As with several other relationships, we met Peggy and Gene Schmidt and their daughter Jeni under terrible circumstances. We were researching and writing about the murder of their beautiful daughter Stephanie – Jeni’s older sister – at the hands of a paroled sex offender in Pittsburg, Kansas, on July 2, 1993. Two days later, on the Fourth of July, Stephanie would have been 20 years-old. The Schmidt family’s story – equal parts sad and inspiring – is related in our book, Obsession.
We learned a lot from the Schmidts, and not just about murder.
We will not even dignify her killer here by mentioning his name. After Stephanie’s murder, the Schmidts channeled their grief into action and activism. They founded Speak Out For Stephanie, a nonprofit foundation that works to educate young people about the dangers of violent predators, to keep the public and legislative dialogue alive on the subject of rational sentencing and parole, and to provide aid and comfort to victims and their families.
This effort, which was started by two grieving parents but which has now had international recognition, has had some very tangible results. The Schmidts, working with then Kansas Attorney General Carla Stovall, got a law passed in Kansas providing for continued commitment of violent sexual predators still deemed dangerous after their sentences are served. When opponents challenged what became known as Stephanie’s Law, the Schmidt-Stovall team took it all the way up to the United States Supreme Court – and won!
God only knows how many people are alive and unharmed today because of Gene, Peggy and Jeni’s efforts.
But what our friendship with the Schmidts also taught us was that in spite of the worst things that can ever happen to good people, life must go on, and it must have meaning and purpose. They taught us that survivors of homicide victims are so much more than just their tragedies; that they can still have a sense of humor, a zest for fun and life experience, and love and hope for the future. Jeni married a wonderful and creative man named Jim Cosgrove, a children’s folk singer and songwriter who performs all over the country. They have two adorable daughters of their own – Lyda and Willa – and practically from when the girls were born, Jeni and Jim have been telling them about their Aunt Stephanie in heaven.
The photograph with this column shows Willa and Peggy at Stephanie’s grave.
As we approach the 41st anniversary of Stephanie’s birth and the 21st anniversary of her death, Peggy and Gene wrote the following public letter to their daughter:
The pain, anger, and frustration come forward every year at this time–even 21 years later. All of which is only surpassed by the love that we continue to have for Stephanie, even in her absence. So many traditions continue: planting of flowers, burning of candles, maintaining a garden, honoring her name with a scholarship, and so much more. While we feel despair, we remind ourselves that love never dies. Although we all wanted so much more, we are grateful for the nearly 20 amazing years she shared with us. We will always love you, and we will always miss you, Stephanie. We know we will see you again. Love always, Mom and Dad.
And may your memory endure as an inspiration forever.