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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True Crime: “Springfield Three,” Part I

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Stacy McCall, Sherrill Levitt and Suzie Streeter, the “Springfield Three.”

Stacy McCall and Suzie Streeter had just reached a milestone. On June 6, 1992, the friends graduated from Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Missouri.

They spent the hours after commencement hanging out, partying, reminiscing and looking forward to the next big step in their lives. One day later, along with Suzie’s mother Sherrill Levitt, they were gone. The “Springfield Three” simply vanished.

Twenty-four years and thousands of hours of investigation later, the mystery remains. Few clues have been discovered, though law enforcement continues to receive tips to this day.

About the case

  • The Springfield Police Department was notified that the women were missing by McCall’s parents on June 7, 1992.
  • The home which the women were staying at belonged to Levitt. There were no signs of a struggle, but the appearance of abduction, as all personal property (clothes, purses, money, cars, keys, etc.) were left behind.
  • McCall and Streeter were last seen at about 2:15 a.m. on June 7 after leaving a graduation party. Levitt’s last contact was with a friend at 11:15 p.m. on June 6.
  • Levitt was 47 years old, Streeter 19 and McCall 18 at the time. They would be 71, 42 and 41 today.
  • The women disappeared between 2:15 a.m. and 8 a.m. June 7.
  • A high school friend visited the Levitt home at about 8 a.m. June 7, where she discovered that the outside of the porch light was broken and shattered glass in front of the door, which was open. She also noted that the beds were slept in.
  • The friend and her boyfriend cleaned up the glass, a mistake that may have compromised crucial evidence.
  • The phone in the house rang while the friend was there. She answered an obscene call from a man. She hung up, and the man called back immediately. To this day, it has not been determined if the call was connected to the case (in my opinion, it probably is).
  • Stacy’s mom visited the home later and contacted the police. She also checked Levitt’s answering machine, deleting a message from an unknown man that may have been another piece of compromised evidence.
  • Tips include several witnesses who said they saw a Volkswagen van in the area around the time of the crime. Unfortunately, the witnesses said the van was virtually every color, from green to silver.
  • Several people have provided the same tip to law enforcement: The women are buried in the parking garage of a hospital in Springfield that was under construction at the time of the abduction. No core samples have been taken. No digging, either. A ground penetrating radar scan alleged shows that bodies may be present at the site.

Suspects/Persons of Interest

  • Robert Craig Cox: A convicted kidnapper currently imprisoned in Texas, he was convicted in the murder of a woman in Florida but released after the state Supreme Court ruled there wasn’t enough evidence. He lived across the street from the women at the time they went missing and has toyed with the Springfield police about the case for years. He also has said he knows what happened to the women to a TV reporter, without admitting to the crime.
  • Gerald Carnahan: A businessman, he was convicted in the 1985 killing of Jackie Johns 25 years after it happened. He has ties to Springfield and a long history of legal troubles.
  • Dustin Recla, Michael Clay and Joseph Riedel: Recla is the ex-boyfriend of Streeter told police he wanted her dead because she gave officers a statement about the men, who were charged with the felony institutional vandalism of a cemetery in February 1992.
  • Steven Garrison: A lifelong criminal, he allegedly bragged at a party about killing the women and burying them. He currently is in a Missouri prison.
  • Larry DeWayne Hall: A convicted serial killer, he was a Civil War buff who participated in re-enactments in the Springfield area. His brother claims that Hall admitted murdering the women.

I will write much more about this fascinating case soon.

 

 

 

Terror times two in southwest Missouri

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The Springfield Three vanished in June 1992. Streeter and McCall graduated high school on the same day they disappeared.

Thousands of people vanish every year. Many of them are never heard from again. It’s sad and awful, but it also provides true crime writers a deep pool of material. Though I’m focusing on one case for my capstone project, there are hundreds of cases to write about.

Two of these cases can’t be classified as murders, because the victims are still missing. All four of the women involved disappeared more than 20 years ago. Both cases occurred not far from where I grew up in southwest Missouri.

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Angela Marie Hammond

Angela Marie Hammond, 20, was abducted on April 4, 1991, in Clinton, Missouri. Angela was using a payphone in the small town when a grungy middle-aged man driving an old green pickup truck grabbed her and fled.

Angela’s boyfriend, Rob, was talking to her on the phone when she was taken. He raced into town in his car and drove past the truck as it was leaving Clinton. Rob attempted to pursue the truck, but his transmission gave out when he threw the car into reverse at a high speed.

Originally a suspect, Rob was cleared. Nearly 25 years later, Angela is still missing. Two other women were kidnapped in the area in the months leading up to Angela’s abduction. Angela was pregnant at the time of her disappearance.

The second case might be even more terrifying. On June 7, 1992, Sherrill Levitt, Suzie Streeter and Stacy McCall went missing in Springfield, Missouri. The latter two graduated from high school earlier in the day.

There are few clues in this case (and plenty of rumors). Witnesses say they saw a suspicious-looking van in the neighborhood in the hours before the trio went missing. One witness says she saw Sherrill driving a van slowly and heard a voice telling her not to do anything stupid.

At the time the Springfield Three disappeared, Sherrill and Suzie (mother and daughter) lived across the street from Robert Craig Cox, a convicted kidnapper currently incarcerated in Texas. He still is considered a suspect.

I plan to blog about each of these cases in the upcoming months. Many of you reading this, especially those I went to school with, know about this case. What are your thoughts? How about your memories? Have you heard any theories?

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.