COLD CASES

Is ‘Kylr’ the Last Man to See These Two Missing Girls Alive?

Kara Kopetsky and Jessica Runions vanished a decade apart. The only thing they had in common was a troubled Romeo with a disturbing history of violence against women.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Kara Kopetsky’s parents have waited 10 years for answers.

The Belton, Missouri high schooler vanished in May 2007, days after filing for a restraining order against her boyfriend, who’d allegedly abducted her following her night shift at Popeyes restaurant. Kopetsky claimed that she leapt from his truck during the frightening encounter, and went to police the next day.

“I am unsure of what he will do next because the abuse has gotten worse over time,” Kopetsky wrote in her petition for a protective order.

Yet cops didn’t charge her beau, Kylr Yust—a 28-year-old who allegedly has a history of violence against women and who was later convicted of drug trafficking—in connection with Kopetsky’s disappearance. Police say he passed a lie detector test and had an alibi.

Then, last September, another young woman disappeared, and Yust is believed to be the last person to see her alive.

On Thursday, Sept. 8, around 9:30 p.m., Jessica Runions gave Yust a lift home from a party, where he was reportedly drunk, belligerent, and declaring romantic feelings for her, as one alleged witness told a local TV station.

Runions was reported missing the next day, after she missed an appointment. The 21-year-old, who was recovering from a ruptured appendix, was supposed to meet her mother at the doctor’s office. Around 2 a.m., Runions’ Chevy Equinox was found torched and unoccupied in a remote wooded area of Kansas City.

Police quickly arrested Yust on charges of knowingly burning a vehicle, a felony to which he’s pleaded not guilty. A trial is scheduled for October, but documents in the case are sealed.

Yust has not been charged in connection with either Runions or Kopetsky, and it’s unclear if he’ll face further charges surrounding their disappearances. The Jackson County prosecutor’s office did not return messages left for comment.

Molly Hastings, an attorney for Yust, also did not return messages. In April, she told ABC News that Yust was only charged with burning the vehicle. “There are too many unknown factors to comment further, but I can assert that Kylr has not been charged with any further crimes,” Hastings said in a statement.

The families of the missing girls have little, if any, information on Yust’s case or on what happened to their daughters. But they received one heartbreaking answer this spring, when a pair of remains were discovered in a dense wooded area in Cass County.

In April, a mushroom hunter discovered a human skull near a quarry. The next day, authorities found a second set of bones in the same area. Investigators determined one set of remains belongs to Runions, who’d vanished just seven months before.

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Police say it could take up to a year to identify the other skull, which appears much older, but Kopetsky’s mother believes it’s Kara.

“In my heart of hearts, I believe it’s Kara,” Rhonda Beckford told the Kansas City Star. “Here we are, still waiting, yet again.”

Jim Beckford, Kopetsky’s stepdad, told The Daily Beast that a DNA testing backlog of unidentified victims is contributing to their wait. He’s hoping the results will arrive before Yust’s trial this fall.

Rhonda Beckford and Jamie S. Runions, Jessica’s mother, bonded during the search efforts for Jessica and their pursuit of justice for both daughters.

“The 10 years has been a huge rollercoaster ride of emotions. The ups and downs of having a missing child, it’s not something you would want anybody to know what that’s like,” Rhonda Beckford told The Daily Beast.

Indeed, during searches for Jessica Runions in January, parties discovered two other homicide victims in as many weeks.

One body was identified as Brandon Herring, 21, of Raytown, who’d been missing since November 2016. Herring was found lying face up in a Kansas City creek. The second body was 19-year-old Merriam resident Dante Jamal Jefferson, who was reported missing earlier in January.

“The sad part is when you become part of this club you don’t wanna be in,” Jamie S. Runions told The Daily Beast, referring to her support network of other grieving moms.

Jamie, along with teams of friends and relatives, scoured Kansas City and surrounding towns every week.

“You would not believe how many wooded areas there are in Kansas City. I’ve seen homeless people. I’ve seen meth labs. The thing of it is, I had this mentality that if my daughter was there, I was going. I went into places that I probably shouldn’t have, but if my daughter was in there, you best believe I’m going,” Jamie Runions said.

“That’s the way you become… not scared of anything,” she added.

Jamie said she couldn’t have stomached years without knowing where Jessica was. Her daughter’s body was found, but she will be waiting months, if not longer, for answers on who killed her daughter.

“You don’t realize how many homicides there are, how many missing people there are, until you become part of this group you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy,” Jamie told The Daily Beast.

