Friday, August 26, 2005

Bad People Scare Little Girl

So the campus newspaper at Southern Illinois University (Carbondale) has, for two years, been printing stories, columns, letters, etc. about a motherless little girl who's Marine father is deployed in Iraq. And recently they reported the father had been killed. One problem. It was all a hoax.

From the Chicago Tribune [via the Lexington (KY) Herald-Leader]:

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.


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 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.
The Daily Egyptian has removed all of the previous articles, columns, and letters from their archives. However, the person who directed me to this article found the very first "introduction" article in Google’s cache. Get this:
But southern Illinois has proved to be just as much of a challenge. They keep her away from all the war coverage on television unless her dad shows up and home-school her because normal schools cover the war and try to keep her away from war protest.

That last one becomes a challenge anytime she comes to the SIUC campus with Matt. An avid Saluki fan, Kodee loves SIU, but she hates seeing "no war" scrawled on the walls of Faner and becomes confused when reading slogans such as "Bush is the Devil."

To Kodee, Bush is her father's boss and she does not understand why people think he is evil. She has also has a very difficult time understanding the war protesters and has begun to fear them the way most kids fear the boogeyman or monsters.

She calls them "the bad people," and is convinced they are going to come to her house at night to hurt her or camp out on the lawn and make her father not want to come home.

Every night, Matt and Colleen have to check under Kodee's bed and in the closet for "the bad people." They also have to double check to make sure the window is locked and investigate any sound that comes from outside.

Colleen said Kodee routinely wakes up at night screaming, fearful that "the bad people" are going to get her.

"To you and I, it's a crazy thought, but in her mind, it's as real as the telephone you're holding," Colleen said during a phone interview. "The fear is just so real."

Those mean ole anti-war protesters are frightening a (fictitious) little girl who's daddy is fighting for truth, justice and the American Way in Iraq. Bad people. Shame on them.

Too bad none of it was true.

SIU has a respectable journalism program. This won't help it. And removing all the "evidence" of the hoax from the newspaper's Web site may not be the best way to handle this.