My mind was vacant of coherent thought as I sat in the cold, unhospitable courtroom. I’d known this day was coming. I’d received the phone calls, had the meetings with my prosecutor, gone over our rehearsed script—yet, it still never felt real until I had an officer asking me to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
“Cassie? Did you hear the question? Cassie?”
“Huh? Oh, yes. I’m sorry. Cassidy Jane Flynn.” I was embarrassed at not hearing my prosecutor’s question the first time. It felt like I was already off to a bad start on one of the most important days of my life.
“Cassie, how old are you?”
“Eighteen years old.”
“And you recently turned eighteen, correct?”
“Yes, on December 13th.”
“Now Cassie, you were how old when Mr. Whitlin’s crimes began?”
“Nine years old,” I responded as my eyes shot around the ordinary chocolate brown walls that surrounded the small, plain courtroom.
“How long did the crimes continue?” My prosecutor began pacing, her tan heels clicking rhythmically on the grass green tile floor beneath her.
“About eight years.” My voice echoed against the empty paneled walls almost suggesting I could be as alone as I felt sitting in that witness’s chair.
“How often did these crimes occur?” She asked in her sober tone.
“It started off as just once a week, but they got more frequent as time continued.” Compared to her, I sounded hollower than a bird’s bones.
oice was shaky, my words were coming out disjointed, but I hadn’t fainted yet, so that was a good sign. My prosecutor, Hannah’s, next question though, would change that.
“Cassie, I understand this won’t be easy for you, so please take your time in responding to this statement. Please detail for the court the first time Mr. Whitlin committed a crime against you.”
Hearing that sentence flow from my prosecutor’s mouth sent frosty chills down my spine. I felt the color bleed away from my face. Invisible restraints on my arms and legs held me in place against the rock-hard chair in the witness stand. I felt as though Hannah had thrown a large brick straight at me and hit me square in my chest. Everyone in the courtroom watched with piercing gazes. I let my sight drift away from Hannah, a critical mistake. My eyes locked with my former stepfather’s. His menacing stare seemed as though it would stab through my core with the intensity in which he focused on me. I could almost see the bloodshot redness that was characteristic of the later years. The way his nostrils flared and the wrinkles in his forehead made clear lines from temple to temple only invoked further fear in me. Clearly, he was still angry and clearly, he had not forgiven me for pressing charges. I still heard his words from our many encounters penetrating my mind like it was yesterday.
‘You had better not tell anyone about any of this, Cassie Flynn. I swear if you ever tell anyone, I will get you. I will make you pay. No one will believe you anyway. You let this happen, you led me on…’
The awful words I lived with for so long rang in my ears with no end, like little voices with no mute button. Finally, I broke my gaze from his incessant stare. Although, his face was still an image burned into my retinas for the rest of my life. Nothing could change that. I cleared my raspy throat and started trying to explain to the court the incident that began my life of pain, suffering, and torment. This was my one and only chance to finally tell everyone what happened, expose all of Jim’s lies. I needed to be able to do this.
“In the beginning, the incidents occurred in the middle of the night, when he thought I was sleeping. The first night was at the end of the summer. He came into my room while he was getting ready for work. I had gone to bed in a tank top and pair of shorts like a normal summer night.” I began my story with a strong, confident voice, but I had to stop in the middle to swallow back tears.
I collected myself and continued speaking, “When I woke up that night, my tank top was pushed all the way up to my neck.” I stopped again.
“Cassie? Did anything else happen that night?”
I wiped away the tears that had managed to break through.
“He had pushed my tank top up to my neck and was touching my chest. When he realized I had woken up, he whispered in my ear that it was all a dream and left, leaving me still exposed.” I managed to squeak my last statement out before dropping my head to hide my face as the heat from attempting to hide the tears faded into the frostiness of desolation at the fact that this was actually my story to tell.
“Could you describe how you felt that night after Mr. Whitlin left for work?” Hannah asked after allowing me a moment to bring myself back to the present.
“N-nothing made sense to me anymore. I felt cheated and violated, but there was nothing I could do about it. He was the adult. I tried to fall back asleep, but my efforts were useless. The image of what happened was stuck in my head that night and still haunts me today.”
