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Kara Kopetsky was a typical fun-loving teenager with a contagious smile that made people gravitate towards her.
The high school student loved music and animals, and her friends and family were the centre of her world. But life took a dramatic turn for the 17-year-old from Belton, Missouri, in 2006 when she met Kylr Yust.
While Kara was laid-back and friendly, Yust, 18, was intense and had a temper, causing her nothing but problems.
They dated for nine months before breaking up in April 2007 – and then things started to turn nasty.
Kara went to the police and reported that she had been leaving her part-time job at a fast-food restaurant when Yust forced her into his car after she refused to hang out with him.
She claimed he’d driven her around before finally letting her go, saying in her statement, “I’m unsure what he will do next because the abuse had gotten worse over time.”
Kara applied for a protection order, which was served to Yust on 1 May.
On 4 May, just after 9am, security cameras captured Kara unexpectedly leaving Belton High School. That night, she didn’t show up for work and she didn’t return to the family home.
Her worried mum reported her missing and a search soon got underway.
When questioned, Yust said he’d spoken to Kara on the phone but he didn’t know where she was. Phone records showed she and Yust had both called each other just before she left the school that morning.
A mutual friend of the estranged couple told police that Yust had admitted he’d seen Kara in person but told them not to tell anyone as he had violated the protection order.
Yust denied having anything to do with Kara vanishing but her family and the police weren’t so sure. There were simply no leads to go on and no evidence to connect him with her disappearance.
Kara’s belongings, including her bank card, were found in her locker at the school as though she would return to collect them – but she never did.
Weeks turned into months, then years. Kara’s family were convinced that Yust was to blame for her disappearance and his behaviour only fuelled their suspicions.
Over the years, many of Yust’s girlfriends told the police he was jealous, erratic and violent. He made threats and even choked a former partner, which resulted in him being placed on probation. There were
also charges for animal cruelty after he harmed kittens and more protection orders were taken out against him.
In 2013, Yust was arrested on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to four years in prison. But still, frustratingly, Kara’s fate remained unknown.
Yust was released in September 2016 and six days later, on 8 September, Jessica Runions attended a party in Grandview, Missouri.
The 21-year-old worked as a pastry chef in a restaurant at a retirement community and had recently been promoted. She hoped to go to college to study journalism.
But after being seen leaving the party with a man, she vanished. Her worried family reported her missing and hours later her black Chevy Equinox was found in a remote wooded area. It had been set on fire. Investigators were then shocked when they found out who Jessica had left the party with – Yust, then aged 27.
Witnesses said he’d been drinking heavily and acting “possessively” towards Jessica and aggressively towards other people.
Yust’s half-brother, Jessep Carter, came forward to say that Yust had asked him to set fire to Jessica’s vehicle. Yust, who had burns on his body, was held in custody and refused bail as he waited for trial. But there was no proof that Jessica had been harmed.
Understandably, Kara’s family watched developments closely. Had history repeated itself almost a decade on? Seven months after Jessica vanished, mushroom hunters were in a remote rural area of Cass County, Missouri, when they discovered a human skull. As police made a thorough search, they found a second set of remains, a lot older than the first.
Tragically, one set of remains was identified as Jessica. And then, months later, it was confirmed that the other was Kara.
They had both been found nine miles from Kara’s school and just metres away from each other.
And there was one terrible connection – the last man they both saw before they died.
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In October 2017, Yust was charged with two counts of first-degree murder. While awaiting his trial, Jessep, who was due to be a key witness, was arrested over new arson charges and took his own life in prison in 2018.
Yust finally faced a jury this year, after pleading not guilty.
The prosecution said that Yust had likely killed both Kara and Jessica with his bare hands before dumping them both in “his spot” – and that he had done it because they had rejected him.
“When Kara tried to end her relationship with Yust because of abuse, Yust said, ‘If I can’t have her, nobody can’,” the prosecution said. “Yust murdered Jessica with deliberation, same as he did Kara – because no one else can have Jessica, either.”
Yust was called an “obsessive, jealous, pathetic” man who could not accept that both victims had stood up to him. But the defence said there was no physical evidence connecting him to either of the killings.
Yust took the stand to testify and tried to lay the blame on his dead half-brother. “I didn’t do anything to either of them,” he said.
The prosecution said he must be the “most unlucky guy in the world” to have two of his former girlfriends go missing. “Anyone who has a brother who is a serial killer is unlucky,” Yust replied.
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But there were plenty of witnesses lined up to discredit him.
A former girlfriend, who had dated Yust when she was 17, said they moved in together and their relationship was violent.
She said in July 2011, Yust was drunk and he had put his hands around her throat when she tried to pack her bags and leave him.
As he strangled her, he’d allegedly said, “I have killed other ex-girlfriends in jealousy. I will kill you before you can let another scream out of your throat.”
Another ex, who had suffered violence at his hands, had worn a recording device for the FBI which captured Yust saying that Kara had refused to get in his car the day she vanished, so he’d grabbed her by the hair and forced her in.
Another had heard Yust say that he’d killed Kara because “she didn’t love him” and he “didn’t want anyone else to have her”.
In closing arguments, the defence said “talk is cheap” when they referred to Yust’s supposed confessions and insisted there was no evidence to connect him with the deaths.
The prosecution set a timer to how long it takes to strangle someone to death and asked the jury to think about Kara and Jessica as the clock ticked down. “Those two girls didn’t know each other in life but they will be united forever together in death,” they said.
In April this year, the jury found Yust not guilty of first-degree murder but guilty of manslaughter for Kara’s death and second-degree murder for Jessica’s death.
In June, Yust faced sentencing. Kara’s mum, Rhonda Beckford, expressed her disappointment that her daughter’s killer hadn’t been found guilty of first-degree murder.
“I don’t really feel that justice was served as far as Kara’s concerned,” she said. “I’m so sorry, Kara. I tried.”
She described Kara as a “bright and shining light snuffed out too soon” and added that she was convinced Yust would kill again if he was given the chance.
Yust, 32, got the maximum 15 years for voluntary manslaughter and life for second-degree murder. In Missouri, a life sentence is capped at 30 years, so his terms will run consecutively for a total of 45 years.
Yust continues to deny his guilt, demonstrating an utter lack of remorse. He appeared to have got away with killing once so he thought he could do it again – but his victims were united in death and together, they finally put him behind bars.
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