Mothers of Jessica Runions and Kara Kopetsky thank community for support
Prosecutors say four witnesses told Belton police that Kylr Yust admitted to them he had killed his ex-girlfriend Kara Kopetsky.
Those reports — all virtually identical in detail — preceded the death more than nine years later of yet another woman, Jessica Runions, 21, who Yust is also now accused of killing.
Why then did it take the discovery of both women’s bodies in rural Cass County last spring before the 29-year-old Yust was finally charged in connection with Kopetsky’s death more than a decade after her disappearance?
Might Runions be alive today, had he been arrested in connection with Kopetsky’s death based on those multiple recountings to acquaintances about the killing and other circumstantial evidence?
Court documents filed in Cass County Circuit Court this week charging Yust with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of abandoning a corpse do not address those questions.
Belton police referred all inquiries about the case to Cass County Prosecutor Ben Butler, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday afternoon. Neither did Teresa Hensley, who was the prosecutor at the time of Kopetsky’s disappearance. She was defeated for re-election in 2014.
But the witness statements might have been all they had. Current and former prosecutors tell The Star it can be hard proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt absent physical evidence to bolster the accounts of witnesses who say the defendant confessed the crime to them.
It’s not impossible, however, to build a case based almost entirely on circumstantial evidence when no body has been found. Former Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison proved that with his successful prosecution of Richard Grissom nearly three decades ago. The bodies of Grissom’s three female victims have never been found.
But Morrison said the circumstantial evidence has to be compelling enough to convince a jury that the victims are most certainly dead that the defendant killed them. He achieved the former in the Grissom case with facts that established that the women were not the kind of people who would run away and not want to be found.
“Showing that stability in their lives was a great help,” he said. “That’s a huge factor in these kinds of cases.”
Trying a circumstantial case is also a gamble because of the legal protections defendants in murder cases have against being tried twice on the same charges.
“There are no redos,” said Clay County prosecutor Daniel White, who sent two men to prison on murder charges despite never finding the victims’ bodies.
In such cases, he asks himself: “Am I firmly convinced that the person is dead and this person (the defendant) committed that crime and is that something that is admissible? Will I be able to meet that burden?”
That is, the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If a prosecutor files a weak case and loses at trial, the defendant cannot be re-tried later even if new, compelling evidence surfaces.
Little physical evidence is cited in the charging documents Cass County authorities filed Thursday in connection with the deaths of the two Belton women, other than the discovery of their remains.
But charging documents often don’t tell the whole story or list all the evidence authorities have in proving guilt.
All that’s necessary is for the prosecution to cite enough evidence to convince a judge that a defendant deserves to be bound over for trial.
The following chronology, drawn from court documents, sets out why police suspected Yust since shortly after Kopetsky was last seen alive in May 2007 leaving Belton High School, where both were students.
It does not say what Belton police may have done beyond interviewing Yust’s friends and associates and reviewing both phone records and video surveillance recordings.
But the accounts of those witness interviews tell a grim tale that frustrated investigators for years as they worked to solve the case:
April 28, 2007: Kopetsky, 17, visited the Belton Police Department to report that her ex-boyfriend, Kylr Yust, had forced her into his car earlier that evening as she was leaving work at a fast-food restaurant. After driving to Grandview, he let her go, she said. Two days later, on April 30, Kopetsky filed for and received a court order of protection against Yust. He was to have no contact with her. Yust was served with the order on May 1.
May 4, 2007: Kopetsky was reported missing. Surveillance footage showed her leaving Belton High School at 9:19 that morning. It was the last time she was seen alive.
A male friend of Yust and Kopetsky would later tell police — the charging documents do not make clear when that interview occurred — that Kopetsky had called him that morning to ask if she and Yust could come over to his place to hang out. The friend said he was too busy. But around 12:30 that afternoon — three hours after Kopetsky was last seen — Yust arrived by himself to smoke a cigarette. Later that day, Yust called the mutual friend, “crying and frantic,” saying that he had been with Kopetsky earlier in the day, but did not want anyone to know because that would be in violation of the protection order.
The friend called Kopetsky repeatedly that day, but got no answer.
May 6, 2007: Belton police visited Yust at his home. He admitted to kidnapping Kopetsky the week before, because he was upset about her dating other guys and that she wanted to break up.
