Gloomy songs were the funeral's sole concession to the teen-ager's tastes. As the tape ran out and an elderly woman stolidly played hymns at the organ, most of the girl's friends huddled sullenly in the vestibule or outside on the chapel steps.
The girl's best friend watched the other mourners. A slim, pale young man dressed in black walked to the casket, leaned over and stared at the body for a long moment. He had been one of the last people to see her alive on the night of her murder. Her friend began to sob quietly.
"I can't believe he's standing over her body," she whispered to a woman standing next to her. "I just can't believe it."
It was a clear Wednesday afternoon in late October 1997 when Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's stepmother and sister walked into the family's Independence home and found Anastasia waiting by the door with her coat on. She was eager to get a ride to nearby Mount Washington Cemetery, where her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Justin Bruton, had agreed to meet her for yet another talk about their mercurial relationship.
A passionate eighteen-year-old, Anastasia had single-mindedly pursued Justin ever since he'd begun trying to back out of their relationship. The more ambivalent he became, the harder she fought to keep him. Some mutual friends thought she was obsessed; she'd call them five or ten times a day whenever the couple broke up and would repeatedly page her boyfriend's best friend to ask Justin's whereabouts.
They had started dating while she was a senior at the Kansas City, Missouri, school district's elite Lincoln College Preparatory Academy. She was a brainy girl who told her family that if she were the queen of a small nation, Latin would be its official language. She wrote poetry and articles for her school's underground newspaper and listened to joyless music. On weekends, she sometimes dressed in the "goth" clique's uniform -- dark clothes, dark eyeliner, dark lipstick -- and frequented a favorite haunt of disaffected youth, the Broadway Café.
There she met Justin, a University of Missouri-Kansas City journalism major with a laconic sense of humor and a violent imagination. Justin's year of high school in Germany had instilled him with wanderlust, and he and his best friend, Byron Case -- whose mother was born in Germany -- sometimes spoke to each other in German. They would dream up twisted schemes to get money to travel the world.
One plan was to drive to Oklahoma to rob Justin's wealthy parents at gunpoint. Justin, Anastasia and Byron actually did set out for Oklahoma once but quickly turned the car around and went to get doughnuts instead, Byron told a friend. Another idea was to place plastic explosives in the spire over what is now the Community of Christ headquarters in Independence and demand a ransom in exchange for letting the Mormon landmark stand.
Anastasia and Justin seemed to be crazy about each other. Shortly after her high-school graduation, Anastasia moved into Justin's family-financed condominium on the Plaza, and the happy couple adopted a black cat they named Pagan. Anastasia told friends and family that she was in love and had made a "serious commitment" to Justin.
Around that time, in the late spring of 1997, nineteen-year-old Byron met Kelly Moffet, a charmingly rebellious fourteen-year-old suburbanite. In a laboriously quaint letter he posted to his Web site, Byron described her as "a strikingly beautiful young lady ... a bit younger than myself with ebony hair and heavenly eyes." He wrote that the two "took an instant shine to each other."The two began dating soon after Justin introduced them, and Byron picked Kelly up from her last day of junior-high school. Kelly had been a straight-A student who played softball on a team coached by her dad. She lived with both her parents in the family's comfortable Lenexa home. Her mother, a pharmacy technician, usually got off work in time to pick up Kelly and her younger sister from school by 3 p.m.
Kelly's life was too normal to impress her older, jaded friends from broken homes, so she embellished. Her father, she once lied to Byron, was a mean drunk who flew into rages and beat her. When he later found out her story wasn't true, he assumed it was a ploy to get sympathy and attention.
Kelly's parents, a bit naïve about their daughter's cunning side, believed her when she said the deep-voiced man on the phone was "just a friend." She put off telling them more because she knew they would not be pleased about the age difference.
One midsummer afternoon, Kelly's father discovered Byron and Kelly alone in the basement. He ordered Byron out of the house, told him never to come back and forbade Kelly to date him. Mrs. Moffet agreed. Kelly whined to her parents, "You don't even know him!"
Kelly's parents relented only after the girl ran away for a week to live with Byron in Justin's condo. Her parents had heard no word from her, and when a neighbor discovered Kelly's school backpack in the bushes, the Moffets feared she was dead. Her mother later called it the worst week of her life. A private investigator soon found Kelly alive and well, and the runaway returned home with a chic haircut, telling her parents, "All I want is to be able to see Byron."
