Police had been searching for Kaydance Potter for more than three weeks when a car she was driving careened down Superior Street in the early morning hours of April 26, hit a curb, veered across lanes, onto the grass and smashed into a pole.
Officers arrived at the scene near 48th and Superior streets shortly after 4 a.m. and found the driver’s side of the vehicle sheared off, the roof in pieces. Potter, 14, was inside, already dead from the violent crash.
A number of questions remain unanswered: How did she end up behind the wheel of the Honda Civic stolen 11 days earlier from a driveway near 27th and Old Cheney? Why was she with Kaleb Q. Hedges, 19, who escaped the crash with minor injuries? And where had she been since she was reported missing March 26 from the home where she was staying with her grandmother?
Officer Luke Bonkiewicz said Lincoln police had tried unsuccessfully since March 26 to find her.
They checked social media, talked with family and friends, and went to at least seven or eight places based on tips about her whereabouts, including one location on April 25 — the night before the crash.
Cindy Donald, Potter's step-grandmother, said she came to Lincoln from her home in Minnesota on April 19 to help in the search. She learned from friends where Potter was on April 25 and shared it with police.
She said family members don’t know who Hedges is or why Potter was with him that night.
Eva Bobeck, the paternal grandmother with whom Potter and her younger brother had been living, said she had run away at least twice since the state had placed her at her home and when she was in foster care.
Police wouldn't say what other dates Potter had been reported missing, in part because they continue to investigate.
But one thing is clear: The crash followed months of upheaval in the girl’s life, which court records document beginning in October, when the state took custody of Potter and her older brother and placed them, along with her younger brother, in foster care.
Kaydance and her 17-year-old brother called police on Oct. 23 after their dad, Daniel Potter, allegedly hit her and threw both of them out of the storage shed and garage they’d been living in.
Potter told officers her dad had pulled her out of Lincoln Southeast High School in September because he disapproved of her boyfriend and didn’t want her to have contact with him.
Prosecutors filed a petition in juvenile court detailing the allegations, which included a history of domestic violence between the parents.
Daniel Potter pleaded no contest to the allegations and was sentenced to 60 days in jail on a misdemeanor child abuse charge he began serving March 22.
Raina, his wife and Kaydance's stepmom, pleaded no contest to juvenile court allegations of failing to protect the children. She was jailed on unrelated theft by deception charges on April 14.
When the children were placed in foster care, Kaydance Potter began attending Lincoln High.
In January, the court gave custody of Potter's 17-year-old brother to his biological mother in Minnesota and he left the state.
Less than two months later, the foster care family said they could no longer care for Potter and her younger brother, and on March 6, a judge approved an emergency placement with Bobeck.
Bobeck said her granddaughter was under stress because of all that was going on, and she suffered trauma from being sexually assaulted a few years earlier by a man sentenced to 35 to 40 years in prison for the crime. She’d recently gotten involved with the wrong crowd, Bobeck added.
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“When she came into my care she wasn’t the normal Kaydance,” she told the Journal Star this week.
Bobeck said a burdensome and slow-working child protective system failed her granddaughter. Workers are undertrained and communication is poor to nonexistent, she said.
“Everything I tried was a fight,” she added.
Among the things that angered her: She believes Child Protective Services provided a photo that wasn't her granddaughter for a missing persons poster created after Potter ran away.
Matt Litt, a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman, said the department did an internal review and determined the picture was of Potter.
He said photos can come from family, school pictures, or those taken at a court hearing. He did not say where the photo on the missing persons poster for Potter originated.
Bobeck said CPS didn't provide adequate counseling, and it was a struggle to be able to talk to the kids after they were placed in foster care. She worried they felt abandoned.
She'd offered to move back from Minnesota in October to care for the children but didn't hear back from the child protective worker. That changed when the foster care placement ended, but she still didn't have the necessary authorization to deal with their education needs.
Litt declined to comment further, citing a state law that prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services from discussing specific cases.
Despite the upheaval, so many people loved Potter, Bobeck said.
Her granddaughter loved to read, do crafts with one grandma and “girly-girly” activities with the other, Bobeck said.
She was very close to her younger brother, was outgoing and thought about others, she said.
Miranda Potter, a half-sister who lives in North Dakota, said Potter kept a smile on her face in the worst of circumstances. When she saw her in January, for the first time in a few years, she was still Kaydance.
“She was still smiley. She’s very good at not taking the weight of the situation onto herself, but still understanding the weight of the situation.”
After Potter's death, a friend sent Bobeck a photo of a jar of cookies the girl had made for her after the death of her uncle.
The quote read: Keep your face always to the sunshine and shadows will fall behind you.
“That’s the real Kaydance,” her grandmother said.
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Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.