Kacy Sue Lunsford loved the color pink, princesses who kissed frogs and playing hide and seek, say family members of the murdered preschooler who find solace reminiscing about her favorite things and happier times.

Kacy Sue Lunsford loved the color pink, princesses who kissed frogs and playing hide and seek, say family members of the murdered preschooler who find solace reminiscing about her favorite things and happier times.

"I remember you, even before you were born, I loved you. You had my heart wrapped around your little finger from the moment you arrived," Cathy Lunsford, 61, wrote in a three-page ode to her great-granddaughter.

"I remember bringing you home with your mom, your first bath, your first smile, the first coo that melted my heart."

But as Lunsford remembers Kacy's sunny smile on a recent afternoon, heartache shadows her eyes and regret slips past her lips in two little words: "If only."

If only they'd better expressed their concerns about Kacy's mother's new boyfriend to each other — and to Kacy's doctors. If only they'd pressed harder for answers to Kacy's sudden bruises and her growing fears. If only they'd known the deadly violence Benjamin George was capable of inflicting upon a child.

"Why couldn't my life have been taken instead of hers?" says Kacy's mother, Michelle Lunsford, 25. "Why didn't he hurt me instead of her? I just wish it would have been me."

Kacy was nearly 3 when she died on June 15, 2010, at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland five days after she was fatally injured by George, who inflicted a series of blows to the preschooler's head, chest and abdomen. Injuries George claimed were a result of "ultimate wrestling moves," says David Hoppe, prosecutor.

"This is a tragedy of epic proportions," Hoppe says. "The image that's seared in my mind is Kacy would literally shake and tremble when left alone with Benjamin George. If there is one good thing that can come out of this, it would be that people understand they should just speak openly about their concerns."

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Lorenzo Mejia on June 16 found George, 29, guilty of murder by abuse and first-degree assault in the killing of Kacy Sue. Mejia sentenced the former Marine to 25 years to life in prison for the murder charge, and seven-and-a-half years for the assault charge. Mejia ordered the two Measure 11 sentences to run concurrently.

The entire family is tormented by Kacy's death. Members plan to keep her legacy alive by working to raise awareness of child abuse. And they tell their story in hopes someone else's beloved child might be saved, Cathy says.

"We have nothing to hide," she says. "All we have is our sorrow and our grief and our guilty feelings. People don't have to beat us up. We beat ourselves up every day."

Michelle met George in November 2009 when she responded to his call to an erotic massage business. She went to his home. George told police they had sex. Michelle insists they did not, but admits she performed a sexual massage on him. She stayed for several hours that night, texted him shortly afterward and started dating him. All very bad decisions on her part, she says.

"All I can say is, especially if you have a child, you need to really ask yourself the questions about what you're doing," Michelle says. "No man will ever make you feel the way your kid does."

The struggling mom quickly tumbled in love with the tall, dark and handsome ex-Marine who spoke lovingly of his own three young children.

"I couldn't get over how freakin' cute he was," Michelle says. "We talked about everything. We talked like we'd met online and this was our first date."

Three weeks into their relationship, Michelle introduced George to Kacy. A few weeks after that, mom and tot were living in George's home.

"I thought we were great," she says. "I thought what we had was real."

Michelle stopped working for the erotic massage service, got a job at an Ashland motel and enrolled in college, she says.

"I was trying to make a better life," she says.

At first Kacy seemed as enamoured of George as her mother was. He would swing her high in the air and catch her in his arms, causing the little girl to squeal with delight.

"He was great with her," Michelle says.

Because Kacy had doting adults eager to babysit, George was not often asked to care for Kacy, which made it all the more concerning when she began showing up at their homes with bumps and bruises, says Dena Lunsford, 44, Michelle's mother.

There were no broken bones, welts, burn marks or other obvious signs of abuse. But, once, Kacy had a little patch of hair missing. Another time she had a bruise on her stomach. Concerned, Dena called Michelle and asked for an explanation.

George initially said Kacy had fallen. But when Kacy told her mother that George had "stepped" on her, Michelle confronted George.