Byron later described the foursome's lives in a series of bizarre, Victorian-style letters to an imaginary "Mr. White" on his Web site. One letter expressed the bliss of the group's carefree life that summer:
Dear Friend White,
My life has become a beautiful dream of love and friendship. The four of us (being Justin, Anastasia, Kelly and myself) are doing fabulously. Kelly has agreed to give me her hand in marriage and Justin's love for Anastasia has flourished in our happy home. I am filled with such gaiety at our present states -- we all share the household duties and continue to make regular group outings to the tavern. I've never dreamed of friendships so pure and open as ours....
But Justin and Anastasia began to argue frequently, and he confided to family and friends that he no longer loved her. ("Our two favorite lovebirds seem to have reached an impasse in their amorous affair," Byron wrote to Mr. White.) Justin felt terrible about it and didn't want to hurt Anastasia. Some days, he would change his mind and want to get back together. She moved out of his condo and back to Independence with her father and stepmom. Abandoning plans to join Justin at UMKC, Anastasia looked for a job -- perhaps a government position -- where she could work for a year before entering college. Yet Justin and Anastasia continued to go out with Byron and Kelly during intermittent reconciliations.
Justin, at times depressed, began abusing drugs. One night he dropped too much acid and convinced himself that little fish people were talking to him from a tank under his condo. "He was like that for several days," a friend remembers.
Anastasia would alternate between optimism and despair. She always wanted to talk to Justin, demanding constant updates on the status of their relationship. Byron became so annoyed with her that he recorded a mean message on his pager. "If this is anyone but Anastasia, leave a message," he began. "If it's Anastasia, don't even bother because we don't want to talk to you."
Bad blood had existed between former classmates Anastasia and Byron in the past, before Byron dropped out of Lincoln Prep.
Among their mutual friends, Byron had always been polite and sweet to Anastasia. But he was becoming "weird" and "preoccupied with death," one friend told her mother. Some friends said Byron was vicious about Anastasia behind her back, calling her "really annoying" and a "bitch." But as she and Byron got reacquainted at the end of Anastasia's senior year, Anastasia put that behind her. They were friendly again until Byron began to resent Anastasia's demands for his roommate's attention.
Just before Anastasia disappeared on October 22, 1997, she was hopeful that she and Justin would reconcile yet again. Her stepmom agreed to give her a ride to Mount Washington Cemetery, near the western city limit of Independence, and was so busy with house renovations and a small child that she barely paused to wonder why Justin wasn't coming to the house to get Anastasia when the family lived just three miles from the cemetery.
Anastasia arrived at the cemetery gate at about 4:20 p.m. Forty minutes later, the cemetery's elderly caretaker noticed the girl sitting alone near a mausoleum. By twilight, Anastasia had tired of waiting and walked to a Dairy Queen pay phone to call Justin. He said he was on his way and was bringing Byron and Kelly.
When they finally pulled up at the DQ, Anastasia was livid. Having waiting almost three hours, she immediately lit into Justin. He drove them back to Mount Washington Cemetery so they could take a walk and talk, but they saw the headlights of the caretaker's car and changed their plans. As they drove off, the caretaker jotted down their license number, as he usually did with cars full of teen-agers.
Calling from work at about 6 p.m., Anastasia's father became worried when he learned his daughter was on a date in a cemetery. He persuaded his wife, Diane Marshall, to look for Anastasia.
Around 10:30 p.m., Justin called Anastasia's father and said that he and Anastasia had argued that evening. Justin said Anastasia had gotten out of the car at a stoplight at I-435 and Truman Road and had headed east in a huff at about 8:30 p.m.
The seedy byway between Kansas City and Independence draws truckers and drifters with its filling stations and the Erotic City sex shop and strip club. Less than a mile east on Truman Road, a dirt road leads through woods up to the secluded Lincoln Cemetery, which adjoins Mount Washington. To the west, railroad tracks run through an industrial area along the Blue River. Neither city's police force patrols the area, leaving the Jackson County sheriff in charge. Justin said he knew it was "not a good neighborhood" and that he wanted to make sure Anastasia had gotten home okay.
By midnight, Anastasia's father, Robert WitbolsFeugen, was extremely worried. He contacted the Independence Police Department, who sent him to a Kansas City police precinct station. A dispatcher told him the department couldn't accept a missing person's report until the next morning, so he returned to Independence. He went out several times before dawn, driving the streets and looking for his daughter.
