Tonya Craft, a Georgia kindergarten teacher and loving mother of two, never expected a knock on her door to change her life forever. But in May 2008, false accusations of child molestation turned her world upside down. The trial that followed dragged her reputation through the mud and lent nationwide notoriety to her name.
Tonya's life spiraled into a witch-trial nightmare in which she was deemed guilty before her innocence could be determined by a jury. Her children were taken away without even a goodbye, and her own daughter was forced to take the stand against her in a courtroom. The situation seemed hopeless, and Tonya was shell-shocked and heartbroken. But that didn't keep her from finding the strength to fight.
Over the course of two terrifying years, Tonya rallied to take charge of her own defense, flying across the country and knocking on doors on a desperate quest for answers, and defying her own lawyers on more than one occasion. Tonya's goal was not only to avoid conviction; it was to clear her name, and, most of all, regain custody of her children.
Accused is about more than Tonya's shocking trial and fight for justice. It is the story of a mother's extraordinary love, the faith that sees her through it all, and the forgiveness that sets her free.
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About the Author
Mark Dagostino is a New York Timesbestselling coauthor and former senior writer for People magazine. As a journalist, he was on the scene when JFK Jr.'s plane went down, reported from Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11, and stood witness to the Miracle on the Hudson. He also cut his teeth in the courtroom, learning valuable lessons from the Pamela Smart case in his home state of New Hampshire, covering Rosie O'Donnell's $100-million lawsuit with publisher Gruner+Jahr, and more. Along the way, he quietly became one of the most respected celebrity journalists in the business. Today, he's back in his home state, where he lives a somewhat quieter life with his two children.
Read an Excerpt
No matter what anyone tries to tell you about the long hours and low pay, one of the great perks of being a teacher is getting summers off to spend with your kids. The three of us didn't have a schedule. We could laze around the house, or take day trips, or have friends over. Other parents had to work, so I was happy to have their kids come over anytime, too. And there aren't many things that go better together than kids and water, so I'd take the whole gang swimming every chance we got.
May 30, 2008, a Friday, would mark our first trip of the season to the community pool.
Tyler and Ashley had already packed up all of their paraphernalia and were playing with it on the front porch when my friend Tammy came by on her way to work and dropped off her son, Hunter. The three kids had finished up an early lunch and were now chomping at the bit to get out the door. I was the one stuck on Georgia time, making them wait while I went to my bedroom to put on my bathing suit. I had just finished pulling on my shirt and shorts when I heard the doorbell ring. It couldn't have been three seconds later when all three of the kids came bounding into my room together.
"Mommy, there are two men on the front porch, but we didn't open the door because you said to always come get you first," Tyler said. I was thrilled to see that my lectures on not opening the door to strangers had actually gotten through to them.
"Thank you for remembering," I said as I walked out.
I'll admit I was a little annoyed at the intrusion. I'm not a big fan of door-to-door anything. I could see two men through the window wearing button-down shirts and suit jackets. As I opened the door I recognized one of them. The dark-haired one. He was the father of a little girl who went to the school where I worked. He looked a lot like Ashley and Tyler's daddy. Could've been his twin brother, actually. They looked so much alike that it gave me a start whenever I caught a glimpse of him in the hallways at school — and it gave me a start that morning.
"Can I help you?" I said.
The other man pulled his jacket back, revealing a badge. "Can we talk to you for a minute?" he said. I remember thinking he looked more like a Sunday school teacher than a police officer.
"What's this about?" I asked, as all three kids squished into my legs behind me.
"It might be better if you come out and close the door."
I told the kids to go play. "We'll leave in a few minutes." Then I stepped out just like he asked. The kids didn't go play, of course. They stood right next to the door with their faces against the window, just as curious as could be.
"I'm Tim Deal," said the light-haired one.
"And I'm Stephen Keith," said the one who looked like my ex.
"We're going to ask you a few questions."
It felt like a script. As if they had rehearsed this.
I said, "Okay."
"I see your license plate," Detective Deal said. "Are you a teacher?"
My car had an educator's plate on it. "Yes," I said. Looking over, I noticed their car parked right in my driveway, a regular-looking sedan with no police markings at all.
"Where do you teach? What grade?"
I found it a little surprising that the dark-haired man, Detective Keith, didn't recognize me from school. Chickamauga, Georgia, is about as small-town as small town gets, and our school was almost like a private school where everybody knew everybody. But they kept asking these sorts of questions as if they didn't know who I was.
I finally asked again, "What's this all about?"
"We need to ask you a question about your daughter and some touching."
My heart sank. I was frightened to think something might have happened to my little girl. And then it occurred to me what they must have been talking about. But how would they even know about that?
Two years earlier, Ashley had been playing with her friend Chloe McDonald when all of a sudden Chloe's mom, Kelly, went hysterical. She lost it because the girls had been "touching" each other. I'll never forget the way she said that word: touching. It made my skin crawl.
"No kid would do something like that unless they had been molested," Kelly had said. "I would know, because my husband was molested."
The girls were only three or four years old at the time. Chloe's mom couldn't even explain what she meant by "touching" because she hadn't witnessed it. It made no sense. Still, I took it seriously and did everything a mom could. I even took Ashley to her pediatrician to be sure that nothing inappropriate had happened. The pediatrician found nothing out of the ordinary. And of course I kept an eye on Ashley for any changes in behavior. But there hadn't been any. The biggest consequence was that Chloe's mom and I stopped hanging around each other much after that. It had certainly never been brought to the attention of the police. Still, when Detectives Deal and Keith asked me about "my daughter" and "touching," that was what jumped to mind.
"Yes," I said. "There was a situation a couple of years ago. I've taken care of that."
"You've taken care of touching kids?" Deal said.
"I — what? What do you mean?"
