Webb: Brenda Michelle Keller case has lasting impact, hope

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The Dover Federated Church looks much the same as it did 25 years ago.

Every night, I walk to every door and window in the house, often twice, checking to see that they’re locked. Sometimes, I look in closets and under the bed.

I’ve been doing this meticulously for five months now. It’s not a coincidence that I’ve followed this routine since the day I started researching 12-year-old Brenda Michelle Keller’s murder.

As I wonder through the house to make sure the boogeyman can’t get in, I often think of growing up in a time of innocence, when we lived in the country, miles from civilization, sleeping with your doors unlocked and windows open.

For several months this year, I couldn’t get the windows in our house to lock properly. It drove me crazy, especially after I read the police reports about the Keller case and began to research other notable cold cases. I sleep much easier now that they do lock properly.

On several of the nights when I did fall asleep, I’d wake up in a cold sweat, fear shooting through my body as I heard a creak in our aging duplex. It was one of the cats, of course, but that didn’t stop me from climbing out of bed, grabbing the nearest club-like item and searching the house.

It’s safe to say Brenda Michelle Keller’s case has had a profound impact. And I’m not alone.

Every person I’ve interviewed has been affected. All of them keep a closer eye on their children and lock their doors and windows.

Some are in therapy, still trying to cope 25 years later. Others are scared of men. Many check their house nightly for signs of danger.

After a nightmare in March that seemed so real I got out of bed and slept on the couch with all the lights on the main floor on, my concerned wife asked, “Are you sure you can do this?”

The answer, of course, was a resounding, “YES.” As I wrote a few years ago, I’ve visited Brenda at the Dover Cemetery every year for 20 years now. Fate placed me in this story, and I hope to do this amazing little girl and her family justice.

I haven’t shared what I’ve written about this case for many reasons. In time, I will. For now, here’s an excerpt:

Though some things have changed in the past 25 years in Dover, the church has the same homey look and feel. As patrons walk up concrete stairs and into the nearly century-old building, tables flank the left and right side of the entrance.

Resting on the table to the left are CDs of Bob’s recent sermons, Dover Federated Church business cards, programs for the day’s service and prayer lists. The table on the right holds a guest book, which confirms that almost all of the people visiting the church are there week-in and week-out.

Red carpet lines the floor on the first level of the church, with eight rows of stained wooden pews on either side of the center aisle. Behind the main rows of pews lie short pews less than 10 feet long, three rows deep.

A steep set of stairs inside the entrance leads to four more rows of pews on either side behind a balcony 15 feet above the first floor. A nursery stocked with decades-old toys is at the back of the second floor. The balcony overlooking the church is the technology hub of the building, with an impressive sound system and projector – the product of a long fundraising campaign – providing booming vocals as Bob, Tracy, and members sing, as well as vibrant imagery for PowerPoint presentations during Bob’s sermons.

Stained glass windows, recently refurbished after a large estate gift from a longtime churchgoer, shine on the east and west walls, which lead to a beautiful varnished wood stage featuring an aging pupil at the center. Two flags, including an American flag on the east side, sit on either side of the stage, with several microphones and an organ on the left side. A large wooden cross at the back of the stage dominates the south end of the church.

For 30 years, Bob has delivered God’s message in the church, weaving personal stories and humor into passages from the Bible. On Jan. 29, 2017, as part of an ongoing series, his sermon was about the book of Genesis, particularly the story of brothers Cain and Abel.

“Today, the beginning of sin as it gets out of control, the tragic story of Cain,” he said. “Starting in verse one, now the man had relations with his wife, Eve, this is right after the fall and sin, they’ve been kicked out of paradise. And she conceived and gave birth to Cain. Again, she gave birth, to his brother Abel.

“Now, here is beautiful moment in Adam and Eve’s life, they’ve had their first baby. Imagine the joy, and they think on God’s promise to send a deliverer. … Great hopes. That’s the point I’m trying to get to. There are always great hopes when you have a child.”

