Walk to remember Kara honors all missing persons


Jim and Rhonda Beckford lead the seventh annual Walk to Remember Kara Kopetsky in Belton, Mo. (Diana Reese for The Washington Post)

BELTON, Mo. — Someone, somewhere, knows something about the disappearance of Kara Kopetsky seven years ago.

That’s what Kara’s mom, Rhonda Beckford, and stepfather, Jim Beckford, believe. And they refuse to give up until they learn what happened to the 17-year-old who left high school May 4, 2007, in this town of 23,000 people just south of Kansas City, Mo.

“She went to school one morning and she didn’t come home,” Rhonda Beckford said.

Keeping Kara’s name and face in front of the public is one of the reasons why they continue to organize the annual walk on the first Sunday of May each year. At least 150 people joined them on the two-mile trek along one of Belton’s busiest streets, which was lined with signs, many of them featuring photos of the missing teenager, while cars honked to show support.

Before the walk began, Jim Beckford announced that another $10,000 from donations and fund-raising efforts would be added to the reward, bringing it to a total of $90,000 for information about Kara’s disappearance.

He also said that a scholarship will be established in Kara’s name, although details are still being worked out.

The walk has grown to represent more than Kara. It’s now “a voice for all of the missing,” Jim Beckford told the crowd.

It’s something of a reunion each year for a very special group of people united by tragedy — the loss of a loved one who’s gone missing or was murdered. Greg and Missey Smith of Overland Park, Kan., (another suburb of Kansas City) were there, as they always are.

Their daughter Kelsey, 18, was abducted  from the parking lot of a Target store and found, murdered, four days later. They’ve turned their grief into action by working for the passage of the Kelsey Smith Act, which is now the law in 14 states and which has been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the province of Alberta, Canada. The measure allows law enforcement faster access to information about the location of a cellphone in emergency situations.

Kelsey disappeared June 2, 2007 — just a month after Kara — and sparked national attention as people wondered if the two cases could be connected.

Don and Donna Ross, also Belton residents, were at the walk for Kara, as well. Their 19-year-old son, Jesse Ross, disappeared during a college trip to Chicago to participate in the model United Nations Conference on Nov. 21, 2006. Don Ross has written a book, “Where’s Opie? Vanished in Chicago,” about the family’s experience.

Not all of the walk’s participants have lost a child. Judy Courtney attended in memory of her sister, Carol Thompson, a 51-year-old mother and grandmother who was missing for 10 months until her remains were found a year ago April in a wooded area north of Kansas City.

Maureen Reintjes, whose husband disappeared in Las Vegas, was there. She founded Peace for Missing and Unidentified Persons, a support group for families.

Perhaps the farthest anyone traveled for Sunday’s walk was Ben Coats from Tupelo, Miss. He works with crime victims and was wearing a T-shirt that featured the name of Carmen Gayheart. Coats said Gayheart was a young mother of two who was kidnapped in a Lake City, Fla., grocery store parking lot by two escapees from a North Carolina prison. They sexually assaulted her and then shot her to death.

So many sad stories. “People don’t realize what an epidemic this is,” Rhonda Beckford said. As she’s told me before, “If this were an illness, the government would spend a million dollars on research to find a cure.”

Kara Kopetsky in an age-progression photo as she might look today. (Courtesy of Rhonda Beckford)
Kara Kopetsky in an age-progression photo as she might look today. (Courtesy of Rhonda Beckford)

According to NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, there may be as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases at any one time. The FBI’s National Crime Information Center, as of Dec. 31, 2011, contained 85,158 active missing person records, with 37,371, or 43.9 percent of them, for juveniles under age 18 and 9,832, or 11.5 percent, for persons between the ages of 18 and 20.

The numbers don’t matter to the families. Not when it happens to you. “People need to know it could happen to anyone,” Rhonda Beckford said. “Belton’s just a small town.”

It’s been seven years since Kara walked out of the school and was never seen again. Yet both Beckfords said it feels like just seven days ago. The last person Kara most likely spoke to was her ex-boyfriend, according to cellphone records. He had tried to abduct her a week before her disappearance, and she had filed a restraining order against him.

He was sentenced to nearly four years in prison last November for drug trafficking.

Kara’s family wants to know what happened.

Meanwhile, life goes on.

Mike Kopetsky, Kara’s father, said he keeps Kara “right here,” as he touched his chest. “She’s in my heart.” He would like to see a park bearing Kara’s name. She didn’t like school, he said, but she loved going to the park.

Rhonda Beckford said she has good days and bad days. Her son, now 15, who was just 8 years old when his sister disappeared, has been “a huge support.”

“When I’m on the laptop, looking up stuff, seeing pictures of Kara, and crying, he’ll grab my arm and say, ‘Okay, Mom, that’s enough’ and pull me away.”

Special occasions, like Kara’s birthday and Easter, are especially tough. She finally threw the candy in Kara’s Easter basket away a few years ago.

Rhonda Beckford  credits her faith in God for getting her through. “I take it day by day.”

I just hope that one day she finds out what happened to her daughter.

 

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.
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