Rhonda Thomas had a big heart and always tried to find the good in people.
Those traits made her special, her sister said — but they may have contributed to her death.
Thomas, 52, was identified by police Monday as the woman who was found dead in her burning apartment early Friday morning in south Wichita. Police said she was beaten to death.
"This is just so horrible — you can't even imagine," said one of Thomas' sisters, who did not want her name used.
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The man suspected of killing Thomas, 42-year-old James F. Williams, is a patient at a Topeka hospital, where he is recovering from frostbite after being arrested late Saturday afternoon in rural Jackson County in northeast Kansas.
Police had identified Williams as a suspect in the killing Friday and were looking for him and Thomas' brown GMC pickup within hours of the discovery of her body.
The pickup was found Friday evening on I-135 north of K-96, said Wichita police Lt. Ken Landwehr, who heads the homicide unit.
The 1988 pickup had broken down, Landwehr said. Authorities later learned Williams had hitched a ride back to Wichita, where he caught a bus to Emporia.
He was next spotted early Saturday afternoon on a gravel road just north of Delia in Jackson County by a man who gave him some beef jerky and a bottle of water, Sheriff Charles Cornell said.
Suspicious of why the stranger was wandering a country road, the resident called authorities.
But a deputy could not find Williams and called off the search — until a train engineer called shortly before 3:30 p.m. to report that a man had jumped aboard his train while he was stopped on a railroad siding to allow an express train to pass.
Cornell said he went to where the train was stopped near the Pottawatomie County line. He was about four cars from the end of the mile-long train, Cornell said, when Williams "stuck his head out," then jumped off the train and took off running.
"Usually these guys don't run," Cornell said. "Usually, they're homeless. They want a meal."
Cornell lost Williams as he ran more than a mile through a cornfield and then a wooded area. The Kansas Highway Patrol called out its helicopter, and a K-9 unit was sent to assist sheriff's deputies in the search, Cornell said.
Williams continued to avoid detection until he began yelling from the frigid waters of Cross Creek at about 5:20 p.m. Saturday, Cornell said.
He had jumped into the water a couple of hours before, then climbed out — only to jump back in after he heard sirens and the helicopter flying overhead, officials said.
Officers had to pull him up from the creek. Cross Creek has banks about 20 feet high and water about 4 feet deep where Williams was discovered.
"That made it kind of hard to apprehend him," Cornell said.
Williams was so cold from hiding in the water that he couldn't raise his arms to surrender, Cornell said.
Officers had to carry him to the closest law enforcement vehicle, and he was taken to Topeka for treatment.
A Kansas Highway Patrol trooper recognized Williams as the subject of a "be on the lookout" alert, and Wichita police were notified late Saturday night.
Williams will be brought back to Wichita upon his release, Cornell said.
Thomas met Williams in October, her sister said. Because he was homeless, she would occasionally let him stay at her place at Riverwalk Apartments, 2703 S. Topeka.
"He preyed upon her," Thomas' sister said. "It's very unfortunate.
"Rhonda had had a hard life. The last couple of years, she had really turned around her life and everything was going great.
"She was a bright light in everyone's life... she was just so funny. Rhonda always saw the good in everybody. She tried so hard to do the right thing."
Services are pending.