He quickly acknowledged he'd put his foot on Kacy's tummy and jiggled it back and forth to tickle her, or "rub her like a dog." Michelle says she admonished him for playing too rough. He was remorseful. She thought it was an accident, a "guy" thing. George said he was used to roughhousing with little boys, she says.

"He was a great storyteller," Michelle says. "If I had known he was hurting my daughter, he'd be six feet underwater and Kacy would be alive. If my daughter had ever said to me, 'Mama, Ben hurts me ..."

Michelle wishes she would have asked Kacy the right questions. Cathy, Dena and Richard Larcome, 49, Dena's partner and Kacy's "Poppa," all say they tried. But they don't believe the preschooler "knew what (they) were trying to ask," Cathy says. Kacy was too young, too innocent and too confused, they say.

Larcome had a bad feeling about George from the start. He told the court during last month's trial that he saw "a potential for (George) to be an asshole." Asked to justify his first impression of George, Larcome said there wasn't anything specific he could put a finger on.

"It was just a gut reaction," Larcome said.

Because George always had a reasonable explanation for Kacy's bruises, Cathy, Dena and Larcome second-guessed their suspicions. They also were afraid to press their concerns further for fear they might estrange Michelle from them. George was already working at isolating Michelle and Kacy, Dena says.

"He didn't come around our family a lot," she says.

In April, Kacy was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a life-threatening illness. Her treatment required careful dietary monitoring and daily insulin injections. A written log kept track not only of Kacy's care, but who she was with each hour of the day.

During this period, George was never alone with Kacy because he hadn't yet taken the medical training required to give her shots. Her bruises stopped. Family members further doubted their instincts about George because they'd been told Kacy's diabetes could have caused excessive bruising. Wondering whether he had unfairly targeted the man Michelle loved so much, Larcome apologized to George for harboring evil suspicions.

George eventually learned how to give Kacy her shots. Bruises appeared again. And Kacy became increasingly fearful of George, Cathy remembers.

They took Kacy to the doctor specifically to discuss Kacy's fear of being left alone with George. He asked whether they suspected sexual abuse. No, they said.

"That's where it kind of fell apart on our part," Cathy says. "We just assumed the doctors would know what we were trying to ask."

They had expected the doctor to ask a series of follow-up questions about their concerns. When he didn't, no one volunteered what they had discovered: George had been ordered twice by the court to take anger management and parenting classes. His visitations with his two children by his first wife, Amanda George, were supervised, Cathy says.

It would prove to be a fatal breakdown of communication. Doctors are required by law to report suspected child abuse. Without knowing George's history, the doctor diagnosed Kacy with classic separation anxiety, saying it is common in young children.

Dena, both perplexed and reassured by the doctor's apparent lack of concern, then suggested George care for Kacy more often in order to help her fears dissipate faster, a mistake that haunts Dena to this day.

"The most important message I would like to get out is that if you have concerns, you need to articulate them," Dena says.

Cathy, who had not yet been trained to give Kacy her insulin shots, breaks down in tears remembering the last day she handed Kacy over to George.

"She started quivering, shaking, biting her nails," Cathy says. "Saying 'I love you, MawMaw. I stay with you?' "

Cathy says she called Dena after the two left, saying she'd never give Kacy to George again.

"That was the last time I saw Kacy, before ..." she says, crying.

Late at night on June 10, 2010, shortly after Michelle had left for work, Kacy suffered a savage assault while home alone with George, says Medford police Detective Katie Ivens.

It was Ivens who responded to the hospital to investigate how Kacy had been so severely injured. George tried to pull Ivens into his web of lies from their first contact, she says.

"He started trying to groom me, saying she was a tough little kid," Ivens says. "He's saying he loves kids and wants to be a pediatrician."

George told Ivens that Kacy had stacked two potty seats in the bathroom because she wanted to play in the sink and had toppled off into the bathtub. George called Kacy clumsy, but praised her ingenuity.

George also said some of Kacy's injuries happened while she was playing at a Jacksonville park playground.

