By Olivia LaVoice
Sitting here thinking about this story, seven months after I first began my reporting, it’s difficult to go back to the time when I knew nothing about Kathleen Heisey other than she had been murdered and it was still unsolved.
My reporting began in April 2016 when we launched the 17 News Homicide Tracker.
We knew homicide was a huge, and growing, problem in Kern County. There were plenty of stories about crime. But News Director Michael Trihey didn’t think there were enough stories about victims.
The Homicide Tracker was conceived with one idea: Trihey’s belief that every victim has a story.
I wasn’t assigned the main story, but Trihey assigned me a sidebar – a look at the victims of unsolved homicides.
I wanted to cover a handful of unsolved cases and have one be an older case – a cold case.
But which one?
Trihey asked me if I had ever heard about Kathleen Heisey’s killing. He told me what he and most people in Kern know about her and the case: She was the principal of an elementary school and the murder was apparently so horrific and gruesome that the paramedics who responded to the 911 call were traumatized.
He printed out the latest KGET story about the case from 2008.
It held no more information on the crime than what he had just told me, but it was the first time I saw her photo, her sitting in her garden with her two children, Timm and Lisa. I looked at that picture and wanted to know why someone decided to kill the mother of these two children in such a manner that her legacy would inevitably be linked to the horrendousness of the crime.
With any murder, especially one 18 years old, the hardest part is getting started.
How to track down family and friends and then convince them to open up to you, a complete stranger who hunted them down to pry into their lives.
The first person I was able to find was Kathleen’s lifelong friend, Lynn Runyan.
Lynn was very surprised to hear from me. She said she had repeatedly tried to get a reporter to cover the case in previous years but had no luck.
Lynn loved Kathleen like a sister. It was Lynn who found the grisly crime scene on July 1, 1998.
To this day Lynn says she’s never been able to discuss the horrors of what she saw, not even to her therapist. But she was very open about the fact that Kathleen’s murder changed her entire life in many ways.
The same day I spoke to Lynn, I got a hold of the now-retired detective, Kevin Legg, who was first assigned the case.
The details of the crime he shared with me were so shocking, I immediately knew this was a case I would never be able to forget.
Legg certainly hadn’t forgotten, not even close. It was clear this case still haunts him.
When I first spoke with Kathleen’s children, now adults with children of their own, both were living in Washington state.
What they told me was compelling, shocking, and at times seemed unbelievable. Within days of looking into the case, I realized it was much more complex than I could’ve ever imagined.
It was April. This story was supposed to be three minutes long and run in May.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that wasn’t going to happen.
This story just continued to grow.
The sheer horror of what was done to Kathleen is enough to keep anyone up at night wondering who could’ve done this. But when you really get an understanding for who she was, it hits you so much harder.
Every time someone is interviewed about a lost loved one, it is painful, and important to that person that their loved one be remembered for how loved they were.
That was no exception with Kathleen. And with all stories on victims of tragedy, the reporter doesn’t get to see first-hand just how loved that person was. This case is the exception.
I initially tried to keep a list of every person who told me a personal story about something Kathleen did for them that they’ll never forget. But the number eventually got too big to track.
I found myself walking into rooms with over 40 people, and every person had something different to say about why Kathleen was special.
Literally hundreds of people have told me what she meant to them, and how badly she and the people who love her need justice.
Students who were too young to understand death, especially murder, now grown, told me how much losing Kathleen affected their childhood. They told me how different she was from any other adults in their lives.
Some students told me they went to school early every day just so they could sit in her office and spend time with her before class.
One former student spoke at her funeral in 1998 and said Kathleen got her off of drugs, out of a gang, and saved her life during a time she contemplated suicide.
And before her name was printed over and over after her murder, she was praised in The Bakersfield Californian for evacuating her 700 students during a serious flood.
Former students told me they remember her picking them up and making her way through the rising water to hand the child to their parent safely across the road.
Over time, it became glaringly clear that Kathleen’s murder affects entire communities in Kern County.
Her murder being unsolved affects more people than I could’ve ever imagined. It’s a case that cannot be ignored once you understand what was taken away from so many people on July 1, 1998.
When people ask me now, “why this case?” I still don’t have a clear, concise answer.
The best I can explain it is, there are so many people whose lives never will be the same after losing Kathleen.
All they want, all they ask for, is answers.
They want to grieve Kathleen’s death and remember her for the reasons why they love her.
Kathleen’s murder remaining unsolved has been a roadblock, making it all the more difficult to accept that she’s gone.
Kathleen deserves justice. There’s simply no other way to put it.