This story about the disappearance of Kara Kopetsky was originally published on July 21, 2007. Ten years later, her body was found, as well as the body of Jessica Runions. This week, Kylr Yust, who had dated both of them, was found guilty in their deaths. The jury recommended life in prison.
The first door on the left leads into Kara’s bedroom. She always kept it closed.
She wanted Thomas, her 8-year-old half brother, to stay out.
She didn’t want her parents to hear her climbing in through the window when she forgot her house keys — again.
She didn’t want her stepdad to hear her talking with friends on her cellphone late at night. One month she talked so much and sent so many text messages that her cellphone bill was 40 pages long.
Behind that door is everything Rhonda Beckford has left of her 17-year-old daughter, Kara Kopetsky. Everything and nothing.
On the first Friday of May, a sunny spring day that tempted grown-ups to leave work early and kids to skip school, Kara didn’t come home from classes at Belton High School. She hasn’t been seen or heard from since. No one knows what happened to her. Not her parents, not the police, not friends who have posted messages on Kara’s MySpace page:
Hey Hunny! I freakin miss u! The family is doin everything imaginable to bring u home safe. They are goin crazy for u girl.
It’s been more than two months now since Kara went missing. Rhonda, 41, wears the stress on her face, where shadows sit under dark, glassy eyes.
Kara’s father, Mike Kopetsky, remarried and living in Blue Springs, sometimes forgets to eat. He has lost 20 pounds and has thrown himself into his job remanufacturing transmissions.
“To keep my mind from wandering and my eyes from watering,” he says.
Kara’s grandmother has started smoking again. Thomas asks for hugs from strangers.
When he hears his mom say she doesn’t like to go past the door into Kara’s bedroom anymore, Thomas pipes up. He’d like to go in there, he says.
“Really?” says Jim Beckford, Thomas’ dad and Kara’s stepfather. “You never told us you wanted to.”
When Kara didn’t come home on May 4, Rhonda and Thomas taped a note on the wall just inside her bedroom door.
I know how hard it has been for you. Mom and Thomas
Jim says this isn’t exactly a “Leave It to Beaver” home. It sounds like an apology.
He met Rhonda at UPS, where they work. At the time, Rhonda was a divorced single mom raising Kara; they were just two girls living alone. When Kara was 9, Jim and Rhonda got married.
When Kara’s dad, Mike, found out she was missing, he first thought Kara was out having fun on a prom weekend.
“I kinda thought, ‘OK, she’s out being a rebel, partying, playing,’ “ says Kopetsky, 38.
Friends described Kara as a “firecracker,” but she hadn’t always avoided the straight and narrow. She wasn’t always the girl who cut classes, smoked cigarettes and frowned in photos.
Pinned to her cluttered bulletin board are ribbons she won for track back when she still liked school, back when she played the flute.
“By the time she got into ninth grade,” Rhonda says, “she was done with band.”
A family photo shows Kara and Thomas sitting on a tractor, both grinning like Cheshire cats. Kara smiled like that before she became self-conscious about her looks and her full, Angelina Jolie lips.
In adolescence, she became something of a boy magnet, and her parents warned her about the company she kept. In a house too small for secrets, Thomas heard the drama. In Kara’s bedroom he picks up a trinket from her vanity table.
“She got that from her other boyfriend, remember?” he tells his mom. “The one that was good?”
Officially, Kara is a “missing person endangered.”
“It means that there’s some concern about her being missing, that we’re concerned about her well-being,” says Capt. Don Spears of the Belton Police Department. “Specifically, because we’ve not heard from her, nor have any of her friends or family heard from her.”
The concern grew from what police saw in Kara’s room, things a runaway might have taken with her. Makeup. Clothes. A carton of Marlboro Lights full except for one pack.
She left behind the iPod she got for Christmas and the hair straightener she used every morning.
She planned to interview at QuikTrip the day after she disappeared and had made plans with friends for the next two weekends. Money in her bank account is untouched. She left her debit card in her school locker.
But Kara’s cellphone, a Motorola Razr she got for her birthday, is missing. It hasn’t been used since the morning of May 4.
“With a kid that age,” Spears said, “that’s a concern that the phone’s not been on.”
Kara disappeared the same day a tornado destroyed the town of Greensburg, Kan. Family members said when they contacted local media they were told reporters were busy in Greensburg. Some media were reluctant to publicize a possible runaway.
But then, on June 2, Kelsey Smith was kidnapped in Overland Park, and Kara suddenly became the other teenage brunette missing in Kansas City.
