Fan Makes National News... Sort of (The Whole Story)
Tue., Aug. 30. 2005 10:33am EDT
This past weekend, we met a guy on the plane ride to Monroe, LA who had been to Iraq for 3 1/2 years and this was the first time he could come home. And he was most excited to finally meet his three year old daughter! That's an unbelievable story but it's nothing like the shocker about our "fan" Kodee:
The guys in ApologetiX get tons of mail. We set aside time specifically to be able to minister in this way. Lots of bands can't, and maybe we'll be that busy too, someday. Karl gets about 1,000 emails a week. Several months ago, he got an email from a fan who filled out the contact form and chose him as the recipient of the message. The fan was eight year old Kodee from Illinois. She really tugged at the heart strings with such comments as "My daddy lives in Iraq and my mommy lives in hevin."
After the second email was chock full of incredibly cute comments like "how do bridges stay up?" and "Are you famis?" and noticing that the emails were coming in at 3am (2am Central), he asked why an eight year old was up so late.
"I wasn't sure if it was one of the guys pulling my leg or what, but Deb and I would get such a kick out of Kodee, but I thought someone was pulling my leg- this was too cute."
Kodee didn't answer, but her aunt did:
Hello, this is Col. I'm Kodee's aunt. I am sorry if her emails are a bother. I noticed you've ask twice why she is up so late, and the answer is that she has difficulty sleeping. She has nightmares about her dad being killed. Sometimes it's really rough getting her to sleep again, and on those nights (there are a lot of them) we email daddy and let him know we miss him. And she usually wants to email you too. I just didn't want you to think my husband I were bad parents. We're not the greatest, but we try. We've just learned a long time ago, that it's easier and less stressful to not force her back to sleep.
Her dad's been gone for 7 months now, on deployment to Iraq. This is his second year over there, as he was there for the war itself.
To which I replied:
I have to tell you: I get tons of email, and I do answer everyone (briefer than I'd like, but they all get answered.) and I almost thought someone was pulling my LEG with the Kodee email. They were SO ABSOLUTELY SPELLBINDINGLY TENDER that they almost seemed made up by a very witty adult. I actually forwarded the first two email I got with her to everyone in the band and my mom.
Kodee can email me anytime she wants and as often as she wants. sometimes I respond right away, and sometimes I'm on the road or in the studio and can't get back for a couple days.
Well- that's solved- this is legit. Over the next couple months I continued to get emails from Kodee:
I fond a turtle today. It is a snaping one. It bit me and it woldnt let me go. It bite me so hard. I have blod on my hand an shirt. If you see one ever dont pick it up they dont like that. I still got my arm broken. It sucks. How much does a drop of water way. I miss my daddy he is sily. Are you famis. Why do you go see so many placs do you have a home. I saw star wars it was cool did you see it I saw madagascar I never lafhed so hard in my life. Wen wil you stop be famis may be after it can we play.
I also found out that her dad in Iraq was something of an ApologetiX fan and wrote him. He wrote back:
Hey man, nice to hear from ya. Yeah I love hearing from people at home, we all do actually. At the moment I have no address. I'm apart of a mobile assault unit, so we're always on the move. Being this moble is different for me, but on the brighter side I've seen Iraq from one end to the other and back again. It's kinda like touring-haha. I'll let you know if I get an address.
We were in Baghdad for Christmas, hence having an address. Which meant we wouldn't be left out for Xmas mail. I ended up with a cd of your band, which is now circling my unit. Quite different, not anything what I expected, yet awesomely cool. Trust me as soon as we get stationary I'll let you know.
Thanks for the email man. It's cool you're emailing my kid. I miss her like crazy, think of her all the time, and pray like mad that I get to come to her. I know this is so hard for her. I hope someday she understands. Thanks man.
Take care and thanks for the support. Write anytime man.
SSG Daniel Kennings
Finally, I started getting emails from the staff at the Daily Egyptian, the school newspaper of Southern Illinois University. They talked about how Kodee was related to someone there, and they brought her and her dad in (when he was on leave) and she became the mascot of the newspaper staff. They wrote about her all the time in the paper, and she was the darling of the office.
