It’s been 20 years since 16-year-old Jennifer Long, cutting classes one January morning, was lured into the pickup truck of the stranger who that day would rape and murder her.
Wesley Ira Purkey, 46, a brutal ex-con high on crack, had driven into Kansas City on Jan. 22, 1998, from his home in Lansing. He spotted the shy brunette tomboy, in her jeans, a white T-shirt and green-and-black jacket, walking on the sidewalk away from East High School. He pulled alongside and asked the teen — who had her share of disruption at home — if she wanted to party.
“Back then, we smoked weed like it was going out of style,” Kimberly Terrones, Jennifer’s childhood friend, recalled.
Jennifer climbed into the white Ford.
In the end, there would be no funeral, because there would be no body.
Inside his basement, Purkey raped Jennifer, stabbed her repeatedly when she tried to escape and then, using an electric chainsaw over two days, cut her body into pieces and burned her remains inside a fireplace, fueled by logs and diesel fuel. He eventually dumped her ashes 200 miles away in a septic pond in Clearwater, Kan., south of Wichita.
There would be no gravesite or urn. No flowers. No music, no formal service, because Jennifer’s indigent family couldn’t afford such things. For those who loved the girl, there were only memories to mark the fact that Jennifer ever existed or mattered.
“There was nothing,” Marilyn Richards, Jennifer’s stepmother, said recently. “It was like she was here one day and gone the next. It was horrible.”
Now comes the possibility of something.
It’s not much, or grand — a $2,500 commemorative park bench that, if all goes well, will soon be placed along a walking trail in Independence. But the tribute is perhaps made more special by the fact that, two decades after Jennifer’s death, the funds came from well-wishers far from Kansas City.
Finding little support locally, Michelle McDaniel, one of Jennifer’s close childhood friends, contacted a fledgling crime podcast in Ontario, Canada, last year, asking only whether the show would consider retelling her friend’s tale to keep her memory alive.
“I, personally, just wanted to get Jen’s story out,” said McDaniel, who, now having twin 16-year-old daughters, thought the tale might help others. She believes that if Jennifer had had a better childhood, if she hadn’t felt threatened at school, where she was a recent transfer, she might not have felt compelled to get into a car with a stranger.
“Her life was tragic. She never really had any stability,” McDaniel said. “She wasn’t here on this earth long enough to make an impact, I guess. But I think what happened to her is supposed to be her legacy, if that makes sense.”
The podcast hosts, husband and wife Tyler and Bek Allen, not only agreed to recount Jennifer’s tale in their 20th episode in March, they also included an appeal to their audience on Jennifer’s behalf.
Before starting their program in 2016, the pair had no previous experience in producing a podcast or in crime reporting. Tyler, 47, works full time in telecommunications. Bek, 41, runs her own business creating television footage to promote charitable nonprofits.
True crime was her husband’s interest. The podcast, titled “The Minds of Madness,” was to be a side job, although one that now amasses about 500,000 downloads each month.
When she agreed to begin the podcast, Bek recalled, “I said to him, ‘Listen, I’ll help you out. But if we’re going to do this, I want to do something positive with it. I really want to involve the families — to give them a voice, maybe to give some help to the people listening who might associate with some of the issues that are talked about.’”
The Allens weren’t sure at first whether to tackle Jennifer’s story.
“Just the nature of it, just how brutally he murdered her. It was just so horrible,” Bek said. “But then I just felt like, after talking to Michelle, it just seemed like Jennifer was just kind of forgotten. The school didn’t even really do any kind of memorial for her. There was no follow-up on why she had left school that day. The family wasn’t able to afford a memorial. I just thought this is maybe going to be her one opportunity to get her memory alive again.”
Listeners responded. A YouCaring crowdfunding page, titled “Resting Peace: A Memorial for Jennifer,” has raised $4,100 from a handful of donors, including one who gave $3,000 in honor of her mother, who recently died. The donor said she could not imagine having no special place to visit and remember her.
An auction of merchandise donated by other podcasts ended on July 1 and raised another $1,000. What money doesn’t go to the bench, Bek Allen said, will be spent on gift cards for groceries or other essentials to help Jennifer’s family.
Glenda Lamont, Jennifer’s mother, did not respond to The Star’s requests to talk. But she was in contact with the Allens as the couple worked on Jennifer’s episode.
“This means the world to me,” she texted, adding that she lights a candle every year on Jennifer’s birthday, Dec. 22. “She was truly a beautiful person and I miss her every second.”
She also recounted how, on the day Jennifer went missing, “I knew something was teriably (sic) wrong.”
Jennifer had turned 16 exactly one month prior to the day she went missing. That afternoon, she was scheduled to go with her stepfather to get her driver’s license. She had been excited at the prospect. When her mother didn’t see her after school, she was sure something was amiss.
“I started calling all of her friends and family and went looking for her and went to the police,” Lamont texted.
Police seemed little concerned about a possible abduction. They reported Jennifer as a possible runaway and reasoned she would likely return. Lamont and others were never convinced.
“We put posters everywhere. It was like nobody cared,” said Holly Paige, Jennifer’s stepsister, who now lives in Atlanta.
