The text message was short and sweet but somehow made Esperanza Prada feel uneasy: “Mom, I love you very much.”
Prada, who lives in Colombia, received the message from her daughter, Diana Alejandra Keel, seemingly out of the blue on March 7, as ABC 11 reported. It was the last anyone would hear from her.
By March 9, Keel’s daughter, a college freshman, had reported her missing after no one could reach the 38-year-old emergency room nurse. The circumstances were bizarre. She hadn’t been to work at the hospital in days and hadn’t notified her supervisors. Keel’s car was still parked at her and her husband’s house on Old County Home Road in Nashville, N.C., where they lived with their 10-year-old son. But her husband, Rexford Lynn Keel Jr., didn’t seem too concerned. He told police that he saw her leave home with acquaintances, and that he expected her to return.
Instead, days later, authorities found Diana Keel dead in the woods about a half-hour drive from her home. She appeared to have been stabbed.
On Sunday, police arrested Rexford Keel, 57, on first-degree murder charges, capturing him thousands of miles away near Tucson. He was pulled over on Interstate 10 just 34 miles north of the Mexican border, driving his father’s 1998 Chevy pickup and carrying a large amount of cash. He appeared to have fled North Carolina sometime after the Nash County Sheriff’s Office questioned him on March 13, the day after his wife’s decomposed body was discovered by state Transportation Department workers.
“We got a killer off the streets today,” Sheriff Keith Stone said Sunday at a news conference.
It is not the first time that one of Rexford Keel’s wives had died, a fact that the sheriff’s office now finds suspicious.
On New Year’s Day in 2006, his first wife, Elizabeth Bess Edwards Keel, 42, died of blunt-force trauma to the head after falling down concrete steps outside the couple’s home and hitting her forehead, as he told police at the time, according to the Sheriff’s Office. There are three steps on the front porch, images of the home show.
The medical examiner in 2006 ruled Edwards Keel’s death an accident, but Stone said Sunday that investigators have decided to reexamine the case in light of his second wife’s alleged homicide. It was welcome news to one of Edwards Keel’s former co-workers, Matthew Lambert, who told WRAL that friends at the time “thought it odd” that she would fall down the stairs; she was “outdoorsy,” he said, and liked to ride horses. Keel was not a suspect in her death.
According to archives in the Rocky Mount Telegram, the couple married in 1982, not long after graduating from the same high school. Their marriage announcement says Edwards Keel worked at the Rocky Mount Sanitarium, a hospital that has since closed.
They lived together in the same small white house on Old County Home Road from which Diana Keel would later go missing.
“We’re going to go back and look at the information we had from the first incident reports,” Stone said Sunday. "We’re gonna talk with the district attorney’s office. It’s definitely something we need to be looking at.
Stone said Diana and Rexford Keel had been married for a “long time,” at least a dozen years. Javier Guevara, Diana Keel’s cousin, who also is in Colombia, told ABC 11 that Diana had come to the United States to live the American Dream.
But Stone said the couple had “difficulties” in their marriage. A year ago, he said, sheriff’s deputies responded to a domestic dispute at the home, although no further action was taken. Taryn Edwards, who said she had been best friends with Diana Keel for the past decade, described Rexford Keel as “controlling."
“The verbal and emotional abuse was evident to me as a friend,” she told ABC 11. “The atmosphere of the house was always really tense. He hovered a lot, never allowed her to be alone with anybody for extended periods of time.”
Family and friends, including Edwards, said that Diana Keel had been planning to leave her husband and file for divorce. Prada told ABC 11 that she knew her daughter planned to talk about the divorce with him this month — she called it the “month of change," and said Diana planned to take her son with her once she left. Edwards said she encouraged Diana to leave her husband as well ― but when he found out, their friendship fell apart, she said. He ordered Diana to stop seeing Edwards, she said.
“She told me not to cry, that everything was going to be okay,” Edwards said. “When she walked out the door, that was the last time I saw her.”
Stone said the Keels’ son is staying with relatives. Diana Keel’s daughter, Laura, a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who is Rexford Keel’s stepdaughter, created a GoFundMe page to help cover funeral expenses and to “help support my brother and me in the years to come.” She said she was trying to think about how she would raise him.
“My priorities now are to make sure my mother is laid to rest in a manner much more fitting than her death and to make sure my brother continues to feel the love that our mother shared with us daily," she wrote. "By doing so, I hope to honor my mother’s legacy.”
Rexford Keel remains in custody and is awaiting extradition in Arizona, where Nash County Sheriff’s Office deputies will pick him up. It’s unclear whether he has an attorney.
More from Morning Mix: