It's Saturday afternoon in Farmer's Branch. Inside a two-story house, family, friends and police gather to remember the life of Kelli Cox, murdered by a serial killer in 1997. “We wanted to have something for people to have an opportunity to share memories and ways that Kelli had impacted them,” says her mother, Jan.
More than three months have passed since Kelli’s remains were discovered in an unmarked grave outside of Houston. The crime baffled investigators, some of whom are in attendance. Former Denton County Sheriff Benny Parkey handled the initial investigation when he was a Denton police detective in the early '90s. He died a couple of months ago.
A table set up in the living room displays pictures of Kelli, papers for guests to share memories and a basket filled with yellow-ribbon postcards with an old picture of Kelli, immortalized at 20 years old. She has wavy brown hair, blue eyes that reflect the camera’s flash and a smile on her face. “This yellow ribbon is for Kelli and for all the people who are still missing and have not found their way home,” reads the bold writing underneath her photograph. Her stepfather Niles Bynum points out to guests, repeatedly, that 90,000 people are reported missing every year.
A poster board of photographs behind the table tracks Kelli’s life, from the moment when her mother first held her as a newborn to the final images of her holding her own daughter, who’s now a student at the same university Kelli attended when she vanished nearly 20 years ago. One reason the Cox family was sure of foul play was because she would have never abandoned the baby.
She’d been attending a tour of the Denton city jail with her college class when she was abducted near the Denton Police Department. She’d walked down the road to a gas station to use a payphone because her spare car key she hid behind her tire wouldn’t open her car door. She called her boyfriend, then disappeared.
Kelli’s mother Jan later attended missing person conferences across the nation to discuss the importance of law enforcement officials handling missing person cases with empathy. It was speaking at one of the conferences where she’d first come in contact with Jessica Cain’s family whose daughter Jessica was only 17 years old when she disappeared.
Neither family realized at the time that their daughters had been abducted by the same serial killer, a truck driver running loads between Oklahoma and Houston. They wouldn’t make that connection until April of this year when both Kelli’s and Jessica’s remains were found buried 30 miles apart outside of Houston.
Former Denton police detective Kenneth Kirkland took over Kelli’s case shortly after Parkey accepted it. A short, slightly heavyset, older bald man, he only worked her case for a short time before he left the police department. He now works as an investigator for the state bar of Texas, catching attorneys instead of killers. “A lot of false leads, hundreds and hundreds saying they saw her,” says Kirkland.
No one really knows how Kelli’s abductor, 56-year-old William Reece, snatched her in the middle of the day near a police department in downtown Denton. Denton police investigator Eric Beckwith was the most recent detective to work her cold case.
Standing in the entryway of the Bynums’ home in Farmer’s Branch, Beckwith tells Kelli’s former boyfriend (once a person of interest in the case) that Reece may have appeared friendly and offered her a ride, which she may have taken since she was rushing to return to take a test at the University of North Texas. It’s still unclear why Reece slipped through investigators’ fingers when they questioned him shortly after Kelli disappeared.
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After her abduction, Kelli’s family and friends handed out flyers with her photograph, seeking any information about her whereabouts. Many of those family and friends attend Kelli’s celebration of life on this Saturday afternoon, mingling and smiling. Some have lost touch over the years, but they say a deep sadness afflicts them all. Some recall memories of that fateful day when Kelli disappeared. Others remember better times of Kelli as a star gymnast, and other childhood moments captured in photographs on the table with the yellow-ribbon postcards and Kelli’s Cabbage Patch Kids.
The most intimate moments occur in the small hallway leading to her mother’s bedroom. There, her older brother Paul Cox stands with Kelli’s aunt. The pair haven't seen each other since the late '80s. A man now in his 40s with gray in his short dark hair, Paul shows the last picture he had taken with Kelli, at their father’s birthday celebration at Don Pablo’s in Fort Worth. She disappeared a couple of months later.
Kelli’s aunt recalls Kelli’s father spending time at the police station after his daughter disappeared, and Kelli’s older brother recalls passing out missing person flyers with their father, who died in 2007 still not knowing if Kelli was alive or dead.
“She appeared to me in a dream,” Paul says of Kelli, who used to appear there frequently. “It’s like she’s in the clouds, and it’s like I can look down, see the clouds, then a figure coming towards me. I soon realize it’s her. ‘Kelli, where are you? Are you okay?’ She has that beautiful smile, looks at me and says, ‘I know you’ll find out soon.’”