On the day Kara Kopetsky’s mother saw her for the last time, it felt like few people paid attention.
As that day turned to night and her worries mounted, eyes focused on Greensburg, Kan., and the killer tornado that had just ripped through the town.
For days, that rerouted news crews 300 miles southwest to report on the utter devastation of a small town when they might otherwise have led their coverage with the story of a missing teenager.
Yet the same day, the brown-haired teenager with hazel eyes and a toothy smile had disappeared.
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On May 4, 2007, Kara Kopetsky walked out of Belton High School before her afternoon classes and didn’t return home or show up for her 4 p.m. shift at a nearby Popeye’s restaurant.
In the days before her disappearance, Kopetsky had filed for an order of protection against her on-again, off-again boyfriend Kylr Yust, who reportedly had tried to abduct her the month before. On that spring day, the 17-year-old’s family immediately thought she was in danger and wanted help getting the word out.
“We were trying to get media attention, and there was no one in town,” Rhonda Beckford, Kopetsky’s mother, says now. “Everyone was in Greensburg. We didn’t get any attention that first week.”
That frustration would be the first in a long procession of frustrations for Kopetsky’s family and friends as they worked and prayed to bring Kara home. Days of yearning for answers eventually turned to weeks and years. Ten years next month.
Even now, with the most promising hope for answers uncovered this past week, the frustration never truly goes away. Neither does the agony of waiting, which they’ve been forced to do yet again.
In recent months, Rhonda Beckford and her husband, Jim, have connected with another mother who also has been forced to wait for answers. And they’re convinced Yust is the cause for her pain, as well.
Seven months ago, Jamie Runions’ daughter Jessica disappeared. The 21-year-old Raymore woman was last seen leaving a gathering of friends with Yust, and he’s now charged with burning Jessica Runions’ SUV, which was found two days after she disappeared.
When the Beckfords heard about Jessica, “we were angry, we were bitter,” Jim Beckford said. “We fell apart because it happened to somebody else.”
Early on in Kopetsky’s case, her family felt police were slow to recognize that the teen hadn’t run away. Citizens even circulated a petition in late June that year demanding the state step in and take the case away from Belton police.
Promising leads, from strangers saying they saw a girl who looked like Kopetsky in various parts of the country, eventually fizzled. Over and over again, news would break of bodies and remains being discovered in the area, and the Beckfords would wait for an identity to be released.
None of them ever their girl.
“With Kara, she’s been gone 10 years, and people think, ‘Well, after 10 years, your life goes on and you move on,” Jim Beckford told The Star this past week.
“You can’t move on,” his wife piped in.
Said Jim: “Whether it’s six months, seven months, or 10 years, it’s like Day 1.”
Not a ‘runaway’
Kopetsky walked to school that May day, a sunny Friday where late spring temperatures rose to near 80.
The teen had called home once she got to school and told her mom she’d forgotten a textbook. Rhonda Beckford soon dropped it off at the front desk, and her daughter picked it up.
Surveillance video from Belton High School captured Kopetsky walking down the hall at 10:30 a.m. Another video, which police would release a month after she vanished, showed her leaving the school soon after.
“We knew that Kylr had done something with her,” Beckford says, thinking back to those first hours with no sign of her daughter. “That’s where our suspicion lied from the very beginning. But (police) thought since she was 17 years old, a teenager, she was mad and she would show back up.
“I never thought my daughter was a runaway.”
Kopetsky and Yust had a tumultuous relationship.
On April 24, about 10 days before she vanished, Kopetsky wrote about Yust on her MySpace page.
“So life hasn’t been the greatest for me lately, over the last 9 months of my life iv dedicated my life to kylr … I made no other time for any of my friends nor my family. Over those 9 months I forgot the person that I was. Im trying to find that person again.”
It was around that time that Yust had reportedly shown up at Popeye’s after Kopetsky’s shift one night, grabbed her and tossed her into his truck. She was eventually able to jump out and run to safety. That incident led Kopetsky to file for a protection order against Yust.
She was scheduled in court on May 10, six days after she disappeared.
Rhonda Beckford went to court that day and spoke for her daughter. The judge granted the protection order.
Weeks after Kopetsky disappeared, Yust talked to a reporter with The Star about the girl he said wanted to have fun and experience life. He said he kept a picture of her on his cellphone and that she had talked about running away to Mexico the next time she was punished at home.
“Lately I’ve been kind of depressed about the whole thing,” Yust said then. “I have no idea where she is.”
‘Is it Kara?’
On the second-to-last day of school in 2007, a rumor spread that a body had been found in Louisburg.
