NewsLocal News

Actions

Kelsey Smith’s family reflects on her impact 15 years after murder

Kelsey Smith.jpg
Greg and Missey Smith.jpg
Posted at 7:51 PM, Jun 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-01 23:24:55-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fifteen years after she was abducted and murdered while running an errand, Kelsey Smith’s name still resonates across Kansas City, the country and the world — and her family’s fight to provide law enforcement with tools to prevent a similar tragedy continues, too.

“Fifteen years feels like yesterday in some ways,” Kelsey’s mom, Missey Smith, said last week during an interview at the family home.

Kelsey’s dad, Greg Smith, agreed: “It's a weird feeling. It can feel just like yesterday, and then there are times where it feels like, ‘Wow, it's been a long time.’”

Greg and Missey Smith.jpg
Greg and Missey Smith spokes to KSHB 41 News on the 15th anniversary of the abduction of their daughter, Kelsey Smith, from an Overland Park retailer.

There was nothing particularly noteworthy about June 2, 2007, when Kelsey popped into a Target store in Overland Park to pick up a gift for her boyfriend.

Perhaps that’s precisely why the story continues to resonate a decade and a half later.

“I think there's such an interest, because she just went to Target,” Missey said. “She's just an all-American girl that went to Target and that was it. She didn't come home. ... No one thinks you're just going to go pick up a gift from Target or the department store and not come home. That just doesn't happen, especially in Overland Park, Kansas.”

As she left Target, Kelsey was abducted by Edwin Hall in the parking lot and eventually murdered.

Her body was dumped in a wooded area near Longview Lake, but it wouldn’t be found for four days as the family fought with Verizon to obtain location data from her phone.

Once an engineer armed with the data from Verizon narrowed down the search area, investigators located Kelsey’s remains within 45 minutes.

During the 15 years since her death, Kelsey, who would have turned 33 on May 3, has become the face of a movement to force telecommunications providers to be responsive in emergency situations, especially as GPS and cell-phone technology has continued to improve and evolve.

It’s a bittersweet fight for Greg and Missey Smith.

“She's just our kid,” Missey said.

Remembering Kelsey

Some of the things that stick with a person 15 years after the death of a loved one can be unexpected. Grief and time are tricky that way.

“One way (Kelsey) would try to get a rise out of Missey was she would drink a bunch of soda and then just do a big belch,” Greg said with a laugh. “It would fill the whole room and sound like a trucker, which would just drive her mom nuts.”

It’s those every-day moments the Smith family misses most.

In addition to her parents, Kelsey is survived by four siblings — two older sisters, Stevie and Lindsey, along with a younger sister, Codie, and younger brother, Zach.

The Smiths have enjoyed watching their other four children blossom into adults — starting families, careers and forging their own lives.

“It would just be nice to be able to check in (with Kelsey) — ‘Hey, how are things going? What's going on?’” Greg said.

Missey also misses the mundane, like the chance to watch Kelsey interact with her nieces and nephews.

“She'd be married with kids,” Missey said. “She'd be a great aunt. She would be loving our eight grandchildren, for sure. I shared a picture today on Facebook that a friend had posted when we went to Texas on our last family vacation. We stopped in to see them and Kelsey just picked up Ethan and hugged him like crazy. That's just the way she was with all kids.”

Stevie also feels cheated out of those moments, wishing she could spend a day with Kelsey getting the chance to meet her four children.

“She'd be the aunt that was doing everything with all the kids, like the one that they could go to when they needed something when they were older,” McLeod said.

242848574_10159372462919451_7583175352091650326_n.jpeg
Kelsey Smith, who was abducted and killed on June 2, 2007, was active in band, track and theater at Shawnee Mission West. She planned to attend Kansas State, where she was going to play in the marching band and probably study veterinary medicine.

Kelsey was active in band, track and theater at Shawnee Mission West, where she graduated from nine days before being killed. She was outspoken and ornery, often bringing a bouquet of balloons to school on friends’ birthdays so they’d have to carry them around all day.

Greg said Kelsey planned to attend Kansas State, where she was going to play in the marching band and probably study veterinary medicine.

Parents push for change

On April 17, 2009, the Kansas legislature passed the Kelsey Smith Act, which requires telecommunications companies to provide location information to law enforcement during calls for emergency service or when the person may be in danger of death or serious physical harm.

Twenty-nine other states, including Missouri in 2012, have adopted similar legislation in 13 years since, including several states that also named the law in Kelsey’s memory and honor.

Three states — Oklahoma, Montana and Illinois — passed the law in 2021 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which limited the Smiths’ ability to travel the country and advocate for change.

Her parents believe Kelsey would be proud at the effort and lengths they have gone to in making the Kelsey Smith Act a reality in 30 of 50 states.

“I think she would like the law, but I think she would be kicking us in the behind and she’d have had all 50 states by now,” Missey said. “That's just who she was. Should be like, ‘Come on, let's get it done.’ She would've not let some of the senators not work it. She'd be in their face.”

