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He was so hard to love, but she did

Karen Kraus never had a son, but she treated Kevin King like one, through good times and bad. But she couldn't save him.

By ERIN SULLIVAN
Published September 30, 2006


It's been more than a month since he died, and when Karen Kraus gets lonely, she puts on some of the clothes he left in trash bags at her house and tries to let that comfort her. Kevin King was never really her son, though Karen thought of him as such.

Why she would feel that way is a mystery.

Kevin, by society's standards, was a derelict. He was 31 years old, drug-addled, an unemployed felon and a fugitive wanted by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office for violating parole.

It is not unusual for people living under bridges or in sheds, sleeping on benches or, like Kevin, drifting from couch to couch, to have someone who loves them. But that someone is usually related by blood or marriage. They care because they have to, because it's harder to turn away a person with your same eyes, your same name, a son, a brother, an uncle.

Karen's devotion to Kevin had no legal or biological basis, and her explanation seems too simplistic to account for nearly two decades of struggle.

She says she saw a young man who seemed alone. She saw in him compassion, generosity, someone who could be a good man.

If there's something more dramatic behind her patience and selflessness, Karen either hasn't analyzed it or won't say.

* * *

Karen met Kevin when he was 14 years old and sitting in the back of a police cruiser. He had taken her eldest daughter, also 14, on a joy ride in a stolen Mercedes. Karen rapped on the window and pointed at Kevin.

"Stay away from my daughter," she shouted. "Go ruin someone else's life."

But Kevin apologized, and Karen felt sorry for him. He didn't seem to have anyone who cared about him. He seemed like he needed a home.

* * *

Karen was lost herself, for a while. She was wild and got pregnant when she was just 15 years old. Karen's parents were divorced, and she didn't see much of her dad. Her mother, going through another divorce, moved away and Karen lived in a home for pregnant girls. Then Karen married, had another daughter, and then divorced by age 19.

But when Karen wanted to come home to her mother, she did. She said she didn't live with her during those late, teenage years because she didn't want to - it was never because her mother didn't want her.

Karen thinks her mother's love kept her from becoming like Kevin.

Instead, she has a steady job and a nice house in Clearwater. She is 46, thin and pretty, with olive skin, a dimple in her chin and long, straight dark hair. She is firm but soft and centered. She is a high school dropout who earned a GED. She speaks eloquently and honestly. She has four daughters. She's been divorced twice and is engaged again. She doesn't have a grand life, but she is stable.

When asked if her history had something to do with Kevin, if she saw a bit of herself in him, Karen said no.

* * *

Kevin had a family of his own. But his relationship with them is not clear. His mother, Lori King, did not want to be interviewed - though she did leave a message on a reporter's answering machine saying she did not want a story written about Kevin.

His sister, Michelle Barna, could not be reached. His maternal grandmother, Carol Stazzone, declined to be interviewed, though she said, "It's a very sad situation."

Kevin's maternal grandfather, Joseph Silvasy, was the only family member who agreed to talk.

He lives in St. Petersburg and said he has seen little of Kevin since he was a child. Joseph said that Lori gave birth to Kevin in Ohio when she was 14 years old. His father was never much in the picture and died a few years ago, he said.

Kevin committed his first offense at age 6, Joseph said, when he broke into a neighbor's house at Christmas, unwrapped the presents under the tree and took the ones he wanted.

"Kevin really never had a chance in life," Joseph said.

* * *

But he did have Karen.

She scolded Kevin when he did bad things. She picked him up from jail. She sent him cards and money and visited him in prison, where Kevin served nearly eight years for beating up and robbing a man.

Kevin wrote back, and Karen kept all the cards he sent. Her favorite is hand-drawn, with a stenciled rose on the front.

Inside he wrote: For all the times I was uncertin, you would help. For all the times I had needs, you were there. For all the times I needed to talk, you were there. For all the times I needed an extra foot in my butt, or a lecture, you were there.

What I'm tring to say is you'r the way that a real mom, should be.

I'm looking foreward to another year.

Happy Birthday

You'r son,

Kevin

Even after Kevin and Karen's daughter broke up, he still lived with them from time to time, which was somewhat awkward, Karen said, but Kevin was a part of the family. He babysat Karen's young children and they considered him their brother. He came to family holidays. When he violated parole and didn't want to stay in any one place too long, Karen found him places to live. When Kevin wasn't working usually installing tile or doing some similar kind of labor Karen tried to give him money, but he wouldn't accept it. So Karen gave him jobs so he would take the money.

He visited often and called once a week. Karen said she did not know until this summer how deep he was into drugs.

* * *

If this were fiction, Kevin would have straightened up, gone to college and become a doctor or a coach or someone other than who he became. In the movie version, Karen would be in the audience at his graduation from medical school or law school and he would wave to her from the stage and hand her his diploma.

Instead, Kevin was found on Aug. 7, a Monday, by some people who went to find out why there were a bunch of buzzards in their back yard.

Kevin had last been seen the previous Friday night in a mobile home on Woodland Drive in Hudson, allegedly whacked out on drugs. The landowner, Mo Marsh, said he told Kevin to leave and pushed him out the door, a little after midnight. Kevin's body was found far back on Mo's property. It's pretty back there - past the sandy, withered clearing on which Mo's trailer sits - cool and lush, with strong, vine-covered oaks.

The Pasco County Sheriff's Office found no trauma to the body, other than what the buzzards did. The medical examiner's office has not released Kevin's autopsy and toxicology reports.

* * *

Lori would not allow Karen into the memorial service Aug. 20 at Unity Church in Clearwater.

Karen said that Lori heard, through family members contacted by a Times reporter, that Karen said she was Kevin's mother and that she raised him. (Karen did not say those things to the Times.) Karen said that Lori - being Kevin's biological mother - was insulted. Karen said she never, ever meant to hurt Lori's feelings by talking with the Times about Kevin.

The service was brief, maybe 10 minutes. Lori accepted some flowers Karen brought, but she would not take a condolence card.

After the service, Karen and her family gathered at her home in Clearwater, which is small and tidy and pink. Karen sipped a bottle of Michelob Light. She wasn't angry. Since she learned of Kevin's death, she had been trying to reach Lori to express her sympathy and see if there was anything she could do. Karen said she reached Kevin's grandfather, who talked with her a little bit, but she could never get Lori on the phone.

"Kevin loved his mother and he loved his sister. I never intended to take anything away from them," Karen said. "Kevin was a part of my family.

"We just wanted to share her loss because we felt it as well."

A few days later, Karen asked the Times not to write this story, fearing it would upset Lori. She would not sit for a photo.

Karen did not want to ruin her chances of getting some of Kevin's ashes or of finding out if he has a resting place, a name plate, something, somewhere.

Karen said she would do it all over again - open her home and heart and family to Kevin, even knowing the result. She regrets nothing. She knows she did all she could.

"I'm glad he was in my life," Karen said. And then her voice became thick with tears, for the boy she couldn't save, who was never hers to begin with.

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.