-- A close family friend of Rachel Shoaf, one of two teens now in prison for stabbing 16-year-old Skylar Neese to death, said that she is still reeling from the fact that a young girl she helped raise, whom she described as having a lot of promise, is a convicted murderer.
“There was never any sign. Not a mean kid, not a bully, didn’t torture animals, and it’s been a long two years trying to come to grips,” Kelly Kerns told ABC News’ “20/20.” “With all of the potential and morals, I don’t even get where this came from.
“This is just so bizarre,” she continued. “I don’t care how you look at it. How you spin it. We’re normal people.”
Kerns said she is an aunt-like figure for Shoaf, who she said she has loved like a daughter for the past 18 years. Since first holding her moments after she was born, Kerns said she has played an active role in Shoaf’s life.
“I’m not kidding, she was the only baby I was ever going to have,” Kerns said.
Kerns described the now 18-year-old as an adventurous, happy child who was blossoming into a young woman full of promise and potential.
“She loved life and there was no reason for her not to,” she said. “People around her loved her.”
But that future came to a screeching halt in early 2013, when then-16-year-old Shoaf admitted her role in a horrific crime that shook the close-knit Morgantown, West Virginia, community to its core. For six agonizing months, residents were shocked over the mysterious disappearance of another sociable teen, Skylar Neese.
Neese, Shoaf and a third girl, Sheila Eddy, were all students at University High in Morgantown. The trio was inseparable. Kerns fondly recalled the excitement surrounding Shoaf’s 15th birthday when she had the opportunity to meet her two new best friends, Neese and Eddy.
“They were two, adorable little girls smiling up at me,” Kerns said.
But Kerns said she began noticing some changes in Shoaf’s behavior, including sneaking out, smoking marijuana and skipping class. At the time, Kerns said she thought they were just typical teenage antics, and despite her worrisome behavior, Kerns said Shoaf kept her grades up, stayed involved in the school theater program and continued to take singing, piano and acting lessons.
By the summer of 2012, however, Kerns said she and Shoaf spent less “quality time” together. But on the morning of July 6, 2012, Kerns said Shoaf made a last-minute decision to spend the day on her boat with her and Shoaf’s mother, Patricia. The young red-head grew up spending her summers on Kerns’ boat, learning how to watertube and swim.
While on the boat, Kerns said Patricia Shoaf mentioned that her daughter’s friend, Skylar Neese, had been missing but Kerns didn’t note anything strange in Rachel Shoaf’s demeanor.
“I mean she was texting all the time. But you see so much of that it didn’t really faze us,” Kerns said.
The next day, Shoaf left for a scheduled away trip to a church camp.
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months and Neese still has not been found. As her disappearance continued to consume the Morgantown area, Shoaf returned from camp and school was back in session.
A substitute teacher, Kerns said she started hearing countless rumors about what happened to Neese, who was caught on surveillance video climbing out of her bedroom window after midnight July 6, 2012, never to be seen again.
The most alarming rumor, by far, Kerns said, was that Shoaf and Eddy were with Neese the night of her disappearance. Even more unnerving for Kerns was the realization that she had spent the day with Shoaf on her boat hours after Neese vanished.
“The story starts unraveling, and we find out they were together,” Kerns said. “It just keeps evolving from searches of the house, of the schools. The girls ended up having to be homeschooled because of all the talk. And the FBI, you know, searched their lockers and took computers. …We knew the girls knew something.”
But nothing could prepare Kerns for what came next. Shortly after Christmas 2012, Shoaf suffered an apparent nervous breakdown and was briefly hospitalized. After her release, Shoaf confessed to police that she and Eddy were responsible for Neese’s disappearance, had brutally stabbed her to death and left her body in the woods in Pennsylvania.
She also led authorities to the murder scene, located across state lines in Brave, Pennsylvania and recounted how she and Eddy meticulously planned to kill their best friend.
Both were charged as adults. Shoaf pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years on Feb. 26, 2014, with the possibility of parole in 10 years. Eddy pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for her role in Neese's death and was sentenced to life in prison on Jan. 24, 2014, with the possibility of parole in 15 years.
Although Kerns said her relationship with Shoaf and her mother has been strained since the sentencing, she hopes to remain a part of their lives.
“I still love this child,” Kerns said. “You can’t stop loving a child,” Kerns said.
She said she has twice visited Shoaf since her incarceration but the two have never spoken of the murder. Shoaf lives lodged in a juvenile facility but will be transferred to an adult facility near the end of the month.
“I’m absolutely freaking out about her going to an adult prison,” Kerns said. “I’m scared to death for her, but I understand Skylar was scared, too.”