She stopped short of pointing fingers at Yust, but said, “I’ll never get to see my daughter get married, get to see her have a baby or see her laugh or smile, and it’s because of a guy she knew four months.”

John Michael Runions, Jessica’s dad, said “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out” that Yust could have had something to do with his daughter’s death.

The grieving dad was referring to Yust’s alleged history of violence—accusations that played out in both local and national media following Kopetsky’s disappearance.

A Violent Past

After Kopetsky vanished on a Friday in May 2007, her mother told local press that she last spoke to her daughter before school.

Kopetsky, a junior, walked to Belton High School that morning. At one point, she called her mom at home because she’d forgotten a textbook. She also asked her mother to wash her work clothes for her 4 p.m. shift at Popeyes fast food restaurant.

Rhonda Beckford says she dropped off the textbook at the front desk and that Kopetsky collected it sometime later. Her daughter was last seen walking down the hall at 10:30 a.m. on the school’s surveillance camera.

Kopetsky never attended her afternoon classes and never appeared at work. Investigators said there was no activity on her cellphone or with her bank account since she was last seen at school that morning. Meanwhile, one fellow student, who was captured in the footage speaking to Kopetsky, said, “She asked what we were doing that night and said she would call and hang out with us.” That call never came.

Kopetsky’s family organized searches and knocked on doors around Belton after she vanished. Yust, Kopetsky’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, joined the efforts at the beginning, according to one Kansas City Star feature in July 2007.

He told the newspaper Kopetsky was a “flying by the seat of your pants” type of girl, who talked of running away to Mexico the next time her parents punished her.

“She just wanted to have fun and do everything and experience everything in life,” Yust told the Star. “She didn’t think too forward. She was always in the moment. She didn’t think about ‘what am I going to do when I grow up.’”

“Lately I’ve been kind of depressed about the whole thing,” Yust added. “I have no idea where she is.”

Kopetsky’s rocky relationship with Yust was known to family and friends, and her parents immediately suspected he had a hand in her vanishing.

“So life hasn’t been the greatest for me lately, over the last 9 months of my life iv dedicated my life to kylr… I made no other time for any of my friends nor my family. over those 9 months i forgot the person that I was. im trying to find that person again,” she wrote on MySpace on April 24, 2007.

She was scheduled to appear in court May 10, six days after her disappearance, for the order of protection she filed against Yust.

For the next 10 years, Kopetsky’s family have kept her name and image in the media. At one point, they asked the state of Missouri to take over the investigation, saying Belton police were slow to act and initially assumed their daughter was a runaway.

According to one KSHB-TV report, Kansas City cops took reports related to Kopetsky. One friend of Yust told police that the morning Kopetsky went missing, Kopetsky called him and asked if he wanted to hang out with her and Yust. The friend also claimed that Yust told him not to tell anyone he was with Kopetsky that day.

Another friend of Yust told authorities that he came over and asked for a change of clothing the day after Kopetsky vanished. The friend also claimed that sometime in the winter of 2007, Yust allegedly admitted to killing Kopetsky, according to KSHB-TV.

Belton Police Lt. Brad Swanson, told KSHB-TV, “All you have is somebody saying they did something. They can turn right back around and say, ‘I was lying.’”

“It was something we suspected all along,” Kopetsky’s stepfather, Jim Beckford, told KSHB-TV in reference to whether Yust was involved in the teen’s disappearance. “But then when you see it in a report you know naturally you’re shocked and surprised and you think it is going to go somewhere.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Jim Beckford said, “If you would have met us nine years ago, we would have told you we felt that Kara had an abusive boyfriend, and that he was responsible for [her disappearance].”

Jim Beckford said over the years, prosecutors wanted to be sure they had enough evidence; they didn’t want to risk an acquittal.

“But as far as 10 years out, honestly Rhonda and I was ready to go for broke,” Beckford said. “When you’re dealing with a tragedy like this … you can’t go forward [with your life] because that door is open.”

Kopetsky’s family has attended all of Yust’s future court appearances, including one in September 2011 when he pleaded guilty to abusing his pregnant girlfriend.

The girlfriend told Kansas City police Yust choked her until she was almost unconscious and punched her legs to keep her awake.

According a police report, the girlfriend’s mother told police that she picked her daughter up at a residence she shared with Yust after her daughter frantically called her. “Kylr tried to kill me,” the woman later told her mother, the report said.

The girlfriend also said Yust “held her down and choked her one night until she threw up all over herself.” Yust allegedly drew a pentagram on her forehead on another occasion while “speaking something she did not understand.”

