The Kansas City Star

Jury recommends life for Yust for slayings of 2 women

- BY ROBERT A. CRONKLETON bcronkleto­n@kcstar.com

A jury on Friday afternoon recommende­d a sentence of life in prison for Kylr Yust, who was convicted the day before in the killings of two young women who disappeare­d roughly 10 years apart in Cass County.

Yust, 32, was found guilty of voluntary manslaught­er in the death of Kara Kopetsky, 17, and of second-degree murder in the death of Jessica Runions, 21.

The jury recommende­d a sentence of life in prison on the murder conviction and a sentence of 15 years for the manslaught­er charge. He will be eligible for parole. Sentencing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. June 7.

When the jury’s recommenda­tion was read aloud by the judge, several family and friends observing from the courtroom gasped softly. Some shed tears.

Speaking to reporters after court adjourned, the mothers of Kopetsky and Runions expressed gratitude to the community for all the love and prayers during the time when their daughters were missing.

“We’re thankful to be where we are today,” said Rhonda Beckford, Kopetsky’s mother. “Because there were days when we didn’t know if our girls would ever be found. And we’re just so thankful that they were found. We have them back

now.”

Standing beside her as spurts of rain began trickling down over the Cass County Justice Center was Jamie Runions, who called the community’s support and love for the girls “overwhelmi­ng.”

Earlier Friday in court, family members of Kopetsky and Runions gave testimony about who the young women were in life and how their disappeara­nces and deaths affected those who cared for them.

Kopetsky was reported missing in May 2007, and Runions was last seen alive in September 2016.

“It ripped our whole family apart and changed our lives forever,” Rhonda Beckford said of the day her daughter went missing. “It started a 10-year nightmare.”

Kopetsky was planning to go to school to become a radiology technician and go into a medical field, Beckford said. She was carefree and loving and loyal to friends

“I don’t feel that justice was served as far as Kara was concerned,” Beckford told the jurors.

Kopetsky’s stepfather, Jim Beckford, told jurors that Rhonda Beckford has paid Kopetsky’s phone bill for 14 years since her disappeara­nce just in the hope that somebody might call.

“If you were to check the phone records today, you will see that I called it on Sunday night just to hear that one little wisp of her voice,” he said.

Jessica Runions was a loving sister, her mother said. People gravitated toward her. She loved to dance and loved music.

“It’s been the longest four years and seven months of my entire life,” Jamie Runions said. Another daughter survived a suicide attempt during that period, she said.

John Runions told jurors that his daughter’s killing has devastated him and others. He told jurors about the futures that the women will miss — the birthdays, the family gathering and the hugs and kisses.

“I don’t get to walk my daughter down the aisle and see her be married and be a mother,” he said. “Her sisters don’t get to look up to her anymore. And she loved her sisters.”

Yust, of Kansas City, had been linked to Kopetsky and Runions early on in the investigat­ions, but their cases remained longrunnin­g mysteries in the metro area. A mushroom hunter found their remains in April 2017 in a wooded area south of Belton.

Yust was charged in 2017 with two counts of first-degree murder in the women’s deaths, though the jury was provided the option of delivering lesser charges.

The trial began April 5 and concluded Wednesday evening after more than a week of witness testimony.

Because of the publicity surroundin­g the case, jurors were selected two weeks ago in St. Charles County and were brought to Cass County.

During opening statements last week, Cass County Prosecutor Ben Butler said Kopetsky tried to end the relationsh­ip with Yust, who admitted to friends that he “‘strangled the (expletive) out of her and threw her in the middle of the (expletive) woods.’ ”

Yust killed again nine years later when Runions tried to end a relationsh­ip with him, prosecutor­s said. Yust dumped their bodies in “his spot,” Butler said.

Over the course of the trial, prosecutor­s sought to portray Yust as a violent and merciless killer who took the young women’s lives because he could not stand to see either become romantical­ly involved with someone else. Yust’s defense team, meanwhile, cast doubt on the investigat­ion and its conclusion­s, saying no physical evidence connected Yust to the killings.

Defense attorney Sharon Turlington told the jury that police conducted a “suspect-driven investigat­ion.” Officers failed to collect evidence, including Yust’s phone records with location data, and lost other evidence, she said.

“Somehow Kylr is supposed to have pulled off two murders without leaving a trace,” Turlington said.

On the stand Wednesday, Yust denied he killed Kopetsky and Runions, instead accusing his late half-brother. He also denied that he confessed to several witnesses called to testify earlier in the week.

“I don’t know what exactly happened to Kara,” he testified, later adding: “I didn’t do anything to either of them.”

Witnesses for the prosecutio­n included the mothers of Kopetsky and Runions as well as two of Yust’s former girlfriend­s. Last week, jurors heard a 2011 recording between Yust and his ex-girlfriend Katelynn Farris in which Yust allegedly said he killed Kopetsky.

Yust testified Wednesday that Farris made it seem she was attracted to him because he was suspected of murder. He said he was playing into what he believed was her sexual fantasy when he made the comments. He claimed he was acting.

Between 2010 and 2012, police spoke to at least four people who said Yust confessed to killing Kopetsky, according to charging documents. During closing arguments, Assistant Prosecutin­g Attorney Julie Tolle said he confessed to six people over the years.

The defense’s witnesses included an expert in police best practice, James Trainum, who questioned how local police investigat­ed the two homicides. Another witness said she saw a car with four people in it approach Kopetsky on the day she disappeare­d.

 ?? JILL TOYOSHIBA jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com ?? Jamie Runions and Rhonda Beckford, right, address the media Friday outside the Cass County Justice Center in Harrisonvi­lle, Missouri, after the sentencing hearing for Kylr Yust, who was convicted of killing their daughters. Formal sentencing is set for June 7.
JILL TOYOSHIBA jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com Jamie Runions and Rhonda Beckford, right, address the media Friday outside the Cass County Justice Center in Harrisonvi­lle, Missouri, after the sentencing hearing for Kylr Yust, who was convicted of killing their daughters. Formal sentencing is set for June 7.
 ?? JILL TOYOSHIBA jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com ?? Kara Kopetsky’s mother, Rhonda Beckford, and stepfather, Jim Beckford, arrive at the Cass County Justice Center on Friday for the sentencing of Kylr Yust, who was found guilty of killing Kara.
JILL TOYOSHIBA jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com Kara Kopetsky’s mother, Rhonda Beckford, and stepfather, Jim Beckford, arrive at the Cass County Justice Center on Friday for the sentencing of Kylr Yust, who was found guilty of killing Kara.

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