COLUMBIA — Sarah Byers and her family had just sat down to eat dinner on Nov. 10, 2006, at her Holts Summit home when her mother, Bonnie, heard part of a television news broadcast from the next room.
The newscaster said a Holts Summit man had been found dead in Columbia, she recalled.
“My mom said, ‘That might be someone we know,’” Sarah Byers said.
Then they heard the name of the dead man — Chris Byers, her brother.
“I can’t even describe the thoughts that went through my head at that time,” Sarah Byers said. “I was lost.”
A man walking his dog found 37-year-old Byers’ naked and beaten body in a ditch in a north Columbia neighborhood on the morning of Nov. 10. Two days later, Columbia police arrested Donald E. Nickens, now 31, in connection with the slaying.
During Nickens’ trial in the Boone County Courthouse last week, Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight argued that Nickens and Byers were fighting while driving around Boone County after they left a north Columbia bar. They got out of Byers’ car on Blackfoot Road, where Knight told the jury that Nickens fractured Byers’ skull by hitting him with a large rock. He then put him in the trunk of his own car. Knight said Nickens and two women who were in the car drove around Columbia for several hours while Byers struggled to get out of the trunk.
“Donald Nickens put (Byers) in the trunk. It was like a coffin,” Knight said Thursday during closing arguments in the case. “Chris was still alive. He was gurgling and scratching and clawing to get out.”
Later that morning, Nickens dumped Byers’ body in a ditch in a north Columbia neighborhood, Knight argued.
On Thursday, a Pettis County jury found Nickens guilty of second-degree murder and armed criminal action. He is scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 22 and faces up to life in prison.
Bonnie Byers and her husband, Darrell Byers, had gone to Sarah Byers’ house for dinner the night of the slaying. She went to the Holts Summit Police Department to find out if what she heard on the news was true, but nobody was there, she said. She got a call from a Columbia police detective later that night confirming her brother was dead.
“It’s like it’s not real,” Bonnie Byers said. “It’s like a dream state.”
After Sarah Byers learned that her brother had been killed, she called his fiancee, Shari Schneider. Schneider and Chris Byers had recently moved to Pacific.
“Sarah was crying,” Schneider recalled. “I immediately started screaming.”
Sarah Byers and her father went to her sister Kathy Byers’ house to tell her what had happened.
“I knew something was wrong that night, but I couldn’t pinpoint it,” she recalled. “Now that he’s gone, it’s like there’s a hole in our hearts.”
Sarah Byers also called her stepbrother, Kenny Recio (Byers), and told him their brother had been killed.
“It was pretty hard,” he said. “It really hasn’t hit me quite yet.”
Melissa Byers, another sister, was home alone when her phone rang that night. She said she did not believe what her mother said.
“Every time the phone would ring (after that), I would think they would say it wasn’t him,” she said. “Those days after that were a blur.”
Almost all of Chris Byers’ immediate family attended the trial, but his father did not.
“It’s been the most horrible thing for my husband,” Bonnie Byers said. “He’s so devastated.”
Kathy Byers agreed that her father has been struggling since he learned that his son was killed.
“My dad can’t sleep,” she said. “We find him in his room crying.”
Reached by phone on Saturday afternoon, Darrell Byers cried as he talked about what happened to his son.
“It’s hard for me to talk about this,” he said. “I loved him more than life itself.”
He said he could not attend the trial because he couldn’t stand to see the man who killed his son.
“My heart has been empty ever since this happened,” he said. “My whole life has changed.”
The trial was difficult for the Byers family.
“It’s really hard to sit in there and not show any emotion,” said Brenda Palmer, Chris Byers’ aunt. “You want to tell that jury, ‘I’m feeling pain.’”
But she said she also wants to understand what happened on that November night.
“You need every detail,” she said.
All of Byers’ family agreed he was a kind and loving man who loved spending time with his family.
“He had the biggest heart,” Bonnie Byers said. “He would do anything for his family.”
He was also a hard worker, they said, and had started a carpet cleaning business and a marketing company. He also helped set up a recovery group at a church he attended in Holts Summit.
“Chris lit up a room,” Schneider said. “And he was quite the entrepreneur.”
Schneider said she first met her future fiance at an apartment complex in Holts Summit, where he lived in an apartment on the first floor of the building and she lived upstairs.
“I was enamored immediately,” she said. “He was a really good guy. I don’t understand how something like this could have happened to him.”
Shari said her two children from a previous marriage miss Chris Byers terribly. And for Schneider, she said she still can’t believe the love of her life was killed.
“I keep expecting to wake up from this nightmare,” Schneider said. “And when I do wake up, he’s still gone.”