Imagine the poor screenwriter who heads to Hollywood pitching this script: A young woman of Italian descent leaves New York to attend college in Kansas. She majors in theater, with dreams of returning to stardom, or riches, in the Big Apple. Instead, she discovers a need to make the world a better place. She eventually chooses a career in the law, becomes a hard-boiled prosecutor who locks away sex offenders and serial killers, and twice appears before the United States Supreme Court. She’s an expert horsewoman. She finds time to appear on stage in local theater productions and breeds and trains award-winning purebred pooches.
Too over-the-top? Tempted to toss the story into the trash bin and boot the writer out the door because, really, nobody would believe it?
Well, meet Nola Tedesco Foulston, district attorney for the 18th Judicial District of Kansas in Sedgwick County for the past 18 years.
Foulston, 55, is a complex, intelligent and charismatic prosecutor with a flair for the dramatic. And she continues to leave her mark on the law — as a champion in the fight against sexual predators and as a formidable courtroom foe for some of Kansas’ most savage killers.
“She is a deadly trial lawyer,” says Wichita attorney and Foulston’s friend Warner Eisenbise. “She says it the way it is.”
Kansas can thank Foulston’s father, Dominick “Teddy” Tedesco, for his daughter’s Wichita law career. Tedesco came West from New York’s Manhattan College to attend Fort Hays State University in the 1930s. A friend of Tedesco’s also came West to Fort Hays — the late author Mickey Spillane. Foulston says her father loved his time at Fort Hays, keeping the school in his heart and in his thoughts even after returning to New York to work in radio and, later, as a school administrator. The Tedescos would pack into the family car and drive to Kansas in the summer for vacations, visiting friends and attending college reunions.
Tedesco’s love of Fort Hays passed on to his kids … or rather, he pushed it onto them. “He says, simply, ‘OK, kids, you’re going out to Fort Hays,’” Foulston says. “I wanted to go to a school in the East, like American University or Georgetown. But I followed my brother, who was a sophomore at Fort Hays when I started as a freshman.”
After graduation, Foulston went on to the University of Kansas graduate school of performing arts to study for a master’s degree in theater. Her father had a beautiful voice and loved acting and community theater, Foulston says. She inherited his love of language and performance. But she was also interested in the law, particularly in the entertainment industry. She thought entertainment law might be a way to blend her interests.
“Lawyers are actors and all the world is a stage for them,” she says.
Before completing her master’s degree, Foulston went to law school at Washburn University School of Law and received her juris doctor in 1976. She began work as a prosecutor as an assistant district attorney in the office she would later lead.
“I’d toyed with joining the FBI as an attorney. I’d always respected prosecutors,” she says of her career shift. The fact that, as a prosecutor, she’d be handling cases in the courtroom and was one of only “10 or 11” female litigators in the Wichita area appealed to her. “Any case that came down the pike, I tried,” she says.
Even some of the ugliest cases. In 1978, she helped start the comprehensive Division of Sex Offenses and Crimes Against Children. The idea, Foulston says, was to have a “vertical” division, where victims of crime could work with the same attorney throughout the process. Foulston would later become the first prosecutor in the state of Kansas to be called by a prison to prevent the impending release of a sexual predator.
She tried that case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, eventually winning an opinion that reinforced the constitutionality of civil commitments for sexually dangerous people.
In 1981, Foulston went into private practice with Kansas’ largest civil law firm, Foulston, Siefkin, Powers and Eberhardt. She focused on corporate and employment law. While there, she met her husband — her second husband — Steven Foulston.
“Steve and I had several cases together,” she says. “I beat the pants off him every time.”
After her divorce from her first husband, she started dating Steven Foulston. After they married, the Foulstons started their own firm, Foulston and Foulston. She and Steven have a son, Andrew, now 16. He’s a great golfer, and a budding attorney. “What every D.A. would want in a son,” she says.
Steven Foulston says his wife is what the community wants in a prosecutor.
“She’s very articulate. She’s very bright. And people just love her,” he says. In 1988, Sedgwick County proved it by electing Nola Tedesco Foulston district attorney by a landslide. She’s been re-elected four times since. Her husband says she’s been repeatedly approached by the state Democratic Party to gauge her interest in higher office.
Not interested, she insists.
Foulston admits that, as head of the district attorney’s office for Sedgwick County, with the Wichita area’s population of 500,000, she’s a bit of a show woman. She still tries a case or two a year, usually the office’s biggest cases. “I’ve spent my career as a trial attorney. I’ve trained my attorneys,” she says. “If the D.A. can’t get into that room and try a case, you ought not to be doing the job. I represent the community. When I talk, people have to listen. And I have to have credibility.”
No case has been bigger than that of the BTK serial killer.
