Neighbors say mom tough on 4-year-old

Date: 2005-09-24

Neighbors say mom tough on 4-year-old

Water death: Witnesses testify the parents treated the victim more harshly than their biological daughter

By Stephen Hunt
The Salt Lake Tribune

PROVO - Richard and Jennete Killpack, on trial for allegedly killing their 4-year-old adopted daughter by making her drink excessive amounts of water, treated the child much differently - and more harshly - than their biological daughter, according to testimony Friday.

Cassandra Killpack was alternately deprived of food and forced to eat, and endured hours-long timeouts for her purported bad behavior, the witnesses said.

In contrast, there were few rules for Cassandra's 7-year-old sister, who, said one witness, was "free to play and roam and be a kid."

None of the witnesses could recall seeing Cassandra do anything to warrant the discipline meted out regularly by her adoptive parents, who claim the girl threw tantrums, destroyed property and was unable to bond with them.

The testimony is part of the prosecution's theory that Cassandra's death was the culmination of long-standing abuse.

On June 9, 2002, her parents allegedly forced Cassandra to drink cup after cup of water as punishment for stealing a sip of her baby sister's juice.

The excessive amounts of water caused the girl's sodium levels to fall, and her brain swelled to fatal proportions, according to medical evidence.

Charged with second-degree felony child-abuse homicide, the Killpacks claim they were merely following the advice of counselors from the now-defunct Cascade Center for Family Growth.

The Springville couple have told police the girl suffered from reactive-attachment disorder, which can occur when babies fail to bond with their birth mothers. Cascade has denied recommending forced-water drinking as a cure.

Cassandra was brought to Utah from South Carolina in April 1999 by an adoption agency. Foster parent David Stauffer testified she was "a normal, happy young girl." The Killpacks adopted her in July of that year.

Other witnesses agreed Cassandra began her life with the Killpacks as a cheerful and outgoing girl, but said she became quiet, withdrawn and fearful.
"She started out as a loving, warm, affectionate child," testified friend and neighbor Maria Wilkey.

"By the time they moved [just before Cassandra's death], there was nothing there. No expression, no warmth - nothing."

Wilkey said Cassandra would "let down and be a kid" when away from her parents. "But she had a lot of fear when they were around," she said.

Another friend and neighbor, Bobbi Condie, said the "rambunctious and lively" Cassandra eventually turned "very guarded . . . her expression became blank."

Cassandra spent hours in her room as punishment, said Condie, who once saw her forced to stand in a corner with her hands over her head until hands and legs were shaking.

Friend and neighbor Dale Green recalled an incident where everyone was eating ice cream except Cassandra, because her mother forbade it.

"I told [Jennete Killpack] that wasn't nice," he said.

But neighbor Cindy Sumsion said she saw Jennete Killpack force spoonful after spoonful of food into Cassandra's mouth, until the girl's cheeks puffed out.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Michael Esplin said that Jennete Killpack showed her love for Cassandra, an African-American, by spending hours braiding her hair into corn rows.

Esplin also asked witnesses if they were aware Cassandra was in therapy and that the discipline had been suggested by counselors.

But there was testimony that Jennete Killpack's actions went well beyond discipline.

Andra Green testified that Jennete admitted hitting Cassandra in the head with a spoon hard enough to cause bleeding.

Wilkey testified that Jennete Killpack showed her bruises on Cassandra's neck and said she had choked the girl because she refused to eat.

According to Wilkey, Jennete Killpack had once said of Cassandra: "I'm not sure that I want her."


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