As nearly 40 members of a tight-knit community gathered in Central City on Saturday afternoon, they made sure to remember and pray for Kaylan Ward, a 16-year-old girl found dead last June on a faraway stretch of Interstate 10.
The aunts, uncles, cousins, godparents and pastors had another mission, however: to try to crack open new clues in the year-old case and to find a motive for her mysterious death.
“It’s been a whole year, and there’s been no answers,” said Tamika Thomas, a cousin of Ward’s. “We’re trying to see if anybody out here remembers anything at all.”
Ward died June 4, 2015, of what Coroner Jeffrey Rouse categorized as multiple blunt traumatic injuries. Police said they believed the girl might have been hit by a car, or several cars, on the eastbound side of Interstate 10 near Bullard Avenue.
They found the girl’s body on an overpass about 6:30 a.m., the morning after her family said she had gone missing.
What police never figured out is how and why Ward ended up there.
A year ago, police said she was last seen about midnight in the Central City area where her family members gathered on Saturday. She was walking on Earhart Boulevard near Magnolia Street, asking for a ride to North Miro Street, police said.
After Ward’s body was initially found, her death was treated as “unclassified,” not as a homicide, and her case was assigned to a traffic investigator.
Ward’s mother, however, never believed that her daughter’s death could be an accident. She wrote a book about her, “The Kaylan Ward Story,” released the night before what would have been the teenager’s 17th birthday.
“Someone took my daughter, and they hurt her,” Kenisha Martin-Nelson told The New Orleans Advocate last June. “Someone knows what happened.”
Those sentiments were reiterated Saturday. After a short prayer service, her family and friends set out to search for answers near the house where police said she was last seen.
They intended to deliver fliers door to door in an eight-block radius with information about Ward and how she was killed, hoping for some clue to how the young woman ended up on a highway in New Orleans East.
The family believes Ward got into a car in the Central City neighborhood, where Thomas said she had been visiting a friend.
Although Thomas and others said they suspect foul play in her death, they couldn’t fathom what would motivate someone to hurt Ward. Thomas described her as a loving, “free-spirited” ballet dancer and rising junior at McDonogh No. 35 who had a sweet and kind personality.
“Everyone loved to be around her,” Thomas said.
Another cousin, Irieon Mercadel, agreed. “She was just an energetic, giggly, bubbly person,” she said.
Other family members nodded.
Three of her great-aunts said it was the memory of Ward’s sweet and energetic personality that motivated them to keep searching for answers and to knock on dozens of strangers’ doors hoping to find them.
Brian Scott, Ward’s godfather, said all the family can do is hope.
“We’re hoping for answers. That’s all we’re hoping for,” Scott said, tears forming in his eyes. “We want justice for our angel. Because an angel she sure was to me.”