Summer was slowly bleeding into fall in the Midwest. Freshly taped flyers with the face of a nineteen-year-old girl fluttered in the morning breeze around the streets of Northwest Oklahoma City. The metallic squeaking and sputtering of grocery carts sounded through a Homeland store in Bethany, Oklahoma, while two animal welfare workers trudged through the overgrown grass in the field behind. A black Nike bag was just visible through the trees.
It was October 13, 2011. The world beneath the feet of Oklahomans would shift momentarily.
Margie sits cross-legged on a couch in her living room, running her hands through her auburn hair. It has grown out significantly since she’d cut it into a short, spiky style – an “act of defiance,” she’d called it – after her daughter, Carina Saunders, was killed. Carina had long, dark hair that cascaded in waves down past her shoulders; her killers had cut the beautiful tresses from her scalp so only a few inches remained when her body was found.
It has been almost six years since Margie last saw her daughter: Sunday, September 18, 2011. Carina had gone to a rehabilitation facility the month before and seemed to be doing much better.
“She called me up out of the blue and asked to stay the night Saturday,” Margie remembers. “She was going to a friend’s baby shower and asked if she could come to church.” Her voice is light and gentle despite the weight of the grief she carries as she describes her last day with her daughter.
Margie had welcomed Carina over, but had laughed at the notion of her waking early enough for a 9:30 service.
“We’ll see if you get up,” she’d teased.
Carina had surprised her mother, though, and not only accompanied her to the morning service, but also made the decision to give her life to Christ that day as they’d bent their heads in prayer.
“She had this calming peace about her – an aura,” Margie says of her favorite – and final – memory of her daughter. “I hugged her so tight. I didn’t want to let her go.”
Margie has kept the small blue card her daughter had filled out at church as an irreplaceable token from that day. Carina’s delicate, loopy cursive floats across the paper; words confirming her faith in Jesus written merely three weeks before she died.
The days and weeks leading up to Carina’s death only become murkier as they go on, punctured periodically by witness testimonies and court documents. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation is still actively working on the case; occasionally, droplets of previously unreleased details trickle into the news, only for the case to turn silent again.
After Carina had spent the weekend with her mother, she’d spent some time with another female relative before being dropped off at a Taco Bell located at S. Rockwell Avenue and Reno Avenue on September 28, 2011. Court documents allege a man named Kenny Richards said that he picked her up and dropped her off at a Bethany apartment complex that same day.
Keegan, a high school friend of Carina’s, saw her at his apartment complex just over a week later on approximately October 6 or 7. He was living in the Studio 41 apartments at the time, located at N. Macarthur Boulevard and NW 41st Street. He had taken the afternoon off from work, he says, when he left his apartment to buy groceries and saw his high school friend raking gravel near a recently repaired outside staircase.
“She walked up and gave me the biggest hug,” Keegan remembers. “We chatted for a time and she explained to me she was assisting my apartment handyman with repairs as she was living with him and his son.”
He left for the store, and when he returned he and Carina smoked a cigarette near the maintenance van and continued to talk.
“Somewhere amongst the conversation she mentioned how terribly hungry she was,” Keegan says. “I asked her when last she ate, and you can imagine how shocked I was when she very matter-of-factly replied it had been a few days ago. I could never get her to put a number to it as she seemed immensely embarrassed by this.”
He also noticed a flimsy laundry bag filled with random items, and when he inquired about it Carina told him those were her only possessions. “She was trying to make light of the situation, but she was telling me that all she had in the world in that moment was in that laundry bag.”
The two took the conversation to Keegan’s upstairs apartment where he made her two Hot Pockets to eat. They spoke for hours, laughing and reminiscing about their days in high school, until approximately eight o’clock that evening when Carina said she needed to get going. As he watched her gather her things into her laundry bag, Keegan pulled a green duffel bag from his closet and gave it to her.
“I told her perhaps it would be a bit more organized and sturdy, and to please take it as I did not need it anymore,” he recalls. “You would have thought I had given her pure gold. She gave me the tightest, sweetest hug for it.”
Keegan remembers seeing her once more around the apartments a day or two later before hearing that her body had been found in a duffel bag behind the Homeland down the street.
“It wasn’t the same one she was found in. I made sure to ask [the detectives]. I described the bag very carefully to make sure.”
According to court documents, the relative who had dropped Carina off on September 28 began receiving threatening text messages from a man named Kyle Savage on Sunday, October 9 – eleven days after she had last seen Carina and approximately two to three days after Brian had interacted with her. Savage – who alleges he thought he was conversing with a man – texted the relative: “I’m going to bury you next to Carina.” Savage claims he didn’t mean anything by the threat, nor was aware of its highly suspicious timing.
