Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mark Pendergrast, who is the author of many books, including “Victims of Memory,” about the perils of repressed memory therapy. He lives in Colchester and can be reached through his website, www.markpendergrast.com.
On July 9, Shane Casey, 46, was released from a Vermont prison, after nearly eight years of incarceration for a crime I believe he did not commit. In fact, I doubt that anyone committed it. Along with several hundred other anonymous men, Casey was supposed to have raped a young girl, whose account was the only thing that convicted him. Consequently, unlike cases in which DNA has exonerated the falsely convicted, Casey couldn’t and can never prove his innocence.
I can’t prove his innocence either, but I have been following this case for several years, and I’d like to present facts to counter the way prosecutor T.J. Donovan spun it to the Burlington Free Press and WCAX-TV upon Casey’s release. Donovan made it sound as if Casey were truly guilty but was being released on a technicality, and that the only reason the State of Vermont was not trying him again (for a fourth time) was that the accuser did not want to endure the trauma of testifying yet again. In actuality, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office signed a stipulation stating that: “There is a strong possibility that the Superior Court, Civil Division, will conclude that there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the case would have been different” if Casey had had a more effective defense attorney.
Here are the facts. Casey, now 46, had spent his career in human services, working in Massachusetts and then Vermont with the brain injured, mentally or developmentally disabled, and physically and sexually abused children and young adults. From 2004 to 2007, he ran a small group home for disturbed adolescents in Marshfield and then Montpelier, Vermont. Nick Mazza, one of the troubled youth who stayed with Casey in 2005, later wrote: “Shane loved us very much and was protective of us. Shane helped me to get better by telling me it was not my fault and that I was a good kid.” Mazza wanted to testify at the trial, but no lawyers ever spoke with him. “As a kid, I was molested. I can tell you from experience, he is not one of the ones that do that. If they had let me testify, they would have known they got the wrong guy.”
Casey admits that he had a cocaine habit and sought help for it in August 2005 at Day One, a drug and alcohol recovery program in South Burlington. His longtime girlfriend had just broken up with him, and he had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was in bad shape and feared that he would soon die.
At Day One, he befriended Stacey Parnitzke, a British native who had moved to Vermont with her young daughter in order to be close to Stacey’s mother, who lived here. A longtime alcoholic, Stacey Parnitzke had attended AA meetings at her home in Pontefract in the United Kingdom, and continued at an AA meeting held on Riverside Avenue in Burlington. Her daughter, V. (I can’t use her whole first name because she was a minor accuser, so I’ll just call her Viola here), was 9 in 2004 when they moved to Vermont without any warning. When Viola asked where they were going, her mother said, “I’ll tell you when we get there.”
Viola’s father, David Bustillos, an American who lived in California, was worried about her and wanted her to live with him. Viola visited him in July 2005 and February 2006. Soon after Viola returned to Vermont after the second visit, Stacey called her ex-husband and asked if Viola could go back to live with him indefinitely while Stacey dealt with her alcoholism. David readily agreed.
At that point, Shane Casey and Stacey Parnitzke had been dating seriously. Viola had walked into her mother’s bedroom one night when they were making love and was very upset. She was even more upset when, a month after she moved to California to live with her father, she learned that Shane and Stacey had married in June 2006. Viola was crying when she got off the phone. When Stacey and Shane had a son in March 2007, Viola was distraught. She had not even known her mother was pregnant. She felt abandoned by her mother.
Not surprisingly, Viola began to act out in her California elementary school in fourth and fifth grades. When her father learned that she had forged his name on papers for school (to notify him of a failing grade), he threatened her with a loss of privileges. One night in October 2007, when Viola was 12, David Bustillos, determined to “get to the bottom of this,” suggested a talk. Viola said that he told her that “God had told him that something was going on in Vermont,” and that “God’s telling him that something happened to me.” Bustillos had previously questioned his daughter about possible abuse every time she visited Vermont, but she always denied that anything had happened.
Despite Viola’s claims, there was no medical evidence of genital penetration, no photographs, and no pornographic video ever discovered. Hair samples sent to a lab showed no indication of drug injections.
About a half hour into their talk, Viola was crying, with her father consoling her, when she said, “They’re hurting me.” Her father asked who, and she said, “My Momma’s making me do things I don’t want to do.” When David questioned her further, she said that her mother made her do things “with men,” which hit David “like a ton of bricks.” He questioned her for another three hours, and she eventually told a horrifying story. She claimed that hundreds of men had abused her from the age of 5 until 11, on two continents, and that her mother would bring home five or six men each week from AA meetings. Stacey allegedly would show a pornographic video, a man would get on top of Viola, who was given a drug injection, and sometimes someone would take photographs. She said that both intercourse and oral sex occurred.
Viola told the same story in a formulaic way, without variation, about the rapes she claimed had occurred, 10 or 15 times each week. At the end of the three-hour interrogation, David asked Viola if Shane Casey had also raped her, and she told the same story about him. The next day, her father took Viola to the police station, where she repeated what she had told him.
Despite Viola’s claims, there was no medical evidence of genital penetration, no photographs, and no pornographic video ever discovered. Hair samples sent to a lab showed no indication of drug injections. No one ever pointed out that the same videotape would not play in both UK and US machines.
Viola was understandably jealous of Shane Casey. In her diary, she had written that her mother was “just mine. I repeat just mine.” That diary became an important piece of evidence that has been wildly misrepresented by the prosecution. In it, Viola wrote about visits to the dentist and friends, and she drew some small doodled figures of various shapes. On one of the pages the girl had written, “This is my Shape book.” Vermont detective Lance Burnham misread this to be “my Shane book.” Viola alleged at trial that the shapes in the book were actually symbols indicating abuse incidents.
None of the alleged rapists were ever identified or prosecuted except for Shane Casey. This case was a travesty of justice from the beginning. In the middle of the third trial, Stacey Parnitzke took a plea bargain, which should have immediately resulted in a mistrial for Shane Casey, who was being tried jointly with her. Thus, in midtrial, she just disappeared without any explanation to the jury, leaving Casey’s lawyer to carry on. Attorney Kurt Hughes of Burlington, in reviewing the case, wrote: “In all my experience in this area I have never seen such an egregious case of attorney error or a clearer case of ineffective assistance.”
With a powerful post-conviction relief application pending, the State of Vermont decided to make a deal with Shane Casey to take an Alford plea for a reduced charge, allowing him to maintain his innocence, to get out of prison for time served, and to keep him off the sex offender registry, rather than facing a fourth trial. Casey agonized over whether to accept this deal and says he took it only because his multiple sclerosis is getting worse, and he wants to try to fight for recognition of how frequently false convictions occur, which he could not do from prison. He hopes someday to receive a full pardon.
Neither David Bustillos nor Stacey Parnitzke could have testified in a new trial. Bustillos died a few years ago, and Parnitzke died shortly after being deported to England, where she faced no charges because the authorities were not convinced that there had been any crimes. Shane Casey did not learn of her death until his release. He suspects she may have committed suicide. He knew that she had attempted to kill herself several times in the past.
Viola, now 20, has repeated her allegations so many times that she may have come to believe them. False memories can become reality to a person if envisioned and rehearsed repeatedly. On the other hand, it is possible that someday she will come forward to say that her stories were fabrications from which she then found herself unable to retreat.