(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) It was a somber night for the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Academy.
On Wednesday night, the Buchanan County Sheriff, Bill Puett, presented two cases that he said exemplified what county investigators do. The goal is to let people into the lives of law enforcement officers.
The St. Joseph Police and the Buchanan County Sheriff’s office host the 8-week long academy every year. This week, Sheriff Bill Puett shared two cases with the academy; one about the murder of an older woman Cleota Hoffman in 2004 and then a 2012 case about the murder of 4-year-old Lucas Webb.
Puett said the cases show two ends of the criminal justice spectrum.
“The cases that we presented give a good look into some of the complexities and issues that go along with investigations of violent crime,” Puett said. “They got to see some of the frustrations (and) some of the victories”
According to Puett, the victory was in Hoffman’s case. The 62-year-old widow was home alone when her stepson, Steven Hoffman, shot and killed her. Steven’s father had left his estate to Cleota when he died.
In one week officers with the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department drove to Kansas City, then flew to Nevada and Texas to collect evidence. Two weeks after Cleota Hoffman’s death, Steven pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Puett said the case was a victory because a team of law enforcement agencies worked together and quickly solved the crime.
“This is across the board multiple people involved in bringing these cases to a resolution from the investigation to the lab, forensics, prosecution,” he said. “It’s all a big team effort.”
Then the Sheriff presented a second case to the Academy. One that he said still weighs on him every day.
In 2012, authorities were called to a house in Clinton County because the parents of 4-year-old Lucas Webb said he had stopped breathing. First responders rushed Lucas to a hospital in Liberty but it was too late.
“Children cases are extremely difficult,” Puett said to the room as a warning about the evidence he was about to show.
The Sheriff took the academy through the case by PowerPoint. It included photos of bruises covering Lucas from head to toe. His father Justin Webb and his step-mother Melissa Webb said at the time it was because the 4-year-old was clumsy and bruised easy.
Dr. Michael Handler performed an autopsy on Lucas and concluded that the child had died from blunt force trauma. The class was shown a photo of the child, his tummy swollen from a combination of starvation and some kind of violent blow.
Puett said as the investigation unfolded, it became clear that Lucas was abused by his parents.
The Department of Social Services investigated Lucas’s home situation after multiple people called the state hotline and reported the child had bruises, welts was starving. The last hotline tip came in just weeks prior to Lucas’s death. Child welfare workers concluded there wasn’t enough evidence of neglect or abuse.
He died five days later.
During the presentation, sadness swept across each face in the room. Some sucked air through their teeth and others audibly gasped. One woman left the room. The Sheriff’s usual booming voice dropped to a whisper as he told the story of the photos.
Justin and Melissa Webb were charged with murder and felony child abuse.
Melissa Webb pleaded guilty in 2016 and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for felony child abuse and 20 years for murder in the second degree. The judge ordered her prison sentences to run concurrently.
A jury convicted Justin Webb of murder in the second degree and felony child abuse in 2017. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murder of his son and 7 years for child abuse. His sentence also runs concurrently.
Sheriff Puett said seeing how many people failed to save Lucas was heartbreaking. It exposed cracks in a system designed to protect innocent children, he said.
In response to a question from a woman in the academy, the Sheriff confirmed that multiple people at D.S.S. lost their jobs because of this case.
“That’s the main reasons any investigator chooses to solve violent crime cases,” he said.
Puett started and finished the presentation with photos of his young grandchildren. He said after one night where Lucas’s investigation was particularly hard to process, he went over to his son’s house and just held his grandson for a while.
“It’s just why. We protect the victims,” Puett said. “We protect the innocent.”