One friend recalls that Grayden Denham “never had a negative word.”
Another liked him enough that whenever Denham needed a ride for work, she provided it.
Two others remember the gentle way a teenage Denham had with exotic birds. One of those, a Grandview veterinarian, wanted to hire him.
Today, all four struggle to reconcile these memories with descriptions of the bearded, tattooed 24-year-old man whom Arizona authorities found walking naked at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning in late February — and whom Platte County investigators still consider a person of interest in the Feb. 19 deaths of four of his relatives, including his 3-month-old nephew, near Edgerton.
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Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey recently received a request from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to allow Denham to be brought back to Missouri, where he currently faces a stealing charge for allegedly taking his grandparents’ car to Arizona without permission. Ducey signed the request. It remains unclear how long after that the transfer process will take.
Prosecutors still have not filed charges in the deaths of his grandparents, Russell Denham, 82, and Shirley Denham, 81, his sister, Heather Ager, 32, and her son, Mason Schiavoni. They say they want to take their time and be thorough in investigating the killings.
Investigators also have not announced the four causes of death.
Firefighters found the burned bodies outside the grandparents’ burning house. A gas can sat on the ground near one.
Denham lived at the home sometimes, authorities have said. He had not been allowed to drive his grandparents’ vehicles because his Missouri’s driver’s license had been revoked for points violations and child support enforcement, investigators say.
After Denham’s arrest 1,200 miles away in Arizona, authorities charged him with the misdemeanor theft for taking a license plate. Police found the stolen Oklahoma plate on Denham’s grandparent’s car, next to which Denham had piled his clothes before beginning a naked walk through town.
Last week, Arizona dismissed the theft charge “for the reason that it is in the best interest of justice to do so,” court records say.
That freed up Missouri to request Denham’s extradition, a process that includes sending paperwork through two state agencies and on to Missouri’s governor, asking him to request the release from Arizona’s governor. The process could take a few days or several weeks.
Denham’s mother, Shelly Denham, did not want to be interviewed for this story but did confirm some facts about her son’s youth and his family. He grew up at least in part in Liberty.
“Heather and Grayden were very very close,” his mother wrote in an email.
Friends, meanwhile, struggle with the possibility that the boy or young man they knew could be involved with the four deaths.
“Anybody who has known Grayden — who has always been a guy who would joke and be easy to hang out with — never would think of him as being the type of person who could do something so horrific,” said Angelique DeMarcus, who supervised Denham at restaurants in Dearborn and Smithville.
“They’ve already got Grayden condemned as some sort of bad person,” said Kathleen Griffino Siska, who knew Denham as a teenaged exotic bird enthusiast who attended meetings of a Kansas City-area bird-rescue organization.
“I’ve watched Grayden since he was young, and that doesn’t sound like the Grayden I know.”
These friends described Denhem as light-hearted, a quality supported at places on Denham’s Facebook page, which includes photos of Denham clowning in a Superman’s costume, his arms raised in superhero triumph.
And a photo, entitled, “My nephew,” shows Denham sleeping with a small child. The page also features examples of metal arts and customized classic cars.
Yet post after post also shows vivid images of dark artwork featuring human skulls.
There were times, one acquaintance said, when Denham seemed to exhibit a melancholy side. Like the time he had an artist tattoo a teardrop under one of his eyes, said Katie Moreno, who attended welding classes with Denham at a Kansas City vocational college.
“I didn’t ask him about it,” she said. “I figured it was his business.”
Another Facebook photo, apparently posted by his mother, shows them building sand castles during a trip to the Maryland shore.
When Grayden was 12, Shelly Denham represented Missouri in the annual Mrs. International pageant. The competition saluted married women who devoted their time and efforts to their families. In a 2004 Star story, Shelly Denham explained that, despite attending several community college classes, she always wanted to be home in the afternoon when Grayden came home from school.
About that time, Shelly and Grayden Denham’s interests in exotic birds led them to Julie Burge, a Grandview veterinarian who operates Burge Bird Services, a rescue and adoption program.
Grayden volunteered to work with Burge’s birds, even though it took a 30-minute car ride to reach the facility from his family’s Liberty home.
