This is one of the most shocking stories I’ve ever encountered. It is shocking because of the false nature of the claims, the use of a child in the hoax, and the fact that no one picked it up over two years. It is almost impossible to know where to begin.
I suppose I should start with the admission of the campus paper at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale.
It was a heart-rending story--a blonde waif, her mother dead, entrusted to the care of a family friend while her father fought with the 101st Airborne in Iraq. The youngster was intelligent, friendly and engaging, and developed close bonds with many of the newsroom staff.
Then a week ago came the news that her father had been killed in Iraq.
Every war casualty leaves a trail of pain, but the story of a 10-year-old girl losing her only parent to the war is particularly poignant, and the Chicago Tribune showed interest.
In the course of checking out the details, a troubling problem appeared: The story wasn't true. What began as a nightmarish possibility became impossible to deny. There was no record with the Department of Defense of the death.
The father who was called Dan Kennings was not killed in Iraq. We checked with central command in Baghdad. There was no Dan Kennings in the 101st Airborne. No Dan Kennings in the entire Army.
We checked with Cathy Gramling, media relations officer at Fort Campbell, Ky., who in turn checked with the Army Human Resources Command.
"We cannot find a record of a Dan Kennings on active duty or having been killed in Iraq," Gramling said.
You see, the paper had been running stories by and about this little girl and her father for the last two years. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes Brenner’s reaction.
"Looking back on it now, it makes so much sense. I don't know how I could have been such an idiot," said Michael Brenner, the former Daily Egyptian reporter who first wrote about Kodee, and then spent two years staying in contact as a close friend of her and her purported aunt and guardian, who said her name was Colleen Hastings.
Brenner now knows the names to be false, the friendship was a lie, and that hours of telephone interviews and conversations he thought he was having with the girl were actually with the woman. "I was thoroughly convinced."
The relationship between "Kodee"' and the Daily Egyptian started in spring 2003, when Brenner wrote a feature story about Kodee's pain at the departure of her father, identified as Dan Kennings, and included excerpts of a letter she purportedly wrote to him:
"Don't die, OK dad? ... You should find Saddam and run him over with your tank ... I love you and don't die. Love, Kodee."
Another published letter, purportedly by Kodee, asked: "Are you still coming home dad? I'm still here without you ... Hey dad I dug a fox hole. It is regulashin ... Can you kill all the bad guys now so Air Force One can bring you home?"
People wee truly taken with this cute kid with a dead mother and a father in Iraq. How could you not be? The letters sounded genuine, and everybody assumed it was a true story. Unfortunately, the folks assuming included Brenner, who admits he didn’t check out the facts as closely as he should have. Its just that decent people don’t make up stuff like this – and certainly don’t use kids this way.
And then the big lie was exposed by the Chicago Tribune, which wanted a story on how this precious little girl would go on having lost both parents.
On Saturday morning, cars began pulling into the gravel parking lot of a one-story American Legion hall in Orient, Ill., about 30 miles northeast of Carbondale, for a memorial service. Hastings and Kodee got out of a red Pontiac Grand Am, the little girl wearing an Army uniform shirt that hung down to her knees.
People inside the memorial service said both Hastings and Kodee were in tears. A video showed Kennings in his fatigues speaking with a group of children at a church, and there was a scrapbook filled with pictures of Kennings straddling a tank cannon or huddling with other soldiers.
Tribune reporters continued asking questions, and some students and a faculty member were growing increasingly hostile because of suggestions that Kennings did not exist. By Tuesday night, however, Brenner was pacing nervously outside a Dairy Queen in Carterville, Ill., talking to Hastings on his cell phone. He handed the phone to a Tribune reporter, and Hastings said she would come to the Dairy Queen and listen to questions.
Brenner, 25, said he was still convinced of Kennings' existence and defended Hastings for trying to protect a little girl.
Hastings pulled into the parking lot in the same red car she'd driven to the memorial service. She was told that the military denied Kennings' existence and that the name Colleen Hastings appeared in no public-records databases in Illinois. She was asked for a driver's license and for a death certificate for Kennings. With each question, Hastings shook her head no.
After Brenner spoke to her for a minute alone, she drove off.
State records show that the car is registered to a woman living in Marion, and on Wednesday a reporter was there looking for the woman's granddaughter, Jaimie Reynolds.
When she came out of the house, Reynolds was the same woman who had been at the Dairy Queen as Colleen Hastings.