People wondered aloud if it was Kopetsky. Even kids at her younger brother’s school heard it and told him it was his sister’s body. They told Thomas — who was 8 when Kopetsky disappeared — that his sister was dead.
The next month, in June, a young woman close to Kopetsky’s age also disappeared. Authorities soon discovered that Kelsey Smith, an 18-year-old from Overland Park who had just graduated from high school, had been shoved into her car by a stranger and abducted from a Target parking lot.
Four days later, authorities discovered a body near Longview Lake, 6 miles from Kopetsky’s home.
Again, could it be Kara?
Belton police soon let the Beckfords know it wasn’t their daughter, but Smith.
In October 2007, another body was found. As Belton gathered that Friday evening for Homecoming — with a parade float earlier that day dedicated to finding Kopetsky, who would be in her senior year — the whispers started again.
“Is it Kara?”
This time, a crew surveying for the Missouri Department of Transportation had found the decomposed body in thick underbrush near Route Y and U.S. 71, less than 2 miles from Belton High School where Kopetsky was last seen.
It wasn’t until the next day that Rhonda and Jim Beckford, as they sat at home with their daughter’s youth pastor, got the call. Authorities hadn’t identified the body yet, but because of dental records, they knew it wasn’t their girl.
A Star article about that day said the Beckfords held each other after the call, and their bodies heaved as they cried.
Back then, Jim Beckford described it as a “sweet and sour moment” for the family. They felt relief for themselves but pain for the family who would eventually learn the body of their loved one had been found.
“People talk about closure and stuff, but we don’t want that kind of closure,” he said then. “Faith and hope have gotten us through five months. We’re happy to hear it’s not her, and it keeps hope alive.”
The waiting — the hardest part, Rhonda Beckford says — never got easier. But they expect it now.
They also know Kara isn’t coming back alive. They’ve faced that realization over the years.
“Kara has come to me several times in dreams,” her mother says. “And I know she’s on the other side waiting for all of us to be with her.”
Now when remains are found, they hope they’ll finally be able to put their daughter to rest.
Kopetsky’s mother, though, has learned not to get her hopes up. Too often she’s been disappointed.
“That’s an emotional roller coaster,” she says.
But this time, almost a full 10 years after her daughter disappeared, was different. She couldn’t help but be hopeful.
This time, on Tuesday as she sat on her couch with Jamie Runions, Rhonda Beckford heard Lt. Brad Swanson’s voice on a cellphone speaker. The Belton police commander talked about a gut feeling.
Swanson, who had investigated her daughter’s 2007 disappearance longer than anyone, was hopeful himself. Maybe, he said, they’d all finally get the resolution they’d waited a decade to get.
“They told us that we may have answers,” Beckford said, her voice starting to break that afternoon, as she headed to the police station.
The day before, a mushroom hunter had stumbled upon human bones in rural Cass County by a quarry near 233rd and Y Highway. Swanson called her family that Monday evening and told them about the discovery. The family of Jessica Runions, last seen Sept. 8, also got the news.
And now, less than 24 hours later, authorities had found a second skull.
It was easy to get her hopes up now.
Yet an hour or so later, Beckford stood before reporters, gripping the hand of Jamie Runions. All emotion drained from her face. Kopetsky’s mother had felt this kind of frustration, letdown before.
“It’s still just skeletal remains,” Beckford said. No identification yet. No answers. More waiting.
What she didn’t know then was how true those words would ring in the next day or two. By Wednesday evening, she was talking to Swanson again. One set of remains had been identified.
But they weren’t Kara’s. They were Jessica’s.
Beckford listened as police explained that the second skull needed to be tested for mitochondrial DNA. She heard words like “lab backlog.” And “up to a year.”
“Those words pass through your head,” Beckford said later. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can wait another year.’ ”
A couple days later, she had thought it through and felt more hopeful. She feels that an answer could come a lot sooner.
Maybe even before next month’s 10th anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance.
Deep down, she says, she feels that Kara and Jessica were there in that Cass County field together. All she needs now is the confirmation.
“I’m at the position now where I kind of have to take it one day at a time,” Beckford says. “And believe and think that, OK, every day I got to get up and it’s, like, OK maybe today’s the day that that car is going to pull up out front, and I’m going to get the answers that Jamie Runions got — that they have positively identified your daughter.
“It’s the day I’ve been waiting for for 10 years. But it’s close. I can feel it, it’s close. You know, we’re a lot closer now than we were May 4, 2007.”
The Star’s Kaitlyn Schwers and Keith Myers contributed to this report.