After dropping out of college to marry the man who would later be charged with killing her, Karen Kahler had finally returned to school to finish her degree.
Daughter Emily, 18, was close to completing her first semester at pharmacy school and planned to graduate at the same time as Mom. Younger sister Lauren, 16, was a talented musician and honor roll student with a wide circle of friends at her Columbia high school.
Now, with husband and father James Kraig Kahler facing Kansas capital murder charges after a Thanksgiving weekend shooting, friends of the three women are grieving in the Missouri college town they called home for a little more than one year.
"She was an awesome woman," said Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, a friend who met the 44-year-old Texas transplant and personal trainer at a pre-dawn boot camp organized by Kahler. "I am simply devastated."
The family moved to Columbia in summer 2008 when Kraig Kahler was hired to run the city utilities department. Although municipal leaders revised their payroll rules to make him the city's highest paid employee, Kahler's personal life quickly unraveled, court records and interviews show.
In January, just weeks after a New Year's Eve incident back in Texas that Karen Kahler said left her with a head injury, cuts and a pulled hamstring, she filed for divorce after 23 years of marriage.
She sought and was granted a protection order in March, leading to criminal assault charges against her estranged husband in April. In September, after Wilson-Kleekamp told three City Council members she feared for her friend's safety, City Manager Bill Watkins asked Kahler to resign from his $150,000-a-year job.
The forced resignation only further angered Kahler, said Wilson-Kleekamp. So did his wife and daughters' growing independence, she said.
"He was losing control of her," Wilson-Kleekamp said. "He basically tried to terrorize her into submission _ and it wasn't working."
At the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, stunned students held a candlelight vigil for their classmate Monday afternoon. News of Emily Kahler's sudden and violent death hit hard, said school spokesman Bryan Daniels. The school has roughly 1,200 students.
"For our campus community, Emily's death is surreal," he said. "We are a small, close-knit college. This is like losing a member of the family."
Lauren Kahler made a quick impression as a Rock Bridge High School junior. She was a member of the school's marching band and wind ensemble, building upon a musical acumen first honed in an all-girl garage band back in Weatherford, Texas, where the family lived for at least a decade before moving to Columbia.
Nearly 900 friends joined a Facebook tribute page to Lauren. A memorial video on YouTube shows her deep Texas roots, from the oversized cowboy hat she wears in one photo to the Texas Rangers baseball cap and foam No. 1 finger seen in a picture apparently taken at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Karen Kahler had enrolled in the University of Missouri to complete the health science degree she abandoned to get married.
Kahler also faces one count of attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of his estranged wife's 89-year-old grandmother at her home south of Burlingame in Osage County. A spokeswoman for the Kansas attorney general's office said Tuesday that Wight remains in critical condition.
The couple's 10-year-old son Sean was at Wight's home but reportedly ran for help and was uninjured. Officials said he was in the care of unspecified relatives.
Kahler complained in an Oct. 9 court filing that he could not afford temporary child support and alimony payments. His attorney Ronald Evans did not immediately return a telephone call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Associated Press writer John Hanna in Topeka and Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo. contributed to this report.