On February 4, 2013, Kelsie Schelling, a 21-year-old Denver resident, disappeared shortly after learning she was pregnant.
Seven years later, her whereabouts are still a mystery despite the November 2017 arrest of Donthe Lucas, her former boyfriend, whom she'd traveled to Pueblo to meet when she went missing — and court proceedings that might provide answers are stuck in limbo. Lucas pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges in August 2018, and he was set to go to trial in April of last year. But the sessions have been pushed back again and again, and are now scheduled to get under way in May.
This sequence of events has been sheer agony for Laura Saxton, Schelling's mother. She'll be in Denver today in conjunction with Colorado Missing Persons Day — and the fact that a joint Senate resolution calls for February 4 to be designated as the annual date for the event speaks to the impact the long, thus-far fruitless search for Schelling has had on people throughout the state. But while she's looking forward to seeing loved ones of other missing persons, she speaks freely about the frustrations with which she must grapple the other 364 days of the year.
"My circle has gotten very, very small," she concedes. "Sadly, people have just walked away — people I never thought would walk away. Family or friends or whatever. I have just a few, select people left in my life that I trust and who have stuck with me, and I depend on them. But I do a lot of inward thinking in dealing with this on my own — just trying to come to terms with it and keep myself going."
Ten days after Schelling vanished in 2013, her car, a Chevrolet Cruze, was located in the parking lot of St. Mary-Corwin hospital in Pueblo. The following month, the Pueblo Police Department put out photos showing shots of the car circa February 5 and 6 from somewhere else — the parking lot of an area Walmart. More concerningly, the images depicted a male getting into the car and driving it away.
Pueblo officers subsequently announced that they had looked for Schelling in various parts of the city using canines "specialized in searching for missing persons." But no breakthroughs emerged. Then, at an April news conference, Saxton revealed new information about the pregnancy that motivated Schelling's drive to Pueblo, as well as details about her boyfriend.
According to her, Schelling had gotten confirmation of her pregnancy on the day she disappeared. Doctor's records confirmed that she was eight weeks pregnant, with the presumed father being Lucas, who played basketball for Northeastern Junior College.
"Cell-phone records show that Kelsie sent picture messages of her ultrasound pictures taken that day to family members and also to Donthe and his mother," Saxton said at the time. "Cell-phone records also show that Donthe asked Kelsie to come to Pueblo when she got off of work that night because he needed to speak with her in person. ... We know that Kelsie made it to Pueblo and did meet up with Donthe. No one has seen or heard from her since."
In the years that followed, Lucas continued to be the focus of the investigation, but little progress was made — and Saxton didn't hide her frustration. But she emphasized that the situation improved "when the CBI [Colorado Bureau of Investigation] came on board and there was a total overhaul of the crimes-against-persons unit at the Pueblo Police Department. Basically, everyone from the chief down to the detectives that were over Kelsie's case were all new people. They came in, and that really changed the tone and the relationship between us."
The inquiry truly began heating up in April 2017, when law enforcers excavated the back yard of Lucas's former residence, at 5113 Manor Ridge Drive. They also dug up a field not far from the house the following month. Weeks later, the home was damaged by a fire investigated as possible arson. And a new series of searches was conducted in the week or two before Lucas was charged.
More than two years later, Saxton is still waiting for Lucas to formally face these accusations. "We're on our third delay," she points out. "The last one was due to the fact that one of Donthe's attorneys wanted off the case, so they added a new attorney — and, of course, the new attorney needed time to get up to date on the case. But it really doesn't matter what the reason is. We've been waiting for so long, and our feelings are really disregarded when these decisions are made."
Right now, she goes on, "the trial is set to start on May 5, and I sure hope it happens, because every delay is harder to take. It just takes a lot of preparation, and then when you get the rug pulled out from underneath you, it's devastating. Each time it happens, it sends me into a tailspin for a few days. There are definitely emotional and physical things that go on for me, because I've been doing this for so long. I'll feel more run down, and everything takes more of a toll than it used to."
The postponements have also put a crimp in Saxton's efforts to keep Schelling's story in the public eye. She's participated in innumerable explorations for Schelling's remains over the years in places where Kelsie was suspected of having been, but "we're not doing much right now," she concedes, "and that's due to the trial and the fact that the defense filed for a change of venue due to media coverage of the story. It's really tied our hands and closed our mouths as far as what we're able to do."
Saxton notes that "this is the second year in a row that we're not doing an event for Kelsie in Pueblo, like we'd normally do, because we don't want to stir the pot and give any reason for that change-of-venue request to be granted. It's so hard, because we've been really active, and this has taken my voice away — which in turn was Kelsie's voice. I feel like I'm failing her because I'm not able to actively do anything right now."
Given the necessity of maintaining a lower profile, the reward for information leading to Schelling's discovery on the Help Find Kelsey website is holding steady at $50,000. The amount has been doubled on occasion, but, Saxton says, "We're not going to raise it again because of trying to keep things calm — which isn't right. We should be able to do what we want to do. It makes me angry that we can't."
When the trial finally happens, Saxton doesn't expect Lucas to come clean. According to her, "I don't think he'll ever take the stand. I've made it clear to the prosecution team that I'm very open to a plea deal as long as it brings Kelsie home. That's my main thing. I've addressed this over and over again, and I know probably not everyone agrees with it. Justice is important, and I would not want him to walk free for this. But I want to bring my girl home. I want to be able to go to the cemetery and bring her flowers. I have nothing like that right now. But I don't believe Donthe is ever going to let us know where she is. That's his last control over her, and he knows that's what I want the most. It's just another way for him to continue to torture me."
Not that she's going to give anyone the satisfaction of crumbling. "I'm trying to stay healthy enough to make it through this trial. I know I have to find the strength and keep the strength to make it through, because I know how hard it's going to be."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
She expects that Colorado Missing Persons Day will help her achieve this goal. "This will be our fifth year of having this, and even though everyone grieves differently, I know for myself that to be around others who know exactly what I'm feeling is comforting. This is like a family that comes together once a year, and we get to talk about our kids and not scare people about it, and not be judged for it."
In general, she thinks, "there's just not enough support for these families. In daily interactions, people avoid the topic, and it hurts. It makes it seem like Kelsie never existed. I'm very open to talking about it, but for some reason, people are scared of it, like it's taboo. So I try my hardest to raise awareness, to let people know it's okay to talk about. Even if you're uncomfortable, it's really important to say something to families going through this. To not have your family member's name be spoken, that's what hurts the most."
Although Schelling's plight once received national attention, "the media's really lost interest in Kelsie's case," Saxton says. "But I want people to remember the missing and my daughter and her baby. And hopefully we'll be seeing justice this year."
The joint Senate resolution about Colorado Missing Persons Day is co-sponsored by senators Rhonda Field and Jerry Sonnenberg. Click to read it. Today's events include a meeting of family members at 8 a.m., the reading of the resolution in Senate session at 9 a.m., and a 10 a.m. prayer vigil on the west steps of the State Capitol building. Get more details here.