By BARBARA RODRIGUEZ
DAYTON, Iowa — Members of a small central Iowa city and its surrounding communities expressed sadness and said they felt “robbed of some innocence” on Saturday following the discovery of a body in a river believed to be that of a 15-year-old girl who was abducted more than two weeks ago.
Along streets and businesses in Dayton, about 60 miles north of Des Moines, purple ribbons were neatly tied on trees, blooming flower pots and utility poles. One large sign near a grocery store on the city’s main street read, “PRAY FOR KATHLYNN.”
It all signified hope for finding Kathlynn Shepard alive.
But investigators are confident that the body a fisherman found Friday night in the Des Moines River under a bridge near Boone is that of the high school freshman, who was abducted on May 20 along with a 12-year-old girl who later escaped and found help.
“Everyone is full of sadness,” said Mary Housken, 45, a utility secretary from nearby Duncombe. “We’re glad she’s home, but there was a glimmer of hope the circumstances would be different.”
An autopsy was completed Saturday and a positive identification is pending. Gerard Meyers, assistant director of field operators for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, said authorities are confident it’s Kathlynn because the clothes on the body matched what the girl was wearing the day she was taken. Authorities also found zip ties that matched those used to restrain the younger girl who escaped.
“The positive identification will be the final trigger for not only the family but the community, our investigative personnel, our partner agencies … to move into that next phase, which is really the closure phase of this very unfortunate circumstance.”
Authorities believe Michael Klunder, a registered sex offender who has since killed himself, approached the girls after they got off their school bus in Dayton and asked if they wanted to earn money mowing lawns. Klunder is suspected of taking them several miles away to the hog confinement facility where he worked. That’s where the younger girl managed to flee through the woods and eventually found some farmers and called 911.
Authorities found Klunder dead hours later at another rural property. They say the 42-year-old hanged himself.
Joni Reiling, 39, of Dayton, said residents had a mix of emotions with the news, especially the hundreds of officers and volunteers who searched 220 square miles in three counties for Kathlynn.
“It’s a small community and we’re hurting,” she said. “You’re scared, you’re angry, you’re sad.”
Hopes of finding Kathlynn alive were slightly dampened early in the search, when testing confirmed that blood found on Klunder’s truck and at the hog building was Kathlynn’s.
“We were robbed of some innocence in this whole thing,” said Webster County Sheriff James Stubbs. “We’ll never quite be the same. Hopefully time will heal some of those wounds, but the awareness is a lot higher than it was before.”
Emily Jensen, a stay-at-home mom from nearby Manson, said her family has been praying daily for Kathlynn’s safe return. Now she and her husband are unsure how to talk to their three young daughters about what’s happened. She also noted a loss of innocence by having to warn her kids about strangers.
“This is a safe community,” the 27-year-old said. “This kind of thing should not happen. It’s unfathomable.”
Klunder was released from prison in 2011 after serving 20 years for convictions in two separate kidnappings in Iowa that occurred on back-to-back days in December 1991. In the first, police said he lured a woman on a highway near Mason City out of her vehicle and tried to assault her. In the second, he snatched two 3-year-old toddlers from a Charles City apartment complex. They were found alive hours later in a secluded garbage bin 50 miles away.
Police also continue to investigate whether Klunder is responsible for the kidnapping and slaying of Lyric Cook and Elizabeth Collins, two young cousins who vanished last July while riding bikes in Evansdale, about 90 miles from Dayton. The bodies of the girls, who were 10 and 8 years old when they vanished, were found in December in a wooded area in Bremer County, where Klunder once lived in a home for emotionally troubled youth.