GREELEY, Colo. - Closure never comes to parents who have lost a child. Sheila and Ron Kimmell know this firsthand. Their 18-year-old daughter, Lisa, was brutally murdered in 1988 on her way to the family's home in Billings.
But they also learned, during an agonizing 14-year wait to learn who killed Lisa, that there is another layer of victims in violent crimes who never get closure: the family members of the attacker.
The Kimmells spoke this week to the Victims Studies class at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, taught by criminal justice professor Mary West-Smith. The couple, who now live in Cañon City, Colo., were joined in the discussion about their struggle for justice by Judy Mason, sister of Dale Wayne Eaton. Eaton is on death row in the Wyoming State Penitentiary for the murder of the Kimmells' oldest daughter.
The Kimmells and Mason, who lives in Weld County, have formed what could be considered an unlikely friendship over the past seven years. But the trio, sitting in front of the class of about 25 criminal justice students, explained that they actually share a kinship.
"Lisa was the ultimate victim," Sheila Kimmell said. "We're considered the secondary victims. But there isn't (a definition) for Judy and her family - the other people who were affected by Dale's crime. I call them victims in the third degree."
Eaton at one time lived in Greeley and as a 16-year-old was convicted of stabbing a Greeley woman who complained the watermelon he sold her was rotten. The woman recovered.
He later moved to Wyoming and was identified by DNA match in July 2002 as Lisa's murderer. Lisa took a road trip in late March 1988 from Denver, where she worked, toward Montana. She was to stop in Cody, Wyo., to meet up with her boyfriend before continuing on to Billings. She never reached Cody, sparking a widespread search. On April 2, searchers found her body in the North Platte River near Casper.
Nothing linked Eaton to Lisa's death until he was arrested in July 1998 in Grand Teton National Park for being a felon in possession of a firearm (he had been convicted in April 1998 of aggravated assault and battery). The arrest ultimately put his DNA into a federal database, which led to the match.
Sheila Kimmell and Mason met and became friends in fall 2002 when Eaton was on trial in Denver for the punching death of his cellmate at the Florence, Colo., prison. Mason was the only member of her large family to attend the trial, which ended in Eaton being cleared on a manslaughter charge.
In their talks, Mason told Sheila Kimmell she was from a family of seven kids. Eaton was the second of the seven, and she was the fourth. She explained that they were a closeknit family that lived on farms and ranches. When they were young, Eaton pulled his brother who suffered from cerebral palsy by wagon to school each day. That brother died last November.
Sheila Kimmell didn't need the full explanation. She already felt that the family of Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, had been unfairly victimized by his crimes.
"I wanted to make it clear to her that I wasn't trying to take her love for her brother away," Sheila Kimmell said. "Not everything in their life was sad. No matter how bad a family can get, some love will remain."
The Kimmells told the UNC class that it was generally difficult for them to get information about the investigation. Sheila Kimmell chronicled the ordeal in her 2006 book, "The Murder of Lil Miss." "We didn't have a support system," she told the students. "There were no victim advocates to explain to us this very foreign, complicated legal system."
But as bad as the information vacuum can be for secondary victims, it's far worse for family members of the accused.
"If I wanted to know anything, I contacted Sheila," Mason told the class. "Even to this day, if I want to know something I can get it from Sheila. And that's so sad. I should have the rights of anyone else to know what's going on."
Ron Kimmell said his family never held Eaton's actions against the rest of his family. "They're people like us," he said. "They don't have any shame to bear, but that's how society looks at things."
Although the couple had difficulties working with some law enforcement - especially the sheriff of Natrona County, Wyo. - there were many other officials who were extremely helpful.
"We're pleased to say we've seen the justice system evolve immensely over the last 20 years," Sheila Kimmell said. "But there's still much work to be done."
During Eaton's 2004 trial, the Kimmells gave their blessings to prosecutors to seek the death penalty. Sheila Kimmell said they would have pulled the death penalty request if Eaton had given answers to families of other women, possibly murdered, in the Great Basin area of Wyoming.
There are "as many as 12 that they still haven't identified the murderer, and in some cases there's a very close connection (to Eaton)," she said.
Ron Kimmell shook his head. "I don't know how they cope," he said of the families.
Mason is sympathetic to those families who don't have the peace of at least knowing what happened to their daughters. She is working to arrange a meeting between herself, Sheila Kimmell and Eaton at the Wyoming Penitentiary. In working through Sheila Kimmell, she got word to Eaton that she'd like to meet with him. She made the request after the death of their brother who had cerebral palsy.
Eaton has agreed to meet with Mason, she said, and she wants Sheila Kimmell to be there when she greets her brother for the first time since he was imprisoned for Lisa's death.
After Eaton abducted Lisa at a rest stop outside Casper, he raped her repeatedly and held her hostage for six days in an old school bus. He has been diagnosed as a sociopath.
"I love my brother. He is my brother," Mason said. "What he did was wrong, and I can never forgive him for that. … I can't let it go out of my mind."
She also can't let go of the notion that he may hold information that will bring a measure of solace to people such as the Kimmells.
"If he decides not to talk to Sheila, I'm going to talk to him, and I'm going to beg him to tell me if there was anybody else" he harmed, Mason said.