As Trial Nears, Tragedy Unites Families

By: Cayle Thompson Email
By: Cayle Thompson Email

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Jodi Sanderholm and Kelsey Smith never met, but their tragic deaths have drawn each family together.

By now, Jodi Sanderholm's death is well-known to many in Cowley County. The 19-year-old was kidnapped, raped and killed in January 2007 after leaving dance practice at Cowley College.

Police arrested Justin Thurber days later. Prosecutors charged him with capital murder. Thurber's trial begins Monday morning, and he could face the death penalty if convicted.

Six months after Sanderholm's death, Kelsey Smith vanished as surveillance cameras watched her leave an Overland Park Target store. She was also kidnapped, raped and killed.

Within days, police arrested Edwin Hall, seen on store cameras following Smith to the parking lot. He later admitted to her murder, and is now serving a life sentence without the possibility for parole.

Jodi's older sister, Jennifer Sanderholm, reached out to the Smiths after their loss. Today, she is good friends with Kelsey's older sister, Lindsey Evans.

The two sit together in the Sanderholm's Arkansas City home the night before Thurber's trial begins.

"Nobody can understand what it's like," Sanderholm says. "But I can understand, and she [Lindsey] can understand."

"There are things that you would never have thought would be similar, but they are," says Evans. "It's just a good support system to have a family who's gone through almost the exact same thing."

It is a unique and heartbreaking bond, but one the sisters say is a lifeline. Evan's mother, Missey Smith, will also be in court Monday to show her support.

Both families, touched by tragedy, say they find strength and solidarity in each other.

"Talking with Jennifer, she knew exactly what I was going through," says Evans. "She could relate to everything I was feeling."

Jennifer Sanderholm will be the first witness to take the stand at the start of trial Monday morning. Lindsey Evans will be seated with her family in the crowded courtroom.

"For her to come down here and support me means a lot," Sanderholm says.

The Sanderholms are also dealing with another unfortunate loss. Jodi's grandfather passed away this weekend after a long battle with cancer; just in time to watch the trial with her, they believe.

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