Kansas City man sentenced to life in killing of 96-year-old Caldwell County woman

A Kansas City man has been sentenced to life in prison for killing a 96-year-old woman who was found dead in May 2022 after her rural Polo home burned to the ground.

Harold Edwards Jr., 29, was ordered to serve the prison time during a hearing Tuesday Caldwell County. He pleaded guilty in September to second-degree murder in the death of Lorene Fickess, who died a few days after celebrating Mother’s Day with her children and grandchildren.

Prosecutors said Edwards had burglarized the home and struck Fickess with a heavy object. She was found dead on the morning of May 10, 2022, when firefighters were called to the reported blaze — one of three suspicious fires set within a two-hour window that day as authorities suspected a serial arsonist was responsible.

The first fire was reported around 8:30 a.m. at Fickess’ home near Southwest State Route D and Southwest Colt Drive in Polo, a town of about 500 residents, 50 miles northeast of Kansas City. A neighbor tried to save Fickess but could not get through the door, authorities said.

The house was fully engulfed by the time firefighters arrived. The 96-year-old’s body was later discovered among the rubble.

The other two structure fires were reported along the same rural highway within a 6-mile span.

The second fire was roughly 3 miles north near Mirabile Drive, and the third was spotted by a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper 3 miles further north near Kingston.

Both of the houses were vacant. Authorities determined someone broke inside each residence to set the fires, which strained the resources of emergency responders in the rural community that morning.

Witnesses who were near the Fickess home as it burned helped lead police to Edwards as a suspect. They told police they had a brief encounter with a man driving a black SUV.

The Caldwell County, Missouri, Sheriff’s Department is looking for whereabouts of a black SUV with tinted windows that was driven that they believe may be connected to three arson fires, including one that took the life of 96-year-old Lorene Fickess, on Tuesday. People with information about the SUV or its driver are asked to call the sheriff’s department at 816-586-2681.

The man, who was later identified by authorities as Edwards, had stopped in the road and asked if everyone was OK. He drove away but later returned and spoke with one of the witnesses again, according to a probable cause affidavit by investigators in Caldwell County.

Authorities came to suspect the same SUV was at the other two crime scenes based on surveillance footage and other witness statements. An anonymous tip later identified Edwards as being responsible for the fires.

A Caldwell County detective obtained a search warrant for Edwards’ cellphone location history. The cellphone was determined to have been at all three locations at the time the fires were set.

As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors dropped several felony crimes that were first brought against Edwards. In addition to the murder, Edwards pleaded guilty to three felony counts of possessing images of child sexual abuse.

Along with the life sentence, Edwards was ordered Tuesday to consecutively serve three 7-year prison sentences on each of those possession convictions.

Authorities have said the images were found on Edwards’ cellphone when he was arrested. There was no apparent connection to the other crimes.

In a joint statement Wednesday, Prosecuting Attorney Brady Kopek and Sheriff Mitchell Allen said they were glad the case had come to a close and hoped the outcome would bring peace to the Fickess family.

“We are happy to see that Mr. Edwards will be behind bars,” Allen said.

Kopek said the case was highly complex and required significant efforts by law enforcement officers and technicians.

“There were investigators from local, county, state, and federal agencies working together, and it was only through cooperation of all these that a successful case was developed,” Kopek said.