Classmate remembers KC homeless woman believed to be victim of alleged serial killer

When Karen Harmeyer’s body was discovered in July 2017 in Grandview, few details were known about the 64-year-old woman’s life.

Some had heard she had once been a nurse. Others thought she was originally from Wisconsin. One acquaintance reported that alcohol had been her vice.

Authorities believe Harmeyer was the fifth of six victims killed by a man who terrorized the Indian Creek trail area in south Kansas City for a year. The body of the first victim was discovered in August 2016 near the trail. As more victims emerged in the following months, fear of a serial killer spread.

Fredrick Scott has been charged in the six homicides. He is scheduled to appear in court for a pre-trial conference on Oct. 18.

The five other victims were male and had been shot. Harmeyer’s cause of death hasn’t been disclosed by Jackson County officials because it is still considered an open investigation. A Grandview police report said officers who responded to the scene didn’t see any trauma on her body.

Nearly two years after Harmeyer’s death, little was still known about her until a former classmate started looking for her ahead of a 50th class reunion.

Barb Tylenda, of Franklin, Wisconsin, said she was dismayed upon discovering how life turned out for Harmeyer, who had been homeless and living in a tent behind a Grandview church for several years.

“It’s shocking to find out where life took Karen,” Tylenda said.

In early April, Tylenda was tasked with tracking down 24 former classmates. She scoured the internet for leads. Some were dead ends. A few turned out to be substantive. In her pursuit to locate Harmeyer, she found others with the same name, but some detail always eliminated them from being the right person.

Then she came across the story about Harmeyer’s death and the detail that she was from Wisconsin. The age also matched up.

“Please no,” Tylenda thought.

She recalled that Harmeyer lived in an orphanage. She imagined it must have been difficult for Harmeyer, having grown up with no familial roots.

Tylenda and Harmeyer attended Mercy High School, an all girls Catholic school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Tylenda recalled Harmeyer as a “nice, playful girl” who was also somewhat distant.

They graduated in 1970.

Looking at Harmeyer’s yearbook photo from that year, Tylenda said, “all you see is a future of promise. “ But lacking roots and support, Harmeyer’s life took a more tragic course. Tylenda said the story serves as a reminder that when looking into the face of a homeless person, it “could be Karen.”

The last contact Tylenda said she had with Harmeyer was at their 10-year reunion. Harmeyer had said she was a nurse’s assistant and came off as a “party girl,” Tylenda said. That didn’t raise any red flags at the time. They were in their 20s. But in retrospect, Tylenda said, it may have been the start down a path that wasn’t so positive.

After the reunion, it seems her classmate “fell off the grid,” Tylenda said.

About three decades of Harmeyer’s life remain a mystery. When she died, her body went unclaimed at the county morgue for several months.

Her final resting place came to be the Belton Cemetery.

Lenny Laguardia, Grandview Police Department’s lead chaplain, helped organize Harmeyer’s burial.

“I did a small part in remembering her,” he said.

Laguardia said many people in the community knew Harmeyer, bringing her food and checking up on her. They gathered for a ceremony in January 2018.

“It was a phenomenal event,” he said. “I was really glad we did it.”

Tylenda said she was grateful to the people who laid Harmeyer to rest.

The 50th high school reunion will take place next year. Tylenda said organizers are in the beginning stages of figuring out a way to honor Harmeyer.

“She deserves that,” Tylenda said.

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Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.