From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Maybe her cell phone wasn't working, they thought. Maybe she was too busy shopping to pick up. Maybe there was a good explanation for why Kelsey Smith, 18, didn't answer when her boyfriend, John—who was waiting at her parents' home to give her a promise ring he'd been carrying around in a little box in his pocket—sent her a text message asking "Where are you?" Maybe, they all thought, hoped—maybe. But being out of reach for even a few minutes just wasn't Kelsey's way, and that's how her loved ones knew something was wrong.

It took four days for their worst fears to be realized. On June 6 police in Jackson County, Mo., found Kelsey's body in a shallow creek bed in the woods near Longview Lake. Later that day they arrested Edwin Hall, 26, the married father of a 4-year-old son, and charged him with kidnapping and strangling Kelsey on June 2. She had just been shopping at a Target near her home in Overland Park, Kans.; she bought a pho-to box for John, for all the cards and pictures they had traded in seven months of dating. Hall, who has a history of violence, followed Kelsey into Target, then waited in the parking lot for her to come out. Once she did, say police—who aren't revealing what led them to the eventual suspect—he pushed her into her 1987 Buick and drove off, returning the car to the parking lot of a Macy's across from Target about two hours later (a surveillance video captured the abduction). Police also say there is no evidence that Kelsey had previously known Hall, who could face the death penalty if convicted of murder and kidnapping. Hall's lawyer declined to comment on the case.

Like the families of the dozens of children who are kidnapped and murdered each year, Kelsey's parents and siblings will now do everything they can to see that she is not reduced to a statistic. What they will do is remember. Remember how Kelsey would eat Skittles only in pairs—"and how each pair had to be the same color," says her father, Greg, 47, a former police officer who now works in security. Remember the way she organized her nachos, "with every nacho tucked in and facing the same direction," says her boyfriend, John Biersmith, 18. Remember how she loved the color blue, so much so that when her friends staged a vigil after her death, they tied blue ribbons around their wrists and released blue balloons into the sky. "Kelsey would have hated it," says her sister Lindsey, 20. "She'd have thought the balloons would end up killing deer."

Everyone who spoke about Kelsey in the days after her death agreed there was something very special about her. "My grandfather was never a baby person, but he took one look at Kelsey and fell in love," says her mother, Missey, 41, a drug-program staffer. Growing up, Kelsey—the middle of five children—always seemed in charge. She cut everyone's hair, even her parents'. She painted the nails of her older sisters Lindsey and Stevie, 23. She mothered her sister Codie, 12, and brother Zach, 10. "Actually," says Missey, "she mothered everyone."

At Shawnee Mission West High School, she sang in the chorus, and one of her dreams was to make a run at American Idol. Yet her confidence had an edge to it, and she could be challenging. She liked to belch loudly to get a rise out of people, and she thought nothing of changing her clothes while driving her friends around. "She loved to embarrass people," says sister Stevie. "If you were in a fight with her, she'd suddenly lick your face." When her mother saw that someone had drawn a pair of angel wings on a photo of Kelsey after she had died, she thought, "That's not Kelsey; Kelsey was no angel," says Missey. "She was headstrong and opinionated. It was never easy raising Kelsey. But it was a tremendous honor raising her."

Above all, Kelsey was conscientious, and she stuck to the big rule laid down by her father: If you're running late, you call home. She had been out of touch for only an hour on June 2 when her boyfriend and sisters and even her grandparents went looking for her. At 9:30 that night, her grandparents found Kelsey's car parked outside Macy's; her purse and a Target bag were inside. That's when Greg Smith called the police.

Over the next four days, her friends printed flyers, started a "findkelsey" Web site and went door to door. They called themselves Kelsey's Army. Dozens of volunteers worked day and night. In the end it was her cell phone, pinging with the sound of unanswered calls, that led searchers to her body.

Not much later Hall was under arrest: Overland Park Police Chief John Douglass would only say the arrest was "the result of thousands of hours of investigation." Hall, an orphan, was 7 years old when Don and Carol Hall of Emporia, Kans., took him in. But at 15, he threatened the Halls' young daughter with a knife, and they returned him to the custody of the state (his juvenile record also includes charges that he stole his father's truck and allegedly hit a boy in the head with a bat). "You think you can give them love and all the things they didn't get," Carol Hall told the Emporia Gazette after Kelsey's murder. "It works with some, but with him it didn't."

Now the family of Kelsey Smith—who graduated from high school and turned 18 within a month of her death—is bracing for the sadness of life without her. She will never be a veterinarian, as she hoped; she will never wear that promise ring from John. But all the things she did do in her short, happy life are what really matter, say those who were lucky enough to know her. "When you think of an all-American girl, she was it," says her mom. "Kelsey was life."

  • Contributors:
  • Pam Grout/Overland Park.