In early 2001, an 11-year-old Kalama girl named Cassandra Ann Kennedy told police her dad raped her on at least three occasions. Her father, Thomas Edward Kennedy, denied the allegation, but he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to more than 15 years in prison.
In January, Cassandra Kennedy, now 23, told Longview police she made it all up. So after serving more than nine years in prison, her father was released last week and the charges against him were dismissed.
"I did a horrible thing," Cassandra told detectives in January, according to a police report. "It's not OK to sit and be locked in this horrible place for something you didn't do. It's just not right."
Cowlitz County Prosecutor Sue Baur said Friday she's never seen a case quite like it. The innocent are sometimes freed after years in prison by the work of pro-bono legal teams and new DNA evidence. But Baur said she's never known a child to return to authorities a decade later and recant, certainly not with enough credibility to scuttle a case.
"This is something my whole office is talking about," she said. "This is the kind of thing that shouldn't happen."
Reached Friday, Thomas Kennedy, now 43, declined to comment, saying he's simply trying to get on with his life. Longview police, who investigated both the initial allegations in 2001 and the details that later exonerated Kennedy, also declined to comment and referred questions to Baur.
In recent months, Cassandra Kennedy has been staying at Mountain Ministries, a Christian addiction treatment center near Kelso, according to police reports. Gary Miller, the organization's director, said Thursday evening that she is in Mexico doing missionary work and can't be reached.
Baur said Cassandra Kennedy will not be prosecuted for her apparent lies about her father, partly because prosecutors do not want to discourage people in similar circumstances from coming forward.
'I needed to do what was right'
Cassandra Kennedy called Longview police on Jan. 23, saying she wanted to talk about her father's 2002 conviction, according to investigative reports. She sat down with a pair of detectives at the department three days later.
"I need to do what is right," she told them, according to a report.
No, Cassandra told police, her father never touched her. For nearly a decade, she said, her father had been sitting in prison based on her lies.
"I just want him to be out and freed," Cassandra said in her interview with the police. Then, she said, "I will be free on the inside."
Cassandra said she got the idea of setting up her father from a friend whose stepfather was sent to prison for a child sex crime. "I thought that is what I would do to make my dad go away," she told police in January.
In her recent interviews with police, Cassandra recalled testifying against her father during his trial and "having to point at him and look at him and say who he was — and how bad I felt, all the guilt, thinking, 'Can I take it all back?' "
"I remember being so unhappy and scared that they were going to convict him," Cassandra told the detectives in January.
Police reports tell the story of an angry little girl who felt neglected by her father and, by her own admission, took "vengeance" on him.
Thomas Kennedy and his wife divorced around 1991, and their daughters, Cassandra and her older sister, began spending one weekend a month with their father, according to court documents. The girls slept on foam mattresses in the living room of Kennedy's Longview home.
'I took vengeance'
As a child, Cassandra Kennedy liked Rollerblades, camping and swimming — typical kid stuff. But she told police her fellow Kalama Elementary students made fun of her clothes and her "buck teeth." She began experimenting with alcohol, she said.
The girl wrote in her journal, a copy of which is part of the court record, that her teacher "isn't nice and she never calls on me and she gives me mean looks." In 2000, a few months before she accused her father of incest, Cassandra was expelled from school for saying in a letter to her teacher that she was thinking about bringing a gun to school and shooting "everyone," according to a medical report. Cassandra had a couple of sessions with a counselor following the incident.
She attended Kalama High School until her junior year, when she dropped out, according to investigative reports. Cassandra said she became addicted to pills in her late teens and worked a few odd jobs, for just a month or two, at McDonald's and PetCo. By 2010, she was using meth and had felony convictions for burglary and theft, the reports said.
In January, Cassandra told police she still has fond childhood memories of sitting on her father's lap as he drove his pickup to collect wood pallets and wire to scrap.
"I was daddy's girl," she said. "I was with my dad!" But, she said, her father wasn't around much when she was little and that he drank heavily, smoked pot and partied.
"I wanted him to love me, and I didn't think he did at that time," she told the detectives.
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So, Cassandra said, she made up the rape story, largely because her father disappointed her. "He wasn't showing up. I wanted him away so he would stop hurting me," she said this year. "I took my own vengeance."
