A farewell to friends. A burned vehicle. A sighting with a man with a criminal past.
And not a trace since.
Jessica Runions was last seen Sept. 8 leaving a gathering of friends in south Kansas City. Two days later, the 21-year-old’s burned vehicle was found in a nearby wooded area. Kylr Yust, a man who had been questioned for the disappearance of another young woman in 2007, has been charged with burning the vehicle.
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Runions’ disappearance has tormented her family members, but they have united in a quest to bring justice to their missing granddaughter, niece, sister, daughter.
“You get discouraged,” said grandmother Linda Runions. “But then, you know, it’s not going to beat me.”
Family members pack any court hearing in which Yust appears. They form search parties each week. About 35 banded together on a recent day in court, wearing matching shirts with Jessica Runions’ name printed on it. Many arrived 45 minutes early, and when the proceedings began they fell silent, intent on not missing a word.
They have also turned to a tool unavailable to families searching for missing loved ones until recently. Social media have helped the Runions family seek answers by providing a venue to receive tips from a variety of sources and by serving as a forum to solicit volunteers for search parties.
Facebook serves as a sort of public confidant — a place for some in the Runions family to plead for an end to the misery of the unknown and unresolved.
The missing woman’s mother, Jamie Runions, posted a collection of photos of her daughter to Facebook earlier this month. In the post, she wrote at length of her pain.
“Look at these pictures; pass them along share,” she wrote. “I need her found. Good or bad I need this nightmare over. ... How would you feel when you can do absolutely nothing in protecting your kids from the darkness of the world?”
Technology has allowed family members to connect with people near and far.
Linda Runions said many from the Kansas City area have suggested places to investigate via Facebook.
“They know the area ... and they’re telling us, ‘Here’s a good place’ ” to look, Linda Runions said.
The thoughtfulness of strangers from across the U.S. and as far away as Paris has at times overwhelmed Linda Runions.
She added others have read about the case on social media and connected with the family online. The social web has allowed many, including retired law enforcement officers, to reach out to the family.
Here, Michele Runions, Jessica Runions’ aunt, said social networks have made organizing search parties easier, and they have expanded the pool of potential participants.
“It’s a big network,” she said. “People you don’t even know would be involved can get involved.”
Social media also helps the family keep Jessica Runions’ image in the public eye; many family and friends have Facebook profile pictures with her in them.
Some days are easier than others for Michele Runions to see her niece’s face in so many pixels, wondering if she’ll see it again in person.
“Some days it’s uplifting, other days it can be hard,” she said. “But the goal is to keep her face out there and the story going so we can find her.”
Two families search
As the family of Kara Kopetsky has been for nearly a decade, members of the Runions family are seeking justice through every conceivable avenue.
Yust was questioned multiple times in the 2007 disappearance of Kopetsky, who is still missing.
Michele Runions scours maps in her free time, seeking open, undeveloped space.
When driving, she steals glances out the window, trying to spot empty land that the family can search next.
“You try to narrow it down, but you just don’t know. You just don’t know,” she said, looking out a window from the eighth floor of the Jackson County Courthouse, where a pretrial conference for Yust was scheduled on Nov. 17. The miles and miles of earth stretched to the horizon beneath her.
Jessica Runions’ father, John Michael Runions, takes two or three days each week to search for his daughter.
Other members of the family meet each Sunday, in fields and empty lots and wooded areas. About 30 people form the informal search parties and comb the land for any trace of the missing woman.
They sweep acres and acres that can be difficult to cover with a few dozen people, but the family clings to hope in the face of nightmarish possibilities.
“We are going to find her,” Linda Runions said, “and that’s all there is to it.”
A common refrain passed around social media by the family is that someone knows something. Any clue, however small, could lead to answers.
Another of Jessica Runions’ aunts, Shelley Klamm, recently started a private Facebook group for the Runions family. Klamm, who doesn’t live in Missouri, and other out-of-state family members stay connected with the local Runions nucleus through the group.
The medium allows the family to circulate tips or entreaties, such as a recent one to deer hunters in which a photo of Jessica Runions appeared next to an image of a white-tailed buck.
