Casandra Kennedy bumped into her grandmother, Wilma Cripe, at the Fred Meyer parking lot in Longview, Wash., a few months back. The two hadn’t seen each other in at least eight years. Not since Kennedy was 11 years old, when she accused her father, Cripe’s son, of rape. Not since Thomas Edward Kennedy went to prison for that crime, with a 15-year-sentence.
This reunion was bound to be awkward.
“Grandma,” Cripe heard someone say, and her eyes focused on Kennedy, now 22. She barely recognized her granddaughter.
“We talked for a little bit,” Cripe later told the Longview Police. “She said she was ‘up on the mountain (Mountain Ministries, a faith-based addiction-treatment center in Kelso), clean and walking with the Lord.’ I could tell there was something she wanted to talk about.”
Cripe cut the conversation short, mindful of a no-contact order. But the two bumped into each other again not much later, in a different parking lot, at the Dollar Tree. This time, Casandra was more direct. She had prayed, she said, that she would again cross paths with her grandma.
“There is something I have to tell you,” Kennedy told Cripe. “Grandma, do you love me, will you forgive me?”
Cripe knew what was coming, she told police. Then the girl came right out and said it: “I lied and I don’t know what to do about it.”
What she did, after nine years of silence, was go to the Longview Police Department and recant, which set into motion a chain of events that led to her father’s release from prison earlier this month, after nearly 10 years behind bars. It also led to Cowlitz County Prosecuting Attorney Susan Baur fending off a barrage of foul emails and phone calls for not charging Casandra Kennedy with a crime.
Baur remembers the case well, as her deputy was the one who handled it at the time. An 11-year-old girl told her school counselor in 2001 that her father was sexually abusing her, according to the brief Baur filed this year with the court. The counselor told Kennedy’s mother, and the police opened a child-abuse investigation, knowing that such charges are among the most difficult to prove.
Thomas Kennedy virulently maintained his innocence. But his daughter’s descriptions of the abuse itself were graphic and detailed, and it seemed unlikely to investigators that an 11-year-old would have been able to describe the abuse in this way without having experienced it. She wrote her diary that “my dad raped me and it really hurt.” She used stuffed animals and drawings to make her point. She came up with a code word―“peace”―for her teacher if the abuse happened again, and she called the teacher and used the word. She testified that she felt like screaming when it happened, but that she didn’t.
“Because you know how people say when this happens, scream?” she said on the witness stand. “Well, it’s not that easy to scream.”
There were some reasons to doubt the story. Tom Kennedy’s relatives testified that Casandra hated the relationship between him and his girlfriend, and that she was affectionate toward her father and seemed excited to see him when he showed up at a basketball game. The girlfriend, Tammy Bain, testified that during one visit, Casandra and her mother were “picking” on Tom. At one point, Casandra said, “We better be nice to him,” Bain testified. “Because he’s going to go away for a long time.” Bain asked what she meant by that, she said. Casandra said she was psychic.
But what was perhaps the most damning evidence in the case came with the report of a specialized nurse, who examined Casandra and found her hymen perforated, “consistent with genital contact with penetration.”
In July 2002, a jury found Thomas Kennedy guilty of three counts of rape, and he went away on a 15-year sentence. He was 32 years old.
Casandra Kennedy went on to have a troubled childhood. She dropped out of Kalama High School at age 16, got addicted to pills, then meth, worked at McDonald’s and Petco and got into trouble with the law, time and time again, according to police reports and affidavits from witnesses who knew her. At some point, she checked herself into Mountain Ministries, stayed for about a year and left. She’s back there now, according to the center’s director in an affidavit, and that’s where she decided it was time to change her story, after all these years.
Back in 2001, her dad wasn’t around a lot, she told police earlier this year. “I wanted him to love me and I didn’t think he did at the time.”
So she made up the rape story, she said. She’d heard about a friend whose stepdad went to prison for child molestation, and lifted some of the details from it, so she could sound like she knew what she was talking about. The perforated hymen? She’d had sex with a family friend back in the second grade, a boy about her age, she said.
“I took my own vengeance,” Casandra told police.
As soon as Baur got the phone call from police, she told The Daily Beast, she knew exactly what to do.
“Oh my god, let’s get this in front of a judge immediately,” she said. That resulted in a new trial, a judge overturning the verdict and Kennedy’s prompt release from jail.
But somehow the initial media reports (that went national) got a few key details wrong. Asked why she didn’t file any charges against Casandra Kennedy for lying to police and in court, Baur’s explanation offered in news reports was that she didn’t want to discourage other victims from coming forward.
In came the hate mail, the angry comments from website trolls. How dare this woman prosecutor lock an innocent man up for 10 years and then refuse to charge his lying accuser with a crime?
“Apparently, I hate men,” Baur said. “But I’m a duck, and like water, this stuff just rolls off my back.”
The news reports had it wrong, though (they’ve since run corrections to reflect this). Baur couldn’t have charged Kennedy with a crime even if she wanted to, because the statute of limitations had long expired. She also didn’t want to, because to this day, she says, “I have no idea what to believe.”
There were doubts about Casandra’s story in the beginning, and child abuse is indeed difficult to prove. But the physical evidence was there, and the girl’s modern-day story―that she had sex in second grade―doesn’t really track, Baur said. The nurse who examined Kennedy didn’t describe a 3-year-old scar. It was a recent trauma.
Still, the recantation required Baur to notify a judge and let the courts decide it credible or not. The legal standard isn’t proving that Casandra Kennedy lied. It’s whether these facts being revealed at trial would have likely changed the verdict, cast enough reasonable doubt to prevent a conviction. Clearly, a recantation would qualify as reasonable doubt.
“Kids recant, and then they’ll recant the recantation,” Baur said. “It was enough to get him a new trial, but Thomas Kennedy has not been found innocent.” His previous verdict was simply overturned.
The day after the verdict, back in 2002, Casandra Kennedy went for a walk on the beach with her mother. She confessed that she’d lied about the whole thing, she told her mom. But the next day, the girl changed her story again, mom said nothing, and dad went to prison for 10 years. Reached recently by a local newspaper, Tom Kennedy declined to comment, saying he just wanted to get on with his life.
When Wilma Cripe told her story to detectives, she said everything happens according to God’s will, that Thomas Kennedy is “a changed person,” and that he “would not be alive today if he stayed on the street.”
The last line of Casandra Kennedy’s written statement to the Longview police: “I’m sorry for all of the confusion I have caused.”
That’s putting it mildly.