A long legal road

A long legal road

May 16th, 2010 by Joan Garrett McClane and Joy Lukachick Smith in News

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press Tonya Craft speaks to the media in her parents' East Ridge home Tuesday a jury found her innocent on 22 counts of child molestation.

Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press...

The two women were busy cooking when the room down the hall -- the room where their daughters played -- fell silent.

It was an eerie quiet on the day in May four years ago. The two young girls always could be heard chattering. They pulled their tiny bodies into dress-up clothes that let them pretend to be grownups and princesses. They shared fairy tales.

Tonya Craft stayed in the kitchen as the other mother went to check. Then a shrill scream jolted her.

Moving quickly down the hall, she came into the room, finding the other mother, belt in hand, beating her own daughter. Mrs. Craft's daughter, Aden, cowered in the corner.

"You know better than to do that!" said the girl's mother.

Leaving the house, Aden told her mother what happened: The girls were touching each other. The other mother caught them. Screamed at them.

The kindergarten teacher shook as she drove off.

While she was still in the car, her phone rang.

Four years later, while on trial on charges of molesting three children, Ms. Craft described the conversation from the witness stand:

"This happened for a reason," the other girl's mother said over the line. This was the kind of things that molested children tried to do with other children, she said. Somebody must have taught Aden these things, she said.

The accusation hung on the line, a bomb.

Even before she became a household name, known as the teacher accused of molesting three little girls, Tonya Craft was a woman who could draw stares and whispers. She was muscular with a deep tan and frosted blonde hair. She wore glittery lipsticks and bright eyeshadow.

When she started teaching kindergarten at Chickaumaga Elementary in 2005, she was the pretty single mom, the cool mom, the mom whom kids ran to hug after baseball games, her friends said. She was known as a good teacher.

Friends of her son, Kohl, now 10, and daughter, Aden, now 8, were always around her house.

"She is very fun. She's lovely. But no, she's not a saint," said Courtney Lewis, a friend of Ms. Craft's.

She had an edge, too.

At parties in town, she was seen in low-cut dresses, dancing provocatively with men. She drank too much sometimes, even wrote a letter to friends once asking them not to think badly of her.

Relationships, for her, were messy.

Her first marriage was in 1993, when she was 21, to her high-school sweetheart. It ended four years later.

While the two were separated, she met her second husband, Joal Henke, the father of her children.

They met at the gym and moved in together shortly after her first divorce.

But their six-year marriage soon turned rocky. His fascination with porn made her uncomfortable. He flirted with her friends. One afternoon, she said, she came home to find him in bed with another woman. An ugly divorce came in 2004 and a long custody battle followed.

When Mr. Henke would pick up the children from Ms. Craft every other weekend, he would threaten her. She said he told her to take a good look at her babies because she might not see them again.

Ms. Craft pored over his phone records and called women, accusing them of affairs with her husband. She hired a private investigator to take pictures of his coming and goings.

In 2007, still wrangling over custody of her young children, she met David Craft, a wealthy longtime bachelor from Soddy-Daisy, on a blind date. They married a few months later. Another whirlwind.


***


Knock. Knock. Knock. Two men stood on the stoop when she opened the door on an afternoon in May 2008. They weren't wearing uniforms or badges, but they told Ms. Craft they wanted to take her down to the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office.

There was a situation with her daughter and another little girl that needed to be discussed. She went inside and called her mother and father, begging them to come to the house. Something had happened with Aden, she said.

"You need to get out here," her mother remembers her daughter saying. When her parents arrived, Ms. Craft turned back to the detectives.

"Well, do I need to get an attorney?" she asked.

"Not unless you're guilty," her mother remembers them replying.

"What do you mean, if I'm guilty? I thought this was about my daughter," she said.

They told her several girls were saying she had done inappropriate things to them.

The officers left but said they would be back to arrest her.

She started crying hysterically. Her father ushered the children out of the house, promising they'd go get ice cream. They asked him if someone had died.

Her daughter left her a message later that night: "I love you, mom, but I won't be seeing you for a long time."


***


A week before the police visit, a group of parents had started talking about Ms. Craft.

At a pool party, a 6-year-old girl had doodled the word "sex" with sidewalk chalk. The parents pulled the children aside, questioning them about how they knew the word.

Kim Walker, one of Ms. Craft's friends, was at the party, where she heard other parents gossiping about Ms. Craft. She said one couple complained Ms. Craft said their daughter wasn't ready for first grade. Another couple called her crazy, Mrs. Walker said.

Over the next days, the girls admitted to their parents they had touched each other, playing a game they called "boyfriend and girlfriend." They said Aden played the game, too.

The party sparked a flurry of phone calls and questions. One mother from the party later asked her daughter several times if Ms. Craft had touched her.

Yes, she finally said.

Parents called Aden's father, Mr. Henke. Did he know about this?

Later, another girl and Aden would tell their parents and authorities that they, too, were molested.

Ms. Craft's defense team later claimed the children were prodded into making the accusation by their parents and social workers asking leading questions.


***


Accusations stacked in the summer of 2008, and Tonya Craft crumpled.

Her husband left her. She was jailed twice as charges swelled from four to 22 counts over the next year.

After her first bond hearing, she moved into a motor home in the front yard of her friend Diana Ellis. Mrs. Ellis said her friend was afraid to be alone.

