Amanda was shot inside a hotel room on Saturday, May 5, 2018. Kenneth Krause, 30, of Bonifay, Florida, and Amanda's estranged husband, Mark Stokes, 37, of Enterprise, Alabama, were found shot to death in the hotel room as well.

Just five years old, Audrey is slowly starting to understand why she will not see her mom again, relatives say — her mother, Amanda Kessler Stokes, the tragic victim of domestic abuse.

At 28 years old, the former Lake of the Ozarks area resident living in Enterprise, Alabama, was one of three who died in what police called a murder-suicide in Panama City Beach, Florida. Amanda was shot inside a hotel room on Saturday, May 5, 2018. Kenneth Krause, 30, of Bonifay, Florida, and Amanda’s estranged husband, Mark Stokes, 37, of Enterprise, Alabama, were found shot to death in the hotel room as well.

According to police reports, Mark is believed to have entered Amanda’s room with a key he got from the front desk. He dead-bolted the door from the inside and shot Kenneth and Amanda, then himself.

Amanda’s parents, Mark and Deb Kessler, reside in Miller County and are now caring for their granddaughter. 

Deb along with her daughters-in-law, Lindsay and Marissa, recently talked with the Lake Sun to remember Amanda and speak out against domestic violence. 

Amanda wasn’t the typical victim of domestic violence, said her family members, if a typical victim exists.

Described as “carefree” and “happy go-lucky” by her mom, Amanda is remembered by family for her humor and wit, the queen of great comebacks who also had a lot of heart, befriending the underdogs and friendly with everyone.

That mentality led her to serve in the National Guard, a role she chose as a way to help others whether in disaster or in defense. Amanda was still active in the Guard when she was killed.

“And then she met her knight in shining armor—those were her words. When she met him, she called us and said, ‘Mom, dad, I think I’ve met my knight in shining armor. I met the man I’m going to marry,’” recalls Deb.

Mark Stokes was also in the military.

The three women reflected on the warning signs that led to the tragic ending, the controlling behavior and violence starting after they got married, according to Marissa.

“They moved four times in six years. The last time that he moved her I know was to get her away from us. A year and half to two years ago, we went to her house and he was at a military training. This was a two-story house with a full basement and an in-ground pool in the backyard on the edge of St. Charles. When we went into the house, there was no food. She had no gas in her car and no money. She was still trying to play it like everything was okay, but we could tell everything was not okay. She finally confided in us that it was terrible,” says Deb. “He would make her use a credit card so he could track everywhere she went and everything she spent. He would cut that off if he did not want her spending anything. He would cut off her cell phone use—he would shut her phone off because it was in his name. He had total control over everything.”

Mark threatened Amanda for years, sometimes even in front of their daughter, telling Amanda that he was going to make her life so miserable that she was going to kill herself. During a visit, the normally social young woman sat alone.

“I thought, ‘What’s wrong with Amanda?’” Deb says. “That was not Amanda at all because she was always the life of the party, loud and obnoxiously joking all the time.”

The change was disturbing to her parents, and they would help get her away from Mark Stokes only to have him later come back into Amanda’s life. It was hard for the family to comprehend how someone with Amanda’s personality and attitude could get caught up in such a cycle of abuse.

Deb says, “We didn’t understand what power he had over her. My daughter was a kick-butt kind of girl. I would never in a million years, ever in my life, think my daughter could be a victim of domestic violence. She was raised with two older brothers and she could kick their butts. She was strong-willed and she was a strong girl, physically for her little, tiny size.”

Lindsay agrees, “She’s not what I would think of as a typical victim.”

“But she was in love with him,” Deb says. “Up until we got her out, we loaded her up, I don’t think she was really ready to call it quits. She thought, ‘I’m going to try harder,’ when it wasn’t her.”

Deb recounts sorrowful phone calls that took place many times over a five-year period, Amanda calling in the night crying, bawling to an extent Deb could hardly understand what she was saying. 

“She would say, ‘Mom, I want you to know that if I die, I have not committed suicide. He has killed me.’ I would tell her I would pick her up. I would beg her to come home. She would say, ‘No, Mom, I’m okay, but I just want you to know.’ That is something I can’t quit hearing,” says Deb.

While Amanda had plenty of spunk, her loving and caring nature kept her by her abuser’s side.

“She was always trying to not get him in trouble because she knew if she got him in trouble, he would lose his military job. Early on in the relationship, she kept telling me how bad it was. She would say, ‘But, Mom, what kind of a wife would I be if I left him if he has PTSD? I don’t want to just abandon him if he is sick,’” says Deb.

Looking back, Deb says she didn’t understand the psychology of domestic violence.  

“I would tell her, ‘Just get away from him,’ as though it was easy. ‘Just get out. How hard is this? You just walk away.’ No, she couldn’t,” she recalls.

Amanda’s family found a letter in a notebook after her passing. Amanda wrote the letter to her husband about their marriage. 

It says, “It feels like I’m walking upstream through a current that’s strong enough to pull me under four times over. There are others with me, but they are walking on the banks, telling me to ‘just get out of the water.’ And, instead of lending a hand to help, they just move on and leave me behind. Every once in a while I find a rock strong enough for me to lean on and I can rest for a bit. But then the rock gets tired and they let go, and I’m left drowning. Nothing is harder than standing in that current when everything is telling you how much easier it’d be if you just let yourself get dragged under.”

Despite the complicated and conflicted feelings of domestic violence, Amanda did not want to give up on her marriage.

“The worst part for us to think about now is that Mark’s ex-wife was trying to tell Amanda that Mark was evil—that he was violent. And, of course, Mark put up an excellent front. He said the ex-wife was jealous and crazy. Amanda was in love so she did not feel that he was violent—of course he wasn’t violent to her yet. To me, that was so sad that we did not have more knowledge of his history,” says Deb.

But what is done, is done, and the family is moving forward for Audrey. They feel blessed for the support of the Lake of the Ozarks community and agencies like the local domestic violence resource agency, CADV.

The community has been amazing, say Lindsay and Marissa, on receiving funds to help Audrey through a GoFundMe account as well as sending food and donating to funeral expenses. A local dentist even offered dental services for Audrey for as long as she needs them.

While Amanda’s residence was officially in Alabama and she was killed in Florida, Citizens Against Domestic Violence (CADV) the Lake of the Ozarks region has been supportive in the aftermath, according to Lindsay, providing help in many ways including free counseling and other resources for Amanda and Mark’s daughter, Audrey, as well as help from an attorney on staff.

“They have so many resources available and I had no idea. They have a shelter where these women and children can go to be protected. I had no idea. That group is just amazing,” Marissa says.

Audrey knows her parents are not coming back.

Deb says, “She’s like the rest of us—she’s grieving. She’s five, She’s lost more than any of us. They are never coming back and she is very much aware of that. When the whole family goes to events—especially early on when this happened—these guys were trying to cheer her up and she was withdrawn. She was very aware of the fact that all their cousins had their mommy. Everybody has their mommy but me.”

“And she said that aloud,” says Lindsay.

As the months have gone by, Audrey is doing better though. 

“She’s coming more to terms with it now, I think,” Deb says. “She seems to be doing well. She had to start kindergarten this year. Now we have a structured thing which is not all that bad, but some days she is just not up to facing the day.”

The family attended the recent annual CADV brunch which is one of its major fundraisers in support of its mission to provide crisis intervention, shelter, advocacy and support to victims of domestic and sexual violence. CADV provides information, tools, resources and support to “empower victims to make and sustain positive choices in their lives”, according to their website. 

The 24-hour emergency hotline is 888-809-7233. If you are a victim of domestic abuse, call today.