COLUMBIA — Inspired by the movie "Josie and the Pussycats," Emily Kahler and her good friend Cheyney Coles decided to start a band when they were in sixth grade. Cheyney got a guitar for Christmas, and Emily learned to play the drums. The two were also in marching band together.
Emily's mother, Karen Kahler, had been in a family band growing up and quickly took the budding band under her wing, Cheyney's mother, Cherie Coles, said.
Two years later, Karen suggested that the girls consider Emily's younger sister, Lauren, as a replacement bass player. The girls practiced several times a week in Karen's home office, and Lauren provided comedic relief.
"When she first started playing the bass,” Cherie Coles recalled, “the bass was bigger than she was."
Cheyney and Cherie Coles of Weatherford, Texas, are among the many friends mourning the shooting deaths of Emily, Lauren and Karen Kahler on Saturday evening at the home of Karen's grandmother, Dorothy Wight, in Burlingame, Kan.
“I’m devastated beyond words,” Cheyney Coles said on Monday. “(Emily) is such an amazing person."
Wight, 89, also was shot and was in critical condition on Monday evening. The youngest Kahler child, 10-year-old Sean, escaped from the home.
James Kraig Kahler, former Columbia Water and Light director, is charged in the shootings.
Emily graduated from Rock Bridge High School in June and was a first-year student at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy, and Lauren was a junior at Rock Bridge. Sean is a fifth-grader at Rock Bridge Elementary School.
Paige Shipma, one of Lauren’s close friends at Rock Bridge High, learned about the homicides when a friend called her on Sunday night and broke the news. “It just felt like my heart was falling out of my chest," Shipma said.
She remembers Lauren as one of the best friends a person could have.
“No matter what she was going though, she always smiled,” Shipma said. “She could light up a room with her smile.”
Emily and Lauren loved their younger brother very much, she said. “You could just see it in their eyes — they just did.”
The Kahler family moved from Weatherford in 2008. Jose Jaramillo was a guitar instructor at Craig's Music in Weatherford when he saw Emily, Lauren and Cheyney setting up in late 2006, playing under the name DaZe Off. He spotted their potential and spent all of 2007 as the band’s producer.
“Their personalities were their instruments,” Jaramillo said. "They grasped everything and just gelled."
The girls started recording at nearby Digimax, a recording studio, in June 2007 and laid down five tracks for a demo.
“They were very passionate about music,” Gary Davis, owner and operator of the studio, said. “I really thought they would go on and be something special.”
In addition to the musical abilities, the two were serious about their studies. Emily started classes at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy in August.
“She was a good student,” Emily Stenger, a fourth-year student at the college, said. “She would have been a good campus leader.”
Lauren also worked hard, Shipma said. “She just wanted to make her parents happy about her grades,” she said.
Kerri Graham, who teaches an Advanced Placement class in biology at Rock Bridge, said Lauren was a grounded, well-liked student. On Monday, Graham was in contact with a few of her other students from the class and said they feel horrible.
“Taken aback is putting it mildly,” she said.
Lauren asked for help when she needed it, Graham said. She ate lunch with Lauren on Monday and Tuesday of last week helping Lauren study for a biology test she had on that Tuesday.
“It takes a person that’s very confident to come in to teachers and ask for help,” Graham said. “I really admired that in her.”
The girls’ deaths hit their academic communities hard.
“The entire campus — students, faculty, staff — is saddened by this tragic and unfortunate situation,” said Bryan Daniels, director of public relations at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy. “Our prayers and thoughts go out to Emily’s family and friends.”
College counselors and two clergy members from campus organizations met with about 40 students on Sunday night, Daniels said. Counseling services will be available all week.
A vigil was held for the Kahler family at 4:40 p.m. at the St. Louis school. Kaitlin Egan posted the event information on a Facebook page created by Shipma in memory of Lauren and her family. Egan said the college thought it would be appropriate to put something together.
“We're all very saddened and shocked that something like this could happen to someone in our own backyard, especially to one of our fellow students,” Egan said.
Jack Jensen, an assistant superintendent in Columbia Public Schools, said both Rock Bridge Elementary and Rock Bridge High mobilized counselors to help students cope.
Rock Bridge Elementary also sent students home with letters notifying parents of the situation and letting them know counselors and administrators visited classrooms and spoke to students.
Shipma said the Rock Bridge High teachers were notified via a mass e-mail, and counselors spoke to the students in all of Lauren’s classes. A moment of silence was held there about 11 a.m. Monday.
Emily was a percussionist during her senior year at Rock Bridge. Band Director Steve Matthews said the wind ensemble, to which Emily belonged, will pay tribute to her at a concert in January at the Missouri Music Educators Association’s conference in Osage Beach.
Matthews plans to work closely with students to incorporate a memorial into the program because he thinks it should come from them. "She was an outstanding student,” he said of Emily. "She had a lot of friends and was well respected by her peers.”
Emily and Lauren stayed close to their Texas friends. Through grief and sadness, Cheyney is trying to stay positive.
"They wouldn't want us to dwell on sadness,” she said. “They would have wanted us to celebrate their life, not their death.”
A memorial video for Lauren was posted to YouTube Monday.
Missourian reporters Michelle Hagopian, Carla Jimenez, Kelsey Mirando, Molly Harbarger and Ben Wieder contributed to this article.