ST. CLAIR COUNTY, Illinois—Cathy Rainbolt’s death was as unremarkable as the short life that preceded it.
In a year when the state of Illinois logged 844 heroin overdose fatalities, the accidental overdose of a 25-year-old woman was tragic, but hardly newsworthy. So indifferent was her hometown newspaper that if her family hadn’t paid to have an obituary published, the paper wouldn’t have acknowledged Rainbolt’s 2015 death at all.
Last week she became known as the former foster daughter of James T. Hodgkinson, who opened fire on members of Congress last Wednesday. Two days later, a judge unsealed juvenile court records at the request of the local newspaper. It detailed abuse that Rainbolt endured at the hands of the very people who should have protected her, including Hodgkinson.
Rainbolt told a judge in 2006 that Hodgkinson hit her and that he was an alcoholic. Shortly afterward, the judge removed her from the Hodgkinson home and granted guardianship to neighbors who had provided respite.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Rainbolt’s birth mother, Rachele Putman, said her daughter bounced around the state’s foster care system from the age of 6 until she was an adult. Her mother described unthinkable cruelty endured by her daughter, right before the eyes of child protection officials and local courts, as though she were invisible.
Sitting on the front porch of the little house she shares with her sister, Putman nervously readied herself to tell Rainbolt’s life story.
“I still don’t understand why the media dragged my poor daughter’s memory into this mess in the first place,” Putman said. “What does this crazy man and his gun have to do with my Cathy? ‘Might have been nice if somebody had been interested in her story when she was a kid. Maybe they could’ve done something.”
“I knew she was unhappy where she lived,” said Manuel Perez, who knew Rainbolt when the two were in seventh grade, around 2003. “And I knew her foster parents [the Hodgkinsons] were very strict. But she never told me or my girlfriend anything that made us suspect she had been harmed in the past. I wish we had known. I wish we could have done something.”
As Perez and other former classmates read reports of the contents of their late friend’s buried past, there was an overwhelming expression of guilt. Crystal Ray said she and Rainbolt had been friends in grade school and high school. While she knew she was being shuffled between different foster families, she never asked why.
“Those aren’t the type of questions kids think about,” Ray said. “If someone would have known, would the situation have been different? You can never say for sure. I just wish I could have done more and maybe she wouldn’t be where she is now.”
Without exception, Rainbolt’s friends and family members who spoke to The Daily Beast expressed a reluctance to divulge too much of her “business.”
Rainbolt’s business has been divulged plenty. A web search for her by name just one week ago would have produced a Facebook profile, an old MySpace page, the obituary in the local paper, and a five-word announcement in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The only press coverage of Cathy’s life came in January 2010 when she gave birth in Memorial Hospital in Belleville. It read, “Cathy Rainbolt, of Belleville, boy.”
Today a web search surfaced an article entitled, “Congressional shooter was abusive alcoholic, foster daughter told judge before overdose death.”
Carla Engel attended the small burial service for Rainbolt at Holy Cross Cemetery. She said a church had paid for the burial so that Rainbolt could be laid to rest in dignity. Sort of a self-appointed aunt figure in Rainbolt’s late teen years, Engel felt she knew her as well as anyone. She wanted to be a nurse, Engel recalled, and had taken some college classes at one point. She was the type of person who gave friends cards on special occasions and who gave house plants as gifts, Engel said. Protecting Rainbolt’s privacy is important to her, she said, but reclaiming her dear friend’s story is even more important.
Brandy Mink, Rainbolt’s best friend, agrees.
“She was a good person with a caring heart,” Mink said. “It’s sickening that members of the media have brought up her terrible past because of the choices her foster parent, Mr. Hodgkinson, made.”
Even within a lifetime that spanned just 25 years, Rainbolt’s time with the Hodgkinson was only a fraction of the years she filled with other experiences. Some of them were hard. There was a time when she sought refuge in a Salvation Army shelter. There were nights when she called on anyone she knew, begging for a place to stay. But there were also good times with her foster sisters, the Rainbolts. There were bruises on her thin arms when she was a little girl, but there were also hugs from Engel. There was, indeed, the type of abuse that leaves no physical mark but nonetheless scars a girl. But friends remember a quiet resilience and goodness in her. That’s how they hope she’ll be remembered once the media attention fades.
Putnam hopes that by reclaiming her daughter’s story, she can begin to reclaim her own story, too.
“Cathy was a good and kind person,” she said. “She did not deserve a life like the one she got, to be put through a system that failed.”
Putnam and her sister, Angela Dayton, have been part of that system all of their lives. Removed from their own parents’ care, Putnam and Dayton were raised by relatives.
“It was no piece of cake for us there,” Dayton recalled. “We had a hard time. Look at all these kids that have to go through the system. I hope that by telling Cathy’s story, we can help another family.”
Rainbolt gave birth to two children. Engel said one is being raised and loved by his paternal grandparents. The other, she said, was placed for adoption. Engel hopes Rainbolt’s children will be the generation that breaks the cycle.