As Bob commonly does, he used a personal anecdote to enhance the sermon: “I’ll never forget working nights at a Quick Shop in Wichita. When I say nights, I mean midnight to eight in the morning. That was a crazy place, crazy time to work. Weird people come out in the night time. I’ll never forget this huge man comes walking in, tall, big, and he buys something, and I click on the register, and he hit it! ‘I’m sorry, I’m looking for nickels,’ he said. ‘I said, OK,” as the church erupted in laughter.

Bob continued with the story, telling the congregation that he eventually became friends with the man, sharing the joy he was experiencing after the birth of his first son in 1976.

“Soon, there was Abel,” he said. “But I think the joy was brief. And you start to think about it, the first baby born grew up to be a murderer. And the second born grew up to be the first victim. Think about that.”

Bob paused after that statement, scanning the church, where the Blakes sat in the back row and the author of this story, along with his family, sat 15 feet to the left of them.

“I thought about that when I was giving the sermon, how fitting it was that you were there,” he said later.

Bob continued to tell the story of Cain, who murdered his brother out of jealously. According to the Bible, Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a shepherd, each offered sacrifices of their produce to God, and God favored the younger brother.

“The Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain he had no regard for his offering,” Bob said. “Why did he prefer one over the other? I think it was faith. At the heart of it, one was offering by faith. So, Cain was very angry, his countenance fell. He became depressed. And the Lord God said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up. And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door, and it desires for you.’”

Not long after, Cain killed Abel.

“So here, we see the terrible effects of sin, as it’s allowed to just grow along to the bitter end,” Bob said. “Sin begins in the human heart, and if unchecked, it works its way out, in our thoughts, in our words, and ultimately in our deeds. If you let it go, it gets the upper hand, and it results in terrible, terrible destruction.”

Bob couldn’t help but think about Brenda during this sermon, though he didn’t mention his daughter. He concluded the 30-minute message by saying, “Sin is like an acorn. It falls from an oak tree, and there it is lying on the ground. While it’s there and hasn’t taken root, a child can pick it up, but if it’s allowed to take root, eventually it becomes so large. God has his part to deal with sin. He gave us Jesus. He gave us the spirit, and then we have our part to walk in independence on the spirit, to walk in faith with God. So, don’t flirt with it, don’t dabble with it. Throw the bum out. Even here in this terrible, terrible story, we find hope. And that hope is through your life and through Jesus Christ.”

 

 

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Here’s to a new face

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Me during the Washburn days interviewing historian Manisha Sinha.

 

After more than six years of the same format, “The blog about everything,” it was time for a facelift.

As the final project for my “Promotions Writing” class in graduate school this semester, I’m building a public relations campaign to promote my capstone: a few chapters in books I plan to write once I’ve earned my master’s degree. You can read more about that on my author’s page on Facebook.

Don’t worry. Those of you who love to read snarky blogs about sports and (I hope) inspiring posts about fitness will still get your fix. But much of the focus of this blog over the next several months is going to be on my classwork.

As for the books: One will be about Brenda Michelle Keller, the 12-year-old girl who was murdered in tiny Dover nearly 25 years ago (My goodness … has it really been that long); the other about my father, who has overcome a plethora of obstacles to teach his sons and grandchildren thousands of wonderful life lessons.

Another reason for the shift in blog: accountability. I’ve been talking about writing a book for a long time. I’ve been considering one about my dad for several years now, but not until recently had I considered writing about Brenda.

Why now do I want to write about Brenda? I blogged about that in October. A quick summary: I never met Brenda, but I have always been drawn to this story. I started visiting her gravesite in the Dover Cemetery in the mid-1990s, feeling I needed to be there, that we would have been friends had this hideous crime not occurred. We also shared mutual friends, including best friends. After years of thinking about this case, it finally hit me that I need to write about it.

A lot of work remains. I have no idea if the relevant parties have any interest in talking about this case. I know the murderer has never spoken to the media. I haven’t decided how to approach the family. But I’ve always wondered why more wasn’t written about Brenda.

Unfortunately, bad things like this happen all the time. That doesn’t mean their stories shouldn’t be told. Hopefully, I can help.