On May 3, Greg and Missey Smith traveled to the Overland Park grave site of their daughter Kelsey to celebrate her birthday.
It has been nine years since Kelsey Smith was abducted from the parking lot of an Overland Park Target and murdered, her body discovered four days later in south Jackson County after her cellphone carrier tracked down the location of her mobile phone.
As they do every year, the Smiths released a bundle of 18 blue balloons — Kelsey’s age when she died and her favorite color — as well as nine additional balloons marking the years she has been gone, the years she and her friends and family haven’t been able to experience with her.
June 2 marked the ninth anniversary of her death. There was no balloon release. There used to be, in the first few years, until her family decided that felt too much like they were ennobling something that certainly wasn’t. So the day and the four days after it now pass quietly, more endured than observed.
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“Her birthday is still a happy time, a celebration,” said Greg Smith, sitting in his Overland Park living room on June 2 wearing a light blue T-shirt reading “Kelsey’s Army.” “June 2-6 was the time she was missing, and I don’t like those dates. I’m glad when this period of time is over.”
The couple said they always wonder where she’d be now if her life hadn’t been interrupted. Would the now-27-year-old be hitting her stride in a career? Married? A mother herself?
“That got to me, when her sisters had babies,” Missey Smith said. “They miss out on having her for an aunt because she would be fabulous. She loved babies.”
Instead, Kelsey Smith has achieved a kind of immortality. Her disappearance, the search for her and the ultimately tragic conclusion made national headlines, has been the subject of television documentaries and real-crime shows around the world and served as the impetus for legislation demanding faster cooperation from cell companies when authorities are trying to track down the phone of someone who might be in serious danger.
The Kelsey Smith Act was first adopted in Kansas in 2009 and has been signed into law in 21 other states, including Missouri.
Last month, a federal version was before Congress but was rejected in the House when it failed to get the two-thirds majority it needed to pass.
Greg Smith was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 2010 and to the Kansas Senate in 2012, and the Republican senator is currently seeking re-election. He is pragmatic about what happened to the bill. After speaking with the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, he said he expects it to eventually pass. He said it simply ran afoul of procedural rules, too many members being unfamiliar with the legislation, some partisan animosity and continuing concerns from privacy groups that giving law enforcement greater ability to track people is dangerous.
“We knew this was coming,” he said.
Asked about the concerns of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, Smith, a former police officer, said the legislation limits the kinds of information investigators can get off the phones and that there are existing laws for dealing with people who gain location information under false pretenses. He said there have not been any reported instances of abuse in the 22 states where the law is currently on the books.
Besides, Greg Smith notes that we spend much of our days under the gaze of video cameras or tracked by our debit card use or internet history.
“The notion that where you’re at is private I think is a little ridiculous in today’s world,” he said.
The law remains the couple’s greatest memorial to their daughter, and it takes up a lot of their time as they spend the legislative season criss-crossing the country together or singly to testify before state committees or lobby lawmakers directly. Missey Smith said she remembered visiting legislatures in Michigan and New Mexico in the space of three days.
“And who gets snowed in in New Mexico? Me,” she said, laughing.
Missey Smith traces her dedication back to a conversation she had in the days after Kelsey’s murder with Mark Lunsford, the father of Jessica Lunsford, a 9-year-old Homosassa, Fla., girl who was abducted and killed by a neighbor in 2005. Her death led to the passing of Jessica’s Law, which increased restrictions on sexual offenders.
“I just sat and talked to him for two hours, and he said, ‘Mrs. Smith, you will see where things failed your daughter, and that’s where your passion will be,’ ” she said. “He was so right. The cellphone failed her, and that’s what we told the provider: ‘You failed her that night. Now go out and fix what’s broken so you don’t do this to another family.’ ”
Specifically, her carrier, Verizon, refused to provide law enforcement with “pings,” or the signals Kelsey’s phone sent to surrounding cell towers that authorities could use to narrow their search. It took a subpoena to get the information, and Kelsey’s body was found shortly later.
