Sophie Grech has treasured memories of taking her niece Kayleigh Slusher to Camille Park in Napa.
Every time they’d visit, “She would run straight for the playground,” recalled Grech. “She’d love to go down the slides. She’d run around singing — she loved to sing.”
But those visits came to an abrupt end in 2014 when Kayleigh died. She was just 3 years old.
In a case that horrified the community, Kayleigh’s mother, Sara Krueger, and her live-in boyfriend Ryan Warner, were convicted in 2017 of beating the girl to death.
Both were sentenced originally to life without parole but later became eligible for a sentence of 25-years-to-life.
Grech is Krueger’s half-sister. She was just 17 when her niece Kayleigh died.
“I wanted to do something to honor her,” said Grech, about Kayleigh.
And earlier this month, that’s exactly what she did.
Using a GoFundMe campaign, Grech and almost two dozen other supporters raised $1,140 to buy and install a park bench in Kayleigh’s honor.
Grech explained where the idea for the memorial came from. She’d recently watched a documentary about a boy named Gabriel Fernandez who died in Southern California under similar circumstances.
“It broke my heart,” said Grech. It also “made me feel heartbroken about my niece all over again and brought up all these horrible memories.”
Grech, now 24, is a mother herself. “I have a little girl that is around her age,” she said of Kayleigh at age 3.
That was a huge reason “why I decided to do it now,” she said of the bench.
Working with the city of Napa Parks & Recreation Services Department, Grech ordered the bench. A local trophy shop made a little plaque for it.
Between two hearts, the sign reads: “In loving memory of Kayleigh Slusher. 2010-2014.”
She was able to pick the spot for the bench at Camille Park, said Grech. “It’s a really special location. We spent a lot of time there.”
Grech said it didn’t take long for the GoFundMe account to reach its goal.
“It was honestly a really good feeling,” that the money was raised so quickly, said Grech. “I just love that people are wanting to keep her name alive. It’s awesome seeing the community be supportive. I don’t want people to forget about her.”
Grech said that she was especially touched that people she didn’t know contributed to the bench.
“With this really sad situation, it just warms my heart that she’s not going to be forgotten.”
She wants others to know about the bench and her niece, “so we can keep Kayleigh’s name alive and people will remember her.”
Grech said her two children know who Kayleigh is and have visited the bench.
“I show them pictures of her,” said Grech. “I tell them she’s an angel in heaven (and that) this bench is for your cousin, and we can come play here all the time and sit on the bench.”
Looking at the plaque and bench today is surreal, said Grech.
“It feels like it’s not real,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
When asked if Krueger knows about Kayleigh’s bench, Grech said she’s not in contact with her half-sister anymore or the Slusher family.
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