A Jackson County sheriff's deputy found her. He was alone, driving his beat, which took him through the secluded Lincoln Cemetery. At 3:45 a.m., his cruiser's headlights caught a girl sprawled on her back beside the road.
The deputy thought maybe she was drunk or asleep. He got out of his car and called to her. Then he shone his flashlight on the girl's face. He saw a gunshot wound where her nose and mouth should have been.
The deputy backed away, glancing around to make sure no attacker was hiding nearby. He called for backup. The girl had no identification and just a few dollars in her pocket. She wore a corduroy jacket, black pants and black Doc Martens.
By dawn, detectives were gathering clues. The elderly caretaker from nearby Mount Washington arrived and told police he knew of a missing girl. Just that morning, Anastasia WitbolsFeugen's father had shown him a photograph and asked whether he'd seen the girl. He recognized her from the previous afternoon and wrote down the father's name and phone number. The caretaker gave that information to police, along with the license number he had taken down from the teen-agers' car.
A deputy went to Anastasia's home that afternoon to break the bad news. Many of the girl's friends learned of her death when the story aired on the 5 p.m. news.
Before Anastasia's body had been identified, early the morning of October 23, her disappearance, Justin had left his condominium. Friends could not reach him. No one heard from him on October 24, either. Sheriff's deputies told reporters they were looking for Justin to talk to him about his ex-girlfriend. "Authorities said Justin Bruton, 20, is not a suspect," The Kansas City Star reported.
Kelly's mother drove from Lenexa to Lee's Summit, bringing her daughter and Byron to talk with investigators. Both repeated the same story Justin had told Anastasia's father on the phone: Justin and Anastasia had argued as the four drove on Truman Road; then Anastasia got out of the car at a traffic light, slammed the door and stormed away. They never saw or heard from her again. Byron lamented the murder in another flowery letter to Mr. White.
Anastasia sent for Justin last night, that they might discuss personal matters. Kelly and I accompanied him in the carriage. Upon joining us, Anastasia began asking Justin questions about the nature of their relationship. At one point the carriage stopped and she asked him if he loved her ... his answer obviously did not satisfy. She stepped out of the cab, very upset, and began walking away.... Why is this relevant to you, you ask? I shall tell you. Since that carriage ride and this morning, Anastasia was murdered.... I am at a loss for words to express how I feel. I knew the girl since we were schoolchildren. She was so young ... so thoughtful. Kelly and I have spent all day in mourning.... To compound matters, our friend Justin has turned up missing. I fear police are growing suspicious of him because of this. I know in my heart that he could not have killed her, for he is a gentleman with very high principles. Also, having been in his presence last night grants me a firm certainty of his innocence. I doubt that the police believed me when I spoke with them to aid in their investigation. They seemed quite confrontational....
The afternoon of October 24, Johnson County, Kansas, sheriff's deputies found Justin's body behind an abandoned warehouse near DeSoto. His car sat nearby, and a Remington 870 shotgun was next to his body. The county medical examiner ruled the shotgun blast to Justin's face a suicide.
Justin had purchased the gun at about 10 a.m. the morning after Anastasia's death. A salesman at the Bullet Hole gun shop and shooting range in Overland Park says Justin was very calm, knew exactly what type of gun he wanted and made the purchase within about ten minutes. Justin bought the weapon hours before Anastasia's body was officially identified. It was the same model as a shotgun he'd bought at Wal-Mart a month earlier, which investigators later realized could have been used to kill Anastasia. Police have never recovered the weapon used in her murder.
Jackson County sheriff's investigators at first told reporters they could not speculate on whether Anastasia's and Justin's deaths were linked. Later, Captain Tom Phillips, who is now sheriff, told a reporter that the case was "more than likely" a murder-suicide but that investigators "may never be able to prove it."
After Justin's death, Byron posted an irreverent tribute to his best friend on his Web site.
"Thinking back," he wrote, "I recall the night we met at a local coffeeshop. It snowed for hours while we talked about everything from movies to politics. When the coffeeshop closed, we went to My apartment and watched 'Harold & Maud' [sic] over hot tea. Our friendship grew tighter as the months flew by, and with the addition of our significant others, we became an inseparable quartet of amusingly problematic heathens who shared a small, but nicely decorated condominium. From his addiction to Marshmallow Maties cereal to an abnormal affliction which made him break wind every fifteen minutes, Justin was unique in the truest sense of the word."
