As devoted sisters and best friends, Kelsey and Karli Richardson were upset when they realized that scheduling would keep Kelsey from attending Karli’s college graduation this semester.
Instead, they devised a plan in its place: Kelsey, 18, would take her college’s five-day break for Easter and fly from North Carolina to spend time with Karli, 20, in Phoenix.
As soon as they walked into Karli’s apartment on the Grand Canyon University campus Tuesday night, they filled it with laughter and chitchat. The sisters had dinner with Karli’s three roommates Wednesday, where Kelsey cracked jokes and won them over easily.
The sisters devised a plan Thursday night to drive to the Grand Canyon to see the sunrise together. About the same time, another GCU student, Keaton Allison, was having a silly-face-making contest over dinner with fellow leaders from Young Life, a popular Christian ministry that reaches out to adolescents.
Allison, 21, had found a new life through Jesus less than two years ago and was “on fire” for God, passionate about evangelizing to or praying for anyone who would listen.
The sisters were, too – Karli had a tattoo on her foot of a black mountain and “Psalm 121.”
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip — he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord watches over you — the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all harm — he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”
Karli and Allison don’t appear to have known each other.
The sisters started driving north early Friday morning and were less than 15 minutes away from campus when Allison, driving the wrong way on Interstate 17, crashed into them, killing all three students.
Honoring adventurous, adoring sisters
The Richardson sisters were from Mooresville, N.C., a town north of Charlotte known as “Race City USA” for its many NASCAR teams and racing-related businesses.
Karli and Kelsey were devoted to each other and one couldn’t live without the other, said their mother, Cathy Hocking.
“I always felt when I’d be sick or gone my girls would have each other to take care of. I wasn’t worried about it. People said it couldn’t have been just one because the other couldn’t have a normal, healthy life. Everyone knew how much they truly loved each other.”
Their father, Perry Richardson, said they’d been this close since childhood.
“They had two separate bedrooms but most times you’d go into the room and they were both laid up in the same bed together,” he said. “They always spent time together. If one wasn’t with the other one, they were either texting or calling, they were so close.”
They were both active and played many sports, namely softball. They were heavily involved in Cove Church, where Kelsey played piano in the band. Both were crowned prom queen, and both completed high school and an associate degree concurrently at a local community college, allowing them to enter their universities as juniors.
“I know when Karli went off to college in Arizona, that was pretty hard on Kelsey for that whole first year,” said Kyle Kercher, a family friend who said he has regarded the Richardsons as sisters for the past six years. “They’re only a year apart, so they don’t know life without each other.”
Kercher met them through their mother, Cathy Hocking, and started helping their stepfather, Gary Hocking, build car engines. Soon, he was a regular at dinner and on family trips, like one last summer when about 15 people traveled to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina. It was so much fun that they had planned to do it again this summer, he said.
Last year, Kelsey went off to college at Western Carolina University. She was working toward attending medical school, possibly at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to become a pediatric oncologist and help children with cancer.
She went skydiving for the first time in December, created an Instagram account for her photography and experimented with modeling, appearing in a fashion spread in Lake Norman Magazine.
In her senior year at GCU, Karli was “like the mom in our apartment,” said one of her roommates, Lindsee Ann. They lived together with Ranzel Tinio and Emily Treguboff.
“She always took care of us,” Ann said. “When I would have a bad day, she would just know. I would be in the kitchen and she would be watching her crime show and then she would just stop it and play One Direction ’cause she knows that makes me feel better.”
Karli loved watching “Criminal Minds” and “Bones,” almost as much as eating at her favorite restaurant, Olive Garden. The roommates described her as free-spirited, fun-loving and adventurous. They are all 19 and 20 years old, but Karli “would give the most real and wise advice,” Tinio said.
When all four roommates traveled to Los Angeles for their spring break in 2016 — Karli’s first time in California — she insisted they visit Urban Light at LACMA, a large-scale sculpture consisting of more than 200 restored street lamps.
Karli had just announced her relationship with her boyfriend, Dale Ogburn, on Facebook in March, a few weeks before she traveled to Okinawa, Japan, to see him. Kelsey commented on the status “Now it won’t look as dumb when I call you my brother.”
As soon as Tinio, Ann and Treguboff met Kelsey at dinner last week, they realized she and Karli “were literally two peas in a pod,” Treguboff said.
“I remember telling them at dinner, like, ‘You guys are so inseparable, it makes me think of my own sister-like figure back home.’ And it gave me a sense of peace and comfort knowing that they were together …” Ann said, trailing off.
Both universities held memorials for the sisters Wednesday night. GCU’s memorial was closed to the public.