The Smiths have never thought getting the information sooner would have saved their daughter, who was likely killed not long after her disappearance, but they said it certainly would have reduced the pain of not knowing where she was.
Police in states with the law often send the Smiths reports when it has been used successfully. Last year in Lenexa, officers safely recovered a 5-month-old who had been in the back of a stolen car after they used the Kelsey Smith Act to locate the mother’s cellphone, which was still in the vehicle.
“Those are big, emotional things because, as Missey says, our baby’s not here but someone else’s is because she’s not here,” Greg Smith said.
The law has also been used in ways the Smiths hadn’t considered, such as preventing suicides and getting emergency assistance to callers who can’t speak, such as an elderly person suffering a stroke.
Besides the act, Greg Smith has pushed in the Kansas Legislature other measures linked to his daughter’s case. A 2013 law he sponsored requires police agencies in Kansas to take a missing person report, regardless of how long a person has been missing. The information is added to a computer database that officers across the state use.
He also supported legislation in 2012 that allows district attorneys in Kansas to put criminal cases like Kelsey’s murder before grand juries to determine if there is adequate evidence for the case to continue, a job normally performed in open court during a preliminary hearing. Using a grand jury, as then-District Attorney Phill Kline did in charging Kelsey’s killer in 2007, could reduce the number of hearings in which victims must testify and keeps potentially gory evidence out of the public eye as grand jury proceedings are closed.
“It kept what happened to Kelsey private,” Missey Smith said. “There are no pictures. It was a little bit of dignity that we could still give her and other victims.”
Even before the Kelsey Smith Act and the other legislative efforts, there was the Kelsey Smith Foundation. The Smiths formed the nonprofit organization only a month after their daughter’s death and nicknamed it “Kelsey’s Army” after the volunteers who searched for her in the days after her abduction.
The foundation is focused on education, particularly when it comes to the safety of children and young adults. While it does publicize the ongoing efforts to get the Kelsey Smith Act passed across the country, the foundation mainly offers seminars to schools, businesses and other groups on safety awareness and preparedness and avoiding violent crime. It also dispenses safety whistles and awards college scholarships to marching band members at Shawnee Mission West High School, where Kelsey graduated and played the clarinet. The foundation also holds an annual golf tournament at the Falcon Ridge Golf Course in Lenexa.
The Smiths said that while the memory of Kelsey fuels their advocacy for the cellular phone law and other measures, they work hard to prevent her from becoming merely a symbol, or a “cardboard cutout,” as Missey Smith describes it.
They remember the human Kelsey, the outgoing kid who brought home-baked cookies and balloon bouquets to her friends on their birthdays but who also cussed, challenged her teachers — often loudly — and passed on to her younger brother, Zach, a habit for burping.
Zach, who was only 10 when his sister died, acknowledges that he doesn’t share the same level of feelings for her that the rest of his family has. He has asked his parents: If they could go back in time, would they save Kelsey, knowing all of the people who have benefited from her law?
Missey Smith said she doesn’t know if there would be a Kelsey Smith Act if she had survived and if those people could have been saved. But she says she would do anything to save her daughter: “I told him we don’t know those people.”
The grief is still very much near the surface. Missey Smith often tears up talking about Kelsey and said both of them are losing their hearing, which they blame on stress over the last few years. They said they finally boxed up their daughter’s belongings, but they’re not yet ready to go through them, let alone throw anything out. Recently, she agreed to give Kelsey’s bed to one of her other daughters for their children to use but had to leave the room while the bed was disassembled.
“There’s still a bottle of her shampoo in her bathroom,” Missey Smith said. “The little things like that, she’s still here.”
In the meantime, they will continue to push the Kelsey Smith Act in the remaining 28 states where it’s not passed, support a second chance before Congress and remind people their daughter isn’t just “the girl at the Target” but someone who could have been their neighbor, daughter or niece.
“She just went out and experienced life,” Greg Smith said. “From that aspect, I want other families to be able to have their kids so they can experience that.”
David Twiddy: firstname.lastname@example.org