Byron also unleashed resentment, attacking Justin's family and calling his best friend's funeral -- held before Anastasia's -- "upsettingly impersonal in its 'insert name here' style." He wrote, "We heard more about the minister's family than about Justin. His sister and her 'funeral clique' friends were there sporting the latest Barbie doll factory fashions, and more talk of car insurance was heard than of the deceased. Justin always wanted a pine box in the woods ... he got a gold-painted steel casket and a hypocrite to throw dirt on it. It's funny how things turn out."
In the months following Anastasia's death and Justin's suicide, Byron refused to talk much about them, but Kelly wanted to. She later said she didn't feel "normal" around anyone who hadn't been with her that night, and Byron was the only one still alive. Her social drug use became abuse.
Jackson County sheriff's investigators contacted Kelly every few months to ask for statements or clarify details. It was clear that the police did not believe the story about Anastasia walking off alone in the dark and becoming the victim of a brutal killing by a stranger.
The physical evidence didn't suggest that Anastasia had been abducted or dragged to the cemetery. The county medical examiner's report said that Anastasia's clothes were not ripped or dirty and that her body had no bruises, scrapes or cuts. There was no sign of an attacker's skin or blood under her fingernails.
It seemed to the medical examiner that Anastasia had been shot by surprise. She'd had time to rear back slightly and look up, probably at her killer's face. She'd been standing so close to her murderer that the gun left a "contact wound" where it touched her face. Because of the shot's close range, the coroner was unable to discern whether a shotgun slug or a high-velocity bullet had killed her.
Police seemed to believe that Byron and Kelly were lying to protect Justin. They asked other friends about suicide pacts. It was the glaringly obvious explanation. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. The love goes bad. Boy kills girl, then shoots himself.
But Robert WitbolsFeugen was even more skeptical of the police's assumptions than police were of the kids' story. Though he hadn't known the young man well, he had a hunch that Justin wouldn't have been capable of murdering his daughter. It seemed too simple. Too obvious.
WitbolsFeugen began to investigate, interviewing Anastasia's friends, looking through her computer files and diary, putting up posters around Westport advertising a $10,000 reward, even doing some surveillance and taking photographs.
The family also corresponded with Byron by e-mail intermittently after he replied to a message about Anastasia's death the family had sent everyone on her e-mail address list. The family repeatedly asked him for lengthy, detailed answers about Anastasia's final evening.
In some messages, Byron patiently provided answers. In other e-mails, he became defensive, using "Character Assault" as a subject heading and writing, "The comment you made about our police statements being identical, yet seemingly impossible due to 'logic' and 'evidence to the contrary' is not only childish, but also inaccurate.... We are still mourning her death. I don't see why you feel the need to accuse us."
As Anastasia's old friends sat in coffee houses for hours talking, gossip about the murder festered. Soon, Anastasia's friends were calling the family to repeat tidbits.
Some rumors said Justin killed Anastasia or that Byron or a jealous girl did it. Some said Byron and Justin were actually lovers. Others said that Anastasia was killed by a "goth" who hated both her and Justin. Another theory said Justin himself was murdered.
A Star reporter wrote a story emphasizing -- the family says exaggerating -- Anastasia's and Justin's proclivity for "goth" culture, playing up Justin's interest in Anne Rice's vampire novels and the couple's supposed preference for black clothing, though Justin usually wore gray and khaki. Anastasia's exotic first name -- evocative of the mysterious Russian princess -- and her Dutch surname, a combination of terms meaning "white-headed" and "fiery clan," added a lyrical aura to her death. The family felt such notions sensationalized the murder and in some way implicated the victim in her own death.
The family desperately wanted to find a living suspect, and Byron resented mistrust directed at him. In an e-mail to Anastasia's godfather, he wrote, "I can't help but feel that if this were the dark ages, Anastasia's family would have had me burned at the stake out of sheer suspicion."
One young woman, a close friend of Anastasia's named Peige Turner, was in Westport a few days after the killing when she heard a disturbing story from one of Byron's friends. The tall, thick-shouldered young man with long, dark hair and a pointy goatee told Peige that he'd heard the four teen-agers were playing Russian roulette in the graveyard that night and that Byron had shot Anastasia.
Peige spilled the story to her mother. "We need to go and tell this to the police," her mother said. Peige talked to Sergeant Gary Kilgore, the Jackson County sheriff's investigator assigned to Anastasia's murder. Peige believed her conversation with the detective would be confidential.
