Teenager Kayla Croft-Payne hasn't been heard from since last April 28
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
VADER – When 18-year-old Kayla Croft-Payne first went missing, the little store in Vader displayed a flyer at their counter and handed out copies of the appeal for information about the teenager’s whereabouts.
Now, almost a year later, the small poster has moved, tacked to a wall by the door and surrounded by others offering items for sale, chimney cleaning services and even tutoring.
Still, not much more than a week goes by without a customer asking if anyone’s heard anything about her, according to clerk Kelli Gammel.
“It’s a sad story. A very sad story,” Gammel said.
While Croft-Payne moved away from Vader at least twice in her late teens, she would always come back. Her mother, Michelle Croft, lives in the small south Lewis County town.
Kayla Croft-Payne on Facebook
The teen would pop into J and G’s Grocery periodically, Gammel said.
“A very pretty girl, she could have been a model,” Gammel said. “Tall, slender. She was popular with a lot of people.”
Gammel, who’s known the teen’s parents since before Croft-Payne was born, describes her as somewhat “street-smart” but also gullible.
When Croft-Payne turned 18, she got several thousand dollars from a trust fund and moved into an apartment in Chehalis. That was September 2009. Neither the money or the new place lasted long, according to her family.
That’s when things spiraled out of control, Gammel said.
“The last time she came into the store, she was with an older man who kind of gave me the creeps,” she said.
Gammel says she’s picked up plenty of rumors about what happened to the young woman, but she had begun to bounce around and “we didn’t really know who she was hanging out with.”
“Somebody knows something,” she said. “But when Kayla disappeared, she wasn’t hanging out in Vader.”
Late last spring, the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office put out a public request for any information on Croft-Payne, saying she was reported missing on May 5 by a friend who had not seen or heard from her for several days.
She hadn’t logged on to her MySpace internet account since April 28.
At the time, she was living in a trailer behind a place on the 200 block of Newaukum Valley Road, between Chehalis and Napavine.
She was very social, talking to friends online daily, sheriff’s detective Jamey McGinty said.
“Then it just stopped,” he said. “No contact with her attorney, her MySpace, Facebook. It just stops.
It was the sort of disappearance that prompted the sheriff’s office to put every available detective on it to track down leads for at least two weeks, according to McGinty.
But now, without new tips coming in, the case work is mostly routinely checking her Internet accounts and a nationwide database in case she were to get arrested, detective’s Sgt. Dusty Breen said earlier this week.
Croft-Payne has friends all over, some – who like she did – used drugs, according to those who know her.
She was raised by her mother in Centralia and Chehalis and then for about three years during middle school – when she got put into foster care – lived in the area around Toledo.
She spent six months in a drug and alcohol treatment program for pregnant women in Tacoma.
By March of 2009, she was clean, but wanted to get away from the drugs in Vader. She and the baby moved in with a married friend in Winlock.
At first, it went fine, said Cassandra Sines the friend who is now 24. Croft-Payne attended an alternative high school program, she said.
But then she was partying and not coming home to take care of her baby, Sines said. Methamphetamine was her drug of choice then, though later she used heroin, according to Sines.
By June, Child Protective Services put the child in foster care.
Kayla Croft-Payne on MySpace
The last time Sines saw Croft-Payne in person was in January 2010.
“I don’t know if she was on drugs or what that day,” she said. “She was kind of being bitchy, and we told her to leave.”
Still, they “talked” online almost daily. Croft-Payne was sort of addicted to social media, she said.
“The last couple of times I (messaged) with Kayla, she wanted to get clean,” Sines said.
It was Sines who gave the missing person information to the sheriff’s office. But the initial phone call on May 5, was made by Croft-Payne’s close friend Ashley Smith, who used Sine’s phone, Sines said.
“Ashley asked me to give her a ride to go find Kayla,” she said. “We drove to Onalaska, to Vader, she wasn’t there.”
Smith got panicky, called 911, and gave Sines’ name instead of her own, Sines said.
Neither Croft-Payne’s father or her mother know a lot about the friends their daughter was hanging out with in the months before she vanished.
“The drug scene’s been sucking her back for years,” said her father, Thomas Payne.
Payne, who’s 46 and lives in Longview, said even though his daughter was sometimes rebellious, she would always call.
He last spoke with her a month or two before she disappeared.
“She wanted to get away from all the people she was doing drugs with, get a fresh start, get her life together,” Payne said.
She wanted to see her younger sister, and asked if she could move in with him, he said. He told her only if she went into drug treatment first. She said she’d be down but didn’t make it, he said.
Not knowing, and not getting much information from the sheriff’s office has been agonizing for the union construction worker who is also father to a 10-year-old girl.
Kayla Croft-Payne, Department of Licensing photo
“I’ve got lots and lots of friends that would love to go out and look for her,” he said. “But we’ve got no idea where to start in the world.”
Late last year, detective McGinty asked Payne and his daughter to come in and give DNA samples, just in case they were needed, he said.