But the court issued an order forbidding her from being around children under 18. Mrs. Ellis had a 15-year-old son in the house.

When Ms. Craft's grandmother died in August, she wasn't able to attend the funeral because children were there.

If a doorbell rang she stiffened, panicked.

"When my son would hug her, it would scare her a little," said Courtney Lewis, a lifelong friend. "She was afraid of every little thing."

In August, she was fired from Chickamauga Elementary School. After she lost her job, the bank foreclosed on her house.

She lost legal custody of her children.

Her attorneys filed hundreds of papers in Hamilton County courts asking that Ms. Craft be allowed to see her children. Six months later, she was able to see her son, but was kept from her daughter.

Still, every now and then there were little notes, little gifts. Aden would go shopping with Ms. Craft's mother, Betty Faires. She saw a pair of zebra-patterned shoes in a store and asked to buy them for her mother.


***


The first headlines read: "Teacher accused of molestation."

People she worked with, her neighbors and even people who had never met Ms. Craft judged her. Comments flooded websites.

Some of them:

"She allegedly wanted more out of the classroom than teaching. Thank goodness NONE of my children had her as a teacher!!!! ... SICK SICK SICK!"

"Mrs. Craft befriended these parents and then betrayed them on every level."

"According to the small town rumor mill, she did it. Too many kids with great, responsible parents have said she did. These parents wouldn't accuse anyone of this unless they were absolutely sure."


***


Friends say Ms. Craft became obsessed with her defense. She took two polygraphs and passed. She filed motions for home studies and psychological evaluations of her children.

At church, where she once had worked as a preschool volunteer, she walked to the front of the chapel many Sundays and asked for prayer. The pastor of her church in East Brainerd, City Church, didn't know her well, but said she looked like a wrecked woman.

"She was compelling to me, her genuine emotion, crying, crying, crying (about) not being able to see her daughter," said the Rev. Mike Chapman.

On the Internet, she read case after case about parents, day care workers and teachers who had said they were falsely accused of molesting children.

Her friends would e-mail her advice, articles written by experts. One psychologist's study about the power of suggestion, especially in the cases of small children, caught her attention.

"Did you read what you sent me?" Jennifer Sullivan remembers Mrs. Craft asking over the phone. Her voice was frantic.

The article was written by Demosthenes Lorandos, a child psychologist and lawyer who specialized in defending people who claim they were falsely accused of child molestation. She tried to call him, left messages but heard nothing back.

"I'm going to drive to Michigan and talk to this guy," Ms. Craft said.

She drove all day to get to his office, not knowing if he would talk to her, not knowing if he was there.

"You have five minutes with him," his receptionist said to her.

Walking into his office, she handed Dr. Lorandos a thick binder filled with months of research, interviews and investigations.

"This case was so compelling," he said, "because of these little girls and the terrible rift in this community."


***


One year and a half million dollars later the case would go before a jury of seven men and five women in Catoosa County Superior Court.

The trial lasted 22 grueling days. As the media spotlight burned, tensions grew between families.

At Chickaumaga Elementary School, teachers were told not to discuss the case. People took sides. They asked one another: Are you for Tonya?

Some were afraid to answer. Some of her friends said they worried about publicly supporting a woman viewed as loose and free-spirited, even if they thought she wasn't guilty.

Ms. Craft's critics said she was manipulating the public.

"She has a very good way of giving off a persona that people don't see," said Miriam Boyd, a friend of one of the accusing families. "She's very charismatic; they automatically assume she's innocent."

During the trial, the Ringgold courthouse was divided.

Families of the accusers lingered on the first floor, keeping quiet, most sitting in a room guarded by sheriff's deputies. Upstairs crowds gathered for Ms. Craft. Her supporters wore yellow, her favorite color.


***


Lights flashed in the living room of her parents' house in East Ridge. The room was lined with cameras and reporters holding microphones. Supporters squeezed around, leaning in to listen. She had been declared not guilty on all 22 counts. Screaming erupted. Women held hands over their mouths, eyes spilling tears. Like a prom queen, Ms. Craft held a big bouquet of yellow roses.

She would leave in a limo and that night would fly to New York to be on national television.

The next day, she would sign a deal allowing NBC to tell her story on "Dateline."

But even with her name cleared, even with the spotlight, she still is waiting to see her daughter.

It's been more than 700 days since she saw Aden, except for the day the child sat across the court to testify against her.

Ms. Craft sobbed when she saw her daughter on the stand. Aden clutched a stuffed animal and looked at her mother only once.

She told the court she had stopped calling Ms. Craft mom "after the bad things." She now called her Tonya.

Ms. Craft gasped. Her body shook as she laid her head on the table, sobbing harder.

The two years, the missed birthdays, the nights she couldn't tuck her children into bed and read aloud to them -- she'll never get those back.

"It hurts so much I try not to think about it," she said.

About this report:

A jury last Tuesday found former kindergarten teacher Tonya Craft, 37, not guilty on 22 counts of child molestation, aggravated sexual battery and aggravated child molestation. This is an account of the years leading up to the trial. The story is based on trial testimony, documents from Hamilton County Circuit Court custody and divorce proceedings and Catoosa County Superior Court records. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and details came from court testimony.