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Classmates remember murder victim Rowan Ford on graduation night

(KY3)
Published: May. 9, 2016 at 10:07 PM CDT
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It was graduation night on Monday at East Newton High School, and 115 students earned their right to walk. Their footsteps, though, didn't take them to the finish line; rather, to the beginning of all the possibilities that stretch ahead.

At end the of one long row of seats where seniors perched during the evening's pomp and circumstance, there were two empty chairs-- save for a cap and gown draped over each seat. One was for a girl who passed away her sophomore year; the other for a little girl whose life was also cut too short at the tender age of 9.

"Rowan is here," cried Todd Holt, Rowan Ford's fourth-grade teacher. "There's no doubt in my mind."

She may not have been there in body, but Rowan was all around in the little ways in which she was remembered by those who loved her. "That ribbon in there on her chair was at our eighth-grade promotion, and they brought it all the way up there," explained classmate Dylan Keeling. "It''s been with us this whole journey."

Their journey began in the fourth grade when Rowan was snatched from her bed at home in Stella, Missouri. Her classmates, teachers, and loved ones held onto hope that she would be found safe and unharmed. Rowan was found. One week after she disappeared in November 2007, her lifeless body was discovered at the bottom of a dark sinkhole that opened up into a cave; she had been kidnapped by a family friend, raped and strangled. For her friends and teachers, school was never the same.

"We've all had a long 8 years," said Holt. "From that moment so long ago to right now, we always told the kids if they stayed together they could do it."

They did do it. On this night of celebration, they honored their beloved friend by placing a vibrant purple ribbon, Rowan's favorite color, on top of her unfilled graduation gown, they handed out white carnations with the tips dipped in light purple to every senior, and they had a diploma with Rowan's name etched on the paper.

Nearly a decade after the nightmare unfolded, her fourth grade teacher is still haunted by thoughts of what Rowan could have done with her life had she lived, Holt wondered, "Where would Rowan be? What would she be doing now?"

In 2012, Christopher Collings was sentenced to death after he was found guilty of raping and murdering Rowan. David Spears, Rowan's stepfather, was sentenced to 11 years in prison after pleading guilty to endangering a child and hindering prosecution.

The other student who was remembered on Monday evening was Katie Heilig; she died of a sudden unexpected medical issue in 2014, according to her mother.