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From the archives: Smiths focus on how Kelsey lived - not how she died

By Laura Bauer, Kansas City Star

Kelsey Smith, an Overland Park teenager, was kidnapped and murdered in 2007. A bill named in her honor was rejected Monday in the U.S. House.
Kelsey Smith, an Overland Park teenager, was kidnapped and murdered in 2007. A bill named in her honor was rejected Monday in the U.S. House.

They want to laugh in this house.

And as hard as that has been for a family that lost their 18-year-old daughter in a violent crime that drew the nation’s attention, sometimes they succeed.

Sometimes, as they sit in their Overland Park home, they remember the things Kelsey would do that made them laugh. Silly things, the kind of things that crack up a family but might not be so funny to others.

When she got herself tickled, she’d wrinkle up her nose right here, " Greg Smith says, touching the sides of his nose. "She couldn’t stop laughing."

Surrounded by photos of the family and flowers sent by strangers and friends, Greg and Missey Smith talked Friday for more than two hours about Kelsey and how their family goes on from here.

By now the nation knows the teenager played in the band at Shawnee Mission West High School, performed in school musicals and planned to be a veterinarian. But Kelsey also could be a wisecracker, belching and drawing a "Kelsey Ann!" from her mother, playing loud music when she got mad and teasing her older sister, Lindsey, about the water that would trickle into her basement bedroom after Lindsey showered upstairs.

"How come her bedroom only flooded when I took a shower?" asks Lindsey, who in the fall will begin her senior year at Kansas State University.

Lindsey doesn’t crack a smile as her mom and dad, younger sister Codie and Kelsey’s boyfriend, John Biersmith, all bust up. It seems to help for a moment.

For a moment.

Missey can’t forget seeing her daughter the last time. "I kissed the top of her head, touched her hand and said goodbye, " Missey Smith says, breaking down.

Last week she made Kelsey’s bed. Missey laid there for 40 minutes and cried.

The best part of the day for Greg is the first five seconds, when he wakes up. "I don’t remember then what’s happened, " he says. "Then it all comes crashing down. That she’s not here, and she’ll never be."

On Friday morning he broke down in the shower, water pouring on his head.

"I just lost it, " he says.

Piles of cards and letters from across the country are in the Smiths’ living room. One box is full of the mail not yet opened. Another has those that the family has read.

One of Lindsey’s favorites is a multipage letter in big type from a little girl named Grace. The envelope reads simply, "To the parents of Kelsey Smith. Overland Park, Kansas."

Each time Greg or Missey or one of Kelsey’s four siblings reads a letter, he or she initials it. Sometimes that person will leave a warning, such as, "Very hard to read this one, " which Greg wrote Friday morning.

That was when he sat down to read a stack of about 40 cards that had just come in the mail.

"I read so many it was like I had an anxiety attack, " Greg says, gesturing toward his chest. "I had to get out and ride for almost two hours to relieve the stress."

On a friend’s borrowed motorcyle, Greg Smith rode until he relaxed. He rode to the fresh grave site of his middle child, a place he has been every day but one since he buried Kelsey on Tuesday.

Capt. Tom Fredrickson of the Overland Park Police Department wanted to talk to Greg and Missey Smith in person. It was before 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, about four days after Kelsey was kidnapped in broad daylight from the parking lot of a Target store.

"What kind of news are we talking about, captain?" Greg remembers asking. "Do we need to brace ourselves?"

"Yes, " the captain answered. "I think you need to brace yourself."

Four days earlier, when Kelsey didn’t return from her errand to Target, the family immediately feared that something was wrong. She had gone to buy a present and was supposed to come home to meet John before the two went out to celebrate six months of dating.

By midnight, the family was making fliers. The next day, they were doing interviews with local media, trying to get the word out. By Monday, it was national news and hundreds had joined "Kelsey’s Army" to search for her.

Kelsey would put up a fight, the family thought. The feisty one in the bunch, she could size you up and declare, "I can take you."

And Greg, who has worked in law enforcement 16 years, had taught all his girls how to protect themselves. They know where the pressure points are and how to fend off an attacker.

But then the Smiths saw the video, the one from Target that showed Kelsey at the driver’s side of her Buick Regal. In a flash, someone ran up behind her, shoving her inside the car.

"Regardless of how much training you have ... if you’re totally surprised and ambushed, you’re got, " Greg Smith says. "He took her by surprise, when she wasn’t prepared."

They saw that video after Kelsey had been missing 24 hours.

By then, Missey was losing a little hope that Kelsey would be found soon.