Before law-enforcement officials determined the cases were unrelated, the national media came calling. Jim and Rhonda gave interviews to Geraldo Rivera, Nancy Grace and Greta Van Susteren. They keep their names and numbers in a little notebook in the kitchen.
People have reported seeing Kara from California to Florida. Someone thought they saw her on a plane. Someone else thought they saw her on a tram at Disney World. Another person thought they saw Kara with a young man at a gas station in Louisburg, Kan. Outside Chicago, the FBI searched a house and found nothing. A psychic envisioned Kara in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Leads like these come in daily. Her family doesn’t know what to believe, afraid to ignore the one tip that might lead to Kara.
“The family has gotten to where we don’t take a lot of hope,” says Mike Kopetsky. “There in the beginning we’d get a lot of false hope, and it’d end up being heart-crushing when they were false leads.”
One day before the end of the school year, a rumor swept through town that a body had been found under a bridge in Louisburg. Even the kids at Thomas’ school heard it.
They found your sister’s body, kids told Thomas. Your sister’s dead.
Though people second-guess them — you should have done this, you should have tried that — Jim and Rhonda feel they’ve done everything they can.
After calling the police, they organized an army of Kara’s cousins, aunts, uncles and friends of the family to knock on doors around Belton, make fliers and T-shirts and call her friends.
One of those friends, Kylr Yust, 18, was Kara’s on-again-off-again boyfriend for much of the school year.
Anyone who’s read Kara’s MySpace page knows about the tempestuous Kara-Kylr hookup.
Police say that a few days before she disappeared, Kylr and Kara had a dustup that resulted in an order of protection requiring Kylr to stay away from her.
On April 24, Kara wrote: “So life hasn’t been the greatest for me lately, over the last 9 months of my life iv dedicated my life to kylr … I made no other time for any of my friends nor my family. over those 9 months i forgot the person that I was. im trying to find that person again.”
Kylr said Kara was a “flying by the seat of your pants” girl.
“She just wanted to have fun and do everything and experience everything in life,” he said. “She didn’t think too forward. She was always in the moment. She didn’t think about ‘what am I gong to do when I grow up.’”
He keeps pictures of her on his cellphone. He said she talked of running away to Mexico the next time she was punished at home.
“Lately I’ve been kind of depressed about the whole thing,” he says. “I have no idea where she is.”
Friends doubt that Kara ran away, but police have not ruled out the possibility. Spears says there are no suspects in Kara’s disappearance; there’s no evidence a crime has been committed.
Because she’s 17, legal age in Missouri, the police couldn’t make her come home even if they found her, Spears says.
If Kara wanted to vanish without a trace, he says, she could have found a website to tell her how. She could have bought a pay-as-you-go cellphone that can’t be tracked. She could have left behind her clothes and that fresh carton of cigarettes on purpose.
“It complicates the matter and adds to the frustration,” Spears says. “Hopefully we can keep her face out in front of the public.”
And yet, her dad worries about the attention.
“You kind of go back and forth,” Mike Kopetsky says. “If she is trying to come back home, are we putting so much attention on this that she’s scared to?
“All these different possibilities go through your head, and you don’t know the right answer. We’re all just frustrated … that nobody has said anything yet. Somebody at some point has to say something.
“What could she be so angry about in her life to where she would have no contact with any family or friends?”
After touring Kara’s bedroom, Thomas sits on the sofa in the living room and remembers his big sister.
When he would beat Kara at racing games on the Xbox. When she would make him do her chores. When she would walk him home from school and call him “butthead.”
“I remember that time when she got a water bottle and just splashed it on my shirt. And then I put ice on her,” Thomas says. “I don’t have anyone to put water on.”
Kara (it’s pronounced “CAR-uh”) Kopetsky
Last seen: May 4 at Belton High School
Appearance: White female; 5 feet, 5 inches tall; 125 pounds; light brown hair; hazel eyes; scar on forehead
What she was wearing: Blue jeans, black studded belt, gray T-shirt with white skulls on it, black and gray Vans sneakers with bleach splotches and black leather hobo bag
If you have information: Call the TIPS Hotline, 816-474-TIPS (816-474-8477)
Fundraiser: Kara Kopetsky Poker Run, 10 a.m. to noon July 28, sponsored by Blue Springs Harley-Davidson. The ride begins at Guicho’s, 110 Cunningham Parkway, next to Blockbuster in Belton. All-day activities include a bake sale, car wash and raffles. For info, call the Harley dealership, 816-224-5005.