In a 2001 interview with police, Cassandra said she wanted her father to take a lie detector test. When an investigator asked her what questions her dad should be asked, none of her suggested queries involved sexual abuse. Instead she wanted police to ask Kennedy: "Do you still smoke pot? Do you like to your kids? Do you still drink?"
Kennedy never took a lie detector test on the advice of his attorney, according to investigative documents.
Cassandra said this year that, as a child, she didn't understand the consequences of her lies. She told police she hadn't thought Kennedy would go to prison if he was convicted. "I just thought he would go away, you know, go to jail for a little bit, be out of my life," she said.
Baur, who was the prosecutor during the case, recalled Friday that all of the pieces in the investigation seemed to fall into place.
"It just totally made sense," she said.
Most startling, Baur said, was that Cassandra told the story of the abuse again and again with amazing consistency. Yet, Baur said, "she did not appear to me to be the most precocious 11-year-old."
'Peace' a code word for abuse
Cassandra first told her teacher about the alleged incest in early 2001, according to reports. Teacher and student worked out a code word to signal that the abuse was continuing — "peace." Cassandra told police it wasn't long before she called the teacher: "It happened again," she said. "Peace."
Cassandra also wrote about the alleged abuse in a journal that included among its pink and purple pages other mundane entries about boys, Cassandra's slipping grades and her older sister's annoying behavior. On the cover, written in a little girl's haphazard letters, were the words "Confidential. No taking peeks."
Later in 2001, in an interview with Longview police investigators, Cassandra used stuffed animals to illustrate what her father had allegedly done to her, reports said. She also drew a picture of a bathroom where she said one of the rapes happened. Police later measured and photographed the room.
Cassandra's account included frightening detail, according to police reports. But if it wasn't true, police wanted to know this year, how could an 11-year-old know so much about sex? Cassandra told police in January that she began engaging in sexual activity as a second-grader. She also said she may have known what to tell police from watching a movie or from walking in on adults having sex.
In March of 2001, Cassandra was examined at a Vancouver clinic where she told a doctor about the alleged abuse. "She looked at me and said, 'Are you telling the truth?" Cassandra said this year of her appointment with the doctor. "I lied to her and said, 'Yes.' "
The doctor found trauma in Cassandra's groin area, according to a report.
Police described Cassandra's allegations during an interview with Kennedy in March of 2001. Kennedy, who was at the time a laborer and equipment operator at Metro Metals Northwest in Kelso, "denied doing anything," a Longview investigator wrote in a report. "He was very upset. He told me he would do anything to prove he didn't do anything."
A jury convicted Kennedy of three counts of first-degree rape of a child in 2002, and now-retired Cowlitz Superior Court Judge Jim Warme sentenced him to more than 15 years in prison.
Until then, Kennedy's criminal record had included convictions in the 1990s for fourth-degree assault, reckless driving and driving with a suspended license.
Cassandra's family members recalled to police this year that, during a 2002 trip to the beach, Cassandra told her mother she'd lied about the rape allegations, according to reports. However, Cassandra took back the statement a day later and insisted she'd been telling the truth all along, family members told police.
Kennedy, who was serving his sentence at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, appealed his conviction, alleging his defense attorney had been incompetent, but the appeals failed. Kennedy wasn't scheduled to be released until 2016.
On Feb. 15, after Longview police told prosecutors that Cassandra Kennedy was recanting, Baur wrote an urgent letter to Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning. "I need to inform you that I have been made aware of new, credible material evidence that potentially creates a reasonable likelihood that Mr. Kennedy is innocent of those crimes," Baur wrote, adding that her staff was "continuing to work with investigators to uncover the truth."
Kennedy was brought from Stafford Creek to the Cowlitz County Jail in late February, Baur said. During a hearing last Monday, Judge Warning ruled that Cassandra's statements to police this year are credible. He also found that the physical trauma reported by a doctor in 2001 may have been caused by a sexual experience that took place before the dates of the alleged abuse, Baur said.
Asked if there had been missteps in the initial investigation, Baur said she has recently reviewed a recording of the little girl's testimony and has been rethinking every detail of the case. She noted that 12 jurors found enough evidence at the time to convict Kennedy and that the conduct of prosecutors, defense attorneys and Judge Warme was upheld by the appeals court.
"There should be no indictment of the system," she said.
Instead, Baur said, it's simply a case of a victim withdrawing her story.
"Unfortunately, a man spent 10 years in prison before that happened," she said.