As his 4-year-old adopted daughter lay dying from water intoxication on 9 June 2002, a Springville, Utah, man appeared to blame her condition on her “emotional problems” and “temper tantrums” in his 911 call.
When a dispatcher initially asked what was wrong, Richard Killpack said his daughter “had a lot of emotional problems. To make a long story short, she had one of her temper tantrums today. We need to give her quite a bit of water. She threw up [water]…and then all of a sudden she’s just not there.…We can’t keep her eyes open.” EMTs found the girl unconscious, with a distended belly and pink foam coming from her mouth
Cassandra Killpack died early the next morning. Medical examiners made the cause of death “water intoxication.” That is a condition in which an over-abundance of water causes sodium levels in the body to drop, resulting in fatal swelling of the brain.
Killpack, 34, and his wife, Jennete, 26, have been charged with child-abuse homicide and felony child-abuse in connection with her death. Prosecutors allege the couple punished the girl for sneaking sips of a sibling’s Kool-Aid by sitting her on a bar stool, tying her hands behind her back with the help of her 7-year-old sister, and forcing her to drink a lethal amount of water.
The couple also was charged with another count of felony child-abuse, a third-degree felony, for allegedly involving their elder daughter in Cassandra’s punishment, explained Sherry Ragan, chief of the criminal division of the Utah County Attorney’s Office, on NBC’s Today show.
Ragan said cuts and bruises were found around Cassandra’s mouth, evidence of force used to make her drink. The Killpacks’ explanation, she said on NBC, “does not fit the medical evidence.”
“She’s seeing a psychiatrist,” Killpack told the dispatcher. “She’s got a really bad case of RAD, she has temper tantrums, she zones out. But this is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”
Killpack said the girl may have hit her head when she “threw herself” off the bar stool, about an hour before the 911 call was made. “She was drinking water, and we told her to get down,” he said.
He said the girl was complaining of a headache about 20 minutes before he called. Cassandra was sent to “time out,” but complained she couldn’t keep her legs still, he said. The Killpacks told her to “go potty and go to bed,” he said.
The amount of water ingested, prosecutors have said, caused the girl’s levels of sodium and electrolytes to fall and her brain to swell.
On CBS’ The Early Show, the couple said the water drinking was punishment for Cassandra’s “sneaking and lying,” as advised by therapists from the Cascade Center for Family Growth in Orem, Utah.
Under rules set by the therapists, Richard Killpack said, Cassandra had to ask for everything, including food and water, “to help her understand dependency, that her mom and dad loved her.”
Center director Larry Van Bloem denied therapists recommended the water-drinking, saying Tuesday he had never heard of such a treatment. Ragan has said the Killpacks had used such disciplinary tactics before contacting the Center. Police said they did not find evidence to charge anyone at the Center in Cassandra’s death.
However, in a development a year later, the intake therapist for Cassandra at Cascade, Keith Reber, has been charged with practicing psychotherapy without a license by Utah’s Division of Professional Licensing (DOPL) and DOPL is seeking an order prohibiting any further practice in the state. The charges state that he told the Killpacks he was operating under a “pastor’s license” while he awaited the outcome of his Marriage and Family Therapy license application. In fact, that application had been denied because his equivalent license in Oregon was under investigation. Shortly before Utah’s DOPL moved against Reber, Oregon authorities had revoked his license, stating among other things that his “clinical beliefs are a danger to the public.”
On NBC, Killpack said Cassandra was told to drink three 8-ounce glasses of water because she took water without asking. After about 12 ounces, she threw a temper tantrum, he said, then obeyed their request to do exercises and take a time out.
“She started to complain her head was dizzy. I asked her to come over to me, and she passed out in our arms,” he said. Added Jennete Killpack: “Her death was a tragic, tragic accident.”
The Killpacks’ attorney denies that the couple had used the tactic before contacting the Center. He has said the couple did not know Cassandra’s sodium and electrolyte levels were already low because of exercises done at the Center earlier in the day as part of the intensive she was undergoing.
Danielson said the couple sought help at Cascade because Cassandra, who reportedly had been physically and sexually abused before her adoption, and the parents did not feel she bonding with them.
The Killpacks’ two other daughters have been placed in foster care. The couple have not been jailed because they are not considered a flight risk, Ragan said.
The couple can get up to 15 years in prison if convicted on child-abuse homicide. Felony child-abuse is punishable by up to 5 years. The prosecution briefly considered changing the charges to murder, which carries a life sentence, but the original charges continue. A trial date on the original charges has not been set, but is not expected before January, 2004.