The 60-foot-tall observation tower loomed large for a girl afraid of heights. But Antinette "Toni" Keller, then a junior at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, would not be daunted.
She didn't mention her worries to any of the other students in her adventure studies class, Keller just climbed. It was only at the top of the tower at Kettle Moraine State Forest near Sheboygan, Wis, that the tears welled in her eyes.
"She just said, 'I'm scared of heights but I didn't want to miss out,'" recalled Mandy Kontos, the teacher in that class. "She just wanted to be a part of it and experience everything people were experiencing."
Friends and family say that free spirit and sense of adventure defined the Plainfield teen. Just as she was settling into her next adventure at Northern Illinois University, though, it abruptly ended. Keller disappeared Oct. 14 after heading out for a walk in Prairie Park, just south of the DeKalb school's campus.
Two days later, charred human remains were found in the park near some of Keller's possessions. A Nov. 30 court date looms for the man accused of killing her, DeKalb resident William "Billy" Curl, 34.
Friends say they held onto hope as long as they could.
"I wanted to believe she had gone on an adventure somewhere," Kontos said. "I was hoping she just took a trip and did not notify anyone. But the longer it went on, the optimism starts to go away."
Keller, 18, graduated from Neuqua Valley this spring and had just started college. The freshman art major told family members she finally found others who did not think her optimistic and art-centric personality was strange.
A vegetarian, Keller enjoyed eating at Pita Pete's on campus because of its hummus. Her cousin and family spokeswoman Mary Tarling said the school was her next adventure.
"She was very excited (about college) but at the same time, tentative," said Tarling, who has spoken for the family while Keller's parents and her 23-year-old brother grieve. "But she wanted to do it. She was nervous, but she was going to confront it on the chance that it could be something good. She said, 'I finally found where I fit. This works for me.'"
Friends say Keller was unassuming and sometimes came across as shy. Her playful sense of humor allowed her to joke with others about anything from their eating habits to a boy in her adventure class whom she called a "slug" because he wouldn't paddle their canoe fast enough.
The story of the observation tower did not surprise Tarling.
"She was very resilient, strong, knowledgeable about the outdoors," she said. "She was very low-maintenance and could get by with very little. Even if her cell phone was missing, that was OK to her."
As Tarling coordinates memorials to honor Keller, she said Keller's family continues to cope.
'Quirky in a good way'
Tammy Kurth, Keller's high school counselor, froze when she received word of Keller's disappearance on the evening news.
"I just felt a bone-chilling fear," she said. "I kept hoping and saying, 'Please let her have run away.' But I knew that's not her style."
Not long after Keller vanished, some of her former teachers gathered to remember her.
"She was quirky in a good way," Kurth said. "She always had her artistic side, and it showed in her presentation of herself."
She never tried too hard to be part of the crowd, Kurth said.
"She definitely did things her own way, and not in a negative way," she said. "It was more of a friendly, bouncy, 'I want to do it my way' attitude."
As Keller paddled her canoe during one of the adventure class's trips, Kontos said, she would sing Disney songs.
When her canoe partner slowed his pace, she teased him and told him to keep up.
"She just had a positive outlook on life," Kontos said. "She wasn't scared of challenges. She was one of the most thoughtful students I have had."
That trait served Keller well on nature walks, Kontos said.
"She was always the one that found the unique mushrooms," she said. "She was always looking for the beauty of things, looking for things that did not quite match. She had a keen eye for beauty."
As details of Keller's death started trickling out, with police saying Curl had raped and murdered Keller before burning her body, Kontos said she struggled to keep people focused on the cheery, adventurous and mature student in class.
"I keep saying that we have to celebrate her life and feel lucky that we knew her," Kontos said. "I don't want them to remember her for how things happened at the end. We should remember her for the great things she did in the short amount of time she was here."