CHATSWORTH—A former Chatsworth woman who was shot and killed recently is being remembered as a kind individual who cared deeply for others, especially her children.

Melissa Ann (Renken) Peskey, a 40-year-old rural Hartford, SD, woman, was found dead on Thursday, Dec. 13, on Interstate 70 in central Missouri.

“She was an amazing mother,” said Ashley Barr of Chatsworth, a cousin of Melissa’s. “If you’d seen her with her kids, as a mom, that is how you would want to be with your children. She is a mom you hope you are to your own children.”

Melissa was the mother of an 11-year-old daughter named Charlee and a 5-year-old son named Axton. They had been traveling to South Carolina to visit friends.

Barr said Melissa became involved with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals because of Charlee, who was born prematurely.

“Anytime there was anything going on, she participated,” Barr said.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol is investigating what happened to Melissa as a homicide.

At about 10:30 p.m. Dec. 13, troopers responded to a traffic crash on I-70 just west of Boonville, MO, and discovered Melissa deceased in the driver’s seat of an SUV.

Patrol Sgt. Scott White said Melissa had been traveling east on the interstate with Charlee and Axton when her Ford Flex crashed in western Cooper County.

“It was reported as a single-vehicle crash,” White said. “It was obvious the vehicle had been in a crash.”

However, as the patrol’s investigation developed, it became apparent to law enforcement that Peskey had not died as a result of the crash.

Preliminary results of the investigation at the scene and an autopsy performed on Melissa in Columbia, MO, indicated that she died of a gunshot wound caused by a weapon fired from outside the vehicle.

White would not say when the gunshot occurred — whether it was fired before or after the SUV crashed — because of the ongoing investigation.

“We’re not going to discuss the sequence of events,” he said. “Our major crash investigation unit was initially called to that scene. They’re reconstructing the scene.”

White said the patrol has not released a standard report on the crash due to the suspicious circumstances surrounding Melissa’s death.

“Typically, we would put an online report out,” he said. “It is a little unusual.”

White said Melissa’s children were in the vehicle when the crash occurred and they were not injured. They are back home at their rural Hartford acreage with their father, Ryan, a licensed massage therapist and South Dakota National Guard member.

Ryan, who could not be reached for comment, told Keloland TV in Sioux Falls, SD, earlier this week that law enforcement has considered him a person of interest in the investigation because he was asleep and did not answer his phone when the patrol called him at about 11 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14.

White could not confirm the information that Ryan told to the TV station, but said no one has been arrested as of yet during the course of the investigation. The patrol has received more than 60 leads in the case.

“One of the purposes of this investigation is to determine the person or persons responsible for the crime,” White said, noting that law enforcement was not sure whether Melissa was an intended target or she was attacked randomly. “We’re interested in anyone who might have information.”

Melissa was born on July 31, 1978, in Akron to Charles “Chuck” and Ellen Renken and raised in Chatsworth. She graduated in 1996 from West Sioux High School in Hawarden.

“I remember her as a very caring, kind individual with a heart of gold,” said Mel Van Egdom of Hawarden, who graduated from high school with Melissa. “Her smile was contagious. She was a true and natural sweetheart. I hope they find the monster who did this.”

According to her LinkedIn profile, Melissa had worked as a real estate agent with the Jeff Merrill Team, a Keller Williams Realty subsidiary in Sioux Falls, for about four years.

An emotional Barr said her cousin Melissa “will be truly missed” by those who knew her.

“She always hugged you and told you she loves you when she left,” Barr said. “I can still hear her now; that is what I am struggling with. I can hear her say, ‘I love you, Ash.’”