Sitting on the back porch and wearing a long-sleeved Southern Illinois University shirt, her face flush from crying, Reynolds admitted that she had pretended to be Hastings. She said that Kennings was an invention, and later explained that those who met him actually had met Trovillion, the acquaintance who believed he was acting in a film.
She said, and the Tribune confirmed, that she had been a radio and television production student at the university. She graduated in 2004, putting her there alongside the very people she was deceiving.
Reynolds acknowledged the little girl is the daughter of friends and said she persuaded the parents to let her bring the child to Carbondale regularly by saying she was filming a documentary about a soldier killed in Iraq.
"We told her it was for a movie," Reynolds said.
Reynolds now claims that Brenner was in on the plot from the beginning, a charge that he denies.
And as the local paper in Carbondale notes, the motive for the hoax is quite murky.
The Daily Egyptian's general manager said the motive behind the entire Kodee story may be the biggest riddle yet to unravel.
"There is still confusion over what the motive may have been," Speere said.
However, he added that he didn't think money was the motive.
However, in many of Kodee's columns it was noted that her father had to pay $2 per minute to phone home from Iraq and the father's personal e-mail, a Yahoo account, was listed.
It will be interesting to see how much money, if any, these frauds got from good-hearted people.
It appears that the fake Kodee and her family were duped as well, if the Chicago Tribune's story is to be believed (though you have to wonder why the parents didn';t ask more questions sooner if they were not a part of the whole scheme).
On Thursday, 10-year-old Caitlin Hadley sat between her parents on a couch in her mom's office, retelling the two-year odyssey that began with her belief that she was going to be the star of a documentary film about a little girl named Kodee.
"It was sort of weird, but I had a lot of fun," Caitie said.
Her father, Richard Hadley, is a pastor at a Nazarene church in Montpelier, Ind., and her mother works for the church's regional office. Both said they felt they'd been scammed by Reynolds.
"I just realized that I didn't know this girl," Tawnya Hadley said. "In the profession that my husband is in, we move and meet new people all the time. What if she'd never brought Caitie back? We feel like we're idiots."
The Hadleys lived in Buffalo, Ky., during most of the time Reynolds was making the four- to five-hour drive from Carbondale to pick up Caitie and bring her to southern Illinois.
Caitie said that when she and Reynolds were with other people, Reynolds told her they were "filming." Caitie was to pretend to be Kodee, and "she said I needed to act like a tomboy because Kodee was a tomboy."
Caitie's understanding was that everybody she met in Carbondale was in the movie, which was being filmed by hidden cameras. So when they went into the Daily Egyptian newsroom the first time, she pretended to be Kodee and believed that the reporters and editors were playing along as characters.
"I met all the people she had in the movie," Caitie said. "We were always on camera, but I didn't see any cameras."
As Caitie's involvement continued, the Hadleys began asking why the documentary had not been finished.
About a month ago, after a long silence, the Hadleys heard from Reynolds.
She said a new group of students wanted to finish the documentary, and they needed to borrow Caitie again for a memorial service because Dan Kennings had been killed in Iraq.
The parents agreed, and Reynolds drove Caitie down for one last experience.
In her home in Indiana on Thursday, Caitie reflected on Jaimie Reynolds, the woman who during the past two years became like a "big sister" to her.
"I feel sad for her," Caitie said. "And I feel like she betrayed me."
Yes, Caitie, these folks betrayed us all – especially the men and women in uniform and their families. I hope that some way is found to punish these people for what they did to you and to them. It was terribly wrong.
(Personal note – The connection between my family and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale stretches back over half a century. Many of my family members are proud SIU Salukis, though none were associated with the Daily Egyptian. Two are former faculty members, but none in journalism. And yes, I have taken classes there, though I graduated with both a BA and an MS from another state university in Illinois.)
NOTE: Edrahe at The Busch Stadium III Photo Blog provides a great set of bulletpoints, since you can't understand this game without a scorecard.
MORE ON THIS STORY FOUND AT Michelle Malkin, Resistance is Futile, Angry in the Great White North, Florida Masochist, Doc Rampage, Harleys, Cars, and Girls, Salient Points, Florida Cracker, With Cheese, It Comes In Pints, Brainster's Blog, Getting Nothing But Static From MSM, Out of the Box, My Yellow Country Teeth and Tim Blair.