Something drew me to Dover, Kansas. On a frigid day in 1996, I jumped into my car and drove west from Burlingame, traveling through Harveyville on my way to tiny Dover, located about 10 miles southwest of Topeka.
In a conversation a few days before, Brenda Michelle Keller’s name was mentioned. It was a name most of us knew. Brenda died on Oct. 19, 1991, the victim of abduction and murder. She was only 12 years old and was riding her bike home on one of the country roads I drove along four years later.
It was a shocking story in a small town that exemplified the “that would never happen here” adage. Though I didn’t know Brenda, many of my friends did, and all of them were devastated. By all accounts, she was smart, sweet and innocent. She also was cherished by her family, including her father, the pastor at the community’s church.
After hours of driving around Dover, I ended up in the town’s cemetery. It was not difficult to find Brenda. Her gravesite is marked with a beautiful headstone on the east (back) side of the cemetery. On my first visit, it was surrounded by flowers, trinkets and 100 Grand candy bars (her favorite).
I was 19 at the time, and it was one of the more moving moments of my life. I thought about the grief her family felt. I thought about how much care her loved ones took in maintaining her resting place. I thought about the animal, a 22-year-old man sentenced to 40 years without parole, who brutalized her before ending her life. I thought about the court system, which released the murderer to his uncle, a Dover resident, shortly before the crime.
In the 20 years since, I’ve visited Brenda numerous times. Sometimes I leave a rose. Sometimes I leave a 100 Grand candy bar. Sometimes I just stop by. Sometimes I wonder if we would have connected and been friends later in life.
This is the first time I’ve written about my trips to Dover, largely because I couldn’t process it myself. Brenda Michelle Keller died at age 12, but she will live forever.