Kayla Dawn Mathis was born at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Oxford, Mississippi, on April 6, 1998, to Beverly James Mathis and Leon Gerrold Mathis. Kayla's father is a civil attorney, and her mother is a nursing supervisor at Baptist Memorial Hospital.
In 2007, Leon and Beverly hit a rough patch in their marriage and separated. Both of them dated other people but eventually decided to recommit to their relationship, and they reunited after being apart for a little over a year. A few months later, Kayla was abducted on her way home from school. She was missing for seven weeks when she was found abandoned at a convenience store in Eupora, Mississippi.
Her kidnapper was later identified as Julie Wood of Water Valley, Mississippi. Wood had dated Leon a few times during the separation and was struggling to accept the end of their relationship. At trial, her lawyer claimed Wood was temporarily insane at the time and was unable to understand that taking the little girl as a means of getting back together with Leon was wrong. The jury rejected that argument, and Wood was convicted on all charges. She was sentenced to 25 years to life and is currently incarcerated at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl.
When Kayla returned to school after the abduction, her peers treated her like a celebrity, and she basked in their attention for as long as it lasted. Privately, her mother arranged regular appointments with a child therapist to help Kayla learn how to cope with what had happened to her.
Over the years, whenever anyone asked her about the kidnapping, Kayla downplayed it, describing it as a fun vacation from school. Teachers and friends noticed she was occasionally prone to unexpected irritability and angry outbursts, but none of them held it against her.
She graduated from Yoknapatawpha High School in May of 2016 and enrolled in summer school classes at the University of Mississippi. Her grades were mediocre, and her mother did not want her to move into the dormitory on campus. Kayla was adamant about living on her own, so her mother finally agreed, realizing she couldn't stop Kayla from moving out but hoping dorm life would provide some structure and help her overcome her challenges. However, Kayla began skipping classes and hanging out with people her mother described as "no-counts."
Eventually, Kayla cut back on her class load and got a part-time job at Square Books to earn some money. The job lacked the excitement she craved, but it gave her something to do that let her interact with friends and classmates without having to be in school full time.
Kayla met Dalton Kimbrough in the fall of 2019, and the two soon became inseparable. Kayla helped Dalton recruit both financing and cast/crew members for his film, Death to the Revelers. In January 2020, she announced to her mother that she was dropping out of school entirely to work on the movie for several months. Her mother only heard from Kayla by telephone occasionally during the shoot.