Yust told the victim that “he had family with a ranch where there were pigs that would eat anything including bones [and] that he had seen arms ripped off people while they were still alive,” the police report added. Yust allegedly warned “he had seen people dropped in barrels of acid to destroy evidence.”

The girlfriend told cops that Yust, who was extremely intoxicated, became violent with her when she indicated she wanted to break up with him.

Yust pinned her arms down with his legs while staring at her and “grinding his teeth and licking his lips as he placed both hands around her neck.” When she screamed, Yust allegedly said, “If you scream again, I will kill you, faster than you can let out another scream…”

She said she drifted in and out of consciousness as Yust choked her. He also pulled chunks of hair from the back of her head and said, “I will kill you and your family,” if she went to police, the report says.

During the incident, Yust allegedly warned, “I’ve killed people before, even ex-girlfriends out of sheer jealousy. I will kill you!”

Later, the girlfriend returned home from work and saw Yust in the bathroom holding one of their kittens, the police report says. Yust allegedly began slamming the kitten to the floor, then locked his girlfriend out of the room when she tried to stop him.

She said Yust then left the residence with the kitten and disposed of its body, and that he had previously killed two of her other kittens by dropping them in a brown sack and tossing it into a creek. “Yust intentionally did this because he said the kittens didn’t deserve to live,” the girlfriend told police.

According to the report, the girlfriend had no idea Yust was a person of interest in the disappearance of Kara Kopetsky. She discovered that he was under suspicion after Googling his name in August 2011.

Yust pleaded guilty to beating and choking the girlfriend. He was also arrested for animal abuse but the charge was dropped.

In February 2012, Yust was in law enforcement’s crosshairs again, this time for trying to distribute designer drugs he bought from China.

Then, at 24 years old, Yust was arrested after U.S. Customs agents in San Francisco intercepted a package from China that was addressed to him in Kansas City. The package contained 4-Methylethcathinone, a stimulant.

During an interview with authorities, Yust said he ordered the substances online and wanted to use them as fertilizer to grow vegetables. But he later said, during a second interview, that he ordered the substances for a friend who planned to “cut” the drugs with other chemicals and sell them at raves for profit.

Yust pleaded guilty to one count of possession with the intent to distribute 4-Methylethcathinone and was sentenced to 45 months in federal prison.

Sentencing documents revealed details of Yust’s past.

In a memorandum, Yust’s attorney said Yust—who has three children—started drinking at age 11, smoking marijuana when he was 12, and tried cocaine at age 14. Between the ages of 17 and 20, he was a daily marijuana user.

Yust first used heroin at 16, and also “angel dust” on about 10 occasions, court papers say. His attorney said he had “a serious substance use history and would benefit from substance abuse counseling.”

The lawyer also noted Yust’s difficult childhood. Raised by his grandparents, Yust first saw his mother only when he was a teenager and his father had a methamphetamine addiction, the memorandum says. Yust was also physically and sexually abused as a child, court papers state.

“The Defendant continues to feel the emotional and mental effects of his troubled childhood, in the form of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder,” his lawyer added.

Those who dated Yust believed they could help him.

Before she vanished, Kopetsky wrote on MySpace that she’d devoted nine months of her life to Yust but had enough.

“She thought everybody deserved a friend and she could fix Kylr, and that Kylr would change,” Rhonda Beckford said.

His girlfriend from 2011 said she went back to him after his abuse because she was pregnant with his twins. According to the police report, she “stated at the time she just felt sorry for him because of his past.”

And Jamie S. Runions believed her daughter, Jessica, likely wanted to “fix” him too.

Jessica Runions met Yust through her boyfriend of three years, and by some accounts, may have been dating him.

“The sad thing is my daughter is a fixer and if she thinks she can help people, she will try,” Jamie S. Runions told The Daily Beast.

Jessica Runions was a pastry chef at a senior living community who’d just gotten a promotion, her mother said, but she also wanted to go to college for journalism. The plan was for Jessica to write, and her younger sister to snap photos. Her death has devastated Jessica’s 6- and 15-year-old sisters.

“She was a great woman. She had her stuff together. She wasn’t hateful or mean and loved her sisters—that was the biggest part of her life,” Jessica’s father, John Runions, told The Daily Beast. “There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for anybody.”

“Everybody loved her. She always smiled. That’s why I just have a hard time wrapping my brain around this whole thing. What could she have done to this individual to cause so much rage against her?” John Runions said. “I don’t know how to explain the fact that somebody could do this. I don’t have words for it.”