Then, after getting home from our Apol-acoustiX performance in Wisconsin, I got this chilling email from Evan, her buddy at the newspaper:
On Aug 14, 2005, at 10:20 PM, evan keller wrote:
Karl- There's no easy way to say this but Kodee's dad was killed earlier this week. I asked the family if you knew and they said no so I told them I'd write you. I'm sorry to have to tell you this. The funeral is tomorrow morning in Illinois. If you'd like to talk to Kodee and the family you can call (phone number deleted). I know you were looking forward to meeting her, but I think travelling is out of the question for now. Again, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, especially in an email. Not that there was another way, afterall this is the only way I know you. My prayers are with you as you read this and afterwards.
Needless to say we were shocked, and devastated. I called Deb into the room and we read and re-read the email in horror, crying and praying for Kodee, now, an orphan.
But I never lost that "this all sounds kinda fishy" feeling, and I searched the internet for a website that named the casualties of the war. It had names up until the day before I looked, and some were so fresh that they said "Name not released yet." and since he wasn't in there anywhere, I assumed his name wasn't released yet.
The next day, I checked again, and all those names were filled in. They'd apparently reached the next of kin. Still no Daniel Kennings. Now my suspicions grew into full blown distrust.
I showed the emails around to people. Last week in the tram at the airport, on the way to our Nash, TX concert, I talked to J about it. He said to me, "Yeah, it doesn't sound like the writings of an EIGHT year old- sounds much younger than that." and as he and I tried to entertain the idea of it all being a hoax, we agreed that nothing would make us happier. I also showed the whole paper trail to our friend, Greg Micher who met his wife, Heidi, while he was a serviceman stationed in England. Greg was also suspicious that the father wouldn't put in for a hardship relocation with him being a widower/ father and sole caretaker of a young child.
I'd already decided that until it was proven a hoax, I had to be 100% there for that family anyway I could. And if that meant that I had egg on my face when it came out a fake, so be it. I decided that I could, however, approach the newspaper guy. He claims to have met the girl, so he's either in on it (can't imagine how or why) or he's being punked as well. Either way, he wouldn't be as hurt as the family would if I question the validity of the situation were it to be proven true.
He had just emailed me:
On Aug 16, 2005, at 3:02 PM, evan keller wrote:
I'm so sorry I had to tell you in an email. I was broken hearted when Col told me. Kodee's the sweetest kid and she deserved to have her dad come home. I got so angry I have a hole in my bedroom wall. Kodee's doing ok. She's quiet and hasn't talked about it. She'll talk about football and soccer and general stuff, but nothing about her dad.
I printed your response and gave it to [Kodee's uncle and aunt who take care of her,] Matt and Col. They thought it was nice of you. I guess if you'd like to talk to Kodee or the family you can call them. I don't know if you do that, but you can if you want. Their number is (deleted). As for anything to help, heck I don't even know what to do so I'm not the guy to ask. I'm completely lost. I've never had anyone I know die before.
Thanks for writing back.
I called the number -- disconnected. So, I wrote him. and on the August 16th I wrote him:
I went to the page that tracks casualties of the war and I haven't seen his name yet. Can you tell me when and how this happened?
Here's this month:
He usually replies right away, but over a week later, I heard nothing from anybody. I tried to email Kodee, Matt, Col, even Daniel in Iraq. The I tried the newspaper again. This time fully revealing our suspicion:
From: Karl Messner
Date: August 24, 2005 2:35:54 PM EDT
To: evan keller
Subject: Re: important about Kodee
Hey, long time no hear.
Evan, I'm having a rough time getting through to anybody since Daniel was killed. I'm assuming the family is distraught. I even tried to call the number you gave me, but it's disconnected. And I can't find Daniel's name on the registry of every soldier killed in Iraq up until yesterday ( http://icasualties.org/oif/prdDetails.aspx?hndRef=8-2005 ).
This is like the Twilight Zone. I was talking to my friend about it and they suggested that maybe Kodee, her dad, her aunt and uncle, and all her friends really didn't exist and it's an extremely complicated hoax.
We decided nothing would make us happier than to find out that it was, and that a little 8 year old didn't just really lose her father in Iraq, but I'm afraid that bubble bursts every time I read over the emails.
