It’s easy to forget that Greg Smith is a Kansas state senator when he talks about his daughter, 18-year-old Kelsey.
He’s a proud father, sharing her ritual of buying balloon bouquets for close friends on their birthdays, her favorite color — blue — and her graduation from Shawnee Mission West High School.
But Smith is a politician because of his daughter. Kelsey Smith is a name that you probably recognize, maybe even more than her father’s.
She was murdered in 2007 — a stranger abduction, rape and strangulation that terrorized the Kansas City metro area because it seemed so random, so unlikely, so horrifying. She was kidnapped from the parking lot of an Overland Park Target, forced into her car and taken to south Kansas City.
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Kelsey’s body was not found for four days. And that fact, the tortured agony of getting her cellphone carrier to aid police in finding her, has become Smith’s passion. It was the reason he entered politics.
The Kelsey Smith Act has passed in more than 20 states. It gives police the ability to request the location of a person’s cellphone if the person is believed to be at risk of death or serious physical injury. It does not give law enforcement access to other data: not texts, not photos, not phone numbers, nothing. Only the phone’s location.
A federal version has been introduced in Congress for the past six years. If passed, it could alleviate the Smith family’s state-by-state approach. The bill could go to the floor for a vote as soon as next week, said U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas, the sponsor.
On Wednesday, Yoder joined Commissioner Ajit Pai of the Federal Communications Commission and Kelsey’s parents in a visit with Lenexa police to promote passage. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts sponsored the Senate’s companion bill. Congress is winding down for the session, so public pressure would help.
When Kelsey was abducted, law enforcement wanted to use pings from cellphone towers to help locate her phone, the last place it had been used. This was before GPS was widely available. According to The Star’s reports at the time, it took a subpoena to Verizon Wireless to get the company’s engineers to assist the FBI, working with cell towers. Kelsey’s body was found shortly after in a wooded area near Longview Lake.
AT&T and Sprint helped write the language of the first law passed in Kansas, Smith said. All four of the major carriers, including Verizon, are now cooperative with law enforcement, he said. Smaller companies are where roadblocks can occur. A former police officer, Smith is concerned about rural areas, where it could be difficult to get a warrant quickly signed.
Minutes matter in abduction cases. A federal law could make the difference and save a life.
On Wednesday, Lenexa police showed Smith and his wife, Missey, a photo of a baby who was found by using the Kansas law. The infant was in a stolen car. “That baby is alive and home because my baby isn’t,” Kelsey’s mother said.
The legislation’s goals are solid. Pushback has come mostly from the American Civil Liberties Union, raising concerns of privacy or overreach by law enforcement. Assurances of heavy consequences if the law is used improperly, for any reason but an emergency, might be necessary. Privacy fears, especially after the leak of classified data by Edward Snowden, led to the defeat of the legislation in some states.
Technology can help or harm society. There will always be a need for checks and balances to press for the help and negate the harm. Smith says there have been about six cases where the new laws did enable police to locate a person in danger before the person was seriously harmed.
Kelsey’s phone was never found. Investigators merely knew where it had last been. But that was enough. Her father suspects that his daughter’s murderer threw it into Longview Lake.
The man pleaded guilty and is serving life in prison, no parole. Smith prefers that the killer not be named here. He doesn’t need to be. Kelsey’s story isn’t about him anymore. It’s about helping other families.
The eventual assistance from the cellphone company is why the Smith family was able to recover Kelsey’s body for burial.
Missey and Greg Smith visited their daughter’s grave Tuesday. It was Kelsey’s birthday, her 27th.
The couple took 18 blue balloons for every year their daughter lived and added nine multicolored ones for the years that she has been gone. They left the bouquet at her headstone.