From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
A few months ago 13-year-old Taylor Paschal-Placker started pressing her family for more independence, including freedom to walk the area around her home in rural Weleetka, Okla. Reluctantly her grandmother Vicky Placker, who along with Taylor's grandfather Peter had raised Taylor as their own child, agreed. "'You know, you've got to face it, I'm getting older,'" Vicky, 47, recalls Taylor saying. "So I started to let her walk in front of the house but reminded her, 'It don't matter how old you get, Taylor, 'til the day that I die, you gonna be my baby.'"

But on June 8 the family's worst fears came true. That Sunday afternoon Taylor and her best friend, Skyla Whitaker, 11, asked if they could walk a half mile up a dirt road to a bridge over a creek. "At first I told her no, but then I figured it would be okay because it was something they could do before Skyla's mother picked her up," says Peter, 48, a mechanic who moved the family from Oklahoma City three years ago in search of a safer environment. When the girls didn't return as quickly as expected or answer Taylor's cell phone, Peter went looking for them. He came upon their bodies in a ditch halfway to the bridge. They had each been shot multiple times—with two different guns—in the head and chest. Police offered no clues to a motive but did release a sketch of a potential witness who was described as an approximately 35-year-old Native American man with a long ponytail. Witnesses told police they saw him stopped in a white pickup near the scene about the time of the murders. Investigators last week said they were examining tire tracks and shoe imprints near the spot where the girls were found. Given the remoteness of the crime scene, police have said they believe the killer or killers were locals who knew the area well.

The senseless crime stunned the community. Taylor and Skyla were inseparable friends who attended Graham Public School, where they were 2 of 10 students in a combined 5th-6th-grade class. They loved to hang out in a shed turned clubhouse on the Placker property, where they painted the ceiling a cotton-candy blend of white, blue and purple and decorated the walls with their names and those of their favorite stars Zac Efron, Vanessa Hudgens and Miley Cyrus. Joe Mosher, Taylor's great uncle, was among the hundreds of people who attended the girls' back-to-back funerals on June 13. "The hardest thing in my life," he says, "was looking into those open caskets and seeing these ended lives."

At Skyla's funeral her sister Rosita Gordon recalled that Skyla loved her family and her 13 cats and wanted to be a veterinarian. "She loved to go for walks," said Gordon. "She loved to play in the sand. She loved scary movies. She loved her school. And she loved the rain." At Taylor's funeral the Rev. Ron King said he could celebrate the girls' lives but couldn't explain their deaths. "These were just babies. How do you make sense of this?" Peter Placker agrees. "I'm going to feel the same way whether they catch them or not," he says, teary-eyed. "But I want them caught—just so I can find out why."