Almost every weekend since Jessica Runions disappeared in September, her family and a core group of loved ones have gathered around a map of Kansas City, Mo., and tried to think like a murderer.
Where would the last person who saw the 21-year-old woman go to dispose of her body? they ask. What clues would a killer leave behind? What mistakes would he or she make?
Then they spend hours systematically combing the stream beds and parks and secluded areas of the city for Runions. And every weekend so far, they come home disappointed.
Disappointed, but not empty-handed.
Twice in the past two weeks, Runions’s family has stumbled across the corpses of other people missing in the Kansas City area. Their search has closed one missing persons case and turned another into a murder investigation.
“We just come home with that defeated feeling that we’ve found nothing,” Natalie Charles, the fiancee of Runion’s father and one of a core group of searchers, told The Washington Post. “Now, within a seven-day period to find two people, it just gives us hope. They have grieving mothers at home trying to find their loved ones, too.”
The family of one of the missing men, Brandon Herring, had launched an impromptu search to find him last year after they grew frustrated with the efforts of police in nearby Raytown, a Kansas City suburb. He disappeared around Thanksgiving, just days before his girlfriend gave birth to their child, his mother told NBC News.
“He was excited about becoming a father,” Rhonda Herring told NBC’s “Dateline” in November. “This is a young man who graduated school, and he’s missing. They need to take this seriously.”
During their improvised search, they found what appeared to be signs of a shootout, with several empty shell casings in an area where a friend reported seeing Herring.
But authorities had no idea what became of the man until Jan. 21, when a large group was searching for Runions. Charles was among the searchers and remembers one of Runions’s cousins telling the others, “I think I found a body.” It was Herring’s, decomposing in a creek bed near East 67th Terrace and Lewis Avenue, according to Kansas City Police spokeswoman Sgt. Kari Thompson.
Seven days later, Charles’s mother was searching and came across what she thought was a body, but she was too afraid to investigate further. “She’s always been a hiker,” Charles said. “It’s always been one of her worst fears to find a dead person. (On Saturday) she came and got me and said, ‘I think I found something. Just go over there and see what that is.’”
It was the body of a white man about eight feet down an embankment on South Brighton Avenue. The police spokeswoman told The Post that officers are investigating the case as a suspicious death. They have not released the man’s identity.
For family members searching for Runions, finding two bodies in a week was a sign that they were on the right track — a morbid, disturbing track, but the right one.
“Two bodies two weeks in a row?” John Runions, Jessica’s father, told the Kansas City Star. “It’s unbelievable. … We’re not going to stop looking until we find her. And if we find other people along the way, that’s good. Families deserve closure.”
Police have not named a suspect in Jessica Runions’s disappearance. The police found her SUV burning on a Kansas City Street shortly after she went missing.
She was last seen leaving the party with Kylr Yust, a man whom Charles described as a friend of Jessica Runions’s boyfriend. Yust, 27, has been charged with burning the vehicle but not with Runions’s disappearance or death. Police say he’s a person of interest.
The Yust once dated Kara Kopetsky, a 17-year-old who vanished nine years ago, according to the Star. He was never charged in that case.
Police arrested Yust on Sept. 11. They took swabs of DNA from his face and hands and samples of his hair and fingernails. They also took evidence from the burned SUV. But even if there’s an arrest, the family members say, they won’t have closure until they find Runions or her body.
That’s why this weekend, Charles said, they’ll be gathered around the map again.