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Keila Knowles

Park Rapids woman found dead Monday

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By Sarah Smith

Friends hadn’t been able to contact Kiela Knowles on Sunday, Feb. 23. Toward the afternoon, one friend text messaged Harley Leritz and was told that “she was in bed sleeping.” An uneasy feeling began creeping among the friends.

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Knowles’ father, Mel Knowles, found Kiela in bed early Monday morning at her Park Rapids apartment on his way to his job in Audubon. Police were called. She was naked with a pillow over her face. She was deceased.

Videotape of the building halls showed Leritz going in and out of the Middle School apartment several times Sunday, according to Park Rapids police.

Wednesday Leritz was arraigned in the strangulation murder of Knowles, 19. The 21-year-old who had just reconnected with the victim on Facebook last fall was facing Second Degree Murder charges.

Leritz showed up at Knowles’ apartment late Monday afternoon and was arrested by officers processing the crime scene.

He said the death was accidental. Video tapes from the building indicate he was the last to see her alive Sunday.

Leritz was arraigned Wednesday on the charge of Second Degree Murder and is being held without bail on a second charge, Criminal Sexual Conduct in the Fourth Degree. He is in the Hubbard County jail.

None of the friends who met Leritz on Main Avenue in 2011 knew much about him, they admitted. And those that met him after 2012 knew nothing about him being on probation for a sex crime involving a young girl earlier that year.

Kym Weeks said after 2011 the group drifted apart, but then reconnected through Facebook last fall.

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Both Knowles and Leritz were local kids from broken homes. Both attended Park Rapids Area High School. Neither received degrees. Leritz’s Facebook page indicates he graduated from Menahga High School in 2011.

They met during the summer of 2011 on Main Avenue, where lots of teenagers hang out.

Her Facebook page is a mercurial testament to a life that had deep reservations about relationships, but she was still yearning for the one who left, hoping alternatively for a fresh start and to seeing the two-year boyfriend again.

“I still don’t have a heart yet it’s shattered in a million pieces,” Knowles posted Feb. 22. Her ex-boyfriend was seeing another woman, she posted.

But by Saturday night she’d posted: “Can’t wait till I see him again soon its been to damn long almost two years.” (sic)

A reconciliation seemed possible.

“Well, tonight turned out to be a very good night,” Knowles posted later Saturday.

She had given birth to a son two years ago that was staying with grandparents last weekend. The boy’s biological father has never been in the picture, her friends said. But there was universal praise that Knowles was a good mother. Several pictures of her and her son appear on her Facebook page. The boy remains with his grandparents.

“It’s been really hard on everyone,” said friend Lori Hanson Holder.

After Leritz’s arrest a virtual barrage of comments were posted on his Facebook page, many calling him a “chomo” a slang version of a child molester.

Others vigorously defended him and asked the anger to stop.

One friend, Zachary Smith, was particularly bothered by the tone the discussion had taken.

“What ever happened to innocent until proven guilty?” he asked.

“All I can say it the way people act in times like these is when their true colors show through humanity is becoming more and more disappointing,” he said. (Sic)

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According to friends, Knowles and Leritz became re-acquainted last fall via their Facebook pages.

Both of their pages attest to the fact that they had recently begun to “friend” each other.

Kym Weeks was part of that group. She said about 10 friends, including Knowles, got together Friday night to just hang out.

It was many of the group that used to hang out on Main Avenue, Weeks said.

“She was good, happy,” Weeks recalled. “We were just hanging out having fun.”

Hanson Holder said Kiela “did not do drugs or alcohol.”

Weeks, too, said she was a dedicated mom who had a weekend break and was enjoying the time off.

Kiela Knowles loved living downtown, loved being able to walk to the movie theater and the Thursday night concerts, and loved seeing young people driving up and down Main.

“She was a happy outgoing person,” Weeks said. The two women met at Park Rapids Area High School.

“She was someone who was always there for you, someone you could turn to.”

Weeks started a Facebook page to commemorate Knowles’ life. By late Thursday it had nearly 120 people following it, posting “RIP” messages to the deceased.

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Neither Weeks nor Hanson Holder can explain a reason for the crime, since both believed the victim and accused had a casual relationship.

“As far as I know they were just friends,” said a mystified Weeks.

As a result, the murder saddened and surprised them.

Hanson Holder said Leritz “was an alcoholic” and seemed to have problems maintaining sobriety. She was shocked to learn of his criminal past.

“I don’t deal with people like that,” she said.

In 2012 Leritz was sentenced to 30 days in jail and 10 years of supervised probation in the 2012 sexual contact complaint. The victim in that complaint was between the ages of 13 and 15, court records said.

Wednesday, Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne asked for $3 million unconditional bail and $2 million conditional based on two prior probation violations that he said involved alcohol use.

Judge Robert Tiffany, appearing by an ITV hookup from Bagley, set bail at $1.5 million unconditional and $1 million with numerous conditions in the murder case. The no bail condition was set in the felony probation violation case, which is Tiffany’s habit.

Tiffany said it would be “inimical to public safety” to set Leritz’s bail any lower.

Only a handful of spectators in the crowded lobby were allowed into Hubbard County’s small courtroom, where the ITV setup is located. That left many standing outside in the hall during the proceedings.

Under Minnesota law, prosecutors can only level Second Degree Murder charges in a death case. A grand jury must indict an accused person to raise the charge to First Degree Murder.

Dearstyne would not say if he would convene a grand jury in the case, but that has been his practice in the past.

Leritz was represented by public defender Paul Thompson. Before his court appearance, the defendant filled out the paperwork and qualified for the indigent defense.

Thompson argued for lower bail, contenting Leritz was a lifelong resident of the area. But because the probation violation is tracking along with the murder case, the no bail provision prevails.

Hanson Holder said Leritz has been living an itinerant life, moving from one home to another, and only recently moved in with his biological father in Menahga. She agreed with the high bail provision.

Leritz has previously been convicted of traffic and liquor charges in addition to the Fourth Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct charge.

The murder charge would be the third alleged violation of his probation, Dearstyne said, in asking for the higher bail.

Second degree murder, punishable by 40 years in prison, is defined as someone who “causes the death of a human being with intent to effect the death of that person or another, but without premeditation.”

No funeral services had been announced by the time this edition of the Enterprise went to press Friday.

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Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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