These threats gave great cause for concern to both the relative and to Margie, who realized she hadn’t seen any activity on her daughter’s Facebook in awhile.
“Facebook was the main way we stayed in contact,” Margie remembers. “I would see her post or comment on something, and I knew she was okay.” Carina didn’t own a cell phone, so social media was her primary form of checking in with her mother.
The last post Carina had made on Facebook was dated September 28, 2011. “Whats everybody doin tonight” she’d inquired. A week and a half later, there was no activity.
Margie, growing more and more distressed over her daughter’s whereabouts, filed a police report on Monday, October 10. It was Columbus Day, she remembers, so she had the day off from her job with the United States Post Office as a mail carrier. She took her three-year-old son – Carina’s baby brother – with her around Oklahoma City, hanging flyers with her daughter’s face gazing back at her.
While Margie felt deep down that something was off, she still believed Carina would call her up and make a fuss about the posters. “I thought she would walk into a gas station and see a poster and get embarrassed,” Margie remembers. “I really believed that.”
Meanwhile on Facebook, various friends and relatives posted all over Carina’s profile page begging for her to contact them. The page “Carina Come Home” was created to spread news about possible sightings of Carina, as well as her descriptive information and where she was last seen. Keegan’s sighting of her on the 7th was relayed on this page, giving false hope to everyone who read it. Friends and family implored a phone call from Carina, a location, any information so someone could go get her – wherever she might be.
Nobody understood why she wasn’t reaching out to anyone.
“It was that Thursday, at 2:00 p.m.” Margie counts the days on her fingers, quietly recalling the major events of that week. “I was on my mail route and I heard the breaking news on the radio that a body had been found behind the Homeland.”
She had fervently contacted the detective assigned to Carina’s missing person’s case. “I told him a body had been found across the street from where my daughter was living with her boyfriend. I wanted to know if it was her.”
People were already at the Homeland, blocked off by crime scene tape, asking the investigators questions about the body that was found. Talk of a tattoo seen on the body had made its way around, and those who knew Carina were aware she had a distinctive tattoo between her shoulder blades.
The next day – Friday, October 14 – the detective told Margie that the Bethany police were coming to her house to speak with her.
“He told me to stay home, but he wouldn’t tell me why,” she remembers.
The police knocked on her door, and with them was the Bethany Police Department chaplain, Wally Renegar.
Why is the chaplain here? Margie had wondered.
The officers at her door explained she wasn’t the only person they were visiting that day. It appeared to be routine; they did, however, ask for Carina’s dental records.
Margie, who admits she was borderline crazy with fear for her daughter’s safety at that time, asked why she couldn’t go to the Medical Examiner’s office and identify the body herself. She nervously tried to make light of the situation and quip, “It’s not like the body’s dismembered or something.”
The police returned the following Monday, October 17 – a day Margie marks as the beginning of her closer relationship with God. She was sitting on her couch with her sisters and Carina’s father, Richard Saunders, when they broke the horrifying news.
“When they told me she had been dismembered, I screamed.”
While every news station in Oklahoma jumped on the shocking story of a teenaged girl maliciously murdered and dumped behind a grocery store, some – but not all – decided to concentrate not on Carina’s stolen life, but instead on the drug use and the lifestyle she was leading at the time of her death. They dwelled not on the dreams she had, nor on the person she would have grown to become; they disregarded her attempts at sobriety, the way she made friends everywhere she went, and the remarkable talent she had for singing. They ignored the fact that she graduated from high school early, won awards in accounting and even the school spelling bee (three years in a row), her habit of climbing and hugging every tree she came across, or how she constantly made everyone around her laugh. They didn’t comment on how she was an amazing sister, or how she loved her new puppy. The only thing that mattered to certain news stations was that she used drugs and therefore that was a reasonable excuse for her demise.
Carina was much, much more than “the body in the duffel bag.” She was a strikingly beautiful nineteen-year-old with enormous green eyes and dreams of the future. Gifted with both a talent with numbers and an angelic voice, she wanted to be either an accountant or an opera singer.
“She was such a good child,” Margie remembers fondly. “She was so smart…so beautiful. She didn’t get into trouble at school. She was such an engaging, fun-loving, free spirit.”
Carina made friends effortlessly, ever since she was in elementary school. Dozens and dozens of pictures and videos convey the many friendships she made throughout her nineteen years on earth. She was down to earth, intelligent, goofy, and fiercely independent. In middle school and high school she made her closest friends. Countless sleepovers, birthday parties, and afternoons at the park created the most cherished memories. They swapped innumerable amounts of time at each other’s houses, at lunch hours, and during summer breaks.
