Before heading to work one October afternoon, Stacey Hilton visited her daughter.
The Michigan woman didn’t head to the Target her 18-year-old daughter, Mckenna, last worked at, or back home to the apartment they shared.
She didn’t jump on a plane to New Orleans, where the young woman dreamed of moving to pursue a career in medical therapy or nursing.
Instead, she drove to Chapel Hill Memorial Gardens.
Her daughter was buried there last August after she was murdered by her half-brother.
“Mckenna was my only baby. That was my girl; she was my best friend,” Hilton tearfully told InsideEdition.com. “It’s disgusting that I have to visit my daughter here. My daughter should not be here and she deserves some kind of justice.”
Savon Schmus was 16 years old when he strangled his half-sister on Aug. 18, 2016.
He told police he then took Mckenna’s car to transport her body to a wooded area near Lamberton Lake in Grand Rapids Township.
There, he dumped his older sister along a path before heading to a Burger King. He went back home to walk the dogs before spending time with an uncle.
Mckenna’s body would be discovered by a dog walker later that day.
“Her future was just taken away for no reason,” Hilton said.
Earlier this month, Savon pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder as part of a plea deal.
In return for his guilty plea, the prosecutor’s office agreed not to pursue a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Savon, whose age factored into the sentencing request, is expected to receive between 30 and 40 years in prison.
But Hilton sees it as a slap on the wrist for an unspeakable act of evil, and plans to push for the maximum 60 years at his sentencing hearing on Monday.
To do that, she plans to bring to light past behavior and incidents involving Savon, some of which she said she had no previous knowledge of and all of which she said were never mentioned during court proceedings.
“If he gets out, he’s going to do it again,” she said. “He’s a psychopath. All the signs point right to it. Unfortunately my daughter was his first victim, and I hope to God the last.”
“Mckenna was …” Hilton said, pausing. “I hate to say ‘was.’”
It was only a little over a year ago that Mckenna was plotting out her future.
She had just graduated high school, where she managed to elegantly navigate the politics of adolescence and leave with a clearer grasp on who she was and what she wanted.
“She was incredibly witty. So fast,” Hilton said. “She was very outspoken; she could say things to people that ordinary people would find very offensive, but they still loved her for it. And she always went for the underdog.”
After Mckenna’s death, so many teens came forward with anecdotes about how she had been there for them, her mom said.
“There was a young lady who was very shy, and McKenna made her sing in the hallways and got her into choir,” Hilton said. “There was a young man with a significant speech impediment. Mckenna was one of the only people who would talk to him. I now talk to him a lot.”
Then there was the student who was transitioning.
“She helped her pick out a wig,” Hilton said. “She was just a real loving kid.”
Mckenna loved singing and after much convincing from her mother, tried out for the school play.
“She was one of the lead roles,” her mother recalled. “She got up there and she sang and she danced. When people talked about the play, she was the one who stuck out.”
But life wasn’t perfect and at times there were struggles at home, Hilton said.
“To say it wasn’t rocky would be a lie," Hilton said of her relationship with Mckenna’s father, David Schmus. "There were some significant problems.”
By Hilton’s account, the couple separated and reconciled numerous times. And Hilton said Mckenna’s relationship with her father also had its problems.
Mckenna was born between her older half-sister and younger half-brother, who share the same mom. Hilton says that it seemed, at times, that they blamed Mckenna for the failings in their father’s relationship with their mother.
And in 2010, David Schmus pleaded guilty to surveilling an unclothed person after being accused of taking a picture of Mckenna, then 12, while she showered.
“There had been some argument between him and Mckenna—something David had an issue with—and he said he wanted to embarrass her like she embarrassed him,” Hilton said. “She was in the shower and he stuck the camera in and took a picture. There’s no defending it, but there was no picture, he had taken [a photo] of the shower curtain. It’s ridiculous behavior of an adult and he was going to go to court for it.”
Schmus faced as many as 15 years in prison because of previous drug and illegal gun possession convictions, but as a result of a plea, he received two years’ probation and was required to undergo counseling.
But he violated probation by possessing alcohol and spent several weekends in jail.
“We went through counseling both inside and out of the home,” Hilton said. “We decided to let him back into the home again. But it came a point where it just wasn’t working and we had to get away. I sold my house and we left and stayed in an apartment.”
