On February 4, 2013, Kelsie Schelling, a 21-year-old Denver resident, disappeared shortly after learning she was pregnant.
Six years later, her whereabouts remain 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. Lucas pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges last August, and is set to go to trial over the allegations in April.
The impending proceedings haven't ended the indefatigable efforts of Schelling's mother, Laura Saxton, to find her beloved daughter. Saxton, who lives in northeastern Colorado, recently announced that the standing $50,000 reward for information about Schelling's location would be doubled for the month of February. And this morning, she's scheduled to be at the Colorado State Capitol to take part in Missing Persons Day, an annual commemoration that she was instrumental in helping create.
At the Capitol, Saxton will be joined by others whose loved ones have vanished and remain missing. "This will be the fourth year since we started," she says, "and we definitely have room for growth. But I know the people who do come...well, you can just see how much it means to them to have their family member be the focus, even if it's only for a couple of hours. And also how much it means to be in a group of people where you don't feel like an alien."
In her words, "We're our own little community. We understand each other better than anyone else can. We can just be ourselves and do what we need to do — cry or whatever — and know we're going to be loved and cared for and understood. Whereas in the rest of our lives, we're not."
Ten days after Schelling disappeared 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 her drive to Pueblo, as well as details about her boyfriend.
According to her, Schelling had gotten confirmation of her pregnancy on the day she vanished. 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.
She added since: "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 remained the focus of the investigation, but little progress was made — and Saxton made clear her frustration. But she emphasizes 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 formally charged.
Unfortunately, none of these operations led to the discovery of Schelling's remains, and neither have innumerable explorations in which Saxton has participated over the years of areas near places where she was suspected of having been. The inconclusive endings to each have taken a toll.
"I've done so many searches," Saxton acknowledges. "I've gone down on Saturdays with small groups of people, where we'll walk through fields and ditches and that kind of stuff. They're very long days for me. I get up super-early and drive the four hours down to Pueblo and search and have to drive back. The drive home is awful — coming home empty time after time. And the larger searches: Man, you have so much hope, because you know they wouldn't be conducting that search unless they had good reason to do something as extreme as an excavation. There's definitely hope in that, and Il'll be on pins and needles. But then we come to the end of that and to not have her found...it just sends me into a tailspin for days."
Doubling the reward hasn't been successful yet, either. "We did the same thing last year in February," Saxton points out. "We did it in honor and remembrance of Kelsie's disappearance on the 4th, and her birthday is February 18. February is a pretty rough month for us. It didn't really gain us anything last year — nothing substantial came of it — but we decided to go ahead and give it a try just for this month. On March 1, it will go back to the original $50,000 that was offered."
Given the murder charges against Lucas, investigators have clearly determined that everyone's worst fears about Schelling are accurate — and Saxton has reached that place, too. "It's basically what we thought from very early on," she says. "That was our belief. It took a while to get to this point, but at least we're here and things are being pursued and they're going through the process. So hopefully, there will be a positive outcome."
Still, locating Schelling is "the most important thing to me," she continues. "The arrest and, hopefully, the conviction are very, very important. But finding Kelsie will hopefully give me some peace in my heart. That's all I think about. It's all I've thought about for six years. That's what drives me — being able to bring her home. She doesn't deserve to be discarded somewhere. It's the biggest thing I can do for her. She doesn't deserve that. She deserves to be brought home to her family and have a proper resting place. I need to be able to go and take her flowers and sit and talk with her — all of those things that other parents who, unfortunately, have lost their children get to do. I'm sure it's small consolation, but when you don't even have that, you realize how important it is."
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Missing Persons Day is intended to help friends, family and loved ones of individuals like Schelling, too, as well as potentially spur someone with information about them to come forward. As Saxton puts it, "When Kelsie went missing, I wanted to do something. I wanted to be an advocate. I wanted to help. And I was shocked that there wasn't already a Missing Persons Day in Colorado. When I found out there wasn't, I knew it was something I wanted to do, but I had no idea if I would be able to accomplish it or not. But thankfully, with the help of Senator Sonnenberg" — Senator Jerry Sonnenberg backed the 2016 bill, which was co-sponsored by representatives Rhonda Fields and Polly Lawrence — "we were able to get it started."
The activities begin with a 9 a.m. get-together in Senate Committee Room 357 and will end around noon with a prayer vigil near the west steps of the Capitol that will include a reading of missing persons' names and a bubble release. In addition, a virtual prayer vigil for Schelling will get under way at 7 p.m., with videos, songs and photos part of an online presentation. The link for the evening vigil can be found at HelpFindKelsie.com and the Help Find Kelsie Facebook page, where details about the reward and who to contact with new facts can also be accessed.
For Saxton, this flurry of events will be difficult from an emotional standpoint. But the less-busy times can be even harder.
"I still have to get up and go to work every morning," she says. "I work a full-time job, and it's been six years, so most people don't even think about what I'm going through every single day. I have this mask that I have to put on when I walk out the door in the morning and take off once I get back home. And sometimes, people don't stop and think about how much I'm truly suffering and how much I struggle just to get through another day."