These friends sat together in a center pew at the Nazarene church where Carina’s memorial service was held. They each clutched a rose in their hands, and afterward gave Margie a scrapbook filled with pictures of their friend they’d lovingly put together after her death.
Margie smiles when she talks about these girls, and how she loved seeing them together. “They were such a good group of friends that she could laugh with.”
“She was always so silly. She would do anything to make me laugh,” remembers Aimiee, who had first met Carina in the eighth grade during a vocal class. Spending nearly every weekend together as teens, they quickly grew to become each other’s best friend. She and Carina shared a lot of firsts together – from experimenting with cigarettes to having boyfriends at the same time. Although they expanded their social circles as they grew older, they treasured the many nights spent together singing, fixing their hair and makeup, and watching scary movies – much to Aimiee’s protest (“They’re not THAT scary,” Carina would maintain).
When Aimiee found out that her friend was missing, she created the “Carina Come Home” Facebook page to rapidly spread information.
“A few days later I saw on the news a body was found in Bethany and I immediately knew it was her. I don’t know why and I didn’t want to believe it.”
The words “Note to self; I miss you terribly” are now tattooed across Aimiee’s forearm as a permanent tribute to her sweet friend and the years of memories they’d shared. They are lyrics to one of their favorite songs by the band From First to Last – a band they spent hours singing along to.
“I think if I never knew Carina I never would’ve had as much fun as I did,” she reminisces. “I love her for not letting me be scared all the time. She helped me stand up for myself and to see that I didn’t have to be like everyone else. To be brave and independent, like her. I don’t want people to forget about her. She was an amazing friend, sister, and daughter. She would’ve done great things.”
Another of Carina’s best friends and Aimiee’s roommate at the time, Brittny, muses over what the future would have been like had this tragedy not occurred.
“It hurts me so much to know my daughter is missing out on meeting one of the people I loved the most from my teens,” she says.
Like Aimiee, Brittny had been close to Carina for years. The girls spent numerous nights sleeping over at each other’s houses, calling boys on the phone late at night, carrying on long conversations about life, and goofing around together. They, too, grew into different social circles and paths of life when they graduated high school, but Carina made sure to stay in contact and call every few months.
“I knew she wasn’t doing the things she set out to do, but we were young and I knew she would find her way eventually. I just knew my place in her life was to give her unconditional love, honest advice and criticism, and laughter to keep her mind off of her stresses,” Brittny remembers. “We talked like there was never a break in communication. I loved that.”
The last time Brittny saw Carina was at their friend’s baby shower on Saturday, September 17, 2011. During the party, they went on a McDonald’s run and talked for a long time about what Carina was doing with her life and her newfound sobriety.
“She asked me if I would go to the Narcotics Anonymous meetings with her and I told her absolutely, as long as I’m not working. I was hoping this would be the beginning of a new life for her,” Brittny recalls. “She expressed several times to me about how much she wanted to be a mother. I hate that someone robbed her and her family of so much joy. She was so smart and her future would have been bright.”
Almost six years have passed, and Brittny still misses her best friend immensely. She believes God put her into her life for a reason, and still dreams of her from time to time.
“Almost every time I get a hug and she’ll tell me, ‘It’s alright, silly! I’m fine!’ It’s one of the most comforting things for me. I miss her more than I can express in words.”
The unshakeable faith Carina’s mother has in God combined with the love she has for her son have carried her for the past six years. Anytime she finds herself under the suffocating weight of sorrow and heartache, God grants her what she refers to as “gifts” – so many that she began writing them all down.
One gift, she recalls, came the night her daughter’s murder had been confirmed. She slept in fitful pieces, waking herself up every fifteen minutes or so by the sound of her own crying.
“I had a dream that night where it was all black, and I heard a disembodied voice saying, “Her killers will be caught.”
The voice was loud and imposing, and she immediately knew it was the voice of God.
Another priceless gift came Monday, May 28, 2012 – Memorial Day. Seven months had passed since Carina’s death, and Margie had taken her three-year-old son to the cemetery to visit her daughter’s headstone.
“He was running around playing, and all of a sudden he stopped and said, ‘Sissy whispered in my ear. She was laughing.’”
Margie asked her son what his sister was doing in Heaven, and he imitated a voice singing.
The most precious gift of all, however, came only a few days before Carina’s body was found. Margie was at the post office and saw a large, brown butterfly on the wall near her desk. She pointed it out to a coworker, but didn’t pay it too much attention.
The butterfly did not leave Margie alone, however. It fluttered down around her feet, demanding to be noticed, to the point where she almost stepped on it by accident.
