- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - She crawled out her bedroom window with a bag of clothes and a stuffed cat she slept with every night.

At 14, Katlyn Ann Shope Williams was leaving home, and she wasn’t coming back. Only she knew what she was looking for.

She spent the next seven weeks as a runaway on the West Side, exuberant about her newfound freedom and testing its limits.

Seven weeks later, on the brink of being found and returned home, she swallowed too many pills and fell asleep in the bed of a Hilltop sex offender. She never woke up.

The day before she left her Crawford County home, Katlyn threw her arms around Bob Williams and nuzzled up to him.

“Daddy, you know that I love you in my own special way,” she told him on the afternoon of March 25, 2013.

Williams tapped her on the nose and said he loved her, too.

“That was my goodbye,” he recalled.

The next day, Williams saw footprints in the snow trailing from Katlyn’s bedroom window on Evans Avenue in Galion, a city of about 10,000 residents 70 miles north of Columbus.

Williams and his partner, Kris Shope, adopted Katlyn and her brother when she was 6 and he was 4, along with four other children they had fostered.

The household Katlyn and her brother were born into was chaotic and filthy, as court records tell it. As a little girl, she was sexually abused, “taken on dates” with men who paid to use her. Franklin County Juvenile Court records include allegations of sexual abuse by both biological parents.

But the Juvenile Court records, in addition to detailing the abuse, state clearly that Katlyn and her brother didn’t want to lose their mom and dad.

Neither parent was criminally charged with abusing the kids, Franklin County court records show.

Her brother was too little to have memories of what happened. But Katlyn remembered everything. Watching television sometimes sparked a memory that floored her dads.

She’d often say “she felt like a slut that never had sex,” Shope recalled.

Years of counseling and talking to experts didn’t seem to help. Eventually, Katlyn stopped talking about the first six years of her life.

___

It was a chance meeting with a girl from school that reconnected Katlyn with her birth family.

The girl had moved from Columbus to Galion and had known one of Katlyn’s biological brothers. She gave Katlyn a phone number. More than four years had passed since Katlyn and her younger brother had their “goodbye” visit with their mom in December 2008.

Shope and Williams said Katlyn didn’t say much about her mom but they knew she still felt a bond. A news story on TV about a child being abused by a family member led Katlyn to bring up her own history. She told Shope that even though her parents did what they did, she’d still take her own children to see them someday. She’d never cut them out.

“I can’t see how you’d want somebody who did things like that,” Shope said. “But she did. You could never take that from her. She loved her mother no matter what.”

Katlyn spoke to Maria Ridgway on the phone for the first time in February. She called her “momma.” A month later, she was out the window, on her way to Columbus.

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More than 700 children are considered missing in Ohio, according to the state attorney general’s office. Many, like Katlyn, are runaways.

Katlyn was a bookworm who did well in school, but that didn’t help her much when she was on her own. She didn’t know Columbus, beyond occasional visits to the Spaghetti Warehouse in Franklinton with her family.

At first, she stayed at an aunt’s house. She left, she said, because she had to pay “rent” with drugs or her body.

In near-daily phone calls with her mother, Katlyn told her what she was doing to get by, including occasional prostitution.

“She said, ‘I’m going to do this on my own terms, and no man will touch me unless I say it’s OK,’?” Ridgway recalled.

Many runaways end up doing what Katlyn did. A third of teenagers who run away are approached by a pimp or john within 48 hours of leaving home, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Kids who are forced into prostitution usually start at 13 or 14.

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Ridgway denied that she ever harmed her daughter, though she thinks now that her ex-husband, Katlyn’s dad, sexually abused her.

She told Katlyn that they could reunite in June, when she had a bus ticket from her home in Norfolk, Va., to Columbus.

In the meantime, she said, she tried to persuade her daughter to go back to Galion. But Katlyn refused. Whatever she was looking for, it wasn’t back there.

___

Out of Crawford County, Katlyn shed her adopted identity.

