Shelbie Croft watches her helium balloons snag in a tree at the edge of Penny Playground.
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – Her mother, father, two little sisters, two aunts, two cousins, three girlfriends and three people who didn’t know her came together on Sunday, all for Kayla Croft-Payne, the Lewis County girl who vanished three years earlier.
Still, they have more questions than answers about what happened to the then-18-year-old.
“I talk to detective Callas two times a month, he promises she won’t become a cold case,” her father Thomas Payne told the small group.
Payne, formerly of Longview traveled from his new home north of Seattle to a vigil held at Penny Playground in Chehalis yesterday. The day marked three years since his daughter last logged on to her MySpace internet account. She was reported missing a few days later by a girlfriend who lived with her south of Chehalis.
“We won’t let her become a cold case,” her aunt, Karen Hinton said. “We need people to tell us what they know.”
Hinton has found a spark of hope for answers as she’s begun to question who was the photographer her niece met online who arranged to take pictures of her so she could create a modeling portfolio.
She found the potential clues simply by looking at Croft-Payne’s Facebook page, she said.
“Her last entries are, I’m going to a photo shoot, I can’t wait to get my portfolio done,” Hinton said.
Hinton has connected with a Vancouver, Wash.-based group called National Women’s Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation (NWCAVE). It’s president and co-founder has taken up the cause to bring media attention to the case.
Early last month, NWCAVE’s Michelle Bart contacted numerous members of the press to describe how Croft-Payne is one of three young women around the country who posted photos and information about themselves on the same modeling website and left for modeling only to never return home.
Bart is concerned certain photographers may be using the ModelMayhem website to prey upon women.
Bart says she learned Croft-Payne went missing after she went to meet with a photographer she met there. Hinton said she’s passed the information to the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and a detective has promised to follow those leads.
She’s encouraged, but at the same time discouraged it wasn’t investigated previously.
“I don’t know how this was overlooked by the police for so long,” Hinton told the gathering yesterday. “It’s beyond me.”
The vigil was, as promised, informal. Bart shared with the group the need to keep Croft-Payne’s face and name in the public eye.
A moment of silence was shared when 6-year-old Shelbie Croft set free a small cluster of helium balloons for her sister into clear, but cool skies. They were caught by the branches of the first tree along the expected route.
Ashley Smith traveled from her home in Spanaway to remember her friend with others yesterday. She’s 20 years old now, but three years ago she was a 17-year-old Lewis County girl who was with Croft-Payne 24 – 7, she said.
They lived together in a trailer off Newaukum Valley Road, between Chehalis and Napavine.
“I don’t know what to think anymore,” Smith said. “I don’t want to think the worst.”
She’s heard the various rumors and doesn’t seem to give any more weight than the others. Maybe her friend was made to pay off someone’s drug debt, as in sex trafficking, she said. Maybe her friend overdosed on drugs, and someone got scared and hid her body, she said.
But Smith said the website ModelMayhem didn’t ring a bell to her, and she thought it would if her friend was using it.
“She was really into, wanted to be a model really bad,” Smith said.
Croft-Payne wasn’t headed to meet a photographer when she disappeared, Smith said.
The photo shoot was in Bellevue and it was about two weeks earlier, Smith said. The two of them were headed up there together, she said, but various circumstances, including their lack of a ride, caused it to fall through.
“The night she went missing, we were together,” Smith said.
Smith said she and Croft-Payne were at a friend’s house in Onalaska. Another friend came to pick her up, to give her a ride to her boyfriend’s, she said.
“She told me she was going to Manny’s house,” Smith said.
All of the possibilities that come to mind are unpleasant, Smith said.
“It’s hard to think of pleasant ones, given the crowd we were hanging with,” she said.
Read background on Kayla Croft-Payne, here