People who knew Shannon Keithley shudder when they imagine her terror the morning she died.
They know she made a 911 call during her escape from an intruder in her Kansas City, Kan., home around 5 a.m. on Aug. 18. A kitchen knife left in the driveway where she kept her SUV suggests to them she fought her way free.
Then, less than a mile from her house, her SUV smashed into a massive concrete pillar on Leavenworth Road at the Interstate 635 overpass, killing her at the scene. She was 39.
She was not wearing a seatbelt. “Shannon always wore her seatbelt,” said Gail Henry, who family described as a mother figure to Keithley.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
She had been so tough through many dangers and crises in her life, close friend Joe Behan said. “What had this guy done to her?”
Police believe a man busted into her house and raped her. Thirty-five-year-old Orlando Taylor of Kansas City, Kan., is in jail, charged with those crimes.
Now Keithley’s family and friends want to know: Was she murdered?
“She was panicking, that’s for sure,” said her father, Richard Keithley. He cited the Kansas statute for felony murder, saying it may be possible the man charged in the rape could be held responsible for her death after she drove away.
A first-degree murder charge can be brought in “the killing of a human being committed…in the commission of, attempt to commit, or flight from an inherently dangerous felony…”
The investigation is ongoing. Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree’s office would not speculate on a felony murder charge.
“The possibility of additional charges exists,” spokesman Jonathan Carter said in a written reply to The Star. “However, the two charges, rape and aggravated burglary, are where the case stands at the moment.”
‘She’d been through hell’
Ninety-two-year-old Sally Keithley-McCulley returned again Thursday to the broken back door in the house where Shannon, her granddaughter, lived.
She knows this house well. Keithley-McCulley designed it in a New England-style with dormer windows when she came from England after World War II with her first husband, an American serviceman. And her husband built it.
She turned the oak-shaded home over to her granddaughter to help her find her footing when she returned to Kansas City in the spring of 2016 after living several years in St. Louis.
The door is resealed now. But it had been splintered and kicked through its lock.
“She was so young,” the grandmother said. “So full of life.”
Shannon Keithley repaired and restrung musical instruments for a living. She loved music and she was in the middle of the busiest season of the year in her work at REW Music in Lenexa, with all the young musicians and school band leaders getting ready for the new school year.
“I hadn’t seen her for two weeks,” her grandmother said, “but she still called me on the phone.”
Returning to Kansas City, getting closer to her family, had seemed like another step in settling down what had been a turbulent life for many years, her father, Richard Keithley said.
Divorce and family separations, and then difficult boyfriend relationships left many scars.
But she was always sincere with people, Joe Behan said, and she accumulated friends. Behan and Gail Henry knew her in St. Louis, where they worked together several years at City Music.
Keithley had survived violent encounters before, Behan said, remembering run-ins both with boyfriends and with strangers. “A lot of stuff,” Behan said. “And she kept moving forward.”
“She’d been through hell,” her father said.
The only news reports Aug. 18 described her death as a fatal crash early on a Friday morning. Anyone seeing the spare account would simply suspect a drunk driver, or someone falling asleep at the wheel, Richard Keithley said.
Only later did friends, through her family, begin piecing together accounts of the sexual assault in the family’s fragmented contact with investigators.
Details in the detectives’ affidavit supporting the rape and burglary charges remain under seal.
The narrative accumulated by her family begins with someone forcing his way into her home sometime during the early morning hours. By 5 a.m. Keithley had escaped and was able to make an emergency call to 911. She crashed her SUV into the concrete pillar at 5:09.
Meanwhile police were responding to the house and the 911 call. Family members say that investigators told them that the police found the man who would be charged with rape hiding outside under the wooden deck in the back of the house. His bond was set at $500,000.
Love and anger
Keithley, who played guitar, was surrounded by a family of musicians, so her funeral resonated with live performances.
The crowd at her funeral at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Shawnee came from as far away as Texas and Ohio, overflowing the sanctuary, many people standing in the back.
Her father performed the song, “Shannon,” from the 1970s, which he sang to his daughter when she was young. She always thought her dad had written it for her, though it was written by Shannon Henry Gross as an ode to the death of Beach Boy Carl Wilson’s Irish Setter, also named Shannon.
“Maybe she’ll find an island with a shaded tree,” the song went, “just like the one in our backyard…”
Keithley’s brother-in-law, Brian Isbell, performed “Bright Eyes” from the animated film Watership Down, which had been Keithley’s favorite growing up. She loved animals.
And Sally Keithley-McCulley asked that Isbell sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“The words to me so much were the way she was,” the grandmother said. “It was her wild imagination. She was over the rainbow.”
The warm memories on social media and in the funeral service were beautiful, and people who knew her want her remembered, Behan said.
But he is also “angry,” he said.
“How can we advocate for her if we’re not angry?”