COLUMBIA — Nov. 30, 2009, turned out to be devastating for Robin Nuttall.
It began with an ordinary Monday morning routine — wake up at 5:10 a.m. for boot camp class at Columbia’s Activity and Recreation Center, throw on workout gear, check e-mail.
She was putting on her shoes when she heard a familiar name on the morning news.
Karen Kahler had been shot to death two days earlier. Karen Kahler was Robin Nuttall’s boot camp instructor.
Kahler’s estranged husband, James Kraig Kahler, was expected to be charged in the killing. Their two teenage daughters, Emily and Lauren, were also shot to death.
Karen Kahler and her children, including a young son, Sean, had been visiting her grandmother in Kansas for Thanksgiving. Only Sean, now 11, escaped unharmed.
Kahler's grandmother, Dorothy Wight, died of gunshot wounds in the hospital.
As Nuttall began to realize what she was hearing on the news, she was at a loss. She was getting ready for a class without an instructor.
The only thing that made sense to her was to go to the gym.
“I wanted to go be with people that would also know what I’m going through,” Nuttall said. “And I think almost all of us showed up that morning.”
In the year since Karen Kahler's death, a core group of her students at the ARC has remained together, bound by shared tragedy and the friendships she fostered while she was their teacher.
“In a way it’s unfortunate, but her death did, I think, bring us closer together and make us a really cohesive group,” Nuttall said.
As a tribute, they have organized STOmP Domestic Violence to remember her life and raise awareness of domestic violence.
The event, scheduled for Saturday, is a boot camp session geared toward working with people of all fitness levels, with proceeds going to True North, a Columbia shelter for victims of domestic abuse.
“We could have done a number of things, but boot camp really made sense in a way to challenge people and be something different, yet honor her memory,” Nuttall said.
Strength in numbers
News of Kahler’s death trickled slowly to her boot camp students on that morning one year ago. Some of them arrived showing no indication of knowing what had happened.
“They just walked in completely unprepared,” said Keith Fernandez, one of Kahler’s students. “It was surreal. There was just a pall.”
Johnna Leak, another personal trainer and one of Kahler’s colleagues at the ARC, met them as they entered the facility.
Leak offered the opportunity to just sit and talk, to leave the gym or to initiate the class.
“We just sort of came together and decided we would work out in her memory,” Fernandez said. “It’s what she would want us to do.”
There were laps run. There were stretches. But there were also tears as they openly cried.
“We somehow made it through that morning,” Nuttall said. “It was really, really hard. But it almost became: ‘You’re not going to stop me. You can stop (Karen), but you’re not going to stop me from benefiting from what she had to teach.’ ”
Portrait of a ‘rock star’
One of the biggest tragedies in the days following Kahler’s death, Nuttall said, was that her character became lost in the dramatic details of the killings.
The Karen Kahler remembered by her students was a sunny personal trainer capable of inspiring an entire room with her infectious smile. She would beam whenever she talked about her children, said Darla Atkins, a boot camp member.
“She really had the most warm smile about her,” said John Johnson, another of her students. “It really made you feel welcome.”
As a cyclist, Johnson had joined the class in 2009 with the confidence that he already was in good shape. But he said he “had a rude awakening as far as what was going on in the class.”
“The hair on my legs hurt the next day, it was that intense,” he said. “But Karen was very motivational — a good person at encouraging you to challenge yourself.”
Exercising intensely at 5:30 a.m. can be difficult, Kahler’s students said, but she pushed them and encouraged them to be what she called rock stars.
“That was thrown out whenever an individual was particularly good,” Fernandez said. “She’d say, ‘If you wanna be a real rock star, then you’ll do it this way.’ ”
Kahler used to tell her class that she would sit at home in the evening with a glass of wine, coming up with themes for classes, such as imitating circus animals.
“We had to pretend to be a crocodile, or we had to pretend to be a camel,” Nuttall said. “And it was just completely ridiculous, but you had to laugh because it was always fun.”
But most important to the group was the camaraderie she fostered among them. From day one, Nuttall said, Kahler made it clear the class was about community, not competition.
“I think that’s really what motivated us and what has kept us together as well after her death,” Nuttall said.