She started using her birth name: Skyah Vest. She dyed her hair auburn, pierced her lip and got a tribal-looking “S” tattooed on her forearm - all things her dads would have forbidden at home.

She found her first boyfriend, a floppy-haired 15-year-old named Austin Meyer. The two were inseparable. Katlyn told her mom she’d be Skyah Meyer one day.

Katlyn was taken in by a family on the Hilltop, a family she met through one of her biological brothers. She told them her mother had left her but that she’d be back.

Sheryl Gillogly was wary and called Columbus police and Franklin County Children Services to see if she was a runaway. But there was no record of a Skyah Vest.

Katlyn fit into the family, giggling with Gillogly’s daughter in the back seat of the car and making trips to the library to check out thick books. She liked Frosted Flakes and her boyfriend’s homemade french fries.

“She was happy, and she seemed carefree,” Gillogly said. “But you could tell there were things that she had experienced that 14-year-olds don’t typically go through.”

Gillogly said she tried to mother Katlyn, but it wasn’t always easy. Gillogly had rules, too, just like back home in Crawford County. Chafing at the restrictions, Katlyn ran off for days at a time.

When she came back after a week away, she was high and had broken her glasses. She spent the rest of her time in Columbus nearly blind without them.

___

The day before she died, Katlyn almost went home.

By then, Crawford County authorities had figured out where she was. Just after 4 p.m. on May 15, detectives called Gillogly, who agreed to notify police when Katlyn came back.

Katlyn found out about the phone call and took off. She told Austin that she was going to her “sugar daddy” on W. Broad Street, according to Columbus police records.

“I knew she needed help, and she was going to run further away from it,” Gillogly said.

Katlyn ended up at 542 S. Wayne Ave., home to two men with histories of preying on children.

Frederick Wyatt, now 64, lived in Massachusetts when he was convicted on three occasions of forcing teenage boys into sex acts with him in the 1970s and ‘80s. He served time in prison and was released from a treatment center in 1998 after he was no longer considered a “sexually dangerous person.” He has lived in Columbus ever since.

Tyrone Battle, 26, pleaded guilty in 2007 to unlawful sexual conduct with a 13-year-old girl in Delaware County and served 16 months in prison. He was staying in Wyatt’s spare bedroom.

On May 15, Wyatt said, the girl he knew only as Battle’s friend came to the door upset and said police were looking for her. He let her sleep in his bedroom, he said, and he slept on the couch downstairs.

“When you have someone coming to your door knocking and you can see she’s scared, what the hell are you supposed to do?” he said recently. “I should have probably let her in and gone outside and called the police.”

At 10 a.m. the next morning, Battle saw Katlyn wheezing in bed, he later told an officer. He didn’t call for help.

Wyatt didn’t either, not until 3:30 that afternoon.

Katlyn died at Mount Carmel West hospital.

Police don’t know where Katlyn got the oxycodone that killed her or whether she meant to overdose. Neither Wyatt nor Battle was charged in connection with her death.

Battle couldn’t be located for this story. He is wanted by police for failing to report his address as a sex offender.

“I don’t know if she took my medicine,” Wyatt said. “I don’t know what the hell happened. I got blamed for this thing.”

He said he wants her family to know that he’s sorry for their loss.

“Whatever happened wasn’t right. Whether or not it was our fault, it still wasn’t right.”

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In the months since his daughter died, Williams has driven past Wyatt’s duplex, looking up at a second-floor window and wondering whether that’s the room in which his daughter spent her final hours. Once, he looked through Wyatt’s trash, hoping to find some of Katlyn’s things.

“I look at that door and think, my daughter went in that door and never came back out,” he said.

Katlyn would have turned 16 next month. She had wanted to go to college and become a family-law attorney to help other kids like her.

Shope and Williams wonder where she would be if she was still alive. They wonder if she’d still be searching.

“She wanted to help other people,” Shope said. “But she couldn’t help herself. She couldn’t get over the demons.”

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, https://www.dispatch.com

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