During his last days of freedom, before he admitted to killing Anchorage teenager Samantha Koenig and at least seven other people, Israel Keyes was at his sister's Texas wedding, crying and ranting at one point about how he did not believe in God.
That's according to Keyes' mother's pastor, Jacob Gardner, who related the story Thursday in a phone interview with the Daily News. Gardner and Keyes' sisters and mother were driving north from their home in Wells, Texas, to Eastern Washington, where Keyes' funeral is planned for Sunday.
The funeral comes a week after corrections officials say Keyes, 34, committed suicide while locked alone in his Anchorage jail cell. The Army veteran and former carpenter had already confessed to abducting, raping and strangling Koenig, 18, before dismembering and hiding her body, law enforcement officials said. As news of Keyes' suicide broke, authorities revealed that he also implicated himself in the slaying of a Vermont couple, Bill and Lorraine Currier, and killed at least five others, though investigators said they believe there may have been more.
Keyes did not divulge the names of his other victims and federal authorities continue to work to identify them.
Gardner said Keyes visited his family in the tiny East Texas town of Wells in February, after taking a cruise. He stayed with his mother and four sisters, who belong to Gardner's Church of Wells, for a few days on that visit, one of two occasions he was in Wells during the spring of 2012, Gardner said.
According to Gardner and a timeline released by the FBI, the first visit would have occurred after Keyes killed Koenig but before he returned to Anchorage and dumped her body under the ice on Matanuska Lake. Keyes also demanded ransom money from Koenig's family -- who thought she was still alive -- and used her debit card to make cash withdrawals, first in Anchorage, then in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, according to indictments filed in federal court. The final withdrawals occurred in Texas around the time Keyes attended a family gathering, authorities said.
That event was his sister's wedding in mid-March, said Gardner, a vocal proponent of his church and evangelical Christianity. Keyes was the oldest of 10 siblings, Gardner said. His mother and four sisters belong to the church, while three sisters and two brothers do not, the pastor said. Law enforcement officials would not discuss Keyes' family or his daughter, who they said is currently living with family. Keyes' father died years ago, according to investigators who interviewed him.
Keyes, an atheist, bristled at the churchgoers' attempts to convert him, including a conversation with his soon-to-be brother- and sister-in-law a day or two before his sister's wedding, Gardner said.
"They were just speaking and obviously it just came up, the opposition between their beliefs," Gardner said. "And one of the brothers asked him a pointed question and it just silenced Israel. The question was, 'Israel, when did you first decide that you were going to hate God?' "
Keyes only said he did not believe in God, Gardner said. Then he stepped out onto a porch and lit a cigarette, and the sister-in-law, who related the conversation to Gardner later, told Keyes his sins could be forgiven, he said.
"She said she saw, and she knew, that he was fighting back tears," Gardner said. "But he said, 'You don't know. You don't know what I've been through. You don't know what I've done.' That was his response."
"He said, 'I've got to drink every day to forget these things. You don't understand what I've been through,' " Gardner said.
It was at the wedding the next day or the day after, northeast of Wells in the city of Nacogdoches, that Keyes caused a bigger stir among the congregation, Gardner said. The wedding was outdoors, with 50 to 100 people in attendance, he said. Keyes' outburst came after 45 minutes of sermon, the marriage ceremony and more preaching, at least some of which was directed at Keyes, the pastor said.
"We were greatly desirous to see him saved and greatly desirous to see him denounce his atheism, which he was steadfastly holding to and defending," Gardner said. "(The wedding) ended essentially with Israel, you know, raging against the gospel, against God and just breaking down into tears, weeping. But he did not repent and that was the last, what I would call the last stand of God's grace."
Later, again smoking a cigarette, Keyes told another pastor, "Not everyone has your morals," Gardner said.
"And it was in a threatening manner, in a manner that there was something deeper in his heart being said," Gardner said. "Not just that not everybody has Christian morals and ethics but insinuating that he did not have Christian morals and thus he was not bounded by the same conscience that we are and that he would do something if provoked."
On March 13, two or three days after the wedding, a highway patrol officer in Lufkin, Texas, pulled over Keyes' rental car -- a white Ford Focus seen in surveillance footage near one of his withdrawals with Koenig's debit card -- and found Keyes with rolls of cash, the card and Koenig's cellphone, federal prosecutors said. Keyes was arrested and extradited back to Alaska, where he was held awaiting a March 2013 trial date.
Gardner said Keyes' mother heard "bits and pieces" of her son's alleged crimes in the weeks and months that followed. She was now willing to let Gardner share his stories about the earlier encounters with Keyes, because she thought people were too fearful and focused on her son as a serial killer, not fearful of the "eternal" consequences of living a life without seeking Christian salvation.
Keyes' mother did not want to be interviewed Thursday, Gardner said. As he talked, Gardner was in a car driving through the prairies of Wyoming to Washington for Keyes' funeral Sunday, he said.
Gardner said he was preparing a sermon for the ceremony, currently set to be held in Deer Park, Wash., between Colville and Spokane. It would be a convenient location for Keyes' family and their friends to attend and was home to the nearest funeral home with an attached chapel, Gardner said.
Keyes' family, at least those in the church, were grieving not only over his admitted crimes and death but also for what they believe will be a torturous afterlife, Gardner said.
"It's not something for carnal, wicked men to glory in, or to rejoice, that he's burning in hell and such things, as I've heard online," Gardner said. "We're not glad that he's in hell. (The family) lost an eternal soul. They see the weight of eternity before their eyes. ... And so the grief is immense."
"(His mother) sees that her son's life has been used greatly for the worst. It's been used greatly as a mockery of all that is good and right, all that is God. It's been a shame," Gardner said. "I can speak on her behalf and say that she just desires that his death would not be the same."
"It's an eternal soul they lost," the pastor said. "There is no second chance."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.