For 30 years, beginning in 1974, a killer terrorized Wichita, Kan., killing 10 people in a case that baffled law enforcement. In letters to police and the area news media, the killer called himself BTK, for “Bind, Torture and Kill.” The killer resurfaced in 2004 after a long hiatus and again began communicating to police and the news media, dropping clues to the killings. Police used those clues to arrest Dennis Lynn Rader for the killings in early 2005. Although Kansas reinstated the death penalty in 1994 — on a case prosecuted by Foulston — the BTK killings predated that. On June 27, the scheduled start date of his trial, Rader pleaded guilty and described his killings in detail.
On Aug. 18, 2005, Foulston made sure the community heard the extent of the suffering Rader caused. The victims’ families made statements, as did Rader, who apologized for the crimes. He was sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences. Foulston, who expected Rader to plead at some point, says she just couldn’t let him escape the public’s wrath that easily. “We’d never really exposed the evil of this guy,” she says.
So she went to all the victims’ families and got them to agree to bring out the evidence against Rader at his sentencing hearing. She admits there were those who criticized her for grandstanding.
“But people needed to know that evil exists,” she says, adding that during the case, Rader told the guards that he’d planned to throw water on Foulston and electrocute her. “I would call him the serial geek,” she says of the former city code compliance officer and church volunteer. “I would say, ‘Get this guy out of here and get his coffin nailed.’”
Eisenbise, who worked as a legal commentator for a local television station during the BTK trial, says Foulston’s “flair for the dramatic” came out during that case. There was, he says, some grandstanding going on.
“Attorneys for Rader conceded everything,” he says. “But she insisted upon just going through every frigging detail of what he had done, beyond what he’d admitted.”
“Because she feels that the public needs to know,” Eisenbise says. Foulston’s husband says his wife has a strong sense of obligation to the community. It’s enabled her to take on some of the most horrific cases without losing her sense of humor, or her sense of self. “She really enjoys the cops and robbers,” he says. “She’s really tougher than nails. She just handles that stuff well.”
Dan Monnat, a Wichita defense attorney, chooses his words carefully when discussing Foulston. He doesn’t criticize her for taking her office’s biggest cases. “I think that it is ideal that a county has a county attorney that actually takes a case to court and tries cases,” he says, adding, “I would say she is an eloquent, spellbinding speaker who fully understands the drama of the courtroom.”
There was one case where Foulston didn’t have the Midas Touch. In 2003, Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline issued a new interpretation of the state’s child abuse reporting law. The law requires that doctors, school counselors and other professionals who work with young people report any sexual activity involving anyone younger than 16 as evidence of child abuse.
The Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City filed a lawsuit in federal district court, challenging Kline’s opinion on behalf of a group of health care providers in Kansas. The suit argues that the interpretation violates teens’ right to privacy and would keep young people from seeking confidential health care or counseling.
Foulston was called in to argue the interpretation on behalf of Kansas’ district and county attorneys. While she’s not exactly happy about her role — “That’s kind of a bomb,” she says. “I got dragged into that” — she believes that medical professionals should be required to report cases of abuse, neglect and sexual assault.
“When somebody says that doctors shouldn’t report, and one of the ways we hear about these assaults is through the reporting system, the facts of what constitutes a sexual assault aren’t for doctors to say.”
Critics, however, have said that Kline and Foulston’s interpretation essentially meant that two 15-year-olds who were “making out” could get reported as being involved in a sexual assault. Attorneys for the Center for Reproductive Rights gained a preliminary injunction in July 2004, which was appealed to the 10th Circuit, and a permanent injunction in April 2006. The case is now on appeal by the Attorney General of Kansas.
Attorneys for the center did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this story. Eisenbise admitted, however, that Foulston’s position on the case left him scratching his head. “I don’t know why she took that position,” he says. “Unless she was trying to appeal to the right-wing zealots we have in this community.”
He added: “That’s not her theory. She’s not like that. She’s just not like that.”
But Foulston insists that while prosecutors are highly unlikely to use Kline’s interpretation as license to take young lovers to court, the idea that people who are supposed to be mandatory reporters of possible abuse can decide when and when not to report is just wrong.
“Leave it to the professionals to advise,” she says.
The drama in Foulston’s life hasn’t been confined to the courtroom. In 1998, she was diagnosed with MS, a chronic, long-term condition that attacks and damages the central nervous system. Foulston says the diagnosis was a relief. “Oh, thank God,” she remembers thinking when doctors finally found the reason she’d felt terrible for so many years. “No brain tumor.”
Foulston takes medication and rests often when she needs to. She keeps a cane at the house. “When I need it, I use it,” she says. But she still rides her horse. And she continues to act in community theater — she played the doctor’s wife in a recent production of Our Town.
She also raises champion Havanese, miniature dogs about the size of a dust mop. She even has a Web site devoted to the breed: quellohavanese.com.
A rich life, Foulston says, isn’t just desirable for her, but necessary. Stress, after all, exacerbates the symptoms of MS. Besides, she says, she wouldn’twant a life without a whole buffet of interests and challenges.
“Life is too short not to have a taste of everything,” she says. “I am enabled and capable. I’m not disabled and incapable.”
Says her husband, Steven: “She’s got two speeds — full ahead or out like a light.”