While thinking nothing of it at the time, Margie looks back and realizes exactly what was going on: Carina was speaking to her.
“She was saying, ‘Look, Mom. I’m here. I’m here and I’m free like a butterfly. I’m in heaven. I’m not missing – I’m okay.’”
Carina’s headstone is a large, exquisitely carved butterfly. It is located near the back of the Mustang Cemetery – over ten miles away from where her body was found. Tiny ceramic angels and a Bible surround the marker, along with other trinkets left by her family and friends.
The Homeland grocery store in Bethany is now remodeled as a Cash Saver. An eight-foot white cross had been lovingly handcrafted by Carina’s stepbrother, Joe, and erected in front of the store as a cenotaph for friends and family to visit and write their messages on. It has since been removed since the store’s renovation, leaving behind not a single trace of the tragedy that occurred there.
The case itself has been taken over by the OSBI from the Bethany Police Department. Over the past six years, several people have been arrested only to have the charges later dropped. Recently released anonymous tips received by the police claim that Kenny Richards, who allegedly picked Carina up from the Taco Bell on September 28, took her to the place she was killed and later buried her clothing in a metal tank in his yard. Excavations performed on the property in April uncovered several items, including a knife, jacket, shirt, and sandals, which are awaiting test results to determine if they are related to Carina’s death.
Various theories about a potential motive behind Carina’s killing have been deliberated as well. The Bethany Police Department initially believed that Carina was tortured and killed in front of a group of women to coerce them into cooperating with a drug and human trafficking ring. However, search warrants reveal that an acquaintance of Carina’s in the final weeks of her life thought that drug dealers had killed her by mistake, thinking that Carina was her own daughter who they had intended to harm.
Whatever the truth may be, there is not a single moderately fathomable explanation that can justify why Carina Saunders died the way that she did. No sense can be made from the fact that a nineteen-year-old girl was ripped away from those who loved her most. There was nothing remotely humane about her death – not that a murder could ever be considered humane. What occurred between October 9 and 10 may remain a mystery for now, but it is only a temporary unknowing compared to the justice and peace that will ultimately prevail.
No Boundaries International, a foundation in Oklahoma that focuses on ministering to victims of prostitution and sex slavery, took special notice to the possible ties Carina’s murder might have had to the local human trafficking problem. Carina’s Closet, a free clothes closet for individuals and families in need, was born shortly after. Clothing, hygiene products, household items, and even toys are offered at the shelter that is open every other Thursday to the public.
“Seventy-five individuals or families are served each week,” Dr. Lori Basey, co-founder of NBI, says of the shelter. “We also have it available for emergencies with women or children in need whenever a crisis arises. Thousands of lives have been impacted in her memory! And lives even saved by the resources we offer at Carina’s Closet.”
Debbie Ashford was a No Boundaries International volunteer who first imagined the concept of a free clothing closet in Carina’s name after hearing of the shocking crime. Like the Bethany Police Department, she theorized that Carina had possibly been groomed for prostitution but decided against it, and was ultimately killed to show other young women what would happen to them if they tried to leave. In late 2012, Debbie felt a calling from God to open the free clothing shelter, and after asking Dr. Basey for assistance, she loaded her Tahoe with donations and got to work.
“God gave me that vision, and NBI enabled that vision to become reality. I chose the name Carina’s Closet in memory of Carina Saunders,” Debbie says.
She recalls seeing prostitutes come in, sometimes with their pimps. They would refuse prayer from the volunteers in the presence of these men, but would slip back inside later and quietly ask for prayer.
“One particular man who had many girls came in often,” Debbie remembers, “and we got to know and talk to him and treat him like he was a person and that we cared for him. This man has since accepted Jesus and turned his life around. This is just an example of the lives that were changed for the good by just a simple free clothes closet – where we required nothing of anyone, but just treated each and every one with respect and dignity and helped them with a few physical items they needed to live.”
For a few years after Carina died, Margie funded a memorial scholarship in her daughter’s name for students at Mustang High School. While the scholarship has currently been postponed, Margie loved it and considered it a joyful blessing to be able to help others.
And every year on July 17, Margie likes to do something special for her daughter’s birthday to bless someone else – whatever God leads her to do. She already has a particular person in mind for this year; someone who helped her immensely at the time of her daughter’s murder.
So while Carina’s family and friends patiently wait for the killers to be caught and for justice to be served, Margie takes care of her son – who is now almost 9 years old – and trusts that she will see her beautiful daughter again one day.
“It makes sense that the butterfly visited me at my workplace,” Margie softly mentions at the end of our conversation. “Butterflies have very short lives. Carina was nineteen – she didn’t live long. We will be with Carina in heaven for much longer than nineteen years.”