On this day twenty-one years ago – February 10, 1996 – Dave and Mary Neese gave birth to a beautiful and healthy baby girl. They named her Skylar; a name which was suggested by a patient at the doctor’s office where Mary worked.
“The first time I held her, I was like, wow. How did we make something so beautiful?” Dave recalls of his daughter’s birth. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to spoil the hell out of you.'”
“She loved spending time with her friends, bowling, and fishing – as long as Dad put the worms on the hook,” Mary remembers of her daughter’s later years. “Everything embarrassed her. Skylar was actually very shy and did not like attention.”
It was this personality trait, Mary says, that convinced her to put Skylar’s picture on a billboard in Star City when she first went missing. “I told Dave yes; we had to do it because when she saw it, she would get her butt home to yell and scream at us to take it down and take it down now.”
Today, Skylar’s ashes lay inside a picture frame that surrounds two photos of her: one as an infant; the other, a school photo that was printed on the flyers that were posted around Star City, West Virginia when Skylar went missing on July 6, 2012. Tucked in the frame alongside them is a single white feather from the dove Dave and Mary released at the location where Skylar’s body was eventually found. They celebrate her birthday without her, as they have for the past five years, since that hot midsummer night when Skylar vanished into the darkness after sneaking out with her two best friends, Shelia Eddy and Rachel Shoaf. Her disappearance made international news when Rachel confessed their involvement and led the police to Skylar’s remains.
The site the police were brought to, located just over twenty miles away in Pennsylvania, has since become a large memorial to the sixteen-year-old. Purple stones, crosses, and other mementos cover the area by the trees where her body was hidden underneath branches by her killers. To some it is a place of peace, where people come in reverence to reflect upon their lost friend. To others, it is much more painful.
“When people go and say it is peaceful and calming, I understand what they’re saying,” Mary explains, “but when I go, I am seeing her fighting for her life and running only to be tackled and stabbed repeatedly while she is asking why. I just cannot get past it, so I don’t visit as often as I feel I should.”
What would cause two seemingly normal and happy teenage girls to brutally stab their best friend to death that night? Theories abound, although the only known motive on record is that the girls “didn’t like her anymore.” While the truth may never be fully revealed, what is known is that these girls felt one day that they had the right to take someone else’s life. They plotted the murder together; from the necessary weapons and cleaning products they would need, to the verbal signal they would use (counting to three), to their carefully choreographed alibis. One of the girls helped Dave and Mary pass out the flyers, and even came over and cried with them. The other went to church camp.
Although Skylar’s life was abruptly ended at the hands of evil, her life was so much more than her death alone – as vicious as it was. Looking through photos and home videos, the joy in Skylar’s life is almost palpable. One can hear the sheer bliss in her giggles and see the light in her eyes. She loved – and was loved – a tremendous amount in her sixteen years on earth.
Among the many things she was known for during her life, Skylar was caring. “She always fought for the underdog and cared about other people’s feelings,” Mary remembers. “She loved spending time with her friends.”
Dave describes the I-love-you’s Skylar would tell them every day. “I miss that and her smile.”
Had her life not been cruelly taken away, Skylar would be finishing her third year at West Virginia University as a Criminal Justice major, helping accomplish her dreams of becoming a criminal lawyer. Always a star student, it’s likely she would have joined the department’s Honor Society. On this day, she would probably be mapping out a plan for an evening of celebration.
“I can guarantee Skylar would be out with her friends on her twenty-first birthday,” Mary says, “because she was legal and could do it.”
While Skylar is physically gone, her spirit and legacy both remain – specifically in the form of a law enacted in her memory that expands the previous Amber Alert requirements. Because Skylar was considered a runaway after being seen on a security tape getting into a vehicle at her own free will, an Amber Alert was not issued. “Skylar’s Law” now calls for immediate action for any child – no matter the circumstances.
So even though Skylar was unable to accomplish her dreams of becoming a criminal lawyer, she is still able to take care of others from beyond this earth – to fight for the underdog – which is, in a sense, her invaluable and selfless birthday gift to us.