"The lies were so good," Ivens says. "That's the diabolical part of it."

But the extent of Kacy's head, chest and abdomen injuries belied his elaborate storytelling. While George tried to spin Ivens, Kacy was undergoing emergency surgery in Portland for her head injuries.

Ivens pressed the 230-pound man to come clean about what he'd done to the 30-pound child that night. George's lies unraveled as Ivens flattered, cajoled, pleaded with him to help the doctors understand the nature of Kacy's injuries.

In a stunning video confession, George admitted to inflicting several body-slamming, bone-crushing assaults upon Kacy, which he described in chilling detail. Calling his actions "play," George said the little girl then had a seizure, vomited and lost consciousness as he continued to throw her about the bedroom. He picked Kacy up by one arm and one leg and hurled her into the bed with such force that she careened headfirst into the bedroom wall, George said.

"It was all fun for me," he said in the tape.

During a break in the police interview with the tape still running, George called Michelle, admitted his play might have caused Kacy's injuries and professed his love for her.

It would be their last conversation.

"I never loved anybody like I loved him," Michelle says. "And I never knew I could go from loving someone to detesting someone so fast."

Kacy's brain continued to swell as her internal injuries progressed. Told there was no chance of recovery, Michelle took her daughter off life support five days later. Kacy died one week before her third birthday.

"He's off the street, out of society and he can never do that to another child," Michelle says.

The defense team argued George had a borderline low I.Q. and suffered from severe abandonment issues and stress disorders. Constant worry that Michelle might still be working in a sexual trade, combined with fears she would leave him, created an unstable emotional state in George, they said.

"My daughter came first," Michelle says. "And he knew it. I think that's what pissed him off."

Ivens and Larcome believe George has yet to tell the truth of what happened that night. Larcome said George always played the innocent. His stories may have sounded plausible, but his tales turned out to be lies. Both suspect George created another "we were playing" lie that, as horrible as it sounds, was better than what actually happened.

"The truth is he beat her and she died," Ivens says.

Many people, including Kacy's biological father, Michael Duda, and Lunsford's former friend and roommate, Candice Guyse, openly question why police didn't charge Michelle for failing to better protect Kacy.

Duda, 26, says he initially doubted he was Kacy's biological father, saying he'd "split with Michelle before she found out she was pregnant." Duda saw Kacy infrequently, mostly on holidays, he says. He moved to Bend after Kacy's murder. He says he was upset it took a year to get the case to trial, but is relieved George is in prison for life.

"I never thought anything like this would happen in my family," Duda says. "I hope they do look at the mother in some of this. But if not, that's OK."

Guyse said at trial that Michelle kept erratic hours and sometimes left Kacy unfed and untended.

As a mother, "Michelle was less attentive than you should be," Guyse testified.

Judgment against Michelle angers Ivens and Hoppe.

Hoppe says police found no evidence Michelle was culpable in Kacy's death.

"Michelle was investigated and cleared," he says.

Hoppe had warned Michelle she would be trashed by the defense as a prostitute who brought this on herself by shacking up with a john.

"She was a single mother who made some bad decisions, but she loved her daughter," Hoppe says. "She's paid the ultimate price."

In six short months, George entered the Lunsford family armed with a web of "believable and embellished lies," Ivens says. Then he killed their most beloved member.

Believe it or not, she says, this is textbook domestic violence behavior and it could happen in any family.

"This could happen to your child," Ivens says. "He's not opposed to the child when she's around. He's secretly manipulative and abusive. I can only warn women to have a zero tolerance for lying, especially if you have kids."

Ivens says it's human nature to blame the parent. It is also human nature to want to believe the best in someone you love, and virtually unimaginable that anyone would be capable of the level of violence George inflicted on that innocent young child, she says.

"The remorse that they (the Lunsfords) have will haunt them forever," Ivens says.

Nothing others can say is worse than the torment Michelle says she inflicts upon herself daily.

"What if my daughter was screaming for me and I didn't answer? I beat myself up every single day that I couldn't save my daughter."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.