“Were these crimes always done in the middle of the night like the scene you described?”
“At first, yes.”
“When do you remember these crimes shifting from solely at night to occurring at other times as well?”
“Winter break of that year. Up until this point, he had only been coming during the night. He was still constantly telling me it was only a dream, and that I was only imagining everything—and I still believed him because I had no reason not to. That winter break was the first time he tried anything during the day and that was the first time I started to doubt what he had been telling me about my dreams.”
“In your description of the first incident between you and Mr. Whitlin, you said you felt him touch you inappropriately. Regarding the incidents that occurred during the day over this winter break in fourth grade, were they still limited to just the touching?”
“The first couple were, but there was one day that marked the beginning of more involved incidents. That day was when he started threatening me…”
“Could you detail the incident that started the new routine?”
“It occurred about halfway through my winter break. My mother was picking up extra hours at work for the holiday pay, so that afternoon she had gone to work. Mr. Whitlin and I were alone in the house. I was upstairs in the attic playing with one of my new Christmas toys, a schoolteacher Barbie doll when he joined me. He asked me to come downstairs and play with him. When I said no, he picked me up and carried me downstairs. I didn’t think it was weird at the time because he was laughing...”
As I continued giving the court my second story of the day, I quickly realized my mind was against me. The images of that day were etched in my memory in permanent ink, never to be erased. I remembered everything. Playing with my Barbie downstairs as he started touching me again. Him getting angry when I turned away from him. I could still feel the humiliation of him pulling my shirt up to my throat and his hands all over me. I pulled my blazer jacket closed around me.
“…I don’t know how long he continued that time, but finally, it ended.”
I glanced around the courtroom to clear my head. Everyone was busily writing notes on my scripted conversation with Hannah: the news reporters, the judge, Jim’s lawyer—everyone. It made me nervous. What could they be writing? Did they believe me? I re-centered on Hannah’s voice – I couldn’t lose my focus, not when I was still maintaining my composure on the outside.
“How did the incident over winter break make you feel, Cassie?”
“I-I felt trapped. I had no way out, no way to fight against this man who was taking advantage of me. I was helpless against him. I wanted to find a way out, but I knew I held no power against him at such a young age.” My voice trembled, and I was on the brink of losing control entirely. I tried to stay focused on Hannah.
“After the incident that occurred over winter break, how often did the alleged crimes occur?”
“Once he no longer had to convince me it was a dream, he increased the frequency a lot. For a while, it happened at least three days a week.”
“During these times, were the crimes consistent, or did they progress further?”
“Until the summer vacation of that year, they were the same as before.”
“Up until this point, had Mr. Whitlin asked you to perform any sort of sexual acts on him or had this been sole acts done to you?”
“No, he hadn’t asked me to do anything to him at that point.”
“Did he eventually ask?”
“The same time the incidents progressed again, over summer break of that next year.”
“Was this a singular event, or did it also become a part of the pattern of these crimes?”
“After the first time that summer, Mr. Whitlin constantlysked me for favors.”
As I gave my answer to Hannah’s last question, Jim’s stare suddenly felt like a stream of blazing heat burning into me. I resisted the urge to look over at him. I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
“Can you describe the initial incident of Mr. Whitlin asking you for sexual favors?”
I felt my heart plummet. This process was not getting any easier as time progressed. The questions were getting more and more difficult to answer.
I began telling the court about the day Jim had picked me up from a sleepover, despite my request for my mother to come to get me. The whole ride home he acted strange, even for him. By the time we got back home, I was desperate to get away from him and be alone. He cornered me in the basement of our house when I was putting my sleeping bag away. He stood in the doorway of the storage closet, and I saw that his pants were open – another image I feared would never leave. He asked me over and over again to just make him feel good.
“Come on, make stepdaddy Jim feel good like he does for the Princess. All girls do it for their step-daddies.”
I wasn’t a stupid child, and I knew he was lying. I denied him until I managed to sneak past him and run upstairs to my room. I kept myself locked in there until my mother came home from work that evening.
While I was in my room, I did a lot of thinking and writing.
