The events of a winter’s night had to be uncovered after a young Colorado woman vanished shortly after leaving her job.
Kelsie Schelling, 21, failed to show up for the morning shift at the “Floor & Decor” store in Denver on Feb. 5, 2013. Friends and coworkers grew concerned: The last time anyone saw her was when she’d clocked out from her shift the previous evening and drove off.
“All of her friends all of a sudden came out of the woodwork and said, ‘I’ve been trying to reach Kelsie, and I can’t get ahold of her,’” Kelsie’s mother, Laura Saxton, told “Dateline: The Last Day,” streaming Tuesdays on Peacock. “And that was the thing that, like, freaked me out because she was constantly communicating with somebody.”
Laura grew even more concerned when she went to Kelsie’s apartment and nothing seemed out of place or missing except for Kelsie’s car.
Authorities, including Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent Kevin Torres, paid careful attention to Kelsie’s known movements on Feb. 4, 2013. The day, if anything, seemed typical: a 10:00 a.m. doctor’s appointment; clocking in for her shift at 1:00 p.m.; and leaving work at 9:54 p.m..
But as investigators narrowed in on Kelsie’s movements, they discovered that her doctor’s appointment had been anything but typical: Kelsie had gone to confirm that she was pregnant.
Kelsie’s relationship with the child’s father, former college basketball player Danthe Lucas, wasn’t the most stable. They were an on- and off-again couple. Still, though her pregnancy gave her loved ones pause, they were excited to welcome a new addition to their family.
That excitement was extinguished when Kelsie disappeared.
Danthe told Kelsie’s mom that he’d last seen her after her Feb 3 shift — at around 2:00 a.m. on Feb. 4 — and everything seemed fine. But then he mentioned that Kelsie had frequently talked about California, which made sense to her family: Kelsie had moved there with friends about a year before she went missing, but returned to Colorado six months later due to living costs.
“We made several contacts in that area,” Torres told “Dateline’s” Andrea Canning. “And nobody had heard from her.”
Then Kelsie’s friend and coworker, Aly Cox, told Torres that, months before her disappearance, Kelsie called out of work because she had bruising on her neck. According to Cox, Kelsie had said that her father, Doug Schelling, caused her injuries.
Doug Schelling denied the accusations.
“I had nothing to do with it,” Doug told “Dateline: The Last Day.” “But a good interrogator, they can just pretty much make you feel like, ‘Wow, I’m getting blamed for this?’ It was pretty tough.”
Eventually, Torres was able to clear Doug in his daughter’s disappearance — he was out of town at the time his daughter had been injured.
Investigators then looked into Kelsie’s mental health history, which included two suicide attempts in the past. Could Kelsie have faced a mental health crisis in the wake of learning she was pregnant?
A break in the case came when they finally found video of Kelsie’s car in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Pueblo, Colorado, two hours south of where she had last been seen. Surveillance video showed an unidentified man parking it there on the night of Feb. 5, leaving it overnight, and returning early the following day to drive it away.
Police eventually found Kelsie’s car abandoned at a hospital in Pueblo, but there was no record of Kelsie ever seeking medical attention there. Surveillance video showed, yet again, an unidentified man exiting the driver’s seat and walking away.
Danthe Lucas lived with his grandmother in Pueblo.
“That opened up a whirlwind of other thoughts and emotions,” Kelsie’s brother, Colby Schelling, told “Dateline: The Last Day.” “It almost opens up Pandora’s box, like, where could she be?”
Investigators then discovered that someone had used Kelsie’s bank card at a local ATM on Feb. 5: A security camera captured Danthe Lucas using Kelsie’s vehicle and ATM card to withdraw $400.
It was enough to bring Lucas in on charges of identity theft.
But during questioning, Lucas said Kelsie regularly gave him her bank card to help pay his bills. And, when questioned about Kelsie, he gave several different accounts of when and where he last saw her.
Ultimately, however, there was nothing tying Lucas to Kelsie’s disappearance that would’ve allowed authorities to charge him in the case.
Years went by, and there were no new leads to show investigators what happened to Kelsie Schelling.
“She loved Danthe with all her heart, unconditionally,” Torres said of Kelsie. “But Kelsie would often confide in her friends that Danthe didn’t feel the same way about her. And he was very degrading to her.”
Torres said the relationship had “all the markers” of domestic violence, but there was little they could do without a reporting complainant. He also suspected that it was Lucas — not Kelsie’s father — who’d caused the bruising on Kelsie’s neck that forced her to miss work.
Three years passed with few leads … until Lucas’s ex-girlfriend called authorities out of the blue.
She claimed that Lucas admitted to her that he was the one seen in the surveillance videos driving Kelsie’s car.
On that basis, Torres got a search warrant for Lucas’ phone — which was still in their evidence locker from their initial meetings — just in the nick of time: Lucas’s texts would have expired just one day later.
The messages revealed a back-and-forth between Kelsie and Lucas, beginning when Kelsie sent a sonogram photo of the baby to Lucas after her doctor’s appointment on Feb. 4, 2013. Lucas wasn’t thrilled, according to Torres.
That night, as revealed in a series of texts, Kelsie left the “Floor & Decor” and drove two hours south to Pueblo where Lucas lived. It first seemed Lucas was standing her up, telling her he was on the way but never arriving. After about an hour of waiting, however, Lucas instructed her to head toward his grandmother’s home.
Kelsie texted him when she arrived; that was her last message. Torres believed Lucas and Kelsie fought about her pregnancy before Lucas murdered her in his grandmother’s home.
After tapping Lucas’s new phone, investigators caught wind that he was heading to the airport to make a run for it.
They arrested Lucas just before he boarded a plane. Back in an interrogation room, Lucas admitted to moving Kelsie’s car but stopped short of confessing to any other involved in her disappearance.
Four years after Kelsie disappeared, authorities arrested him on charges of murder.
“He was not interested in being a father or being connected to Kelsie in that particular way,” Assistant District Attorney Tony Marzavas told “Dateline: The Last Day.” “He was very hesitant to have her go through with the pregnancy.”
In 2021 — more than eight years after Schelling was last seen leaving work — a jury found Lucas guilty of first-degree murder.
“Boy, if it had been any other way, it would have been devastating,” said Kelsie’s father, Doug Schelling. “It was a relief.”
“What I feel relief about is: I know he’s not going to hurt anyone else. That’s what I feel,” said Kelsie’s mother, Laura Saxton. “I really did not gain any comfort or peace; it’s a hollow victory… I didn’t get her back, and that’s what I wanted the most.”
Kelsie Schelling’s body has never been found.
Danthe Lucas was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“Dateline: The Last Day” is available to stream on Peacock.