In the fall of 2009, a 20-year-old Southern Adventist University student was murdered while on a student mission in Yap, a tiny island state in Micronesia.
The grisly death of Virginia native Kirsten Wolcott made headlines for weeks here but eventually retreated into the fog of yesterday's news. According to reports from the island, she was stabbed repeatedly while jogging near an Adventist school in Yap where she taught second grade.
On the Southern University campus in Collegedale, Wolcott's death left a lasting scar and galvanized students to continue to sign up for missionary assignments. How could a young Adventist missionary, teaching at a church school in a peace-loving little country meet such a violent end, they wondered?
On Yap, population 13,000, the murders in a typical decade can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The mysteries surrounding Wolcott's death could only be answered by someone with a curious mind, a strong heart and an airplane ticket to the western Pacific.
Enter Rainey Park, a May 2011 graduate of Southern Adventist University, who has just the right blend of guile and audacity to say: Why not me? Last year, Park, 22, found money for the trip and recruited a male student, Tyler Barrows, as a travel companion. She also negotiated with the Yapese government for the interview she wanted most, a jailhouse conversation with Wolcott's suspected killer, a 26-year-old islander named Justin Ayin.
Park, with the help of Southern Adventist University journalism professor and author Andy Nash, has produced a book that chronicles Wolcott's interrupted life and the events surrounding her murder on Nov. 19, 2009. The book, "Love, Kirsten: The True Story of the Student Missionary Who Gave Her All," is available at Amazon.com as a Kindle eBook or at the Adventist Book Center in Collegedale.
I sat down with Park last week so she could boil down her findings.
Park has a double major in communications and history, and she said the book started as a 20-page research project for a literary journalism class. She said Wolcott's story, as told on the Southern Adventist University campus, had begun to drift into oral history, a collection of rumors and conjectures. As a history major and journalist, Park craved the documents and interviews with eyewitnesses that would tell Wolcott's story unfiltered.
"It was sad," she said. "These are not the kind of things that are supposed to happen. [Wolcott] faced an abrupt and unnatural death."
Park's first move was to contact Wolcott's parents in Tappahannock, Va., population 2,000. After a series of emails and phone calls, she was invited to visit Tappahannock during her spring break and established a bond of trust with the parents. That eventually led to access to Wolcott's personal journal entries and emails.
"At first, I felt nervous about being a student," Park said. "But now I think I got everything I got because of that."
In Virginia, Park began to piece together fragments of Wolcott's life, her contagious helpfulness and energy for mission work. She examined "huge boxes of newspaper clippings" about the murder collected by Wolcott's parents. Most importantly, she read the postings in a brown-suede journal with two gold snaps that Wolcott had used to chronicle her important life events.
Late last year, Park used a late-arriving check from an internship to buy a $1,300 airplane ticket to Yap, where she would spend two weeks interviewing student missionaries, Yapese citizens, government officials and, ultimately, the jailed Ayin, who Park says has confessed to the murder but is yet to face trial.
While in Yap, Park learned that the little island state has a thriving faith community made up mostly of Adventists and Catholics.
Wolcott turned up missing on a rainy morning about 18 months ago. She liked to run for exercise and had previously been in an email debate with her parents about the safety of jogging off the school's grounds.
Park says: "There is one chilling email from her parents that says something like: 'If you're running regularly, and only you do it, you're marking yourself as a target with a big X.' " Her response, Park said, was: "You guys are killing me."
From her interviews, Park learned that Wolcott decided to run on a nearly deserted mountain road on the day of her death. When she didn't show up at the beginning of the school day, an informal search party of panicked students rushed out to look for her. Her body was found nude in tall grass beside the road, Park said. She had been stabbed more than 10 times.
The murder enraged citizens in Yap, Park said, and soon Ayin became a suspect. He later signed a written confession, she said. On the last day of her visit to Yap, Park sat down with Ayin in an office attached to the island jail where he is being held.
"He looked tough," she said. "He's a stocky guy. He has a buzzed head and very hard eyes. His feet were chained."
Park said Ayin said he encountered Wolcott while she was jogging. He said he had just left a party and was high on drugs and drunk.
"He told me that he was very, very sorry. He's heard what a good person Kirsten was. He said he hopes his trial will go quickly."
Park said as she read Wolcott's journal, which included her devotions, there was an entry from the book of Ecclesiastes noting that there is a time for everything, "... a time to be born, and a time to die."
"I want to be ready when I die," Wolcott noted in her journal, Park said. "I want my death to draw people to Him."
Park said she doesn't know if Wolcott's death was "divinely ordained," but she does know that her passing inspired more Southern Adventist University students to volunteer for student missions worldwide.
That, she says, is a simple fact.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.