Bright paintings and figures etched with pencil hang in frames – a tribute to the artist.
Loved ones look on and remember the hands that created the pieces, abstract portraits and vivid landscapes made by a young mother’s shading and stroking. The art tells the story of a blooming life before it was cut short.
Sydnee Curts said each of her family members keep the illustrations hanging in their homes. The pieces reflect 22-year-old Shayla Curts’ soul, free as the figures on her canvas. Just a year apart in age, sisters Shayla and Sydnee grew up joined at the hip. Dance classes, play dates – where one was, the other trailed somewhere not far behind.
But even as a curly-haired elementary school child, Shayla had a glow her sister admired. While Sydnee leans on practicality, Shayla’s world was boisterous, complex, and didn’t include stringent social rules. Shayla splashed color in her older sister’s life, skipping and singing as she went.
“She taught me to always be myself and not care what other people think,” she said. “You’re beautiful, just as yourself.”
Relentless independence made young Shayla seem grown-up, at times more than her family was prepared for. Her grandmother, Leesa Grauel, laughed as she remembered a then-7-year-old girl lost in a crowded airport. The family set out in a frenzy looking for her.
Minutes later, they found the little girl standing in line at a coffee shop in the terminal. Seeing their relieved faces, she couldn’t understand why everyone was so concerned about her. She’d just wanted Starbucks.
But like a person with decades of life experience, Shayla had a depth that made her exceptionally wise.
“She just had her own way,” Grauel said. “And her own way was so special.”
With a baby girl on the way, the 31-week pregnant mother had a full life ahead of her. She cherished spending time with her two young children, an energetic 4-year-old named Mars and a smiley baby named Winter.
Her children’s names were meant to fit a celestial theme; Shayla was fascinated by angels and spirituality. She’d named the child she was carrying Soleil, which means “sun” in French. The name was fitting, Sydnee said, because Shayla embodied light.
“She shined bright,” she said. “She was just her.”
But on Dec. 6, the young mother’s light was forever dimmed at the hands of a gunman. A single moment took the family’s best friend, leaving a dark space just as her life’s picture was starting to come together.
The Dec. 6 shooting
Emmett Williams, 33, has been charged with Shayla’s death, according to documents filed in Jackson County Circuit Court. His arraignment is scheduled for Monday afternoon.
The evening Curts died, Kansas City police were dispatched to the 4900 block of Bellefontaine Avenue around 8 p.m. Officers entered a residence and found the young mother unresponsive, suffering from an apparent gunshot wound to the head. Witnesses told detectives a man visited the home where Curts was staying that night before, abruptly saying he was leaving.
Both reported hearing a gunshot before seeing someone run north on Bellefontaine, prosecutors say.
Around 4:15 a.m., Williams allegedly called 911 from the 2600 block of Blue Parkway and confessed that he “had shot someone.” During an interview with homicide detectives, Williams said he had been dealing with emotional problems, as well as substance abuse issues, that caused him to “snap.” He then led them to a wooded area where he had hidden a 9mm firearm and other belongings, according to prosecutors.
Sydnee said Williams was a relative of someone who lived at the home, but he and Shayla weren’t friends. At one point during the evening, he’d made Shayla uncomfortable, Sydnee said, so she went downstairs.
Minutes before her death, Curts made a status update on Facebook:
“Bro wtf is wrong with some people???”
Motherhood, matching outfits and more time
Wearing flowery gowns, one in pink and one in blue, young Shayla and Sydnee posed side-by-side for a photo. Dezirae Curts, their mother, always dressed them in matching outfits. Like twins, Sydnee said, with a bit of an age gap.
The girls grew up in Johnson County and attended a few different elementary schools. Shayla spent her playtime coloring 2D models, cutting and pasting paper outfits she’d designed onto their frames. The girls were close to their younger cousins, especially now-21-year-old Reese, who accompanied them to school and social functions.
“Three peas in a pod,” Sydnee called them.
When the years of matching came to an end, Shayla adopted her own style, one of many ways she showcased her individuality. In high school, the Park Hill South student practiced makeup looks and dreamed of being an artist who’d paint in a studio all day. She graduated with that goal in the back of her mind.
In 2018, she welcomed Mars into the world. The baby was a surprise, but one met with joy and anticipation. Having an infant in her arms, she’d told her sister, made her realize what truly mattered. All her past preoccupations paled in comparison. From that point on, her life revolved around her children.
It wasn’t always easy, Grauel said. Like many, Shayla struggled to realize just how beautiful she was. Before her murder, she was beginning to finally recognize what her family saw in her. She became more proud of her art and who she’d become. If she’d only had a little more time, she would’ve been unstoppable.
Grauel thinks her granddaughter would’ve helped young people who’d been through some of the same battles as her. That was Shayla: always accepting, willing to guide others along the way.
“She would’ve given back in this world like nobody knows,” she said. “She could’ve changed the world – she really could have.”
Shayla leaned on the support of her best friend – her mother. Shayla and Dezirae talked and saw each other constantly, joking about the day’s quirks and surprises. Shayla was always ready with a quip that gave way to belly-aching laughter.
Grauel remembers those laughing fits, like when she put on her stepfather’s clothes and did a perfect impersonation of him – voice, gait and all. Harmless pranks were a thing to be expected.
“Shay was the light of the room,” her aunt, Darcie Curts said. “She wanted to make everyone laugh all the time.”
Now the family finds itself grappling with an empty space. There’s silence where there should be laughter.
“We have to say goodbye, and we don’t even know how,” Darcie said.
‘Her death will not be in vain’
Williams was charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action for the death of Shayla.
But Sydnee said she wants to see Williams charged with two counts of first-degree murder for the death of Shayla Curts and baby Soleil. She feels doubly wronged by Williams and wants the severity of his charges to reflect the impact of what was stolen away.
“I want him to get the ultimate punishment,” she said. “He stole my niece – her baby.”
Mike Mansur, a spokesman for the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, said Friday prosecutors would evaluate the case to determine whether additional charges would be filed regarding her pregnancy.
Though Shayla was killed, her grandmother says the family wants to keep her memory alive. She promises something positive will come from this tragedy, something that offers hope, like the many small acts of kindness the young mother had already done for so many.
“If she saw somebody in a parking lot struggling to get their groceries in their car, she would drop everything she was doing and go help them do it,” she said. “Her death will not be in vain.”
As they search for a way to honor her legacy, despite her death, they’re reminded of the ways that Shayla shone bright; all the ways she taught them to live their best lives.
Grauel remembers a little girl who’d hound her with questions of “Why are we here?” and “Where are we going?” But it was Shayla who showed her many things – how to have fun, how to stand out – but most importantly, how to love well.
“The world lost a beautiful soul the day that she died,” she said.
This story was originally published January 7, 2023 6:00 AM.