It was like a battle was raging within the walls of my mind. On one hand, I was aware that the things that were happening to me were wrong on many levels. But, on the other hand, Jim was my acting father figure. I was taught to trust him and there was a part of my young, naïve mind that truly believed his acts were simply a piece of growing up that no one chose to discuss even after it was over. If that was the case, how stupid would I look reporting him for something that was just part of life? So, I stayed quiet but allowed my brain to continuously mull over the consequences of what was happening to me.
My heart continued to pound against my chest as I looked up at Hannah when I broke away from my stream of thoughts. She pursed her lips. The next round of questioning was here.
“Cassie, you mentioned in your testimony you felt uncomfortable when Mr. Whitlin asked you to perform sexual favors on him, can you describe any other emotions you were feeling at that time?”
“I was confused and disgusted. After that incident, a lot of things changed.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Well, prior to this incident he had begun threatening me, but after this incident, the threats became severe, scarier than before.
“What kind of threats, Cassie?”
“He began telling me if I told anyone I would get in trouble and be the one to go to jail. He told me that if I told I would be tearing apart the family and ruining everything my mother had worked so hard for. He said that no one would believe me, that I had better just keep my mouth shut and that he had ways of forcing me to keep my mouth shut if I ever told anyone.”
“Did you want to tell your mom?”
“In some ways I did, and in other ways, I didn’t.”
“Can you explain?”
“Well, I wanted to tell her because I needed everything to stop. I was living in torture, but I also didn’t want to tell her because I was scared and confused. I couldn’t make sense of what was happening to me. I knew he was wrong for acting that way, but I also still believed it might be something all girls go through.”
Hannah was slowly pacing the small courtroom floor. Her fingertips met her lips.
“Did the incidents ever progress to more frequently than the three to four times a week?”
“Yes, eventually they occurred multiple times in one day.”
“The next time the incidents increased, how frequently were they occurring?”
“Every single day,” I said slowly. I couldn’t keep from biting my nails to the nubs—a habit I thought I’d given up after high school.
“When did the crimes start occurring every day?”
“A couple of weeks into the new school year.”
“Cassie, can you detail for the court the incident which started the more involved crimes?”
My mouth felt drier than a desert in summer. The silence that took over the courtroom after Hannah’s question was louder than any sound I’d ever made. Each detailed account I had to provide was becoming more complicated. There was no clock on any of the walls in the courtroom, I would have seen it with how many times my roaming eyes had glanced around. In my nerves this morning, I had forgotten to put a watch on. I had no way of knowing what time it was or how long I had been sitting in the witness stand. For some reason, that realization made this even harder.
“This incident occurred halfway through September of my first year of junior high. My mother was away at a class to get some insurance license, so Mr. Whitlin and I were home alone for the entire weekend. He chose Saturday morning to make his big move. By the time I woke up that morning, Mr. Whitlin had pushed both my shirt and pants away and was touching me everywhere. I tried to fight him and started thrashing away, but he held my arms above my head and finished what he started. He threatened me and left without redressing me.”
Although the haunting images of my stepfather forcing me to his will were clouding my mind, the worst thought in my brain at that moment was how desperate I was for God to help me. I understood from my forced attendance in church that God loved his children and hated to see them hurt, but I didn’t understand why he seemed to show no concern for me: a rape victim. It made creating a faith of my own a true challenge.
“How did you feel after Mr. Whitlin stopped touching you that morning?”
I looked up at the ceiling to stop myself from crying before I spoke. “I was so violated, betrayed by the whole thing. I felt as though I couldn’t function anymore. I was losing interest in basic things like taking care of myself and eating on a regular basis because I wanted to spend every moment alone.”
“You said he threatened you again before he left?”
“Yes,” I said almost whispering.
“What were the threats this time?”
“He told me that if I told on him, I would pay the consequences. He s-said that he was the parent, he made the rules, and this was one of them. He deserved to have the power; it belonged to him, and he was going to make sure he had it in the end. If he ever found out that I told on him, he would see to it that I s-suffered.” My voice was trembling.
“What do you think he meant by ‘deserving the power’?”
“I assumed he was just referring to deserving authority as a parent.” I felt emptier than I had felt all day.
“What happened for the rest of that day, Cassie?”