Still, by what would become known as the end of Mckenna’s life, she had begun repairing her relationship with her father.
“Him and Mckenna made their peace with each other; she had forgiven him,” Hilton said. “She had gotten back to a place with him where things were starting to look good.”
But throughout it all, Mckenna was close to her father’s other children, including her younger brother, Savon.
Savon began spending summers with his father, half-sister and her mother when he was about 8 years old.
Savon and Mckenna’s relationship was at times tumultuous, and though Hilton said there were moments she worried, she said their father always dismissed her fears.
“One time he pushed her down the stairs, right before school. I had to talk to his mom about that,” Hilton said. “His dad, Mckenna’s dad, said that when he was younger, with his sister, he [fought with her] all the time. ‘Boys will be boys.’ Anytime I tried to reprimand Savon, I was put in my place—I wasn’t his mom.”
Still, as they grew older, Savon and Mckenna grew closer.
“There didn’t seem to be a problem,” Hilton said, pausing. “Before she was murdered.”
Less than a week before Mckenna was murdered, she and her family spent the day at a local beach.
“Her dad, myself and her went in one car—we just had a blast,” Hilton said of the blissful Sunday. “Her brother, Savon, and her other brother and her sister on her dad’s side of the family were in another car. Things were good.”
And the night before Mckenna was murdered, she had hamburgers with her maternal grandparents, with whom she was very close. In fact, she one day hoped to be walked down the aisle by her grandfather.
“She was happy,” Hilton said. “I just remember thinking things were peaceful. Thinking we were going to make it.”
On Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, Hilton left the house about 9:30 a.m., saying goodbye to Savon on her way out the door.
It was an hour and a half before he would kill her daughter.
Hilton first realized something was wrong when she was unable to get hold of Mckenna as her phone went straight to voicemail.
“She was supposed to be at work and I hadn’t heard from her, which was kind of weird, but I didn’t really think much about it,” Hilton said.
But when Mckenna’s father got home, he noticed her car was still parked outside the apartment building.
“I called Target and I said ‘I know this is going to sound really paranoid, but I wanted to see if my daughter got to work okay,’” Hilton said. “They said ‘She didn’t show up for work and we haven’t been able to get ahold of her.’”
It was at that moment that Savon said that Mckenna had locked her keys in her car, and had come back upstairs at one point while on the phone with someone, Hilton said. He said his sister was still on the phone when she went back outside.
“I headed toward the pathway near our apartment and [I’m thinking] I’m looking for my daughter’s body,” Hilton said. “I had this awful feeling.”
She instinctively scoured the news and it stopped her in her tracks: The body of a young woman had been found nearby.
“Eighteen to 21 years old, wearing a Pandora bracelet with an owl charm, it said,” Hilton recalled.
For her graduation, Mckenna had received that exact bracelet from her mother.
“Right then, I said ‘Mckenna’s dead.’ [Her father] said ‘What?’ He said ‘Don’t say that, that’s not true,’” Hilton said. “I kept repeating it. ‘It’s the bracelet, it’s the bracelet.’ We went to the police.”
Hilton begged to see a photo of the young woman whose body had been discovered by a dog walker.
“It was Mckenna.”
What followed was a whirlwind of interviews that ended with the arrest of the victim’s own brother.
“I did not suspect Savon at all,” Hilton said. “Her dad did not. In fact, he said ‘Savon is going to be so upset when he hears something happened to Mckenna and he couldn’t do anything to prevent it.’ It all transpired so quickly.
“He had been hugging us, acting like he was so sorry,” Hilton continued. “Then they called him in. He started out with a lie, and police called him out on it … and then he told them the whole thing, without an ounce of remorse.”
An exact motive for the killing is unclear, but Hilton said it was something Savon had thought about for a long time.
“He told the detective he had always wanted to kill her,” she said. “He said when he pushed her down the stairs … that’s what he was trying to do. He focused all of his psychotic anger on Mckenna.”
Though so many questions remained in the wake of Mckenna’s murder and Savon’s arrest, Hilton said one thing became clear: The family had been torn apart.