Lamont texted: “We could not get on the news without clearance from police so we got on her favorite radio station sent out messages. ... Lots of leads went all kinds of places but nothing solid.”
Jennifer’s disappearance, and the much later news of her gruesome death, wreaked confusion and havoc on almost all who loved her.
Terrones, of Belton, choked with emotion recently in speaking about her childhood friend.
“We were pretty much inseparable,” Terrones said. “I still hear her voice. Twenty years, I can’t talk about it without crying.”
Jennifer grew up poor in a fractured and troubled family. Drugs and alcohol ran through her life, friends said. Jennifer moved frequently, switching homes from one parent to the other.
“We skipped school more than we were in school,” Paige said. After Purkey’s arrest, the friends heard how he took Jennifer to a convenience store to buy gin and orange juice. The detail rang true to them. Friends sometimes called Jennifer “Gin,” because “Gin and Juice” — like the Snoop Dogg rap song — was a favorite drink.
At heart, they also knew Jennifer to be a loving and devoted friend.
“Once she got to know you, she opened up,” Terrones said. “We called her Sugar Bear or Honey Bear. She was always smiling, always happy. If somebody was sad, she would do anything she could to make them smile.”
For years, one memory of Jennifer has stayed with her.
“A few months before she came up missing, we were all partying, like kids do,” Terrones said. “And she said, ‘When I die, I want you to play “Let It Be” by the Beatles at my funeral.’”
The Beatles were their favorite group.
“I told her, ‘Stop, don’t talk like that,’” Terrones recalled. “’You’re not going anywhere.’”
When Jennifer vanished, Terrones felt nothing but torment. A few years ago, she had the words “Let It Be” tattooed in cursive on her right wrist, alongside a bluebird, because Jennifer loved the color and blue jays. She celebrates Jennifer’s birthday every December and lights a candle marking the day she went missing. Richards, too, has a tattoo of a blue jay feather on her wrist.
“The not knowing was the worst,” Terrones said. “The wondering. Why haven’t we been able to find anything, any trace, nothing?”
Richards concedes that when Jennifer disappeared, her life fell apart. It took years to overcome. Her marriage to Jennifer’s father had already dissolved. She moved to Florida.
“If I was creating chaos, then I wasn’t thinking about Jennifer,” Richards said. “But when I did, I would break down.”
Paige, who is Richards’ daughter, said simply: “I remember being, like, comatose. It was so devastating. I remember just laying there, just checked out mentally. It still affects me.”
Were it not for another murder, the question of Jennifer’s disappearance might never have been answered.
Nine months after Purkey killed Jennifer, he was arrested for the murder of 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales. Purkey had been working for a plumbing company and went to Bales’ Kansas City, Kan., home on a service call, for which Bales paid him $70 in advance for parts. He used the money to get high on crack and hire a prostitute.
The next day, he returned and beat the defenseless woman to death with a claw hammer. He planned to cover up the murder by burning the house to the ground. Before Purkey could set the flame, a neighbor spotted him lurking in Bales’ backyard, and he was arrested.
In March 2000, Purkey pleaded guilty in Wyandotte County District Court and was handed a life sentence. Then in October 2001 — nearly four years after Jennifer’s disappearance — he admitted to raping and killing her. Having transported her across the state line, a federal crime, Purkey hoped he could serve his life sentence in what he deemed to be a more comfortable federal prison rather than a state prison.
Prosecutors instead sought the death penalty, and Purkey recanted his confession. In January 2004, he was sentenced to death nonetheless. The sentence has yet to be carried out. Purkey, 66, remains on death row in federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
Lamont originally hoped that her daughter’s bench might be placed at the rose garden in Kansas City’s Loose Park. In contacting the Kansas City Parks & Recreation Department, McDaniel discovered that the popular park is already at capacity for memorial benches.
Ultimately, she chose a spot in Independence, closer to her current home in Concordia, Mo. Jackson County Parks and Recreation said it could place a bench somewhere along the Little Blue Trace Trail in Independence, not far from the Sam & Lindsey Porter Playground.
Like Jennifer, the Porter children were also abducted. They were killed by their father in June 2004 but were not found until 2007.
Last week, McDaniel, Terrones and Richards together visited the trail near where they think the bench will be placed. Terrones brought a bouquet of sunflowers, one of Jennifer’s favorites, which she placed beneath a river birch. She also carried six blue balloons. Together, they released them and watched them float high above the treetops. They wept and hugged one another.
When the bench is eventually placed, the Allens from Canada said they hope to attend whatever ceremony occurs.
“I think it gives us acceptance and closure and a place where she’s memorialized and her life meant something,” Richards said.
Jennifer, she said, must be thinking, “Finally, I’ve got recognition. And I’ve got a place to rest, for all my friends and loved ones to come and visit.”
Not a day goes by, Terrones said, that she doesn’t miss her friend.
“For me, she’s never gone away,” Terrones said. “I mean, over the years, it has not gotten any easier. ... But, for some reason, this is happening, you know? And I think she’s ready for me to let it be.”