phone after the first ring.
After waiting 15 minutes, Hueser tried again.
When there again was no answer, Hueser got into her car and began driving south to her mother’s home.
Upon entering Whitney’s house, the first thing Hueser noticed other than the fact that the house was completely dark, was that her mother’s cell phone was missing. She had also seen a fallen coat rack.
The thought came across Hueser’s mind was that her mother may have fallen down the stairs, like she had four years prior.
“I turned on the light that goes down the stairs and her body was laying there,” Hueser described.
Initially, she thought her mom had a medical emergency, such as a fall or heart attack.
Hueser dialed 911, and as she waited for police, she began noticing strange things around her mother’s home. The bathtub faucets were turned on full blast and water was filled to the brim, country music was playing from a boombox, and the refrigerator had been pulled out from against the wall.
Still, the thought of murder had never entered Hueser’s mind. But upon arrival to the home, investigators turned Whitney’s body over, only to discover 22 stab wounds.
“They found all the buttons from her shirt on the floor in the bedroom so I know he tried to rape her in the bedroom,” Hueser said of her mother’s death.
“I think he choked her until she passed out, and then I think he went into the bathroom, turned on the faucets, then went down to the kitchen to look for a knife.”
As police searched for a suspect, the witness in the neighborhood was able to help investigators develop a sketch of the man they had seen leave the home.
Hueser was shown the drawing, but was clueless of who the man was.
Investigators would eventually discover that there was a DNA match from Whitney’s murder to another unsolved homicide from 2008 that resulted in the death of Cara Roberts.
“They showed me a sketch in Cara’s case that they had come up with,” Hueser said. “The two sketches, literally, looked nothing alike.”
Hueser racked her brain for months, but no one came to mind.
Hueser was on her way out of town at the start of a Memorial Day vacation to Texas nearly four months later when she looked up at billboard along U.S. 71 Highway that had caught her attention.
“I nearly ran my car off the side of the road,” Hueser said. “I’m cruising down 71 Highway at about 75 miles per hour and I glance up to see the bottom half of the face on the billboard. “It hit me like a bolt of lightning.”
The sketch of the suspect Hueser had seen in February had been placed on the signboard and Hueser recognized the chin of the suspect almost immediately to be that of the man she had once dated.
“It was an absolute, gut feeling that it was Jeff’s chin,” Hueser said. “For four days I tried to talk myself out of it, and the harder I tried, I couldn’t.”
She said everything about the sketch and what she remembered about Moreland fit.
“My mother would have let him in the house without question because she adored him. He knew the layout of my mother’s house,” Hueser said. “The neighbor had seen somebody limping down the street. I had heard about a year before that Jeff had to leave Grandview PD because of his Parkinson’s.”
Hueser said she tried to talk herself out of it the whole time she was in Texas on vacation.
When she got back to work the day following the holiday weekend, Hueser called a detective working the case and told him that she believed Moreland was the killer, and asked him to pull his driver’s license photo.
Sure enough, the resemblance from the sketch matched the photo.
Detectives also showed the photograph to Roberts’ widowed husband, Jeff Roberts. He also identified the photograph to be that of Moreland - a man who had recently joined his Westchester Lanes bowling league.
Law enforcement confirmed that DNA from both murders to be that of the same “unknown man,” but were not able to get Moreland to provide samples in time before he would rape yet another Harrisonville woman and flee to Iowa.
“I think kidnapping and raping her was his last hurrah,” Hueser said.
Hueser believes Moreland knocked Whitney unconscious, then looked through Whitney’s kitchen drawers to find a knife. By the time he found a weapon, she believes her mother had become conscious and started running down the stairs to try to get out through the garage.
She thinks Moreland caught her and then stabbed her to death right in front of the garage door.
“He didn’t think my little 75-year-old mother would fight back,” Hueser said. “I think he believed she would be an easy target. He was wrong.”
Whitney had defensive wounds all over her hands, Hueser said.
Moreland has been charged with first-degree murder in Jackson County for killing Whitney, but his charges in Cass County were the first to be brought to trial.
“There are just so many questions that I will never have answers to,” she said.
“He was a cop...somebody you should be able to trust. I just can’t imagine what the hell happened to him.”
When Moreland rang Whitney’s doorbell, Hueser said he knew whose doorbell he was ringing.
“This was premeditated from the split second he got out of bed that morning,” she said.
Hueser said she believes Moreland’s diagnoses made him upset, and led to his attacks on women.
“Having to take a medical retirement clearly made him angry,” she said. “Jeff is a control freak and I think when his body really began falling apart, he had so much anger and frustration and no outlet for his control issues.”
Hueser sat through Moreland’s trial in Cass County as an bystander, in hopes that justice would prevail for his other victims.
She felt some satisfaction in hearing the guilty verdict from the jury in Roberts’ case.
“I know getting life without parole is going to be harder on him than if he had been given the death penalty because death is too easy,” she said.