At a lonely vigil for murdered children, a longing for hope

October 22, 2023 3:33 am
Shawn Stauffer, 16, lights a candle

Shawn Stauffer, 16, lights a candle at a vigil organized by his stepmother, Ali, on Tuesday night in downtown Topeka. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

Every death diminishes a community, but the violent death of a child tears at the collective fabric of who we are. In Topeka, four children, ages 5 to 17, have been murdered this month, leaving a shared sense of grief and self-searching about what went so wrong that the most innocent of victims paid the ultimate price.

That painful examination of the frayed edges of the societal wound showed in the moist eyes of a handful of Topeka residents who came out on a recent chilly evening to attend a candlelight vigil in downtown Topeka to remember the child victims. There was never more than 20 or so individuals at Evergy Plaza on Tuesday night, but those attending seemed to bear the weight of the community.

The event was organized by Ali Stauffer.

“I put this together myself,” she told me. “I’ve never done anything like this before. I just wanted to find something to do for the families. I knew they were probably hurting a lot. They need to know that they’re supported, that there’s other people who care about them, and that they’re not alone.”

Stauffer said she didn’t know the families personally and hadn’t spoken to any city officials about the murders. If she had a chance to talk to any of the parents, she said, she would offer to listen and learn about the lives of their children.

Residents gather for a candlelight vigil Tuesday night at Evergy Plaza
Residents gather for a candlelight vigil Tuesday night at Evergy Plaza in downtown Topeka to remember the city’s child victims of homicide. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)


A grim record

A new homicide record was set Friday in Topeka, when 35-year-old Trevon Praylow became the city’s 32nd homicide victim of the year. He was found shot to death in the 1600 block of S.W. Fillmore, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

The previous record for a calendar year was 30, in 2017.

Praylow’s’s death was the latest in a string of homicides, including some that came nearly every day for a week.

On Oct 15, 23-year-old Jackson E. Danner was found shot dead south of Washburn University. The day before, a 4-year-old girl, Lawrencia Perez-Belair, was fatally shot in northeast Topeka. Her mother was charged with her death.

On Oct. 13, Damayah Calhoun was dropped off at a Topeka hospital with a fatal wound. Police, who have made no arrests, believe the crime scene was in the 600 block of S.E. Lawrence. She was 17.

Just days before, Oct. 10, a student at Topeka Virtual School, Victor Carlton, was shot to death in southeast Topeka. He was 17. Three teens have been charged in his death.

The month kicked off with what may be the most horrific of child murders in recent memory, the case of 5-year-old Zoey Felix. It is the policy of the Kansas Reflector to avoid naming the victims of sexual assault, but an exception is being made in Zoey’s case. There is a compelling argument that not using her name would perpetuate the anonymity that allowed her fatal victimization.

Zoey was found Oct. 2 near the gasoline pumps at the Dillons grocery on 29th Street, where fire paramedics were unable to revive her. Authorities say she was raped, probably in a wooded area near the grocery where she had been living in a homeless camp with her father. She had recently left her mother’s house in a nearby neighborhood, where the power and water had been shut off by electric utility Evergy and the city, respectively, in September.

The Kansas Department of Children and Families reported receiving at least nine complaints about Zoey’s living conditions and unsupervised state in the year before her death. The family reportedly declined an offer of DCF services, according to the department.

A family acquaintance, a 25-year-old unhoused man named Mickel Cherry, has been charged with capital murder in her death. Authorities have not yet revealed the nature of her fatal injuries, and a judge has sealed the probable cause affidavit in the case.

Zoey is among the 10 children who were victims of homicide in 2023. That means that of the 32 victims so far, nearly 1 in 3 were children, an alarming statistic.

Candles at a vigil for the child victims of homicide
Candles at a vigil for the child victims of homicide sit out on Oct. 17 in downtown Topeka. Of 31 homicide victims for far this year in the city, 10 were children. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)


Broken windows and bad weather

Nationwide, children and teenagers make up 28% of homicide victims, according to the FBI’s most recent reporting. But that percentage isn’t a good comparison to our child murder rate because it includes 18- and 19-year-olds, who are considered adults. Topeka’s child death rate for the year is high, and while each death is undeniably tragic, the figures may yet prove a statistical anomaly.

