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A day for Kiplyn: Remembering a Utah girl who disappeared in 1995

SPANISH FORK — After two decades of futility, Rich Davis still prays for the same things, morning and night. He prays that God will tell Kiplyn that he loves her, and he prays that he will help him to find her body.

"I think about her every day," says Davis.

It's been 23 years since Kiplyn Davis, the third of his four children, disappeared in one of the nation's most famous cold cases. He and his wife, Tamara, turned on their porch light all those years ago, and it has been shining day and night since then, waiting for her to come home, one way or another. Though there is a tombstone with her name on it and three men have been sent to jail, those men remain the only people on Earth who really know what happened to Kiplyn; her body has never been found. At this point, that is all the Davises hope for.

Kiplyn Davis is the poster girl for missing children, although she would no longer be a child. She would be nearing her 39th birthday. On Wednesday — the anniversary of the day Kiplyn disappeared — there will be a candlelight vigil in the Spanish Fork Cemetery from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. to honor her memory and to bring awareness to all missing children. There will be a photo display of the 21 Utah children — 10 from Utah County — who have gone missing. Spanish Fork Mayor Steve Leifson, who, in a twist of fate, is related to one of the men convicted in the case as well as to Davis himself, declared May 2 Kiplyn Davis Day.

"We're not just doing this for Kiplyn, but for other missing children and other people who have lost loved ones," says Karissa Lords, Kiplyn's sister and one of the driving forces behind the vigil. Karissa was 9 years old when her sister disappeared. Only many years later did she confess to her parents that she has been tortured by nightmares since that day.

"Whenever I get the chance I walk to the cemetery to her grave," she says. "It's peaceful there. I know she's not there, but I can tell her spirit is there. I can go there to talk to her about things. I know she listens to me."

Rich Davis, 65, has devoted more than one-third of his life to finding his daughter. For years he searched up and down local canyons, fields, rivers and ditch lines with a pick and shovel, digging anywhere that looked like a potential gravesite. He once took a psychic with him on one of these forays. He has written letters to the men who were convicted in the case, begging them to reveal the location of the body, but they have refused.

The pain of losing a child struck close to home again for Davis last year when the body of another missing Spanish Fork woman was discovered.

Peggy Sue Case had been missing even longer than Kiplyn, since 1988. A Spanish Fork resident named Gordon Cazier had noticed a depression in the dirt floor of his root cellar, but ignored it for years. In May 2017, he asked a friend to help him move. In the process, the friend asked if he knew that the home's previous resident had gone missing. That was news to Cazier, and the two began to dig.

"There was a depression in the corner of the root cellar and it was covered with carpet and on top of that there was a heavy 2-by-4 table," Cazier told Utah's Ch. 4. "We dug down about 18 inches and there was a blanket. And he (the friend) asked for my knife and he cut open the blanket and there was a skull looking at us."

The home is located just two blocks from the Davis home.

"I drove right up there and talked to the police," says Davis. "The guy saw a dent in the ground! It's a miracle. I need a miracle like that. That's what it's going to take."

Michael Kufrin, Case's boyfriend, was arrested in Illinois and returned to Utah to face murder charges.

The Davis case remains a mystery, though five men were indicted by a federal grand jury more than a decade after Kiplyn's disappearance, largely because of the braggadocio and bravado of one of the leading suspects.

Over the years, Timmy Brent Olsen had boasted to a number of people that he had killed and raped the girl and buried the body in Spanish Fork Canyon. In 2006 Olsen was charged with manslaughter. In a 2011 plea deal, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 2008, David Rucker Leifson and Christopher Neal Jeppson pleaded guilty to perjury. Leifson was sentenced to four years in federal prison and Jeppson five years.

"Olsen is up for parole in 2021, but we'll be there to stop that," says Davis.

Davis says the plea deal with federal authorities was supposed to be contingent upon Olsen revealing the location of his daughter's body.

"They just rushed him off to federal prison," says Davis, who wrote letters to Olsen asking for the location of the body. Olsen did not respond. At one point, Davis even promised Olsen that he would advocate for Olsen's early release if he revealed the body's location.

Finding Kiplyn's remains has been Davis' obsession. He says he neglected his family for years.

"All I did was look for Kiplyn," he said. "I wasn't there (at home), but you don't know that stuff when you're living it."

Davis' life has never been the same since his daughter's disappearance, and in some ways it has changed for the better, he will tell you. As noted in a 2005 Deseret News profile, a few months after Kiplyn left the house for the last time, he gave up his Sunday recreation habits — golf, hunting, fishing — and returned to church, just as Kiplyn had urged him for years.

He threw himself into community and church service. He has served in several leadership roles in his LDS Church ward, including Scoutmaster and counselor in the bishopric. He was a city councilman for eight years and currently sits on the planning and zoning board. He coached Pony League and Junior Jazz teams for nearly two decades and served on Eagle boards.

A concrete contractor, he donated about $30,000 worth of labor to build a baseball complex, although another man who said he wanted to be part of the project handed him a check for $5,000. When the city wanted to do something for him in return, he asked if he could simply have five burial plots in the local cemetery.

He also renovated a pioneer cemetery that had become so neglected that the graves could not be located. Davis found and marked the missing graves and built sidewalks.

For Memorial Day, he spends three to four days identifying the graves of every veteran in the Spanish Fork Cemetery and then he and volunteer veterans place flags on the headstones, which now total about 1,700.

He also donated more labor on the Angel Box memorial and each year is charged with organizing the Angel Box memorial service on Dec. 6, which consists of a candlelight vigil, talks and music in honor of children who died.

Davis does numerous fireside talks. On a recent weekend he drove 83 miles to Delta to speak to a Scouting group, then drove back to Spanish Fork to give a talk in church the next day.

All of this service was prompted by the loss of his daughter.

As he explained in the Deseret News profile 13 years ago, "I owe somebody something. I just need to serve. If I don't, I'll miss out. I guess I'm trying to get back what I lost the last 20 years that I didn't serve God. Six months after Kiplyn disappeared, I decided I had lost her, and I knew I was not going to get her back in this life and wouldn't in the next life if I didn't change."

Meanwhile, on July 1, the family will celebrate her birthday just as they do every year. They'll drive to the cemetery, put flowers on her grave and clean the headstone.

"It's all you can do," Davis says.

Correction: An earlier version version incorrectly indicated that the the anniversary and candlelight vigil is Thursday, May 2, but is actually Wednesday, May 2.