Ten years after Kara Kopetsky was last seen leaving her Belton, Missouri, high school, her remains have been identified.
Police said in a statement that DNA testing conducted by the FBI confirmed the remains — one of two sets of bones discovered on April 4 — belonged to the 17-year-old high school girl, who worked part-time as a cashier at Popeyes.
“It has been a long 10 years and a long four months, and we finally found her and she is back where she belongs and we can finally put her to rest,” Kara’s mother, Rhonda Beckford, tells PEOPLE. “The next step is going to be properly laying her to rest and looking onward to a prosecution.”
Kara had been missing since she left Belton High School on May 4, 2007. Her skull was found April 4 in a rock quarry about nine miles from her high school — the day after someone foraging for mushrooms in the same quarry, about 20 to 30 yards away, discovered the skeletal remains of 21-year-old Jessica Runions, who went missing in September 2016, Belton Police Department Lt. Brad Swanson tells PEOPLE.
Kara’s stepfather, Jim Beckford, tells PEOPLE that it took authorities much longer to identify Kara than Jessica because her remains had been at the site for over 10 years.
“We were told we would never have her back,” Jim says. “When they discovered the remains, that heaviness was lifted. It was a relief. We just knew. I told Rhonda, ‘This is it.’ ”
Kara Had Restraining Order Against Yust
Jessica was last seen on September 8, 2016 while leaving a party with 28-year-old Kylr Yust, who had once been an estranged boyfriend of Kara’s when the pair were teenagers. Jessica’s empty and burned SUV was later found on the side of the road, and Yust was charged with burning her vehicle. He pleaded not guilty and is currently in Jackson County Jail awaiting trial on that charge, says Swanson.
An attorney for Yust could not be reached for comment.
Swanson says both cases are considered homicides. Because the remains were left out in the elements, Swanson says, determining a cause of death “would be next to impossible.”
Yust has not been charged with either homicide.
During the course of Kara’s investigation, Swanson says he received over 400 tips and over 100 alleged sightings of the teen that he and detectives investigated. In one case, he says, he got a call that Kara was living just outside an Amish community in Missouri. “She was married with two kids named Kane and Abel, and she changed her name from Kara to Kari,” he says, describing the false lead.
The cases, he says, are currently under review by the prosecutor’s office.
Kara and Yust dated for nine months in 2007. A week before she went missing, Kara applied for a restraining order against Yust, alleging he was violent towards her.
A ‘Zest for Life’
At the time of her disappearance, Kara was planning a future without Yust.
“She talked about furthering her education,” says stepdad Jim. “She was transforming into a young woman and planning her future and life. Kara was a beautiful girl and had a bright path in front of her.”
“Kara really had a zest for life,” says Rhonda. “She loved people and wanted to be a friend to people and figured everybody deserved a friend. At 17, Kara was mature beyond her years.”
Rhonda says she still keeps her daughter’s room the same as it was when she went missing.
“What my son says is, even if we cleared it out it would still be Kara’s room,” she says. “We didn’t feel Kara would come home one day but we couldn’t really move until we had the finalization and brought her home.”
Jim says he will always remember the last time he saw her at the drive-thru at Popeyes.
“She had on her purple shirt and her Popeyes chicken visor, and she was hanging out the window with that smile on her face and that glisten in her eye,” he says.
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During their conversation he says he spoke to her about her habit of tossing cigarettes on the ground.
“I said I can get you a coffee can and you can put them in there and she smiled and laughed,” he says. “It still puts a smile on my face. It was a good little chuckle for us. I wish we had 10 million more words. It is just such a tragedy. Kara was a good kid.”
Jim says that after he and Rhonda learned the remains were positively identified as Kara’s they went for dinner with Jessica’s mother.
“The girls brought us together,” he says. “I said it was a Shakespearean tragedy and no one will understand the bond between us. I told her we were family forever.”
Jim adds: “She and Jessica didn’t deserve with what they wound up with in the end.”