Teen’s harrowing abduction story a hoax
Family says 'overachiever' student was under pressure
INDEPENDENCE, KAN. ? First Kelsey Stelting made a 911 call, sounding scared, saying she’d been kidnapped at gunpoint from her family’s driveway. Hours later, when she reappeared, she said she’d brained her assailant with a glass and escaped.
The 16-year-old high school junior is an honor student, a softball player, a dance team member and an aspiring musical actress. Her story seemed authentic to many people in this town of 9,400 about 20 miles from the Oklahoma border because, they said, she wasn’t the type of girl who would perpetrate a hoax.
Yet she did, the police and FBI said Thursday.
Her hoax had local and state law enforcement officers, along with 40 FBI agents and support personnel, looking for signs of the white man who supposedly abducted her and the white van he supposedly used.
Police and the FBI suspected early that she was lying, and she acknowledged Thursday morning that she’d fabricated her story, two days after she reported being kidnapped. Her family found out shortly after the girl’s last round of questioning.
Authorities wouldn’t say Thursday why she did it. The family, speaking through a spokesman, Tim Valentine, suggested only that she felt under pressure and asked for privacy.
“Kelsey wants everyone to know that she didn’t do this for attention,” Valentine told reporters who gathered on the street near the girl’s home. “She’s a bright and talented overachiever. Parents need to remember that it’s difficult for our kids to maintain that expectation of perfection.”
While federal criminal charges aren’t foreseen, the girl could be prosecuted in juvenile court for filing a false police report. An adult facing that misdemeanor charge could be sentenced to a year in jail and fined up to $2,500
News of her disappearance early Tuesday led Independence residents to paper the area with posters and fliers containing her picture, and at least two churches held prayer vigils. Then, more than 16 hours after she had disappeared, dozens of her friends and relatives gathered on her street, jumping up and down in excitement, hugging each other in joy when they heard she had made it home safe.
For at least a few Independence residents, the joy turned to anger Thursday.
“It’s kind of aggravating,” said Heidi Sorah, a 19-year-old Independence Community College student who lives near the family. “Our town worked really hard and was worried.”
She added: “We just didn’t think she would be that way, I guess.”
In her 911 call, Stelting said a man with a gun had approached her from behind in the driveway of her home about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, forced her to run several blocks as he followed, then forced her into a white van sitting in front of a lumber yard.
She told the police he was driving the van and she didn’t know where she was. Authorities traced the call to a cellular tower about 10 miles south of town but lost contact with her, speculating that her assailant took the phone from her.
“To me it sounded like there was distress there as well, and that was the initial indication that she had been kidnapped, besides just the call itself – the tone of her voice,” said FBI Special Agent Jeff Lanza. “Sometimes tones can fool you, and I guess that was the case here.”
Somehow, the girl’s story went, she ended up Tuesday night in a wooded area behind three baseball-softball diamonds, less than a mile from her home. She said she hit the man with a glass, which gave her enough time to run up the street to the front door of a nearby two-story red brick house. The family inside assumed the assailant still could be nearby.
On Thursday, authorities said the athletic girl jogged to a rural area southwest of Independence and made the call and stayed in the country all 16 hours.
Asked why, police Chief Lee Bynum said during a news conference, “That’s between her, her family. You’re asking us to make medical terminology that I’m not even going to touch at this point.”
There were nagging questions from almost the beginning. Officers and agents went over the ground she said she’d traveled before being forced into the white van and found nothing. They never released a detailed description of a suspect, or a drawing. They never found a van.
They kept interviewing Stelting. They also interviewed dozens of her classmates, even while acknowledging none was involved.
“Pretty early on, things weren’t adding up in terms of her story,” Lanza said. “If you have not one minor, even minor, small piece of evidence that corroborates a story, then you have a problem with the story. And we couldn’t find anything at all that corroborated her story.”
When the girl admitted fabricating the story, Bynum said, “It was not a surprise to me.”
By that time, satellite trucks and television news crews from Wichita, Kansas City, Mo., and Tulsa, Okla., were camped out in her neighborhood. The trucks annoyed some residents with their engine noise and diesel fumes.
Reporters asked Bynum and Lanza all day Wednesday whether the story was a hoax. The two wouldn’t rule out the possibility, but said they were also investigating the case as a kidnapping.
“Every single one of us will tell you that Kelsey’s a very forthright young woman,” Stelting’s mother, Kelly Cox, said Wednesday. “If you listen to that 911 call, and I think if you’re a mom or a dad, I think you hear in her voice the trauma, that she is afraid.”
On Thursday, Valentine told reporters that the girl had made her mistakes “under the glare of the spotlight.” He didn’t take questions after reading his statement.
“You know that this Sunday is Easter, a time of grace, compassion and forgiveness,” he said. “The family asks for your continued prayers and support through this difficult time.”