The Smiths would like to see the bill pass at the federal level.

Former Rep. Kevin Yoder championed the cause, but he couldn’t get the Kelsey Smith Act over the finish line before being voted out of office.

More recently, Sen. Jerry Moran has sponsored a bill in the U.S. Senate and Rep. Jake LaTurner has taken up the cause in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, and the rest of the House delegation from Kansas — Reps. Sharice Davids, Ron Estes and Tracey Mann — have co-sponsored the legislation, but it remains stalled.

“In D.C., you need someone to actively work a bill,” Missey said. “That's where we kind of are at a standstill, because there are so many things that are important. To get someone to actively go to other members of the Congress to sign up is what we really need.”

But the Smiths vow to keep working.

“I'm not giving up; I won't give up,” Missey said. “That's how we got it in 30 states. I won't give up.”

Greg added, “Eventually, something will break.”

A family interrupted

Stevie, whose last name is now McLeod, was 23 when Kelsey was murdered and her family was thrown into a chaotic spotlight.

“All of our lives changed in different ways,” McLeod said. “After having kids, I realized what my parents — well, I still don't realize — but it hit harder on what they went through.”

She said it was probably easier for her and Lindsey, who were grown and no longer lived with their parents at the time. It upended life for Codie and Zach much more.

Greg and Missey admit now that the journey to honor Kelsey was all-consuming at times.

“Our kids were frank enough at times to say, ‘Hey, we're here, too; she's not here anymore, but we're here,’” Greg said. “Especially in those early days, we were so driven to try to do things, that we probably did not pay enough attention to those that were here.”

Kelsey came to overshadow the lives of the Smith family, so the last 15 years have been a journey of trying to make peace with that — life before Kelsey was killed and life after.

Through it all, McLeod often still feels her late sister’s presence.

“It's totally two different worlds it feels like now,” McLeod said. “But it's funny how, even in my world nowadays, I still see connections to her.”

While in the hospital after giving birth to her four children, McLeod said she inevitably comes across one of several made-for-TV documentaries about Kelsey’s case. It makes her feel like Kelsey’s spirit is still there.

“I think about her daily,” McLeod said, who joked that half of her wardrobe is Kelsey’s Army T-shirts. “Her pictures are up all over our house. When our kids were younger, they would talk to imaginary friends and it would be named Kelsey, which would crack me up.”

Of course, sometimes those reminders are painful. A recent TikTok video from a purported medium sent McLeod into a rage.

“There are days that are really easy,” she said. “I'm laughing and we're all cracking really morbid jokes, because you have to otherwise you're gonna cry every day. Then, there are days like Saturday, where I just lost my cool and it was just a hard day. It was all coming right back to me.”

Mostly, she misses her little sister and what might have been. McLeod said motherhood brought her and Lindsey closer together, an opportunity she never got with Kelsey.

“Lindsey and I started bonding more when we had kids. That's the part that I miss out, because I feel like we could've bonded even closer,” McLeod said. “... My favorite picture is on her graduation day of her, Lindsey and I. I feel like we didn't really look much like sisters, but in that picture you can see it in our smiles.”

The 18 years Kelsey lived simply weren’t enough.

“It's unreal that she's been gone almost as long as she was here,” McLeod said. “That part’s hard. It's been too long.”

Impact of Kelsey Smith Act

The Smiths never asked for the law requiring cell-phone providers to provide location data in emergencies to law enforcement to be named the Kelsey Smith Act.

That was then-Kansas Rep. Rob Olson’s idea. The Republican from Olathe sponsored the initial bill in the state legislature.

Initially, the Smith family focused on situational awareness and self-defense training, especially for women of all ages, through the Kelsey Smith Foundation.

That work continues, but changing the law state by state to prevent another family from having the same fight the Smiths did with Verizon has become part of the crusade.

Kansas law enfothe Kelsey Smith Act was used by Lenexa police in 2015 to recover a child who abducted when a vehicle was stolen, but the Smiths hear about plenty of cases in their travels.

There was a woman who attempted suicide by jumping off a cliff. She was badly injured, but survived and was located using the law.

In another case, police used the law to find and rescue a baby from an abusive mother, who had gone into hiding with the child.

“When you hear these things and you see these faces, it really is humbling that, because of the work we did, this person is alive, this baby,” Missey said.

It’s bittersweet for the Smith family.

“I'm happy her story gets out there, because it's done a lot of good,” McLeod said. “It's just mixed emotions on everything. I'm happy that it helps other people, but it's still the worst thing we ever went through.”

Knowing that the law they’ve helped create has saved lives “is a little bit of a salve to your soul,” Missey said, but the pain of losing Kelsey that underpins that work never goes away either.

“The only thing I'd want to change is that that day never happened,” Greg said of June 2, 2007.

After a moment to reflect, Missey added, “But then, if we change that, you don't know what lives wouldn't be here because she was. You can't change any of it, because then it changes everything. Obviously, I don't want her gone, but to look at the lives that she has saved, there is definitely (some) positive that has come from such a nightmare.”