Some of her co-workers called her “Momma Rey.”
Reyona Caldwell was 36. Besides her three sons, she also mothered her younger co-workers at the Jose Pepper’s restaurant on East 13th Street.
Jamie Davis, 22, put it this way: “She had a very contagious smile. It was hard to look at her and not want to hug her.”
Women who had worked with Caldwell at the restaurant in recent years were still reeling Monday over the reality that she had been killed.
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Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter confirmed Monday that Caldwell is the woman whose body was found by police on Friday afternoon in the basement of a home in the 300 block of North Ash.
Wichita police Lt. Jason Stephens said Monday that the house had been intentionally set on fire after the victim, who appeared to be a woman in her 30s, had been bludgeoned. Stephens said police weren’t confirming the victim’s name because the body had yet to be forensically identified.
By Monday, people were openly expressing their grief over Caldwell’s death, using social media to do so.
Dane Wright, the man who police say lived at the house on North Ash – and who is said to be the father of one of Caldwell’s children – is in jail on a $500,000 bond.
Wright, 29, has been booked into jail on suspicion of first-degree murder, aggravated arson and three counts of child endangerment. Authorities issued an Amber Alert to help locate three children, ages 11, 5 and 2, on Friday after they said Wright fled the house. By Friday night, police had found the three children uninjured at a South Broadway motel and arrested Wright nearby.
On Tuesday afternoon, police are scheduled to present their investigative findings to prosecutors, who will decide what charges might be filed, said district attorney’s spokesman Dan Dillon.
Nicole Adams, another of Caldwell’s former co-workers at Jose Pepper’s, said Caldwell did seem unhappy and frustrated at times with her relationship with Wright. Caldwell felt unappreciated.
But Caldwell wasn’t one to openly complain. “She did not want us to worry about her,” Adams said.
It was complicated. Caldwell confided that “she felt she couldn’t leave him because he would stay home and take care of the kids,” Adams said. Caldwell said she loved him.
“They shared a child together. They shared a home together, so I think she was very conflicted with what to do.”
Gretchen Maddox, 20, also met Caldwell at the Jose Pepper’s near 13th and Greenwich. It was Maddox’s first serving job. Caldwell was a head waiter.
At first, Maddox thought Caldwell was too strict. But Maddox learned from Caldwell.
“She opened a door in my mind” about the right way to do your job: “If you do it right the first time, you save so much time … and you feel better about yourself, because you put in so much hard work,” Maddox said. “She is the person who taught me that.”
Maddox saw Caldwell’s work ethic. She knew that after Caldwell finished her restaurant work each night, she headed to work on the third shift at the Sedgwick County Jail. Easter, the sheriff, said Caldwell was a well-liked clerk in the jail’s medical clinic.
With multiple jobs and multiple children, Caldwell could be stressed at times. Still, Maddox said, “she found joy” even in small things.
Maddox noticed that Caldwell always wore a different head scarf, “and they were always so elegant and so beautiful.” Caldwell said she got the scarves at garage sales and thrift stores.
Jamie Davis, 22, worked with Caldwell at the restaurant for four to five years. A few months ago, Caldwell left the restaurant job but was still employed at the jail.
“She had a very, very big heart. … Even if her day was going bad, she would listen to your problem first,” Davis said.
“She had three beautiful boys she loved very much,” and she taught them to be grateful for what she could provide, Davis said. “She made (photo) collages all the time of the boys” and posted them on Facebook.
She could tell that Caldwell was a caring mother by the way she talked about her children.
“I called her ‘Momma Rey.’ ”
Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle