Cathy Hocking wasn’t particularly worried about her daughters driving through the night from Phoenix to watch the Good Friday sun rise over the Grand Canyon. She was more anxious about what they might do once they got there.
Her eldest – Karli Richardson, 20, a graduating senior at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix – had a thing for four-wheeling; her youngest – Kelsey Richardson, a precocious Western Carolina University junior – picked jumping out of a perfectly good airplane over a party for her 18th birthday last July. Adventure? It filled them up.
So when the Mooresville-native sisters called on Kelsey’s phone a little after 11 last Thursday night to say they wanted to spend one of the final mornings of their spring break chilling out together on the edge of a majestic red-rock cliff, she told them: Now listen to me – do not climb over the rails and take some stupid picture that you think’s gonna look cool, and fall off. People do it. Don’t do it. Be careful.
Cathy could practically hear them rolling their eyes, and could literally hear the exasperation coming through the speakerphone on their end. Mommmmm... We know, Mom. We know.
I mean it, Cathy said.
Mom, we love you, we gotta go, they said, laughing at her, waving her off. They hung up abruptly.
But just a few minutes later, Cathy’s iPhone chimed with a message from Kelsey: Mom, you know we were just teasing, right?, the text said. We’re gonna be fine. It’s gonna be OK. And Kelsey repeated again: We love you.
“So they got in the car, they headed to the Grand Canyon... and they died,” Cathy Hocking told the Observer Thursday, as she prepared to spend a few hours at her Mooresville home working on her daughters’ eulogies. “I know he died, too; I know I’m not the only one hurting. I can truly understand his parents’ pain, because I know it. But it doesn’t mean I’m not angry, and I think we have the right to be angry.”
An unimaginable tragedy
In fact, Karli and Kelsey Richardson never made it out of Phoenix.
According to the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the two sisters died just after 2 a.m. last Friday, when Karli’s white 2003 Pontiac Sunfire collided with a vehicle driven by a 21-year-old college student who was speeding down the northbound lanes of Interstate 17 in the wrong direction.
There were no signs of either vehicle attempting to brake or avoid the collision, investigators said, and their cars had crumpled such that it reportedly took hours for Phoenix fire officials to free their bodies from the car.
In the case of the person at fault – Keaton Allison, 21, who was originally from Colorado Springs, Colo., and like Karli was a student at Grand Canyon University – authorities have not ruled out the possibility that he was driving under the influence. (A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Public Safety on Thursday told the Observer by email that the medical examiner’s toxicology reports were still pending.)
Less than six hours later, Cathy Hocking was wrapping up tax-preparation chores at her Mooresville home with her husband Gary, from whom she is separated. (Perry Richardson is Karli and Kelsey’s birth father, but Gary Hocking raised them, Cathy says.)
When the knock came, and Cathy opened the door to find two state troopers standing on the front steps of her Mooresville home, at first, she honestly believed for a second that she was getting hauled off to jail.
Are you Cathryn Hocking?, one of them asked.
Yes, she said, nervously.
Can we come in?, he asked.
As she waved them inside, she recalls, “I actually thought, Oh my God, I finally cut off the wrong person. They filed a complaint. They’re gonna say, ‘You have the right to remain silent.’ I really thought they were gonna arrest me,” she says.
But when the officer asked, Are you the mother of Karli and Kelsey Richardson?, just like that, two lives flashed before her eyes as the world fell out from under her feet.
‘A team that couldn’t be beat’
In that flash, she saw Kelsey, her carefree 18-year-old, who was swooned over by modeling agencies thanks to her remarkable beauty and her height (she stood 6 inches taller than Karli), but who passed on offers to make a living in front of cameras to study pre-med Western Carolina – with an eye toward focusing on pediatric oncology at either UNC-Chapel Hill or Duke.
And in that flash, she saw Karli, her 5-foot-5-inch “ball of fire,” who just turned 20 last month, and who had celebrated with a 10-day trip to visit her boyfriend Dale in Okinawa, Japan, where he’s serving his country in the U.S. Army. It seemed to everyone around them that the two would eventually marry, after he was out, and after Karli had gone on to earn her master’s.