While violent crime has experienced a bump since 2020, overall it is still far lower than its peak in the early 1990s, according to the FBI. The rate of all violent crime nationally is about half of what was reported in 1992. The relatively low rates of violent crime in the past 30 years are probably making the spikes we’re experiencing now feel worse, but of course statistics do little to comfort the families of the victims.

Experts are unsure why the crime rate has remained relatively low in the past three decades, although there are lots of theories. These largely unproven notions range from a lower rate of unwanted children after Roe vs. Wade to the end of exposure to leaded gasoline to increased policing and “broken windows” reform. Other theories tie the homicide rate — and aggressive behavior in general — to weather patterns. Some may suggest that being tough on crime is working, but if that were so the United States — with the highest prison population of any country — would be the safest place on earth.

For the record, the safest country is Iceland.

Tricia Waggoner (left) shares a candle flame with Katherine Peters
Tricia Waggoner (left) shares a candle flame with Katherine Peters at a vigil Tuesday night in downtown Topeka. Four children are among the victims of the city’s record-breaking 31 homicides so far this year. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)


Living rough

The truth is that nobody knows why the violent crime rate bottomed out in 2014 or why it has risen since. In Topeka, there are specific problems residents worry about — particularly the growing unsheltered population — and this at first glance seems to have contributed to Zoey Felix’s death. But if Cherry, who is accused in Zoey’s death, is indeed guilty, then it sadly fits the FBI’s statistics that most victims are murdered by someone they know.

Zoey’s death appears to be the result of failures by multiple systems that should have prevented her from being kicked out of her home and living in a homeless camp where she was easy prey for a predator. There should have been safeguards that prevented utilities being cut off to a home where children were present, DCF could have been more resourceful in providing help, law enforcement might have gotten involved earlier. About the only advocates Zoey had were neighbors who sometimes fed and bathed her and relayed their concerns to authorities.

It is unimaginable to most that parents would allow their child to be uncared for, unsupervised and eventually forced into living rough, but that is just what appears to have happened in Zoey’s case. By refusing DCF’s offer of help, they appear to have sealed the 5-year-old’s fate. While we desperately want to have sympathy for the parents of a murdered child, the truth is that some people are simply unsuited to be parents.

This is why I am so uncomfortable about the drumbeat of “parental rights” heard so often today. Some parents are a danger to their children and should have their rights taken away, but the current political climate favors an ever-increasing loosening of societal checks and balances. In Kansas, parents can opt out of sending their children to public school by filing a form with the State Board of Education. Home school registrations skyrocketed in Kansas following the pandemic, with thousands of families deciding to keep their kids at home. But for some children, contact with teachers at public schools may be their only source of help when in crisis.

Zoey had been a preschool student last year at Shaner Early Learning Academy, part of the Topeka public school system, but she did not finish out the year. She was not currently a student at any Topeka school, officials said in a statement.

Tricia Waggoner, Tricie Young and Katherine Peters (from left), attend a candlelight vigil
Tricia Waggoner, Tricie Young and Katherine Peters (from left), attend a candlelight vigil for child homicide victims Tuesday night at Evergy Plaza in downtown Topeka. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)


‘I just go blind’

While the death of Zoey Felix is recent and shocking, there was another case 107 years ago that left the city reeling.

Edna Dinsmore was 9 years old when she was lured to a vacant house on S.W. Fifth Street by a family acquaintance who gave her candy and promised to buy her the books she needed for school. The acquaintance, Fred Bissell, tied the girl up and “maltreated” her, according to the April 26, 1916, issue of the Topeka State Journal.

Bissell then set fire to the vacant house while Dinsmore was still alive. Firefighters found Edna but were unable to resuscitate her. Bissell was caught shortly after, confessed to the crime (but claimed he didn’t remember the exact nature of his mistreatment of Edna), and had to be moved to a jail in Lawrence to prevent his lynching by a mob of 4,000. Bissell was sentenced to life and later died in prison.

