Growing up an average small-town girl, most would not have predicted the path Leah Marie Dawson’s life would take to her body being discovered abandoned under a tree in Maysville, Missouri.
But that tragic outcome is exactly what has left her friends and family shaken and with unanswered questions.
Dawson grew up in nearby Cameron, Missouri, with her mom, Tonya Eldredge, twin brother and younger brother. She was a spirited young girl who wrote her name on every surface she found and gave hugs to everyone she crossed paths with.
Dawson’s biological father wasn’t in her life, but soon Travis Eldredge came along and became the father Tonya said her daughter always needed.
The Eldredges knew Dawson was a good kid from how they raised her.
“She never got in trouble at school, everyone loved her and she loved school,” Tonya Eldredge said.
As Leah grew up, it was obvious by friends and family that she just wanted to be loved and show love. Sarah Pugh is a family friend who knew Dawson all her life.
“Nowhere did Tonya and I go and Leah not want to hug somebody,” Pugh said.
When Dawson reached her teenage years, family said she started to reach a rebellion stage.
“She just wanted to be heard and loved, and as she got into her teenage years, it was just the wrong kind of love,” Pugh said.
Dawson was the type of friend who would cover for anyone because she didn’t want conflict between friends.
“She took the blame for everything and she got put in DYS (Division of Youth Services) for it,” Tonya Eldredge said.
Through Division of Youth Services, Dawson graduated early. At this point, Tonya Eldredge, said Dawson was introduced to her biological father. Through him, her mother said, Dawson met 49-year-old Kenneth Wykert in early 2017. They eventually started a relationship.
At this point, Dawson didn’t have many options of where to live because the Eldredges had custody of her two sons, 4-year-old Joseph and 3-year-old Issac. Dawson lost custody of them because of the types of people she had in her life and her involvement with drugs, her mother said.
“She would come to the house and all she wanted to do was hold her kids,” Tonya Eldredge said. “I had no intention of raising these kids until they were 18, I wanted Leah to be that mom, not me.”
Tonya Eldredge said Dawson was bouncing around different family members’ homes after being kicked out of living with her biological father. Eventually, she moved in with Wykert.
“When she moved in, it went from sweet little Kenny to controlling Kenny,” Tonya Eldredge said.
According to court documents, on Nov. 2, 2017, Wykert assaulted Dawson and pleaded guilty to fourth-degree domestic assault, resisting arrest and unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia, sending him to jail.
Dawson was living in St. Joseph with a family member when Wykert was released from jail.
“She called home when he got out of jail and she was scared that he was going to find her,” Travis Eldredge said.
Travis Eldredge said Dawson moved back to Cameron and started up her relationship with Wykert again.
Dawson’s parents said she had the type of personality that made her an easy target and easy to intimidate.
“I used to tell her ‘You need to grow a backbone and learn to stick up for yourself,’” Tonya Eldredge said.
The mother said Dawson and Wykert lived together in Maysville, Missouri, where she started to become distant from family and went down a path that might’ve led to the end of her life.
The Eldredges last saw their 23-year-old daughter as she drove away from the Econo Lodge in Cameron with Wykert this May.
Dawson was initially reported as being last seen with Wykert on June 5. However, witnesses later came forward and said they saw Dawson that following weekend fighting with Wykert and alleged he yelled that he was going to kill her.
Police were interested in talking to Wykert before Dawson was officially reported missing, but Tonya Eldredge said no one was able to get into contact with him. She heard about him being at an apartment building, found him and called the police.
According to court documents, Wykert was arrested on June 12 for failing to register as a sex offender and for unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.
The DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office officially reported Dawson missing on June 13. At that point family knew something was seriously wrong.
“I know in my heart that Leah wasn’t able to get a hold of me, because if she could’ve she knew I would’ve been there,” Tonya Eldredge said.
Chief Deputy Kasey Keesaman with the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office was one of the first officers on the case and realized right away that the report should be taken seriously.
“With this one we had several things off the bat that didn’t add up and weren’t becoming of her character,” Keesaman said.
The word started to spread of Dawson’s unknown whereabouts, and friends and family began to think the worst.
“I thought that something, honestly, had happened to her, just ‘cause Leah would listen to anybody,” Pugh said.
Days went by with no news of Dawson, until DeKalb County received a tip that she might be somewhere on a property in Maysville. On June 18, police searched that property with no sign of Dawson, but they found new evidence that would lead them to what they were looking for.
On June 26, police obtained a warrant to search another property in Maysville.
“Unfortunately, we were able to locate Miss Dawson on the property,” Keesaman said.
When police found Dawson, they stated that her body was in an unnatural position and it looked like it had been tampered with. It was found an estimated 100 yards from the home where Wykert was living.
On July 2 and 3, family and friends gathered from all directions to mourn and celebrate the life of Dawson.
“Leah was very much loved. Everyone knew the smiley, cute little girl,” Pugh said.
Travis and Tonya Eldredge and the rest of the family received a large amount of support from their community, surrounding communities and people they’d never even met.
Weeks went by with no answers to what happened to Dawson, until Aug. 2, when Wykert was charged with second-degree murder and abandonment of a corpse.
However, officials have not determined a cause of death for Dawson due to her severe state of decomposition when she was found.
“When they called me and told me that he was being charged it was like everything hit all over again and it was reality,” Tonya Eldredge said.
Even with charges, the Eldredges still wonder what made the person responsible for their daughter’s death do it.
“I just want to know what Leah could’ve ever done to make him do what he did,” Tonya Eldredge said.
Wykert, who has pleaded not guilty to charges in the case, recently received a change of judge and venue to Nodaway County and is expected to start trial on March 30. The Eldredges said no matter what happens, nothing will ever change how they feel and what they’ve lost.
“It’ll never change the way that Tonya is now and Tonya will probably never go back to being Tonya, but she’s gotta have justice for her daughter,” Pugh said.
The family hopes they find the answers they deserve and get the word out to help make sure other lives don’t end the way Dawson’s did.
“If anything we get out of this, we want to make sure we get the justice that’s needed and deserved so this doesn’t happen to somebody else,” Travis Eldredge said.