Later, she learned that when the detective questioned Byron's long-haired friend about the story, Kilgore blurted Peige's name. Soon after he was questioned, Byron's friend accosted Peige's mother, Karen Turner, in public, yelling, "What in the hell is Peige telling the police?"
A few days later, Peige told her mother that Kilgore had asked her to gather more information from the friends who might know about the murder.
"Needless to say I was livid over the whole thing," Turner remembers. She called Kilgore and berated him, saying, "You do not ask a seventeen-year-old girl to gather information for you. That's your job. This is a murder investigation!" She went on to complain about Kilgore's releasing Peige's name.
In a memo to county officials, Kilgore defended his disclosure of Peige's name. He agreed that it would be "improper" to ask a juvenile to do work for the sheriff's department and wrote that he would not have done so, though he refused to release transcripts of his conversations with Peige.
Turner remembers that Kilgore finally apologized and said that if any threats resulted from the disclosure, he would provide protection for Peige and be available 24 hours a day to help.
Soon Peige began receiving threatening e-mails signed "Jesus." Turner suspected the sender was the same person who told Peige that Byron had pulled the trigger. Peige also got threats on her pager and phone calls at home. One caller threatened to rape and kill Peige, then burn down her family's home. Turner recalls that when she called Kilgore about the threats, she waited two days for a call back. She finally went to Kansas City, Missouri, police, with whom she filed a report about the threats.
Fearing for her daughter's safety, Turner moved Peige out of state and filed a formal complaint with the county's Office of Human Relations and Citizen Complaints, kicking off a long and costly struggle with Jackson County that has left her embittered and drained her savings. She had to sue the complaint office under the state's open-records "Sunshine" law to see documents generated by her complaint. Under the same law, she protested the office's illegal closing of meetings in which officials discussed her complaint. She requested transcripts or recordings of the closed meetings. The county's complaint officials denied such records existed until questioned under oath.
Robert WitbolsFeugen, impatient with Kilgore's pace in pursuing clues and angry that Kilgore's betrayal of Peige Turner might discourage other witnesses from coming forward, filed his own grievance with the county's complaint office.
WitbolsFeugen's complaint asserted that Kilgore failed to compare tire tracks found at the scene with suspects' cars, failed to contact some potential witnesses promptly and disclosed too much information about the crime to potential suspects.
Kilgore responded, writing that investigators were diligently gathering evidence, that they lacked the authority to force witnesses to provide statements and that he was unaware of any information about the crime that had been improperly disclosed.
Convinced that Kilgore wasn't aggressive enough in his pursuit of Anastasia's killer, WitbolsFeugen became relentless. He sent about 150 e-mails to the detective's personal account in the span of several months. At one point, Kilgore replied with a terse letter ordering the father to "stop harassing [him], both indirectly and directly."
Kilgore defends his investigation, noting his many attempts to get more information from Kelly before she contacted the prosecutor's office. "Only two other people knew about what happened," Kilgore says. "And until one of those people came forward, there wasn't much we could do."
WitbolsFeugen joined Turner's fight with the complaint office, and the two contacted the Missouri attorney general's office, which sent a letter to the county asking for the release of documents the parents requested under the open records law. Months passed. The county prosecutor's office and the attorney general's office declined to pursue the matter, so Turner and WitbolsFeugen hired their own lawyer. After filing a lawsuit, spending $35,000 and going to court, they finally had the satisfaction of hearing a judge rule that the county had violated the open-records law.
Still, the documents they had struggled to get weren't particularly damning. County legislator Victor Callahan, who has tried to help Turner and the WitbolsFeugens, blamed County Executive Katheryn Shields. "I think the Shields administration has engaged in a very dangerous pattern of deception and stonewalling," Callahan says. "I think they have tried to make the Sunshine law toothless." He is crusading to force the county legal staff to disclose its costs in fighting Turner and the WitbolsFeugens.
But WitbolsFeugen put most of his energy into trying to determine who killed his daughter, trying to keep the case in the public eye, hoping someone with information would come forward.
He occasionally persuaded news outlets to run stories on the case, telling a reporter in 1998, "The police have closed their eyes to the other possibilities because of Justin's actions." WitbolsFeugen had asked the sheriff's department to bring in the Kansas City Metro Squad, which specializes in investigating murders, but Sheriff Phillips told the same reporter that doing so was unnecessary because sheriff's investigators had followed up all leads.
Byron and Kelly were having problems. Byron remembers that the emotional toll of the deaths, combined with his father's AIDS death on Christmas Eve of 1997, left him uncommunicative and "emotionally dead."
