RINGGOLD, Ga. — A jury has said she’s not guilty and the trial that devastated her life is over, but Tonya Craft says she’ll never recover what she’s lost.
“There is not a winner. There can be restoration, and there can be awareness for others to not go through this, but there are two birthdays for my daughter that I’ll never get back,” Ms. Craft said Tuesday, fighting back the tears.
Two years after she was accused of molesting three girls, Ms. Craft said the first thing she cares about is regaining custody of her two children.
Defense attorney Scott King said he is filing a motion today in Hamilton County, asking a court to award Ms. Craft full custody of her children.
After Ms. Craft was charged in 2008 with 22 counts of child molestation, aggravated child molestation and sexual battery, her ex-husband, Joel Henke, filed for full custody of their children and they have lived with him since.
On Tuesday, as the Catoosa County Court Clerk’s booming voice announced the “not guilty” verdicts on all counts against her, Ms. Craft’s knees buckled. Two of her attorneys kept her from falling as she cried hysterically on their shoulders. The attorneys whisked her away under the protection of four Catoosa County sheriff’s deputies.
Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Tonya Craft hugs Diana Ellis before leaving her parents' East Ridge home Tuesday. A jury found her innocent on 22 counts of child molestation, aggravated child molestation and aggravated sexual battery.
At her parents’ home in East Ridge, Ms. Craft was greeted like a celebrity by her friends, their children and family members, all rejoicing in the verdict/
“We’re going to get our babies back,” Ms. Craft’s mother, Betty Faires, said, clasping her own hands in joy.
Ms. Craft wiped tears from her eyes as she looked at her supporters.
“The only thing that’s kept me going and fighting is my two children,” Ms. Craft said under the lights and cameras of national and local media. “And other people that are falsely accused; I’ll do anything I can to protect them from being falsely accused.”
Ms. Craft lost her job as a kindergarten teacher in Chickamauga City Schools when she was charged. On Tuesday, Chickamauga Superintendent Melody Day would not say whether the district would consider rehiring Ms. Craft.
“We can’t comment. It’s a personnel matter and that’s confidential,” she said.
But Ms. Craft said she doesn’t plan to teach again. She said she may consider going to law school.
After the news conference, Ms. Craft, her husband, David, and defense attorney Demosthenes Lorandos flew to New York for an interview on NBC’s “Today Show.” Her friends and family shouted and clapped as she left.
“Thank you, Jesus,” said Diane Ellis, Ms. Craft’s friend, who has been in the courtroom each day of the trial. “Without him, it wouldn’t have happened.”
But there still are casualties. A trial that lasted more than a month — the longest recorded in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit — has torn apart friends and families.
Three families that were close to Ms. Craft came forward with the accusations that she molested their daughters when the girls spent the night at her home.
The greatest fear of every mother, every minister, Boy Scout leader and teacher was played out in the courtroom, Mr. Lorandos told the jury in his closing statement.
“Well, if there’s no physical evidence and all it takes is a kid saying it and their parents being really upset about it, if that’s all it takes, we’re all duped,” he said.
The jury rejected the prosecutors’ argument that the children’s interviews were enough evidence to convict her. Mr. Lorandos said the girls were led through shoddy interviews and poor investigation to believe they were abused.
Now Ms. Craft says she wants to give hope to others who are treated as she has been.
“First and foremost, she wants to make sure this never happens again,” Mr. Lorandos said Tuesday evening. “She will change the way children are interviewed.”
Staff writer Ben Benton contributed to this article.
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Tonya Craft acquittedStaff photo by Patrick Smith/Chattanooga Times Free Press Tonya Craft, center, holds her husband, David's, hand while surrounded by her attorneys Tuesday as they enter the Catoosa County Court House to hear the verdict. Mrs. Craft was found not guilty on all 22 counts of child molestation.
Joy Lukachick is a crime reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing down ...