Above the images, the post reads: “The search goes on. ... Please keep in mind we are still looking for Jessica Runions in the Kansas City, Grandview, Raytown and Belton, Missouri areas. If you see anything please call the tips hotline or contact our family through Facebook.”
The post, made by Linda Runions, had more than 400 shares as of late November.
Others who never met Jessica Runions are doing what they can to help online. Joy Garner of Raymore started a Facebook group called Praying for Jessica Runions. Garner wrote that the page was created to help spread the missing woman’s story. She said she felt an urge to do something, no matter how small.
In the hands of the law
When not together online or outdoors, hunting for clues, the family bands together in the courtroom.
On Nov. 17, on the eighth floor of the Jackson County Courthouse, relatives of Jessica Runions divided themselves among the courtroom benches.
The family members waited for the top of the hour, when a pretrial conference was scheduled for Yust.
It was a Thursday — 70 days after Jessica Runions’ disappearance.
At 10 minutes before 2 p.m. in the courtroom, a handful of attorneys ambled in. Yust’s wasn’t the only case on the docket, and surprise registered on more than one of the attorneys’ faces as they saw the public seating area at close to capacity, due in large part to the Runions family.
The attorneys, including the prosecutor in the Yust case, sat and looked through their print and digital materials, and the family’s voices dropped to whispers, as though respecting the quiet necessary to solve an elaborate puzzle.
“It’s a quest that we’re on,” Linda Runions had said earlier from a bench outside the courtroom. “You don’t give in to feeling scared — scared to face him or be in the same room. He’s not going to intimidate us. We’re going to be right here.”
Although Yust was not expected to appear in court for the pretrial conference, which was eventually rescheduled for Dec. 1, his presence was impossible to ignore.
At an earlier court date, Runions’ father, in a courtroom with Yust for the first time, had to be restrained by family members.
Yust “has to have his fair trial in court,” Linda Runions said. “We have to be careful to be congenial and basically cold toward him — that’s how I feel. You don’t want anything to jeopardize what the courts do.”
Yust, who has not been charged in Jessica Runions’ disappearance, faces a class D felony charge for burning her vehicle. The crime carries a maximum sentence of four years in prison.
After the brief pretrial conference, the Runions family filed out of the courtroom. In the hallway, they fanned around the prosecutor in Yust’s case, Jill Icenhower. Their ranks nearly filled the wide hallway.
One of the first things asked was a clarification of the next scheduled court date. Icenhower told them and answered other questions the family had, such as if their numbers in court could have an effect on the trial’s outcome.
The Kopetsky family has made it their objective to have at least one person attend each of Yust’s court appearances over the years (four attended the Nov. 17 pretrial conference), and Linda Runions said her family is aiming to do the same.
But she added they are striving to reserve judgment of Yust. Such opinions fall under the purview of the legal system.
“What happens to him happens to him,” she said. “We have no control over that. ... We have to stay focused on finding her.”
After the pretrial conference and speaking with the prosecutor, the Runions family moved toward the courthouse elevators.
Each of them wore a matching turquoise shirt made by Michele Runions. It included Jessica Runions’ name — “on the left side so it would be over our hearts,” Michele Runions said — and an elaborate dream-catcher on the back that looks like a quarter moon resting on a bed of leaves.
It’s an image the Runions family knows well; Jessica Runions helped design it and eventually had it tattooed to her upper right arm.
The tattoo can be seen, enlarged, in a missing-person flier that was tacked up around the metro area. Those fliers may be more difficult to spot these days, but the family is still searching as painstakingly as ever for Jessica Runions.
The shirts, the photos of Jessica Runions on social media, the memories clung to against time — these help to unite and drive the family.
In Linda Runions’ Facebook profile picture, a younger Jessica Runions, in a drawstring hoodie and with a smile revealing braces, poses with her grandmother. The photo was taken about four years ago.
“You hardly ever saw her mad,” Linda Runions said of her granddaughter. Then she added later, “We still have hope because we know people are found a year after they’ve been missing. ... We feel like it’s our right to find her.”
How to help
Anyone with information related to the case is urged to call the Kansas City Police Department’s missing persons hotline at 816-234-5136, or the TIPS Hotline at 816-474-TIPS (8477).
To offer search suggestions or to volunteer in a search party for Jessica Runions, contact the family on Facebook.