Kelly quit school and started using crack. She would lie to her parents to get drug money. Sometimes she would just disappear. Eventually her parents kicked her out of the family home, demanding she get clean. She was in and out of drug rehab several times.
"Sometimes she would call me from crack houses, crying and apologizing," Kelly's mother says.
Kelly sometimes had no place to stay. Many of her old friends wanted nothing to do with her. She was an alcoholic, a drug addict, a mess. She attempted suicide once. Her parents suspected that her disastrous downward spiral was somehow connected to Anastasia's murder.
She cheated on Byron several times, and he stewed about her indiscretions on his Web page. Within eighteen months of their friends' deaths, the couple had broken up.
Byron wrote another letter to his fictional friend:
There has been much suffering since I began writing you.... Since my last letter, I have endeavored in every way possible to restrict Kelly from bringing further harm into my life. She is a destructive force in the guise of a seraph and I will have no further part in her little charades. The happiness was short-lived and I miss the sweet girl she once was, but I am making efforts to prevail over my melancholic state....
In the spring of 2000, Kelly showed up on her parents' doorstep, crying and upset. She asked for her father. The two talked late into the night. Kelly told her father that she had seen Anastasia murdered and that the killer was Byron Case.
Kelly's parents sent her back to rehab and encouraged her to talk to her drug counselor about Anastasia's murder. When the counselor told Kelly she would have to contact the police, Kelly "freaked out" and suddenly adopted again the official version of events, claiming she'd seen Justin commit the murder. The counselor called Kelly's mother, who rushed to the center.
"Kelly, you told your father that it was Byron," Debra Moffet told her daughter. Kelly sighed and slumped in her chair. "It was Byron," she said.
The drug counselor recommended an attorney, who took Kelly to the Jackson County prosecutor's office to strike a deal for immunity from prosecution in exchange for Kelly's testimony.
By that time, Byron had moved to St. Louis with a friend, a coffee shop barrista he had met in Kansas City.
Sergeant Kilgore asked Kelly to contact Byron and get him to talk about the murder. She agreed. Kilgore installed a phone with a recording device at the Moffet home. But whenever Kelly called the St. Louis apartment, Byron's roommate denied that he lived there. Kelly gave up.
Byron didn't know Kelly had gone to the police. His Web diary described a new life, a new girlfriend named Bianca and their mundane routine.
Later, the diary told of his "miserable depression" over a breakup with Bianca: "She called off the wedding ... and us...." He wrote about having to move back to Kansas City with his mother and displayed pictures of his recently shaved head: "No hair ... again. I don't know why I have this strange fascination with being bald ... or why I do it when I'm extremely depressed ... or why it makes me feel better. Does this seem odd to anyone else?"
Moving back to Kansas City required Byron to notify his probation officer, because he was on five years' probation for a break-in at his aunt's house. Back in Kansas City, Byron complained in his diary that he was bored, which gave him time to fantasize about future modifications to his car, a Chrysler Newport, including a "front impalement spike" and "four-foot-tall tail fins" and a "swivel mount roof cannon."
Ultimately, he settled for welding a pitchfork to the front of the car, then impaling a raw fryer chicken as a hood ornament. "The chicken is ripening well," he wrote. "As such, I'd say my plans are unfolding nicely. Tom, my behemoth supervisor at work, saw me getting into my car this afternoon. I have no explanation for the chicken that would make sense to a 600+ pound badass, sadly."
He included a color photo of his "little joy." The next day, after being ordered by his boss to remove the chicken, Byron wrote that he threw the rotting chicken into bushes at the hotel where he clerked. "Alas, she too has left me. Our torrential rides through town are never again to be. How I will miss her sloppy, undulating carcass adorning my hood. I speak, of course, of the chicken."
Kelly learned of Byron's return to Kansas City through police, who asked her to try to make contact again and record the calls. When Kelly finally reached Byron, he was sick with strep throat and a fever and had been awakened from a deep sleep.
On tape, Byron's voice is barely audible. Kelly tells Byron that her memory is not good because she has been a drug addict for "some time" and she needs him to help her recall information to tell the police. Byron tells her that he is "really surprised they called again."
"They've called a bunch again," Kelly says in an agitated voice, breathing heavily. "Why, seriously, why did you have to kill her? What was the whole fucking big deal? Could you explain that to me? Because I don't get it. Seriously. She's dead for no reason. Justin's dead for no reason. It's all fucked up.... So, I mean, if you could seriously explain to me as to why you actually felt the need to kill her, then that would really help me feel better about the whole fucking thing. I mean, seriously, was there any reason to all of this?"
