Illinois prosecutor determines no crime committed in two-year student newspaper hoax

A Jackson County prosecutor decided not to press criminal charges against a woman for lying to a student newspaper in an elaborate hoax that lasted two years. 

His decision Oct. 18 ended an investigation into Jaimie Reynolds, a woman who fabricated the story of a soldier serving in Iraq and the family he left behind. It is a story Southern Illinois University’s student paper wrote about for two years before discovering the story was a hoax.

“I can’t see a crime here,” said Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Wepsiec in a St. Louis Post Dispatch article.

“Whether charges are pressed or not is his decision. Some things can be ethically wrong and not criminally wrong,” said Zach Creglow, current editor in chief of the Daily Egyptian.

The Daily Egyptian began telling the story of 8-year-old “Kodee Kennings” in May 2003, as she prepared for her father to leave for Iraq. Over the course of two years the newspaper ran columns written by Kennings about life without her father.

“Her opinion columns had become so much a part of the newspaper and she was loved by so many people that I never even considered the possibility that her situation may not be true,” wrote Burke Wasson, former Daily Egyptian editor in chief, in a guest editorial in the paper.

The girl pretending to be Kennings was really 10-year old Caitlin Hadley, who had been told by Reynolds she would be acting in a documentary about families in war time. Reynolds posed as Kennings’ guardian and fabricated the identity of Dan Kennings, a soldier in Iraq and Kodee Kennings’ father.

The newspaper discovered the ruse in August when Reynolds announced that Dan Kennings had been killed in action in Iraq. When newspaper staff called the Department of Defense to verify his death, they found out there was no record of a soldier by that name serving or dying in Iraq. Since then, the fabrication has garnered national media attention.

“We’ve been as public as we can be. Some of our story has been painful to write,” Creglow said.

The attention has become a burden for the current editors of the paper, who say they have learned a lot about journalism through the experience.

“The people who maybe should have learned the most from this are not around to experience the fallout,” said assistant editor Monique Garcia.

SPLC View: As the prosecutor here found – and while there may be rare exceptions – it is generally not against the law for a source to lie to a reporter. Journalists do themselves a favor by accepting that the final responsibility for determining the truth of everything they publish rests solely with themselves.