Remembering a Jesus-loving man
During a memorial for Allison at Living Streams Church in Phoenix Tuesday night, friends remembered him as playful, laid-back and enthusiastic with a shock of long, blond hair, piercing yellow-green eyes, colorful clothing and a beautifully off-key singing voice.
He loved fishing and had a taste for junk food. He was from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and attended Colorado State University before transferring to GCU and experiencing a transformation, according to many at the memorial.
As numerous friends shared stories about Allison, a theme emerged: He was warm, loving, gracious, and absolutely passionate about living by and spreading the word of Jesus.
He adored working with high-schoolers as part of Young Life. At GCU, he was a business major, though sometimes he would skip homework to spend hours alone in his room reading the Bible instead. Casual conversations would turn into talks about Jesus lasting into the early-morning hours.
“Keaton was more than just an average friend for me; he was a great spiritual adviser,” his roommate and close friend Jake Landon said at the memorial. “He was always someone I was able to be vulnerable with and receive support and wisdom from.”
Landon recounted a story about a time Allison visited drive-through coffee chain Dutch Bros around 1 a.m. one night and noticed an employee who seemed down. Allison asked if he could pray for the man, and the man broke down crying. It turned out the man was Landon’s friend, and told him the encounter changed his faith completely.
“Keaton was able to break down your walls with the slightest bit of resistance,” Landon said. “Keaton cared about people so much.”
So far, it’s unclear why Allison was driving the wrong way, how he made it nearly 6 miles doing so, or why neither car appeared to brake before the crash. The sisters’ father, Perry, said he believes the women were driving behind a large vehicle that swerved out of Allison’s way, leaving them no time to react.
Although it is unlikely Allison and Karli ever met, Karli’s roommate Tinio worked with Allison at Dutch Bros.
“We’re all not very sure why this had to happen this way, but the community has definitely supported Keaton and his friends and his family, and it’s absolutely incredible,” Tinio said.
Despite her loss, Kelsey and Karli’s mother, Cathy Hocking, said she both feels sympathy for Allison’s parents and anger about what happened.
“I feel bad for his parents. They’re gonna bury their 21-year-old son. That’s their son. I feel bad for them.
“The report hasn’t been released yet. Don’t know how you can go six miles down a roadway without drinking or something. I’m also very angry because whatever it was he was doing — texting, or whatever it was — he killed both of my children. It’s senseless.
“If I said I wasn’t angry, people wouldn’t believe me. I am, I’m angry. I hate that he died. I hate that my children died. Bottom line: Three kids died and it hurts everybody. I want to know what he was doing.”
How to support the families
Family friend Kercher created a GoFundMe page for the sisters’ family that raised nearly $30,000 in four days and was still accepting donations as of Wednesday afternoon.
Their mother, Cathy, posted on Facebook Tuesday that the family was working to set up memorial funds to put a student through a marketing degree at GCU’s business school and another through medical school at WCU in her daughters’ honor.
“The girls would want this more than flowers, and I would ask you truly consider this instead, as to help another get a degree in what my girls no longer can warms my heart, and I know that Karli and Kelsey would want to help another,” she wrote.
Dutch Bros is fundraising for all three victims this Friday. The Dutch Bros at Central Avenue and Camelback Road will donate the proceeds from every drink sold Friday to victims’ families. A Dutch Bros spokeswoman confirmed that Allison worked at that location.
All 16 Phoenix-area locations will have donation buckets for anyone who wants to donate to the families.
Many of the victims’ loved ones have been coping with the losses by reiterating their faith in God’s plan.
“I think that we find comfort in knowing that (Karli’s) in heaven, hiking and climbing a mountain with Jesus, ’cause she just loved the outdoors, or even snowboarding correctly and not breaking her wrist,” Tinio said, laughing at a memory.
“Karli and Keaton, I don’t think they knew each other … but now they do,” she said, smiling and holding back tears.
Their mother, Cathy, said she believes her daughters are with Jesus now, although she said, “I don’t understand why he took them.”
Their father, Perry, said, “We didn’t have any say so in it. We don’t know what it is and we’re not supposed to understand. It’s just the way it is and the way it will be.”
Cathy said she plans to visit Phoenix for GCU’s graduation April 27 and collect Karli’s degree in her memory.
“I feel that it’s one last thing I can do for her. To be 20 years old and graduate with a bachelor’s degree is an accomplishment. She was already headed to her master’s. I know she’s not here, but she earned that. I want to get it for her and put it with her things because that’s what a good mother does. She worked really, really hard for this. Gonna make sure she gets this.”
She also said that the sisters, inseparable in life and in death, will be buried together “in each other’s arms” in an oversize casket in North Carolina on Friday.
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