Girl’s Iraqi war story was an elaborate hoax

For over two years the Daily Egyptian told the story of a precocious little girl whose mother was dead and whose father was fighting in Iraq.

Members of the newspaper staff befriended the girl known as Kodee Kennings, and she was given an occasional column. The column, at times funny and at times heart-rending, talked about her father in the military, her fears about monsters under her bed and her life with her guardian, Colleen Hastings.

None of it was true.

The Daily Egyptian and its readers were taken in by a bizarre, elaborate hoax.

There was no Kodee Kennings. There was no Colleen Hastings. And there was no father named Dan Kennings in Iraq.

The web of lies began to unravel about two weeks ago when the staff of the newspaper was told that Dan Kennings had been killed in battle.

Sources at the Department of the Defense and at Fort Campbell, Ky., where Kennings was supposedly a member of the 101st Airborne, said no man by that name has served or died in Iraq.

Reporting by this newspaper and others since then has found that Hastings is actually Jaimie Reynolds of Marion, Ill., a 2004 graduate of Southern Illinois University. And Kodee is actually the daughter of a pastor in Montpelier, Ind. The man portraying Dan Kennings is Patrick Trovillion of Vienna, Ill., who says Reynolds paid him for his role.

On Thursday, after nearly a week of reporting, the Daily Egyptian learned that the girl is 10-year-old Caitlin Hadley. Her parents are Rich and Tawnya Hadley, who met Reynolds in Tuscola, Ill. The Hadleys said they believed Reynolds was making a documentary with their daughter about a girl named Kodee Kennings and that they had become close friends with Reynolds. Rich Hadley, who is pastor of Montpelier Church of the Nazarene, said Reynolds had even stayed at their house.

He said he is considering seeking a restraining order to keep Reynolds away from the family.

Hadley said his daughter is having trouble coping with the situation.

“She’s very sad. She will just burst into tears out of the blue. At one point she turned to me and asked, ‘Did Jaimie like me?'” he said.

Reynolds, who invited members of the newspaper’s staff to a memorial service for Dan Kennings Saturday at the American Legion hall in Orient, Ill., insists she did not act alone.

She said that the Daily Egyptian reporter who first wrote about Kodee, Michael Brenner, met her in a bar in early January 2003 and later asked her to help him with the deception.

Reynolds said because Brenner paid attention to her she was willing to help, saying he “said all the things I wanted to hear. It wasn’t a crush. But he looked at me, and looked twice. He became a friend and didn’t care I was fat.”

In a five-hour interview at her home, Reynolds accused Brenner of creating the characters and writing the “Kenningsology” columns. She said he threatened her to go along with the lie.

Reynolds said Brenner, who went on to serve one semester as editor-in-chief at the Daily Egyptian, wanted to get his byline in a section of the paper other than sports.

Brenner, the recipient of state and national student journalism awards, denied her accusations and said he did not make up anything.

Brenner, who graduated in December 2004, developed a personal relationship with the girl he said he believed to be Kodee Kennings.

“Many of the people I have been talking to the last couple of years have completely betrayed me,” Brenner said. “I guess there was no relationship there in the first place, since they didn’t love me. I can’t believe Kodee isn’t even real.”

Walter Jaehnig, director of the school of journalism at Southern Illinois University, said in a statement: “the staff is shocked by these revelations because we stress fair, accurate and complete journalism in our courses and in the Daily Egyptian. In this instance, the student reporters and editors failed to verify the essential facts of the story.”

Brenner’s first story about Kodee Kennings appeared on May 6, 2003. The story relived heart-wrenching details of the 8-year-old’s good-bye to her father as he left for Iraq with the 101st Airborne. The story detailed how, with Kodee’s mother dead, Dan Kennings was her only remaining blood relative.

However, the newspaper did not verify the facts of the story.

After that story appeared, calls from a young voice saying she was Kodee Kennings were often placed to the Daily Egyptian and staff members would talk to this person, often for hours. E-mails from family members of Dan and Kodee Kennings were sent to numerous members of the Daily Egyptian staff and the girl was also allowed to sit in on classes by journalism instructors.

In summer 2004, Trovillion, posing as Dan Kennings, visited the Daily Egyptian newsroom, thanking the staff for taking care of his daughter while he was in Iraq. He walked through room, shook hands and hugged staff members.

Trovillion said Reynolds paid him “about $100” to appear in the Daily Egyptian that day. Reynolds insisted he was not paid. Both said the two met through her cousin.

“I am absolutely floored by this,” Trovillion said. “It really does piss me off.”