I'm still really beside myself with all of this, so, I hope to hear from someone soon.
Well guess what?! One of the people to whom I showed the story (Seamstress to the Stars, Wanda Rose Bush), did some fishing around and found out that our worst suspicions were true:
Soon after my tip-off email, a reporter contacted the Chicago Tribune (8th largest newspaper in the country with over 500,000 subscribers) about the story (still believing it to be true!) They came down, and started to do a story on the new war orphan. The Trib started searching the death records, then contacted the Defense Department only to find that there was not even a Daniel Kennings currently enlisted in any branch of the armed forces. That shock led to a huge investigation over the next couple days and a full page apology replaced the newspaper's website.
The tall tale ended up being a feature story last Thursday that confirmed our suspicions. Now, we know the full story of lies and deception:
Thu, Aug. 25, 2005
Tale of dead soldier and his little girl was elaborate hoax
BY OFELIA CASILLAS, DAVID HEINZMANN AND REX W. HUPPKE
CARBONDALE, Ill. - (KRT) - Word that Sgt. Dan Kennings had been killed in Iraq crushed spirits in the Daily Egyptian newsroom. The stocky, buzz-cut soldier befriended by students at the university newspaper was dead, and the sergeant's little girl, a precocious, blond-haired child they'd grown to love, was now an orphan.
They all knew Kodee Kennings' mother died when she was 5. The little girl's fears and frustrations about her father being in harm's way had played out on the pages of the Daily Egyptian for nearly two years, in gut-wrenching letters fraught with misspellings, innocent observations and questions about why daddy wasn't there to chase the monsters from under her bed.
It turns out daddy didn't exist at all.
The Chicago Tribune went to southern Illinois to learn about the bond between Kodee and Dan Kennings, and the life Kodee would face now without her hero.
Over seven days of reporting, the Tribune learned the real story, one of elaborate fabrications and lies intricately spread out over two years. There is no soldier named Dan Kennings. The charming girl people came to know as Kodee Kennings is someone else entirely, a child from an out-of-state family led to believe she was playing a part in a documentary about a soldier.
Using role players, including an employee of a local Christian radio station, the woman at the center of the hoax spun a remarkable wartime tale so compelling it grabbed the hearts of young journalists, university faculty members and readers, and left them blind to the possibility it could all be a ruse. There appears never to have been a monetary motive. In fact, the reasons behind all the lies remain unclear.
The tale began in 2003 when student reporter Michael Brenner was handed a letter from a 7-year-old girl saying she saw an anti-war protest on the Southern Illinois campus and it bothered her because her dad was a soldier. Brenner e-mailed the little girl, and as he learned more about her situation decided to tell her story.
The story appeared in the Daily Egyptian on May 6, 2003, detailing an 8-year-old's struggles saying goodbye to her father, who was shipping off to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. Kodee, according to the story, had lost her mother years earlier, so Kennings was her only blood relative.
"I don't have a mom," Kodee was quoted saying in the newspaper story. "If he died, I don't have anywhere to go."
Upon Kennings' departure, Kodee came under the care of a young woman named Colleen Hastings, the wife of Kennings' adoptive brother. Outgoing and affable, she forged a friendship with Brenner and, he says, seemed to think the attention was helping keep Kodee's mind off her dad.
Brenner, then the editor of the paper, started publishing unedited notes that Kodee would write about her dad, or about things happening in her life.
Last week Hastings contacted the newsroom and said Kennings had been killed in action in Iraq. A professor in the journalism school who was familiar with the Kennings story called the Tribune last Wednesday, and the newspaper had a reporter on the road to Carbondale, Ill., that night.
However, no details of Kennings' death could be confirmed. His name didn't appear on a Department of Defense Web site that lists U.S. casualties.
By last Thursday, the story was falling apart. Military officials could find no one named Dan Kennings in the Army or any other branch of the service, and no deaths in Iraq fit the time frame Hastings had described.
Hastings refused to speak with the Tribune, saying through Brenner - who had graduated in 2004 and was living with his family in West Chicago - that she wanted to shelter Kodee from the media.
