There is a special place for a group of women — mothers and grandmothers who started out as strangers. They became kindred souls because they all devoted part of their lives to searching for 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez, the missing Wichita boy who captivated a wide community for several months earlier this year.
These women had volunteered to look for him after he was reported missing in February. For three months, they looked under countless culvert bridges like the one where his body was finally found.
When one of the women first walked up to that place last May, she says, her spiritual side fully expected to see an angel — sitting at the country-road bridge where Lucas’ body was found, in the shadows beneath the span.
That is why the women have such a reverence for the spot.
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They spontaneously set up the roadside memorial there not long after they first stood at the bridge. Six months later, they still keep a memorial there to remember Lucas, to celebrate him, to find peace.
They change the memorial decorations for the seasons, the holidays and his birthday — which is Monday, Dec. 3. He would have been 6.
On Thursday, one of the women put out birthday balloons and a brightly colored birthday party hat to honor the day he was born.
Lucas’ mother, Jamie Taylor, set out a picture of him in front of a Christmas tree, with the words “Merry Christmas!”
This will be the first Christmas without him.
A little magic
Starting around 5:30 p.m. on a late fall/early winter day, what seems like magic occurs at the spot.
Actually, it’s solar power. The women have set out colored lights — and a colored angel that changes from hue to hue. One by one, the lights turn on when activated by little solar panels that harvest sunlight so the bulbs glow in the immense darkness.
Then, around 5:40 each evening, a strand of white lights start blinking in a thorny tree next to the decorations. You would never see them unless you drove down a series of dirt roads in southern Harvey County east of I-135 and north of Park City.
It’s a picturesque and peaceful spot. In the twilight Thursday, honking snow geese flew overhead in overlapping V patterns flowing southwest over rolling folds of tall grass where one could imagine buffalo or a horseman appearing over the ridge. A hawk glided. In a bare cottonwood tree, a member of the woodpecker family chirped.
How it began
Lucas had been missing for three months when his father’s girlfriend finally led a private investigator to the remote spot where she left his body.
She had kept his fate to herself while police and volunteers combed field after field for any trace of him.
The girlfriend, Emily Glass, who watched Lucas while his father was away working, killed herself not long after revealing the location of his body. How the boy died remains unknown. But in the court of public opinion, Glass was guilty, and police were trying to pursue a case against her.
Right after the recovery of his body, the roadside memorial grew and grew.
People put out enough stuffed animals to fill a store. They added balloons, artificial flowers and toys that a 5-year-old would like. The decorations stretched for maybe 30 yards. Later, the stuffed animals and toys were collected and carefully washed so they could decorate the stage at his community memorial service in Wichita.
Evolving Lucas memorial
The memorial at the bridge is smaller now. But it remains a special place for the women brought together by the tragedy. The group includes Lucas’ grandmother, mother and several women who volunteered to search for him.
They regularly go there to set out mementos to honor Lucas.
His grandmother, Robin Taylor, helps to decorate the spot in way she thinks he would have liked. In October, the women put out Halloween decorations.
At first, the memorial was a destination spot for many — a pilgrimage for people who were not just curious about where he was found but genuinely touched by the mystery of the missing boy.
“They wanted to see where he had been,” Taylor said.
Back then, she didn’t realize the memorial would last.
Going there, Taylor said, is like therapy. “If I’m feeling down, I can go out there, and I just feel more at ease.”
As the women in the group visit the memorial, often one by one, they tend to it. One of them, Karen Hauschild, has used trimmers to cut back weeds encroaching on the display. She’s trimmed the wild trees that flank the site. For awhile, she set out fall decorations. She’s the one who just brought the birthday balloons, birthday banner, birthday party hat and neon-green toy motorcycle.
The women sprinkle glitter around the display because Lucas loved glitter.
Hauschild could relate to Lucas partly because he was around the same age as her grandchildren.
“I never knew him,” she said. “But in my heart, I loved him.”
She had been at the site right after Lucas’ body was found, and at the time didn’t think she would ever want to be there again.
But her feelings changed. Now, she says, “I find a lot of peace and solace out there.”
Another woman, Melinda McCann, is the one who put out the solar-powered Christmas lights. She checks on the memorial once a week. She also didn’t think she would want to re-visit the site once Lucas’ body was found.
“But it turned out to be kind of a healing place for us to meet. It just came to be a comforting place to leave things and memorialize him,” McCann said. “Almost every time I go out there, there’s something new there.”
Another member of the group, Julie La Force, felt compelled to help search for Lucas. “There was something in me that told me if that was my child, I would have wanted somebody to never stop looking, to never give up hope, whether it was a good outcome or a bad outcome,” La Force said.
Now, she said, “There’s something that keeps drawing” her and the other women to the spot. “That’s the place we still go to reflect back on him. I can go out there and just stand there.”
Another woman, Sheila Medlam, said the memorial is “our way of letting him know we love him.”
The site is also getting a more permanent marker — a 6-foot wooden cross bearing his picture.
Lisa DuBray is the one who thought she would see an angel when she first walked up to the spot six months ago. She and her daughter, Cortney Rader, had spent hours and hours looking for Lucas. Rader is the one who has placed gold and red artificial poinsettia flowers in the trimmed branches.
As DuBray stood at the spot in the fading light Thursday, she recalled her first time there, right after police left.
“I felt like … there was an angel sitting here, saying, ‘I kept him safe until someone could find him.’”