“I got up out of bed and threw on the first set of clean clothes I could find. I pulled a cloth bag from my closet, stuffed a few things in it and began planning my escape. I knew he had gone out to the garage to work on his truck, so I snuck out the front door and made a run for it. I ran up the street to a patch of woods near our house. This became one of my favorite spots once I found it. I didn’t care that it was cold out. I had to get away from that house. I stayed in the woods all day.”
“What did you do in the woods that day?”
“I brought a journal with me; I wrote all day. I wrote about everything that had been happening, and everything I was feeling. And I prayed, all day.”
“What did you pray for Cassie?”
“I prayed for God to rescue me or give me the courage to kill myself. I had no way out, and I didn’t see any way to fix anything. I couldn’t tell anyone because I would get in trouble, so I started to go into despair.”
“Were you considering suicide during your times in the woods, Cassie?”
I paused for a minute. “Yes. I started cutting my wrists when I was twelve years old, shortly after that incident. I knew it was wrong. I knew God didn’t like it, but I needed a way out. I used to hope that maybe I would get lucky and hit a vein or an artery or something and that I could just die so I could get away from everything.”
“Do you still cut your wrists, Cassie?”
“It’s been several months,” I said as I stared down at my right arm. I had gotten a tattoo of the word ‘love’ as an encouragement to stop cutting.
“When was the last time?”
“A few days before I moved in with my foster family.”
“Do you still believe in God?”
I stopped, “No. I don’t know. I did but it’s hard to believe anymore.”
“After the incident in the fall of your first year of junior high, did the incidents with Mr. Whitlin progress any further?”
“When was that?”
“The beginning of the summer leading into my freshman year of high school.”
“Up until that point were the incidents still kept to what happened in the fall that you just described?”
“They got worse. Mr. Whitlin began attempting intercourse every time he did something.”
“Can you describe the incident over that summer?”
My heart sank again as I was called to bring up yet another painful memory. At least this time an inexplicable sense of peace came over me. Suddenly, I had enough confidence to tell the next story without thinking about it. used that as my push to get through this next response because I knew this one would be more challenging than the others.
“I remember the day this incident occurred because I was so scared afterward that I ran further away from home than I ever had before. It was in the middle of the week and my mother was out of town for a couple of days due to the sudden death of her aunt who lived in Michigan. Mr. Whitlin had taken a week’s vacation from work, so we ended up being alone in the house for three whole days.
“He came upstairs to my small studio area and began watching me paint. I felt him place his hands on my shoulders and start massaging. I shrugged his hands off and warned him to stop or I would fight. He tried again, so I set my palette down and grabbed his hand, digging my nails into it as hard as I could.
‘Ouch, ouch! Okay, I’ll stop! Don’t hurt step daddy Jim. He only wants to make the princess relax while she’s painting. Nothing wrong with that now is there?’
“I let go of his hand, releasing my nails. He yelled at me for drawing blood. I told him he should have stopped when I warned him, and resumed painting...”
My mind instantly flashed back to that day in the attic. I remembered the flannel shirt and black jeans I was wearing. I remembered the painting I had on my easel; a replication of a particularly beautiful house I’d seen when visiting my father at his new apartment a few years prior—it had been one of my favorites. remembered the burns of the ties he placed on my wrists when I struggled with everything in me to get away from my abuser. As I continued to flashback, I felt my forehead break out in a cold sweat. My chest felt tight and without realizing it, I started grinding my teeth together.
I remembered thrashing as hard as I could to get Jim off me. I kicked him several times after he tied my wrists to the bedposts, but my efforts proved useless. Jim held me down and went further than he ever had before. If it weren’t for my frantic thrashing the entire time, he would have gone all the way.
My mind went straight to God after Hannah brought it up earlier. I was angry with him at this time. I still went to church, but my faith was waning. I didn’t understand how a loving God could discard his child and let this abuse continue happening for so many years. I felt completely abandoned by God and everyone in my life. I prayed every single night for him to rescue me from this life and every day I woke to find that nothing had changed, or things had somehow gotten even worse, my anger toward God only grew. I knew that he had a plan for everything that happened to us and that I just needed to trust him, but my patience was growing thin.
By the time I finished speaking, I realized that both of my hands were clenched into tight fists. I released the pressure and noticed eight small marks left by my nails – four on each hand. I clasped my hands together and looked back at Hannah.