“It became clear pretty much right after it happened,” Hilton said. “[Mckenna’s father] was getting ready to leave with Savon’s side of the family. [I said] ‘Shouldn’t you be staying with me? Our daughter was murdered.’”
The lines have remained drawn ever since, she said.
“It’s been very discouraging; anytime we go to court, they sit on the side of Savon,” Hilton said. “David, Mckenna’s dad, yelled out to Savon in court ‘I love you.’ So I yelled out ‘rot in hell!’ What do you mean ‘I love you’?”
Hilton said Schmus has never attended a prosecution meeting held for Mckenna’s family, and has instead attended defense meetings in support of Savon. Schmus had also hoped for a lesser sentence for Savon, who faces a minimum of 30 years in prison.
"The father of Mr. Schmus, who was also the father of McKenna, did not wish to see Mr. Schmus get a sentence of life without parole, and did request a term of year’s sentence. He was hoping for a lower range than which was put forth," Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said in a statement announcing Savon's plea deal.
And Schmus maintains that Mckenna’s death was an accident, Hilton said.
“He tries to say it was Mckenna’s fault,” she said. “He’ll come up with, ‘I think there was an argument before,’ or he’ll try to say ‘he didn’t really mean to do it.’ He always says it’s very hard for him, he’s the one who’s suffering the most … because he not only lost one child, he lost two.”
More than a year since her daughter’s death, Hilton doesn’t mince words about her child’s father and the rest of the family standing by her killer.
“His family sits on his side, but tells me ‘no, we cared about Mckenna,” she said. “It’s just a lost cause. They can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.”
The feelings of Savon and his family are of little concern for Hilton as she prepares for his sentencing hearing on Oct. 30.
As part of Savon’s plea deal, the maximum sentence he can face is 60 years.
Hilton and her family had hoped Savon would get life, but the prosecution did not pursue that sentencing.
In a meeting with the prosecutor’s office, Hilton said she was told it would take “too much time and cost taxpayers too much money.”
“My whole family was flabbergasted,” Hilton said. “Mckenna’s life was priceless. To tell me it’s not worth your time and your money is disgusting. He ended up rephrasing it. But it’s all b*******.”
It was also impossible for Savon to face a mandatory life without parole sentence, as a pair of 2012 U.S. Supreme Court cases—Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs—determined that such harsh sentencing violates a juvenile’s Eighth Amendment right to protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
That Savon had no past criminal history, no record of violence at school and had never gone through rehabilitation also played a part in his plea deal.
But Hilton said Savon’s past was not as squeaky clean as the courts were led to believe.
“The only reason there’s no record is because he did not get caught,” she said. “Savon had problems at school; he got moved schools multiple times due to being physically aggressive. He had problems.”
Hilton described one incident in which Savon attacked a teacher.
In another alleged burst of anger, he threw a young relative off a deck because the boy “touched his burrito,” Hilton claimed.
And after the court proceedings, Hilton said she learned that Savon had been researching disturbing images and videos, and may have been creating videos of his own.
“He was watching videos of people being killed,” she said. “He was killing animals on Instagram … I guess his aunt knew about the Instagram video of him killing an animal, and called him and yelled at him ‘Why did you do that?’"
Hilton said she only learned of the video or videos showing Savon allegedly killing animals after the plea deal was struck, but plans to bring up all of these incidents and anecdotes in court.
She also plans on bringing up his internet search history, which she said included a telling log: “How to get away with murder.”
“This person was on vacations with us, he lived with us,” Hilton said. “This person had been plotting to kill her this whole time. It was premeditated and we want life. What he did to her was absolutely heinous.”
But since life behind bars is not possible, Hilton said, “we are still hoping for 60 years. He’s psychotic. If he gets out, he’s going to do it again.”
InsideEdition.com has reached out to three schools that Savon reportedly attended.
Crossroads Alternative School Principal Rick Hatfield said during his time there, Savon was not involved in an assault on any staff member.
Townline Elementary School Principal Michelle Downs said she was unable to comment as she has been at the school for only two years.
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker told InsideEdition.com that Hilton had recounted to him the same anecdotes about Savon’s past behavior, but his office couldn’t confirm they occurred.
Savon’s school records were clean, save for an incident where he threw thumb tacks at a teacher.