By 48 hours, so was Greg.

They never gave up. They stood in front of TV cameras from countless national media outlets, from CNN to "Inside Edition, " from Nancy Grace to Greta Van Susteren. They looked into the camera and talked to whoever took their daughter, pleading for him to let her come home.

They always had a message for their girl:

"Kelse, if you are out there watching us, we’re coming, " sister Stevie Hockersmith said June 6 on "The Today Show." "We’re not going to stop until you are home."

Kelsey had been gone more than 72 hours.

At a noon news conference that day, police revealed they were searching an area in southern Jackson County. Kelsey’s phone signaled cell towers in that vicinity within an hour of her first going missing on June 2.

Volunteers who had spent three days in the hot sun passing out fliers and searching the area surrounding Oak Park Mall now were headed to the area near Grandview.

About two hours later, Greg Smith got the call from the captain.

Though they had just graduated from high school, Kelsey Smith and John Biersmith felt they had met their match. In many long talks, they discussed college and careers, marriage and kids, and what it would be like when they were old. They also talked about death.

Kelsey wanted people to celebrate her when she died, not be sad. So that was what her family and John tried to do.

At the memorial service they played a song that Kelsey loved to sing. They told people to wear blue, Kelsey’s favorite color. At the visitation, which had been scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m., the family stayed past 11 to greet all who came.

Everyone in the family talked about Kelsey at the memorial service, except brother Zach. He’s 10.

In the days since Kelsey disappeared, Zach had stayed in the background. He played his video games and watched what was going on around him.

His dad took him aside one day, talking about how Kelsey wouldn’t be coming through the door again. She wouldn’t be picking him up from elementary school.

But they don’t think it had sunk in, not until Tuesday morning, when the family had a private burial before the public memorial service. Zach saw the blue casket in the ground.

"It finally hit him she wasn’t coming back, " Missey says. "We said, ‘We’ll sit with you, bud, as long as you like.’ We just sat with him at the grave site."

John is scheduled to leave for summer school today at the University of Kansas. Kelsey was supposed to go to Manhattan this weekend for orientation at K-State.

They dreaded being apart.

"We couldn’t spend the day away from each other, " John says.

"You two were pathetic, " says Lindsey, sitting in a chair nearby.

Greg, who plans to become a teacher, will still do his student teaching this fall at Shawnee Mission West. Lindsey still plans to get married next year.

Missey wants people’s lives to go on.

"I’ve told her friends, ‘You guys still have to live your life, ’ " Missey says. "Remember her, but don’t get stuck."

They don’t sit around and talk about what may have happened to Kelsey. Or pick apart the timeline.

"I don’t want to speculate, " Missey says. "It might be worse in our minds than it was."

When the time comes, prosecutors will tell them what they need to know. What they feel they can hear. And see.

They know they don’t want to view any autopsy photos or images from the crime scene.

"I don’t want to know the physical damage that happened to her body, " says Greg, a public safety officer at Johnson County Community College. "All my memories of Kelsey need to be the happy times."

Missey wants that for everyone.

"Remember her beautiful brown eyes, her smiling pictures in the blue shirt. That was Kelse."

The Smiths won’t spend any time talking about the man charged in Kelsey’s abduction and slaying. Kelsey is the one who matters to them. And they don’t want anything to jeopardize a fair trial.

"I’m not looking for revenge, " Greg Smith says. "I’m looking for justice, and they’re a different thing."

In the cards that the Smiths get, people write about the family’s courage. How Greg and Missey have handled themselves with grace.

"A lot of that is because we’re Kelsey’s parents, " Greg says. "We want to do that for our daughter."

They also believe that the strength of God and prayers from strangers are keeping them going.

And the memories.

Before Kelsey’s visitation, Greg needed a haircut. Something he admits has been one of the hardest things since he lost his daughter.

Kelsey always cut his hair. This time Missey did.

"He cried, " Missey says. "I was like, ‘I’m sorry it’s not her.’ "

The two look down. But then laughter soon finds a way in when Greg, who has lost most of his hair on top, describes the times Kelsey stood behind with the clippers as he sat in a dining room chair.

"When she was done, she’d sweep up the hair and it was just in a little pile, " he said, curving his fingers to make a golf-ball-size hole. "She’d say, ‘That’s sad, Dad.’ "

And they all crack up.

"... If you find enough to get you to laugh, " says Greg, "it’s like she’s here again for that time, you know?"

That’s why they want to laugh in this house.

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-7743 or send e-mail to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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