To law enforcement agencies, the disappearance of a Missouri woman and her young daughter for four days had all the markings of an abduction: a cryptic text message asking for help, a phone call that sounded like it was being read from a script, an ex-husband with a history of domestic violence.
Instead, Rachel Koechner told investigators Monday night that she slipped away with Devon Sandner, the ex-husband who's the father of her 4-year-old daughter, last week as part of a plan she devised a day before they took off. Koechner, Sandner and their child were found Monday in a home in Linn County about 100 miles northeast of Kansas City after someone saw them getting gas in nearby Brookfield and called police.
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"Her family has such a strong hatred for her ex-husband, and his family has a strong hatred for her. They just wanted to be together," said Chariton County Sheriff Chris Hughes, whose department is leading the case.
Koechner was staying at her mother's house in Rothville in northern Chariton County when she disappeared.
Hughes said she left Thursday with Sandner and their daughter. They spent most of the time they were missing at a low-rate suburban Kansas City motel, where Koechner, 28, and Sandner, 37, smoked synthetic marijuana and laid low while law enforcement agencies frantically searched for them.
Empty wrappers that had contained the artificial pot were found in Sandner's vehicle, and it appeared the couple had smoked the substance with their daughter nearby, the sheriff said.
Koechner's sister, Brandi Koechner, said family members are relieved that the mother and daughter have been found safe, but they're stunned by Rachel Koechner's actions — especially after a nasty divorce that was finalized in November.
"The whole family is pretty much confused, hurt, upset, but glad we got the little girl back," Brandi Koechner said. "We don't understand any of it."
She said 4-year-old Zoee Sandner is now staying with Koechner's mother and other relatives in Rothville, and that the family is planning to seek custody of the girl.
The family doesn't necessarily hate Sandner, she said, but there was a great deal of animosity because of what Rachel Koechner went through during her relationship with him. She also said the family felt that Sandner had the ability to manipulate his ex-wife.
"They've had such an on-and-off again, bad relationship," Brandi Koechner said. "He knew how to get into her head. All of us were really scared because we've seen what he can do."
Sandner, of Brookfield, was charged in January in Livingston County with third-degree domestic assault after his new girlfriend told police he had struck her in the face at a Chillicothe motel. He pleaded guilty in 2007 to third-degree domestic assault involving a different woman and was given a 60-day suspended sentence.
Hughes said Sandner isn't expected to be charged in connection with Koechner's disappearance, but was being held Tuesday in Chariton County Jail on five forgery charges from a Linn County case. Prosecutors allege he wrote five bad checks on the account of another man last August.
Koechner hadn't been charged by midday Tuesday, but was being held without bond in the Chariton County Jail pending charges. Hughes expected her to at least be charged with making a false report.
Neither Sandner nor Koechner had acquired an attorney, and Hughes declined an Associated Press reporter's request to interview either of them at the jail.
Media coverage Monday of what was then being described as a possible abduction forced Koechner, Sandner and their daughter to leave the motel in the Kansas City suburb of Blue Springs early, even though they had paid for another night in advance, the sheriff said.
"He said, 'I saw my picture on the news yesterday morning and I started freaking out,'" Hughes said of Sandner.
Rachel Koechner called her boyfriend around 9 a.m. Monday to tell him she was OK and to have the search called off. The boyfriend, whose name has not been released, told Hughes the conversation sounded scripted.
Hughes tracked the phone number to the Blue Springs motel, which he called just as Koechner, Sandner and their daughter were checking out. The motel worker who answered the phone handed it to Koechner.
"She said she couldn't talk now," Hughes said. "I asked if she was OK, and she said, 'No.'"
The sheriff contacted Blue Springs police, but the three were gone by the time officers arrived at the motel.