It is, thankfully, a mystery to most people why some individuals commit such horrendous acts on children. In my career as a journalist, I could emotionally handle the grimmest of murder cases — except for those involving children, the details of which still haunt me.

A little more than 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to ask a serial killer of children and others point-blank about what motivated him. I interviewed Tommy Lynn Sells on death row in Texas, where he was awaiting execution for the 1999 sexual assault and murder of 13-year-old Katy Harris of Del Rio. He was believed by the Texas Rangers to have committed at least 21 other killings.

Sells wouldn’t say why he committed such horrific crimes, other than to blame it on a cycle of abuse and neglect that began with his own childhood. As for details of the crimes, he said he didn’t remember,

“I just go blind,” he told me.

Sells was executed by lethal injection in 2014, taking many of his monstrous secrets with him.

Organizer Ali Stauffer holds a candle
Organizer Ali Stauffer holds a candle at a vigil Tuesday night in downtown Topeka. Stauffer said she organized the vigil as a way to support the families of child victims of homicide in the city. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)


‘More officers’

At the candlelight vigil, some of those who attended expressed concern about the increase in homicides and what appeared to be a lack of communication from police and other city authorities.

“It’s really, really sad,” said Tricia Waggoner. “This affects us. I mean, it’s getting to the point where it’s touched so many families. You get up in the morning and you’re scared to look at the news and you’re wondering, you know, when will it stop?”

Waggoner said she would like to hear more from city officials about what they were feeling and what plans they had to address the killings.

City Councilman Brett Daniel Kell said he was driving by on Kansas Avenue when he spotted the vigil and decided to stop and see what was going on. He spent several minutes speaking to the organizer, Stauffer.

“I’m going to push for changes,” Kell said. “I’m going to push as hard as I can to make sure our kids in Topeka are safe.”

When asked what is the one thing he would do immediately, if it were in his power, he said: “more (police) officers.”

Kell said he had such a difficult time emotionally with the latest round of killings that he called the Veterans Crisis Line for help. Kell is a Navy veteran and a former activities specialist for Lansing Correctional Facility.

Organizer Ali Stauffer talks with Topeka City Councilman Brett Daniel Kell
Organizer Ali Stauffer talks with Topeka City Councilman Brett Daniel Kell at a candlelight vigil Tuesday night for the child victims of homicide. Kell said if there was one thing he could do in response to the city’s record number of homicides, it would be to put more police officers on the street. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)


A contagion

While more police may be part of the answer, I don’t know that it would immediately change the trajectory of murders in Topeka. It seems we are experiencing a cyclical trend made worse by the unraveling of many of the societal guardrails we took for granted just a few years ago. Topeka, like other communities, has been stressed by the pandemic and sharp partisan division, gang violence, and a growing unhoused population. People are more isolated from one another than at any time in recent memory, loneliness is at epidemic proportions, and aggression — whether driven by politics or weather — has spread like a contagion. Everybody seems angry, especially when they’re behind the wheel.

I have no answers, but I do have a couple of thoughts.

What is overwhelmingly clear from the statistics is that most murders, approximately eight in 10, are committed with a handgun or other firearm, according the Pew Research Center in an analysis of 2021 data from the Centers for Disease Control.

One sure way to reduce gun deaths is to limit access to guns, but that is unlikely to happen, considering the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association and the Wild West mentality that has gripped lawmakers in Kansas and other red states. But then, even the Wild West had stricter gun control laws than we do know; in Dodge City’s 1870s heyday, firearms were prohibited in the city limits.

My other thought?

We must rebuild a sense of community.

While the turnout at the candlelight vigil was modest, it was a start. A dozen or more flickering tongues of flame in the dark, small beacons that proclaimed a desire for a solution, points of light that said all children and every victim of violence matters. We must carefully tend these fires of compassion, pass them from neighbor to neighbor and town to town, and remain hopeful even when faced with what we don’t understand.

Otherwise, we’ll remain in the dark forever.

If Zoey’s memory means anything, we cannot let that happen.

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category.