“How often was Mr. Whitlin abusing you at this time?”
“After this incident, he started doing things to me at every single opportunity he got.”
“What did the incidents involve at this point?”
“Anything and everything he had the opportunity to do. It just depended on when he could get me alone.”
“You said he left you tied up, how did you get out and run away that day Cassie?”
“All of my thrashing during the incident had loosened the ties enough for me to get out. After I got loose, I dressed again and just ran for it. I darted down the stairs and out the front door. I didn’t care if he saw or came after me. I just knew I had to leave.”
“Where did you go?”
“To my best friend Grace’s house. She lived about four streets from me, but Jim didn’t know who she was.”
“Did you tell her what happened?”
“No, I just said I got into a big fight with him and needed a place to stay for the night. I went home the next day when my mom flew home a day early.”
Answering Hannah’s questions had me thinking about Grace. After high school, she had left the country to work as a full-time missionary. By that time my own faith had all but vanished. I was thankful when Hannah changed the direction of questioning to something a little lighter.
“Now Cassie, I understand you have a boyfriend, correct?”
“How long have you been together?”
“Four years, but we’ve known each other for five.”
“His name is Luke, correct?”
“When did you meet Luke?”
“My freshman year of high school; we had a lot of classes together.”
“Is Luke the same age as you?”
“No, he’s one year older than me.”
“Now, it’s my understanding that Luke was the first person you ever told. Is that correct?”
“When did you tell him?”
“About three years ago.”
“So, not until a year into your relationship?”
“Why did you wait so long?”
“I was scared to tell anyone, especially Luke. I didn’t know if he would believe me; I didn’t know if it would be the right thing to do. I was afraid of losing him. But I had finally had enough and just gave in to my fear and told him, not caring what his reaction was.”
“When you told Luke, what happened?”
“He was in shock—he felt horrible that he hadn’t been there to protect me from my stepfather. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him get so angry. From that point on, he made it his mission to protect me.”
“Was Luke the one who convinced you to go to the police?”
“Eventually yes, but that wasn’t the first thing he did.”
“What was the first thing?”
“He went with me to tell my mother.”
“Why do you think Luke did this first, Cassie?”
“He said it was important that my mom knew everything, had a chance to react and protect her child.”
“When did you first tell Luke?”
“I remember the exact date because I wrote about it in my journal. It was on November 18th of my junior year of high school.”
“And when did you tell your mother?”
“Luke and I approached her together a month later.”
“It is my understanding, Cassie, that you and your mother are not on the best of terms right now. Is this correct?”
“Yes.” My response felt like ice as I spoke.
“Prior to the trial today, when was the last time you saw your mother?”
“A couple of months ago, when she moved out after I came home.”
“How did your mother react when you and Luke came to her with the truth about Mr. Whitlin?”
I froze for a minute. “She didn’t,” I whispered.
“Can you explain that statement?”
“When Luke and I came to my mother to reveal the horrible things that had been going on for seven and a half years, she didn’t react the way a mother should. I told her that Jim had been doing things—horrible things—to me. She asked me a few questions to try to get some details. I answered her questions, but at that time, I did not give her full disclosure because I was still so terrified that I wasn’t doing the right thing or that I was going to get in trouble or something.”
“How did your mother respond?”
“She talked to Mr. Whitlin, confronted him about my accusations. He admitted everything to her, and she simply told him to stop.”
“When you say she told him to stop, you mean she threatened him?”
“No, she just told him to stop what he was doing, and that was the end of it.”
“What happened after that confrontation?”
“Jim was not happy that I had told someone. He started doing things more often, trying to instill more of his control over me. He threatened me even more than he did prior to me telling my mother. He told me things like if I told anyone else, I would suffer the consequences. He swore that I would be sorry if anyone else found out.”
“Did you tell Luke about the new threats?”
“How did he react?”
“He was begging me every day to press charges, get him put in jail where he belonged.”
“Why didn’t you listen to him?”
“I was scared—brainwashed even. For so many years, Mr. Whitlin had held so much power over me. I still feared that power very much.”
“You mentioned that you and your mother had not seen each other for a couple of months prior to today. At what point did she finally react in the way that led to your separation?”
