BELTON, Mo. — May 4, 2007 should have been just another normal day.
Kara Kopetsky, 17 years old, headed off to school that morning but soon called her mom with a couple of requests. She needed her work uniform washed before 4 that afternoon and she’d forgotten a book. Rhonda Beckford threw the uniform in the washer and dropped off the book at the school office before heading to her own job.
But when Beckford came home that afternoon, her husband, Jim Beckford, Kara’s stepfather, asked if she’d heard from the teen. Kara had not come home from school at 2:30 as expected.
“I tried to call her but it went straight to voicemail,” Rhonda Beckford told me. She called Kara’s manager at Popeye’s Chicken where she worked. He hadn’t heard from the teenager, either, and she’d only missed work once — and that was because she was sick.
By 5 that afternoon, the Beckfords called the Belton police to report Kara missing. The first officer brushed it off, telling the family, “She’s a teenager, she’s probably just mad.”
“They [the police] basically treated her as a runaway,” Rhonda Beckford said. “But who knows their child better [than her parents]?”
Kara had never run away before. She’d left most of her belongings at home, including cash, clothes and an iPod. And then there was the matter of the boyfriend — or ex-boyfriend, as Kara had recently broken up with him. Rhonda Beckford told me he’d tried to abduct her a couple of weeks earlier and she had jumped out of his car. The teen had applied for a restraining order and a court date was set for May 10.
Rhonda Beckford, her family and Kara’s friends did their own investigating as they divided up the city of Belton, a suburb south of Kansas City, Mo., and went door to door with flyers.
It wasn’t until the June 2 disappearance of Kelsey Smith, an 18-year-old in Overland Park, Kan., a suburb west of Kansas City, that Kara made the news.
Suddenly there were two young women — both the same height, both with dark hair — missing in the Kansas City area. “The national news came calling,” Rhonda said. Could there be a connection?
Four days later, Smith’s body was found and soon after her killer arrested. Although he was questioned, no link between the two cases was ever found.
Surveillance tapes from cameras inside Belton High School show Kara leaving the morning of May 4, which doesn’t surprise Rhonda Beckford who knew her daughter had a couple of classes she hated and that she sometimes skipped. The school never called though, because at 17, Kara was considered an adult when it came to attendance. That has since changed; the school calls all parents of children enrolled in school when they’re absent.
And now surveillance cameras are placed outside the school as well.
Cell phone records show that the last call on Kara’s phone was with the ex-boyfriend that morning. It was 20 minutes long.
Rhonda Beckford said circumstantial evidence would seem to point to the ex-boyfriend, but the Cass County prosecutor needs more than that to build a case.
So Rhonda does what other parents of missing children do: They work to keep their child’s face and name out there before the public, with Web sites, Facebook pages, t-shirts, signs, magnets, events and media coverage.
Sunday was the sixth annual walk to honor Kara. Friends and family members showed up, but so did people who didn’t even know her or her parents, like Terry and Tracie Jennings from Pleasant Hill, Mo. “We drove over because we have five kids,” they told me.
Also present were the parents of other missing and murdered children, including Don and Donna Ross, parents of Jesse Ross, a 19-year-old who “vanished” during a school trip to Chicago; Jeremy Irwin and Deborah Bradley, parents of Baby Lisa, who disappeared from their home in October 2011; Mark and Kim Howard, whose 11-year-old daughter Michaela was murdered June 17, 1998; and Greg and Missey Smith, parents of Kelsey.
It was heartbreaking.
I didn’t realize there were so many cases, just in the Kansas City area alone. It’s “an epidemic,” Rhonda said. “If this [missing chidren] were a disease, there’d be a million dollars in research to find a cure.”
Instead, there’s $80,000 in reward money for anyone with information leading to Kara’s discovery.
Her mother isn’t expecting to find her alive. She hates the word “closure,” preferring “resolution.” She just wants to know what happened. She wants to have a funeral so she can say goodbye to her daughter.
She was “robbed,” Rhonda Beckford told me, while we walked together Sunday, “of the lifetime of memories I should have had with Kara.”
Meanwhile, Rhonda and Jim hope that someone, somewhere, will come forward to share information. Someone knows something.
“You just keep on keeping on,” Jim Beckford said.
If you know anything that could help solve Kara Kopetsky’s case, call 816-474-TIPS.
Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.