Payne tells Jada her big sister is just being a butt head and not calling, he said.
“All she knew is we were giving DNA to help find sissy,” he said. “She’s 10, she hasn’t put two and two together yet. Thank God.”
The part of the conversation with McGinty that has stayed him with the most, is the idea his daughter may have died from an accidental drug overdose and her body hidden by friends afraid of getting in trouble.
Payne hopes renewed attention to the case will bring someone forward with information.
“I don’t care, I just want to find out where she’s at one way or the other,” he said. “To put her to rest or get her help.”
Lewis County detectives say the last place they can verify Croft-Payne being seen is in Cowlitz County. She stayed at least one evening in a trailer park in the Toutle area, according to detective Sgt. Breen.
The theory she died from a drug overdose did come through the investigation, McGinty said.
Late last July, they had a cadaver dog search around a river in the Toutle area, but they did not get any definite “alerts” from the dog, according to Breen.
If Croft-Payne did succumb to drugs and anyone knows where she can be found, the sheriff’s office would like to hear about it.
Hiding a body is not a felony, it’s only a misdemeanor, according to Breen.
The teenager’s mother last spoke with her in April.
“She called, said she was on her way down and didn’t show up,” Michelle Croft said.
Last weekend, as she spoke about her missing oldest child, her 4-year-old grabbed a helium ballon from the living room wall of their home and ran outside, announcing she would “send it to Kayla.”
“We usually write messages on them,” Croft said. “We’ve had a rough time. At first she thought it was her fault sissy didn’t come home.”
Croft learned her daughter was reported missing by reading a newspaper article about it, she said. At first, she thought her daughter’s father was hiding her, she said.
The 44-year-old mother didn’t like seeing the sheriff’s office label her daughter transient. She wasn’t, Croft said.
“When she didn’t get her way, she’d stay with friends,” she said. “And when she didn’t get her way there, she’d be back.”
Croft said she doesn’t have much money because she doesn’t work, but she’s gotten help from Gammel in making missing person flyers. She driven from Tacoma to Portland, posting them in convenience stores, she said.
“The not knowing, it’s killing me, it’s killing me inside,” she said. “It’s hard to take care of Shelbie, sometimes I just want to lay down.
“But I feel like if I’m not out there putting pictures up, I feel like I’m giving up.”
Croft, who said she’s in recovery from meth addiction, has also been spending time with people in the drug world, hoping to learn something about her daughter’s whereabouts, she said.
“Kayla, she ran with people in their 30s and 40s,” she said. “She grew up fast because she got put into the system.”
She’s heard her daughter was hanging out with gang members from the Mexican Mafia in Longview, she said.
“I was told she was being trafficked for sex,” she said. “I was told she had a pretty high drug bill.”
But that’s just one rumor the mother of two has come across.
Sheriff’s detectives say Croft-Payne spent time in places such as Lewis County, Kitsap County and Grays Harbor County.
They’ve followed tips into Pierce County and even tracked down a wood chipper after they heard someone made comments she’d been put through one. It was covered with cobwebs, Breen said.
In June, they went to a court hearing where Croft-Payne was expected, in connection with getting custody of her baby.
“She was trying to get her child back, trying really hard,” McGinty said. “For her to not show up, it wasn’t like her.”
They checked with her grandmother in Montana, wondering if she left the state. She wasn’t there.
“There’s been tips she was alive,” McGinty said.
After hearing a rumor she was on the east Coast, Breen sent for a license photo, but it was another woman, he said.
Last October, it appeared Croft-Payne posted a message on someone’s else’s MySpace page, the detectives said.
But when McGinty contacted technicians at MySpace, he learned her comment was labeled with the date when the recipient opened it, not when she sent it, he said.
Croft-Payne’s MySpace page also appears as though she logged on in July, but it wasn’t her, that’s when the company logged in to check her account, he said.
The detectives don’t know what happened to her, but they’d like to find her.
“Our minds aren’t settled whatsoever,” Breen said. “However, the more time goes by … it doesn’t look good.”
The sheriff’s office has shared a copy of her case file with law enforcement officers in Cowlitz County.
For McGinty, who estimates he investigated some 150 missing or runaway person cases during his four years as a detective, this one is different.
“I’d get runaways, at least four a month,” he said. “Sometimes they’d come back that night, sometimes the next day.”
She is the first who has not surfaced, he said.
Croft-Payne is a white female with blue eyes and brown hair. Detectives say now she is probably about 5-feet 9-inches tall and 130 pounds.
Anyone with any information on her whereabouts is asked to contact the sheriff’s office at 360-748-9286.
Anonymous tips can be left at: Crime Stoppers of Lewis County 1-800-748-6422 or the sheriff’s office online crime tips page.
A vigil is planned for Kayla Croft-Payne at 6:30 p.m. on April 28 at Penny Playground in Chehalis, at Southwest 13th Street, off Interstate 5 exit 76.
Organizers are looking for donations of purple and green helium balloons. For information, contact Jerome Painter at firstname.lastname@example.org