“He was smart, a hard worker and was just a pleasure to be around,” Burge said. “He was great and loved being around the animals. Had he lived closer, I would have hired him to work here.”
The love of birds also led Shelly and Grayden Benham to Beak n Wings, a Kansas City-area nonprofit bird rescue organization that operates a shelter in Johnson County. Siska met Grayden at Beak n Wings events.
“He was one of the young men who just stood out. He worked great with the birds,” Siska said.
“He would come over and work with the animals at my house. He played video games, he read books. He would go out and mow the yard. He was a helpful child.”
While in high school, Denham spoke of wanting to enlist in the U.S. Army, Burge said, and then perhaps going on to college.
“I was encouraging him to go on to veterinary school and I certainly think he was smart enough and hard-working enough,” Burge said.
It’s not clear what interrupted those plans.
In 2008, Denham’s parents, Shelly and Gary Denham divorced after 27 years of marriage.
In March 2010, Grayden Denham left high school without graduating, according to Liberty School District records. He later earned a graduate equivalent degree, according to his mother.
He also became a father, court records show. In 2013 a Kansas City woman sued him for child support. That June, a Clay County judge ordered Denham to pay $237 a month.
Angelique DeMarcus met Grayden Denham that summer, when Denham served as a cook under DeMarcus at a Dearborn, Mo., restaurant.
“He took a lot of pride in the food he prepared; it always came out looking good,” said DeMarcus, a manager at the restaurant.
“He was fun to be around, he would joke around with you. When you were working with him, the shifts would pass very quickly.”
When the restaurant’s operators shut down the Dearborn location to open a new restaurant in Smithville, DeMarcus convinced them to re-hire Denham.
DeMarcus grew to like Denham and often went the extra mile for him, literally. For much of the time DeMarcus worked with Denham, he was not driving.
On those days, DeMarcus picked him up at his grandparents’ house, worked a shift with him and then dropped him back off at the Edgerton home.
DeMarcus wanted to see Denham succeed, she said, and was impressed how he sometimes would go to welding class after working a full shift at the restaurant.
“On those days when I picked him up for work, he always had his duffel bag with his welding hat and everything,” she said.
That’s the person Katie Moreno grew to know while taking welding classes with him at a Kansas City technical school.
“He seemed very determined to get a good job and support himself,” Moreno said. The two shared laboratory time and Moreno found Denham supportive of her efforts to complete the program.
“He never had a negative thing to say,” Moreno said. “He was very pleasant, always saying things like ‘That looks great.’ ’’
Last July, a Raytown police officer pulled Denham over on a traffic stop. Because Denham had outstanding traffic tickets and warrants, the officer arrested him. Denham apparently was unable to post bond.
The Raytown Police Department has only a small lock-up to hold people for brief periods, so police took Denham to the Johnson County detention facility in Centerview, Mo.
That’s where Denham assaulted a corrections officer as the deputy passed a metal detector wand over his clothing.
Denham allegedly grabbed the deputy’s head and approached with fists raised. The two struggled before a second corrections officer used pepper spray to subdue Denham.
County prosecutors charged Denham with third-degree assault on a corrections officer.
On Jan. 29, Denham pleaded guilty in Warrensburg. A judge sentenced him to two years probation and instructed him to perform 20 hours of community service. Denham’s lawyer for that court appearance declined to comment.
DeMarcus said she had heard about Denham’s Johnson County incident, and had been told by a friend that he had begun performing the community service.
On Feb. 19, someone killed his grandparents, sister and nephew.
Early on Feb. 21, officers found Denham walking naked in Seligman, Ariz.
Denham’s friends are waiting for the legal process to go forward and perhaps provide answers.
Siska, who moved to Tennessee in 2009, said she considered herself almost a second mother to Denham Grayden.
She last spoke to him in the fall, before the birth of his sister’s son. He sounded happy, she said.
“Grayden had that kind of rough look, but he’s a genuinely good person,” Siska said. “It’s horrible what happened but it doesn’t make sense to me.
“My gut instincts tell me that there is no way he could have done anything like this.”