“It was how she acted after the police report was filed.”
“Was your mother fully aware of the incidents before the report?”
“No, she didn’t have full disclosure until the police report.”
“What exactly caused the barrier between you and your mother?”
“After she was fully aware of everything that happened, she still didn’t react the way I feel a parent should.”
“We have a copy of the police report that has been submitted as evidence prior to trial. The report is dated May 17, 2009. Why did you wait so long to finally go to the police?”
“I had agreed to give my mother another chance to handle things. She checked in with me occasionally to see how things were going with Jim and I always told her they were still the same.”
“So, you agreed to give her another chance to fix the situation?”
“What happened on May 17th that caused you to give up on trying to make things work at home?”
“It was a Sunday. I had plans to go to Luke’s house as soon as I woke up and could get out of the house. When I woke up, Jim was sitting at the kitchen table, and my mother was at the stove making breakfast. I had already gotten dressed and grabbed a bag to take with me to Luke’s when I walked into the kitchen.
“My mom saw that I was preparing to leave and started asking me what my plans were for the day since we would most likely not see each other all day. We talked for not even a minute when he started chiming in. He started yelling about how the selfish brat just had to command all the attention in the room. I didn’t say anything at first, but my mom told him to shut his mouth, saying that she would only get ten minutes with her daughter that day, so he needed to chill. She and I resumed talking and not thirty seconds later, he chimed in yet again. ‘Well, I guess everyone is just going to ignore me today, aren’t they? Just give all the attention to the brat, not that I matter.’
“At that point, I’d had enough of him. I turned to him and just started screaming. I told him I hadn’t even said a word to him all morning, and that he was lucky to even still be around. I told him his perverted self should be in jail right now. I was so angry that I started crying. He came back at me with some remark about how now the big baby was going to start crying again.
“I clenched my car keys in my hand and put my other hand into a fist. I looked at my mother and just told her that she would be lucky if I came home that night. I proceeded to walk toward the back door and out to my car. Mr. Whitlin followed me outside. Before I had the door of my car open, he blocked me from getting in. He put his hand on my shoulder and threw me against the car. He warned me that I better not be telling that boyfriend of mine anything. I rolled my eyes at him and tried to turn away, but he grabbed me by the cheeks and slammed my head against the frame of my car door. ‘I’m warning you, Cassie Flynn. You better not tell him or anyone else.’
“With that, he released me and went back into the house. My head was throbbing as I sat in my car. Luke called me on the way to his house, and he immediately knew something was wrong because I couldn’t even speak a full sentence. When I got to his house, I told him everything and his first reaction was to check my head because, by that time, I couldn’t even stand without his support. I hadn’t noticed, but my head had been split open and was bleeding. Luke carried me into the house, and once the bleeding had stopped he insisted that we go to the police and report him for everything.”
“And this time you agreed?”
“Yes. I couldn’t take any more of Jim or the life he was putting me through.”
“What happened when you got to the police station?”
“Luke called my mother’s cell phone on the way and explained what we were doing. It turned out she had left shortly after me because she, too, was overwhelmed by the fight that morning. She met us at the station. I gave my report, detailing the whole history between Jim and me. The whole process took over an hour. I thought my mother’s eyes might bulge out of her head as she heard all of the details of the crimes.”
“What happened afterward?”
“The officer told me that because I was still seventeen, I could not go back home until Mr. Whitlin left my house for good.”
“Where did you go?”
“I stayed with a foster family from the church until my mother finally kicked him out on Christmas of 2009.”
“After Christmas, you moved back to your house?”
“And your mother moved out when?”
“A few weeks later, around the first week of February.”
“Why did she leave?”
“Our fights got to a point that we couldn’t stand to be around each other anymore.”
“What was the last conversation you and your mother had before she left?”
“I told her that if I continued living with her any longer, I was going to kill myself before things got better. I told her I absolutely needed to get away from her, whatever that meant.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care.”
“Cassie, do you want to fix things with your mother?”
“I don’t know. Not right now, not yet. Maybe eventually, but I’m not ready.”
Hannah looked up from the table toward Judge Breelan.
“Thank you for your testimony, Cassie. No further questions.”