“Other than that, nothing,” Becker said.
The lack of proof, plus an uncooperative pool of potential witnesses, made it difficult for the prosecutor’s office to garner evidence to show Savon had a violent past before Mckenna’s murder.
“People didn’t want to come forward … Dad’s family wasn’t willing to step forward,” Becker said.
It made pursuing a life sentence impossible, he said.
“They’re telling me about all these allegations—nobody would come forward,” he said.
Becker said he told Hilton and her family he had an ethical duty toward tax payers and the prosecutor’s office to pursue a feasible outcome—even if that meant dropping the fight for a life sentence.
“I can’t justify going [for a life sentence] for the heck of it, just so we can lose,” he said. “We know we don’t meet the burden.”
Attempts to reach several members of Savon’s family, including David Schmus, were unsuccessful.
One relative declined to comment, saying it’s a “hard position to be in when it comes to both families.”
Tracy Schmus Moore, sister of David Schmus and aunt to Mckenna and Savon, told InsideEdition.com that to her knowledge, Savon never exhibited behavior that would point to him killing his sister.
“Nothing in a million years could have given me the slightest hint that something like this was going to happen,” Moore said. “Nothing. We’re still trying to wrap our heads around this.”
Moore writes to her nephew often, and though she still does not know why he killed his sister, she said she knows he is sorry.
“He’s begging for Mckenna’s forgiveness,” she said. “That’s going to be between him and Mckenna and God.”
Moore said she and her family have been left with the challenge of honoring Mckenna’s life while remaining supportive of the person who took her from them—which she knows Hilton cannot forgive.
“This has ripped our family apart,” Moore said, crying as she struggled to find the words. “We all lost Mckenna. Not just Stacey. My brother lost his daughter. And he’s getting ready to lose his son to the prison system.
“We are on both sides because we loved both of them equally,” she continued. “That’s the part Stacey’s not getting. I can’t turn off being an aunt. That’s not humanly possible. You can’t stop loving a person because of what they’ve done. You can be ashamed. You can be angry. You can’t just stop loving them. As much as we’re grieving Mckenna, we can’t hate Savon.”
Moore remembered an incident where Savon shoved Mckenna down about three stairs as she was putting on a pair of shoes and said he had been sent home from school on a couple of occasions for being mouthy.
But Moore said she had never heard claims Savon had researched disturbing images online and knew nothing of an incident involving a young relative. She said she could never recall a time where he was violent.
“I think something did snap in Savon,” she said, trying to make sense of the chaos. “How could all of us be so close to him and not—even Mckenna, I truly believe with every fiber in my being, didn’t think her brother could do this. If Stacey thought he was so violent, why did you let him continue to live with you?”
Like her brother, Moore said she wished Savon was able to get a lesser sentence than the minimum he’s facing.
“There’s no way, shape or form I’m making excuses for Savon, because he needs to pay for what he has done—even his mom has sad that,” she said. “I’m just hoping somewhere in the future, he has a second chance.
“We’re going to be lucky if we’re alive by the time he gets out,” she continued, breaking down again. “I know we won’t. I’m 53. He’s getting a life sentence, whether [Stacey] wants to look at it that way or not.”
Court appearances have become a sort of dueling ground, where those firmly in the camp that Savon deserves the harshest punishment possible square off against those who don’t want to lose another loved one.
It’s a climate that has made it impossible for anyone to cross the line, Moore said.
“None of us expect Stacey to understand what we’re going through with Savon; we don’t expect her to take it easy on him or anything,” she said. “She has lost her daughter, her 18-year-old beautiful daughter, who is never coming back. We don’t expect her to feel anything for Savon—my God, why would we? We just ask that she and her family and her friends try to respect our feelings toward Savon."
Come Oct. 30, Hilton will stand up and speak about how Mckenna’s murder has affected her life and the lives of those who were touched by her daughter.
Hilton’s sister, Mckenna’s aunt, will also speak, and other family members and friends are writing letters to the judge to share how they were impacted by her death.
“My daughter got the death sentence and she did nothing,” Hilton said. “Her family, her friends, got a life sentence. I got a life sentence. My daughter’s not coming back in 30 years. She’s not coming back ever. She was such a good girl. She would’ve done such good things.”