He said his last contact with Kopetsky was on the afternoon of May 3, one day before the missing person report was filed. Yust said he didn’t see her on the day of her disappearance, but told police he missed a call from her around 11 a.m. He said he got no reply when he texted her back.
But phone records would later contradict his account, according to police. The probable cause statement does not say when police viewed the records. But they showed Kopetsky calling Yust six minutes before she was caught on camera leaving school.
At 9:20 a.m., one minute after she appeared in the video, Yust placed a call to Kopetsky.
June 1, 2007: Police looked on as Kopetsky’s locker at school was emptied. Among its contents was her debit card. Police determined that there had been no activity on her bank account since her disappearance. Earlier, she had failed to pick up her paycheck from the fast-food restaurant. Likewise, she placed no calls on her cellphone.
July 23, 2007: Belton police again interviewed Yust, who admitted to arguing with Kopetsy by phone on the night before her disappearance. Yust said the dispute centered on Kopetsky’s upcoming plan to “spend the weekend partying and running around on him” with another man.
April 26, 2010: One of Yust’s former roommates with the initials NY contacted Belton police with new information about the case. He said that sometime in 2009 Yust talked about his relationship with Kopetsky, that he got angry with her because she wouldn’t love him and didn’t want her to love anyone else. “Yust then told NY that he just snapped,” according to the probable cause statement, “and that something bad had happened to the victim.”
Jan. 22, 2011: A woman with the initials KF contacted Belton police to say that Yust told her that he choked Kopetsky to death and disposed of her body in some woods.
Feb. 2, 2011: KF again contacted “law enforcement” to say that Yust again confessed to Kopetsky’s killing and “described watching the victim breathe her last breath and falling back against a chair and staring at her body for a short time before packing her up and placing her body in the woods.”
Aug. 19, 2011: One of Yust’s former girlfriends told Kansas City police that Yust once choked her and told her that “he had killed girlfriends in the past and would not hesitate to kill her.”
June 5, 2012: A witness with the initials SD told Belton police that Yust confessed to him about killing Kopetsky in the same manner as the previous confessions. According to the probable cause statement: “Yust told SD that they were having relationship issues, and they got into a physical altercation and he choked her out.” Again Yust told this witness that he watched Kopetsky “take her last breath and stared at her body before taking her remains and placing them into some woods.”
September 2015: Yust refused to answer questions about Kopetsky when a Belton cop visited him at a federal prison in Oklahoma, where Yust was serving time on a drug charge.
March 28, 2016: A former cellmate of Yust’s told Belton police that Yust was despondent after the September 2015 police interview. Yust asked for help establishing an alibi, the cellmate said. “Yust admitted at that point,” the probable cause statement said, “that he had killed the victim by strangulation and then disposed of the body.”
Sept. 9, 2016: A family member of 21-year-old Jessica Runions filed a missing persons report with Kansas City police. They said she was last seen the previous night leaving a party with Yust, who had been drinking heavily. Runions and Yust had been arguing, court records say.
Sept. 10, 2016: Runions’ black Chevrolet was discovered burning near 95th Street and Blue River Road in Kansas City. No one was inside. A witness with the initials JC contacted Belton police to say he was present when Yust burned the car and that Yust told him he had strangled Runions and that “she was gone.” The witness said Yust told him that he had dragged the body into the woods.
Sept. 11, 2016: Yust was arrested at JC’s mobile home in Edwards, Mo., and charged in connection with the car fire. JC’s full name was not given in the court document, but Yust’s half brother is Jessep Carter, who lives in Edwards. Carter was cited for violations on Sept. 10 during a traffic stop west of Edwards in Henry County. Yust was in the car.
Oct. 5, 2016: One of Yust’s other former roommates told Belton police that Yust confessed more than three years earlier that he killed Kopetsky by choking her to death and that “no one would ever find the body unless he told somebody where the body was.”
April 2017: Without Yust’s help, two bodies were found close together on subsequent days in a wooded area of rural Cass County. The first set of remains was identified on April 5 as that of Jessica Runions. The second, much older set wasn’t identified until Aug. 16, when the mystery of Kara Kopetsy’s whereabouts was finally solved.