"We shouldn't talk about this," Byron says in response.
The two made a date to meet at Loose Park so they could talk in person. Investigators advised Kelly not to show up, so she did not.
In a second recorded call, Byron tells Kelly, "The best advice I can give is -- start everything with 'I think' or 'the best I can remember is.'"
On the strength of Kelly's accusations, police arrested Byron Case in June 2001 and charged him with first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the death of Anastasia WitbolsFeugen. Byron maintained his innocence. He was assigned an attorney from the Jackson County public defender's office. That lawyer soon went into private practice, so Byron was assigned another attorney, Horton Lance.
Byron tells the Pitch that when he learned that Kelly had accused him of murder and that she had told police she saw the shooting, "My first thought was just, 'Why?' The entire situation was really just too shocking for me to have any kind of coherent reaction to much of anything. All I remember was just kind of sitting there and staring at the wall and thinking, 'How did this happen?'"
Byron says bond was denied him because he might pose a threat to Kelly's safety. He was held in the Jackson County Jail for nearly nine months while awaiting trial. In jail, he received counseling to help him cope with panic attacks.
Byron says he was "hurt, but not surprised" that Anastasia's family had suspected him all along.
"I kind of think it was a case of my reputation catching up with me, in a way," Byron says. "A year or two before I even met Justin, I'll admit that my reputation wasn't the best, but it wasn't for anything serious. It was just, some people didn't like me. I was, pardon my language, um, kind of an abrasive asshole."
A drug problem and his encouragement of "larger than life" myths about himself led to talk that he was "fascinated with death." Putting vanity plates on his car that said MORBID, a joke between him and his father, and telling "bad jokes" encouraged coffee house gossips to speculate that he could have been the killer, he says.
"A lot of people have these overblown opinions of me as being some terrible person, which is just absolutely untrue," Byron says, his voice shaky.
At the end of last month, Byron and Kelly faced each other in court and told the jury contradictory stories about what happened the night of October 22, 1997. The tape-recorded conversations between Byron and Kelly were played. Byron's case got a boost from an Amoco mechanic who testified that he saw a girl matching Anastasia's description argue with someone in a car at a traffic light at Truman Road and I-435, then walk east.
When Kelly, who is now nineteen, took the stand, she said she had kept a "horrible secret" that nearly destroyed her life. She stayed quiet, she said, because she was afraid that she, too, would be implicated in Anastasia's murder for what she witnessed as a high-school freshman.
Kelly said she came home from school that afternoon and wasn't feeling well, so she watched some television and was taking a nap when Byron called. He asked if she wanted to "hang out" with him and Justin, and the two boys stopped by to get her.
"Shortly after I got in the car," Kelly testified, "Justin asked, 'Who's the biggest problem in my life?'" First, Kelly guessed his parents, she said. Justin had always resented his parents' financial hold over him. But he said no. It was Anastasia. "Wouldn't it better if she was just gone?" she said Justin asked.
Then, Kelly testified, the boys told her they planned to kill Anastasia, that they had been plotting the murder all day. Byron said that he had always wanted to see what it would feel like to kill someone, she said. "I said, 'That's ridiculous. Why don't you just break up with her? It's broad daylight.'" Kelly testified.
Kelly told the jury that she kept trying to dissuade the boys from talk of murder. When she pointed out that they did not have a gun, Byron said his dad's old hunting rifle was in the trunk. Kelly said that she never believed the boys would really go through with their plan. She admitted making a call to Anastasia from a Phillips 66 pay phone to arrange a place to meet.
After the three arrived at Dairy Queen and picked up Anastasia, they headed toward Mount Washington as Justin and Anastasia argued bitterly. At one point, Anastasia took a ring off and threw it at Justin. When they saw the caretaker's car at Mount Washington, they left.
Then, Kelly told the jury, one of the boys spotted the secluded dirt road that led up to Lincoln Cemetery. "That looks cool," Kelly remembered one of them saying. "Let's see where it leads."
At dusk, headlights on, they drove up the road and past an old stone building. Justin stopped the car. He and Anastasia got out and were standing by the driver's side arguing. Again, Kelly tried to dissuade Byron from shooting Anastasia, she told the jury.