The class knew that she had serious problems in her personal life, but noted that she always maintained a positive attitude and was truly invested in the well-being of her students.
“She was a real rock star,” Atkins said.
'We had seen the bruises.'
But behind Karen Kahler's smile was a strained, and occasionally violent, relationship with her husband.
She had filed for divorce in January 2009, but her husband, who goes by Kraig, wouldn’t leave her alone. In March, Columbia Police arrested him on suspicion of third-degree domestic assault.
In a petition for an order of protection after the assault, Karen Kahler detailed several incidents that revealed her husband’s violent temper. For example, she said that on the night of Dec. 31, 2008, he pushed her down in the street, leaving her with a pulled hamstring and a bump on her head.
“We all knew because, obviously, it was in the paper," Nutall said,"We had seen the bruises, we knew that there were bad things going on in her life. We knew she was dealing with a lot of stuff.”
At the time, Kraig Kahler was Columbia’s Water and Light director, a position he held from mid-2008 until Sept. 9, 2009, when City Manager Bill Watkins asked for his resignation.
In a news release, Watkins said he had no doubts in Kahler’s “professional integrity and intelligence, but he is experiencing some difficult family issues at this time.”
By the time Kahler resigned, Karen and the children had moved out, into a rented house in Columbia. Away from her husband after 23 years together, she was taking courses at MU and working toward becoming a physical therapist.
“She was bound and determined that this was not going to be what her life was about,” Nuttall said. “She was ready to go forward, and she was moving forward. She had the girls in counseling to help them maybe avoid ever getting into the same type of situation.”
Nuttall added: “Her life was completely ahead of her. She was free. She was going forward and making such positive changes.”
The domestic-assault charge against her husband was scheduled to go to court on Dec. 2, 2009 — the Wednesday after her death. The charge was dropped in January.
Kraig Kahler has yet to face trial in Osage County, Kan. The preliminary hearing has had multiple delays. It now is scheduled for 9 a.m., Dec. 21-22, said Barry Disney, one of the state prosecutors in the case.
Sean Kahler, who since the killings has moved in with family, will testify via closed-circuit video. Kraig Kahler could face the death penalty if convicted.
STOmP Domestic Violence
Meanwhile, the boot camp group continues to gather twice a week. After Karen Kahler’s death, Leak became the permanent instructor. She said she tried “to give them what they wanted, what they had experienced with Karen.”
Leak is not Kahler, the students said, but that’s not a bad thing. She made the transition smooth, Fernandez said.
“She is probably one of the main reasons that we’re still a group there,” he said. “I don’t know that many individuals could do that after a tragedy. And we’re going now as strong as we ever did.”
It helps, Leak said, that they are a “very dedicated and motivated and goal-oriented group. It’s kind of like a family.”
The group’s members don’t hesitate for a moment to say they are a family. Each person brings something different to the table, Fernandez said — strengths that work well together.
“It’s almost like you’re getting up in the morning because you know you’re going to see your friends,” Nuttall said. “You know you’re going to laugh, you know you’re going to have a good time and talk to people you know.”
During a recent workout, a song by Ke$ha was playing (“I’mma fight till we see the sunlight,” she sang). The students gave one another encouragements, congratulating small victories and motivating during challenging stations.
As they finished and gave one another final pats on the back, the sky began to show the first signs of sunlight.
On Thursday, the boot camp group will be at Houlihan’s, which plans to donate 10 percent of all proceeds that night, including bar receipts, to True North. The group will solicit donations at the restaurant and sign up people for the STOmP Domestic Violence boot camp.
The goal of Saturday's event, Fernandez said, is to bring awareness of domestic violence home because sometimes the word goes in one ear and out the other.
“If it reaches one individual, then we’ve done our little part,” he said. “If there’s an additional awareness to realize what is going on out there, then maybe we’ve made a difference beyond raising some money.”
“It’s a shame it’s happened,” he said. “A great individual seemed to be getting her life going forward from what she had been through, and to have it cut so tragically. And her son — he’s going to carry this around with him for the rest of his life.
"You just hope he finds some type of positive out of this and is able to go forward in life.”