One week ago, Essence Willoughby visited Gilbert Memorial AME Church in east Kansas City with her two children and a male friend and prayed with Pastor Brenda Smith.
On Saturday evening, Pastor Smith joined nearly 300 friends, family members and community supporters of Willoughby in the parking lot of that same church for a candlelight vigil commemorating her life and memory.
“I gave Sister Essence her last hug and her last prayer,” Pastor Smith told the gathering, describing her as a beautiful young woman. “Let justice be done.”
Willoughby’s body was found Tuesday in a creek behind the church, near Stadium Drive and Leeds Road, after her precocious 3-year-old son told police that he saw a man hit her and put her in the water after they attended church. His description of the scene helped police find her body.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker attended Saturday’s vigil along with Police Commissioners Alvin Brooks and Lisa Pelofsky, Police Chief Darryl Forté, City Councilman Jermaine Reed and other community leaders. Baker said after the vigil that a person is under investigation in the killing but no charges have yet been filed.
Friends and family said Willoughby, 21, graduated from Hope Academy in May and had big dreams of a career as a police officer. She was enrolled at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River to study criminal justice, with two scholarships. She also was a devoted mother to her two sons, ages 2 and 3.
“She was full of joy and hope and love, and we want to remember her that way,” said Terri Harrison, a good friend of the family.
Harrison said it’s heartwarming how many people have rallied around the family since the tragedy, and it’s a tribute to how special Willoughby was.
“She has ministered to us even in her passing,” Harrison said.
Some people in the crowd hoisted purple balloons, which Harrison said were meant to raise awareness about domestic violence. She said Willoughby had been a victim of domestic violence in the past and was not living with the abuser at the time of her death.
A representative of the Rose Brooks Center reminded the crowd that domestic violence affects one in three women. She urged participants to educate themselves about the problem and how to promote healthy relationships.
Willoughby’s grandfather, Jesse Frazier, thanked God for Essence’s life and for the legacy of her precious sons. He assured the crowd that Willoughby’s sons are loved, well cared for and doing fine.
Willoughby’s mother, Helen Frazier, said she misses her daughter terribly. She thanked the crowd for its support and urged people to spend their days in love of God and each other.
“If you love her, give God praise, because she did,” Helen Frazier said.