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. Hastings and Kodee got out of a red 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 showing Dan Kennings in his fatigues speaking with a group of children at a church was playing, and there was a scrapbook filled with pictures of Kennings straddling a tank cannon or huddling with other soldiers.
By Tuesday night, Michael Brenner was pacing nervously outside a Dairy Queen in Cartersville, 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 as a woman 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 the military was denying 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.
And then she drove off into the night.
The Tribune traced the license plate of Hastings' car, and by Wednesday afternoon, a reporter was outside a home in Marion, Ill., looking for a woman named Jaimie Reynolds.
Reynolds agreed to talk.
Sitting on the back porch of her house wearing a maroon, long-sleeved Southern Illinois University shirt, her face flush from crying, Reynolds admitted she had pretended to be Colleen Hastings. She said Dan Kennings was invented, and those who met him had actually met a friend of hers who agreed to play the role.
She said, and the Tribune confirmed, that she was a broadcast journalism student at Southern Illinois. She graduated in 2004, putting her there alongside the very people she was deceiving.
Reynolds acknowledged the little girl actually is the daughter of friends, and said she persuaded the parents to let her bring the child regularly to Carbondale by saying she was filming a documentary about a soldier killed in Iraq.
"We told her it was for a movie," Reynolds said.
Reynolds said the scheme was Brenner's idea.
"Mike is my best friend," she said. "In the last couple of years, he's had a hard time with his career. He asked me if I would help him out. I said I would. It just got a little bigger than he told me it would. I went with it because supposedly he was my best friend. This needs to be over with. I don't want to lie anymore. He just wouldn't let it go."
She also said she fell in love with Brenner, making it that much harder for her to stop the lie.
Brenner denied Reynolds' accusation and said her claims were outrageous.
"[bleep], that is completely not true," Brenner said when he heard about the allegations. "Obviously she is making that up. I swear I'm telling the truth. The last two years of my life, I don't know what to believe. It's ridiculous. I feel stabbed in the back. They had an elaborate hoax. I'm telling the truth."
On Thursday, 10-year-old Caitlin Hadley sat between her parents on a couch in the Nazarene church they run in Montpelier, Ind. She retold the two-year odyssey that began with her believing she was going to be the star of documentary film about a little girl named Kodee.
"It was sort of weird, but I had a lot of fun," Caitie said.
Her parents, Richard and Tawnya Hadley, were angry.
"I just realized that I didn't know this girl (Jaimie Reynolds)," said Tawnya Hadley. "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., when Reynolds started making the five- or six-hour drive from Carbondale to pick Caitie up and bring her to southern Illinois.
Caitie said that when she and Reynolds were with other people, Reynolds said 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 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 was not 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.
As for Brenner, the director of the Southern Illinois journalism school said he supports the young reporter.
"Just from knowing him personally, I don't have any sense that this is something that he would have done," said Walter Jaehnig, who also teaches an ethics course at the university.
Jaehnig said the Daily Egyptian would be publishing an apology regarding its coverage of Dan and Kodee Kennings. He said the university is embarrassed by the ruse, but hopes to use it as an opportunity to teach.
"I think my other concern here," he said, "is that we find a way to ensure that this incident is a learning experience for our present students and that they understand the importance of fact checking and verification of everything they write."
In her home in Indiana on Thursday, Caitie reflected on Jaimie Reynolds, the woman who over the past two years had become like a "big sister" to her.
"I feel sad for her," Caitie said. "And I feel like she betrayed me."
The full story complete with pictures and some sample stories that had been printed over the years and are now fully retracted appear here:
This weekend, we were going to meet Kodee and her aunt and uncle. They WERE going to come to the concert in Mattoon, IL. Since then, Karl's been talking with the editor of the Daily Egyptian, who wants to interview him.
We've invited all involved victims, including the actors who were hoodwinked and the paper's staff to come to that show and meet with Karl and the rest of the guys in person and maybe start a support group!
Impersonating a member of the military is an imprisonable offense, so there may be real consequences for those involved here.
Above all, we're glad that at least in this case, an eight year old girl didn't lose her only living parent, and if there's anything we can do to minister to these hurt, betrayed and deceived souls, we will.