"Byron said, 'We've been talking about it all day. Justin asked me to do it, and I want to do it, so I'm going to do it,'" Kelly testified. Then he said, "I'll be right back," and got out of the car. Sitting in the back seat of Justin's car, Kelly said she heard the trunk pop open and saw Byron raise a "big, long gun." She said she saw Justin wave his arms and shout, "No! No!" and heard him yell something in German.
Then, she told the jury, she heard a loud "boom" and saw Anastasia fall.
Within seconds, she said, Byron was yelling at Justin to drive and saying that they had to get rid of the gun. She remembered that Byron dumped the gun in an industrial-looking area that had railroad tracks, she told the jury. After that, Justin was ashen and too upset to drive, so Byron took the wheel.
Kelly told the jury that she and Justin were both crying and that Justin was telling Byron, "Didn't you hear me tell you to stop?" Byron replied, "I couldn't stop. I already had the gun in her face!"
That night, Kelly said, the boys invented a story they felt sounded believable, based on Anastasia's reputation for "throwing fits." She had gotten out of the car at Truman Road and I-435 and had walked angrily away to the east.
"Byron kept telling us, 'Act normal,'" Kelly said on the stand. "It seemed like a sick movie."
When they dropped off Kelly at home, she was late for her curfew. Kelly's mother testified that all three teens entered the house and that she heard a lot of whispering, which worried her. When she called Kelly upstairs to ask why she was late, Kelly told her that the couple had fought and Anastasia had jumped out of the car in a "bad part of town." Her mother thought the concern strange considering the annoyance with which they usually treated Anastasia's antics.
Downstairs, Justin was calling Anastasia's house to tell her family she had gotten out of the car and to ask that she call him when she arrived home. When he told Anastasia's younger sister that the girl had gotten out of the car more than an hour earlier, she replied, "If anything happens to her, it's your fault."
Kelly said that statement gave Justin chills and that he whispered, "It's like she already knows something happened to her." Then Justin said, "Maybe I should just kill myself right now," Kelly recalled on the stand.
That night, Kelly could not sleep. The next day she went with her mother to visit her grandmother. It was a long car trip, and Kelly slept all the way across Missouri each way. When they walked in the door at home, the phone was ringing. It was Byron. He told her to turn on the news. Anastasia's body had been found.
Kelly testified that Byron insisted they attend both funerals because it would look "weird" if they didn't go. On the stand talking about Anastasia's funeral, Kelly described the horror she felt.
"It just seemed so disrespectful. I saw her get shot, and I'm supposed to go in there in front of her family and friends and act like I didn't know what happened?" Kelly said, her voice racked with distress, tears in her eyes.
With his trial nearly over, Byron suddenly decided to take the stand in his own defense to try to refute Kelly's testimony.
Byron described Kelly as a "traditional psychotic ex-girlfriend" and hinted that she was trying to ruin his life by lying on the witness stand, recalling how she'd lied to him that her father was an alcoholic who beat her.
Byron described the same set of events that he and Kelly had consistently told police before Kelly had changed her story. He explained the tapes, saying that he had been so sick when Kelly called him, that he was "bedridden" and "feverish" and had "just misunderstood what she was talking about." He said he did not kill Anastasia WitbolsFeugen.
In closing arguments, the prosecuting attorney said the defense's theory that Anastasia was attacked by a stranger did not make sense -- she had no defensive wounds on her body, and she would not have gone willingly to Lincoln cemetery in the dead of night with a stranger. The defense attorney painted a picture of Kelly as a "screw-up" who was seeking to get her parents' sympathy by creating an "excuse" for her drug addiction -- the "absurd" story that she had witnessed a brutal murder.
After three days of testimony, jurors deliberated for about three and a half hours before finding Byron Case guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Byron was pale and shaken as guards led him away.
Outside the courtroom, about a dozen friends who had come to support him hugged each other, some crying. "They took him away so quickly," one young woman said through her tears.
A few days after the verdict, Byron spoke with the Pitch by phone from the Jackson County jail. He said he was still in shock about the verdict and that his attorney plans to ask for a new trial. Byron said he hopes to get a new attorney but that a lack of money to hire a private-practice lawyer makes him feel helpless.
After the verdict, the WitbolsFeugen family gathered in a room, tears in their eyes, and discussed their relief at seeing the person they believe killed Anastasia convicted. Anastasia's sister Katie, who had been too troubled to look at Anastasia in her casket four years earlier, cried as she talked about the verdict.
"It's good to finally put a name and a face with who killed your sister," she said.