They were strong individuals, but they also were a package deal, and as girls growing up in Mooresville, Kelsey and Karli were inseparable, their mom says.
They shared a bedroom until around the time Karli turned 10, at which point Gary and Cathy Hocking gave the sisters their own rooms. “And every morning for about the first eight months when I woke up,” Cathy recalls, “they’d be in each other’s bed. I was like, Really??”
But they were more than just nighttime comfort to one another.
“They were a team that couldn’t be beat,” Cathy says. “They just loved to be together. They did so much together. Practical jokes, dates, they went to Christian camp together, they played softball together, they went to school together, and they went to parties together.
“I mean, they had separate friends, but if Karli’s friends came over to spend the night, Kelsey would be in the room; if Kelsey’s friends came over to spend the night, Karli would be in the room. ... They were inseparable. Oh, God, they were so close.”
Karli left for Arizona the summer after graduating from Statesville’s Collaborative College for Technology and Leadership – an early-college high school program that Kelsey completed, too – but whenever Karli came home to visit, they slept in the same room. If they slept, that is; plenty of nights they’d stay up gossiping long after their parents went to bed.
On April 27, Karli was to graduate with a B.A. in communications from Grand Canyon, a private Christian university of about 20,000 students situated near the heart of downtown Phoenix. Kelsey wasn’t going to be able to come out then because she had a big biology test at Western that conflicted, so to make up for it, the sisters planned the spring-break meet-up.
“Kelsey flew in Tuesday night,” Cathy Hocking says, “and all day Wednesday and Thursday they palled around together. Karli even said, ‘Mom, we’re not spending a lot of time with friends. I really just want to spend one-on-one time with my sister.’ ”
The next thing she knew, her girls were calling to say they were heading to watch day break at the Grand Canyon, and the next thing she knew after that, the troopers were at her front door.
Are you the mother of Karli and Kelsey Richardson?
Cathy crumpled to her living room floor, screaming, crying. They hadn’t said it out loud yet, they hadn’t explained how or why or when, but it was clear: Karli and Kelsey were gone.
‘They had to die together’
What’s not gone, however, are their memories.
In the week since Cathy Hocking got the worst news of her entire life, yes, she’s experienced numbing shock, unimaginable sadness and intense anger, but she’s also given herself permission to laugh again.
She laughs as she talks about Karli and Kelsey’s pet name for each other: Issy. Not Sissy – Issy. She laughs as she explains that even in adulthood, the pair relished the opportunity when they got together to curl up on the couch and watch favorite old episodes of “Scooby-Doo.” She laughs about how Karli would spend an hour getting ready but how Kelsey – “the model! – spent 10 minutes and didn’t care.”
Cathy has also been heartened by the outpouring of support from all sides.
She says Johnson Carriage House & Meadows in Mooresville is hosting the reception at no charge, and the caterer is charging half of what it normally does; Raymer-Kepner Funeral Home of Huntersville also “cut their cost by thousands”; friends donated the burial plot at West Lawn Memorial Park in China Grove; and everyone from fellow members of The Cove Church (where Karli engaged kids in worship every Sunday for years as a “Cove Kids” teacher, and where Kelsey played piano) to complete strangers have sent food to the house, she says.
Cathy attended a vigil for Kelsey Wednesday night at Western Carolina, where friends told her how they wouldn’t have passed classes without tutoring help from her younger daughter; next Wednesday, Cathy flies to Phoenix to walk in Grand Canyon U.’s graduation ceremony, at which she will accept Karli’s diploma while clutching her older daughter’s cap and gown.
And between now and then, Cathy and Gary Hocking will honor and bury their girls in the way many people think they were meant to be buried. Not that anyone ever imagine they would be gone nearly this soon, not that the magnitude of the tragedy isn’t anything less that enormous.
But “people have said it to me all week: ‘They had to die together,’ ” Cathy Hocking says. “If Karli had lived, she would never have been able to live down that Kelsey was gone, and vice versa. The other could have never lived with it. So that’s what everybody says: ‘They had to die together.’ ”
In the end, she says, “they both loved the Lord. They both knew Jesus as their personal savior. We know where they are: They’re in heaven.”