"You've been accused of molesting three little girls."
I stopped breathing. I stared at him. It was such an unbelievable thing for him to say. I didn't know what to do.
"Are you kidding me?" I asked.
It was very clear they were not kidding. There was nothing about their demeanor that implied anything but seriousness. I just couldn't think straight.
"No, ma'am," said Keith.
"Well, what do you mean? Who would say such a thing?" That's when Deal spoke the names of my accusers, out loud, for the very first time.
"Chloe McDonald," he said.
I tried not to react. I was shocked that my first instinct was correct. Why on earth would that day in May of 2005 be addressed now? And why would anyone be accusing me?
Then he said the second name: "Brianna Lamb."
I was horrified. Brianna was seven, and I'd had an issue with her mother ever since my daughter's birthday party a few months earlier. Brianna and her friend Lydia Wilson were saying some things to Ashley that I didn't think were very nice, so I scolded them. Politely. Like any parent or teacher would have done, I'd said, "That was a very unkind thing to say. How would you feel if someone said that same thing to you at your birthday party?"
Brianna stopped talking to me after that. She used to come down to my classroom after school every day and play with Ashley like she was her little sister. She stopped doing that, too. I couldn't understand why her reaction was so strong. Worse? My scolding had rubbed Brianna's and Lydia's moms the wrong way. I'd managed to tick them off more than once in the past few months, both in school and out, to the point where those women had gone around town after Ashley's birthday party telling people, "Tonya messed with the wrong families!" and "Tonya's gonna pay!" It was awful. I was honestly worried they might try to get me fired. I knew they had the pull to do it, too. The Wilsons seemed to be the wealthiest, most influential family in the whole county.
Is that what this is about? Do those two want to get me fired? Did their trash talk somehow get back to the police?
It was amazing how quickly my mind raced through that whole scenario. It was a horrible flash of fear that these women who didn't like me might have said something terrible happened to their children just to hurt me. Just to wreck my reputation. But I dismissed it just as quickly as it came.
No one would do something that awful.
Then Detective Deal said the name of my third accuser: "Skyler Walker."
I was speechless. Skyler Walker was the daughter of one of my very best friends. There had never been a lick of animosity between us or our children.
"We've interviewed these kids, and they said that you touched them, so we need you to come down to the police station ..." They've interviewed these kids? I felt like my mind was lagging a few steps behind. I thought they didn't know who I was? My legs felt weak. What does this have to do with my daughter? Didn't he say they had a question about "my daughter" and "touching"?
I usually handle crises really well in the middle of 'em. Only afterward do I break down and let all the emotions rush in. But these men had me all confused and sick to my stomach before I fully understood what they were trying to tell me. I felt like I couldn't keep up with their words.
They said I needed to come down to the Catoosa County Police Station "immediately" so they could interview me "and then do a polygraph."
"A polygraph?" I said.
The heat on that porch was stifling. Those three sets of eyes were still peering at me through the window. These two men kept telling me what they "needed" me to do, with this calm demeanor that suddenly felt intimidating and strange, as if they were sweet-talking me into buying a used car or something. I had watched enough Law & Order to know that I'd better cooperate — and also to know that I'd better be careful. I didn't want to make matters worse. I wanted to cooperate. I wanted to get to the bottom of this and clear my name as quickly as I could. I couldn't believe I was being accused of something so terrible. Me. A mom. A teacher who loves working with kids. But I also wanted to be careful not to say anything that could be twisted or misconstrued. I hadn't done anything wrong. Somebody must've mistaken me for somebody else, or misunderstood what somebody said, or something.
"Do I need some sort of legal counsel?" I asked.
The two men stopped and looked at each other. "That won't be necessary," they said. According to the detectives, it would be "easier" and "better" to just come down to the station, to "clear this all up and get it over with."
I was the only adult there. I had kids to take care of. "I'll need to call my parents to see if they can come watch the children," I said. "They live up in East Ridge, so it might take a while." I insisted that I had nothing to hide, that this whole thing was crazy, that as soon as I could, I would come down to the station. "I'll even take the polygraph if that's what you need, as long I can bring an attorney —"
Saying that word was like throwing a match into a pit full of fireworks.
Suddenly both men started shouting at me, yelling about my "obvious guilt" and "lack of cooperation."
"Now we know you did something wrong!" Deal said.
My heart started pounding so hard it physically hurt in my chest.
"If you won't cooperate," Deal barked, "we'll be back here with an arrest warrant!"
"I'm not saying I won't cooperate —"
"We even talked to your soon-to-be ex-husband, and he said you're a child molester."
David would never say such a thing. They talked to David? I don't care how mad he'd been when he left; he would never, ever say that.
I felt my eyes well up. I closed them and tried to think. "That can't be," I whispered to myself. "It can't —"
"Are you saying you didn't do this?"
Deal's words snapped me to attention.
"That's exactly what I'm saying," I said. I looked him right in the eyes. I held back my tears as best as I could. "Look, I will cooperate with everything. I will do just as you've asked me to. I'll come down to the station. I'll be happy to talk to you. I just think it's a good idea to have an attorney present —"
"If you won't cooperate, we're going to arrest you!"
At that point I'd had enough of their yelling. Their anger was making me angry. I hadn't done anything wrong. I hadn't done anything at all! It suddenly occurred to me that they couldn't arrest an innocent person, so I put my panic aside and got real calm and direct. For a moment I got back to being me.
"Y'all do what you need to do," I said. "I'm going to go call my parents now."
Deal squinted his eyes and looked at me, hard. He pulled out a business card and handed it to me. "Make sure you call me when you're on your way," he said. "Remember my name. Detective Tim Deal. As in, Let's Make a Deal."
I took the card and said, "I think I'll remember it better like Deal or No Deal."
That's when the two of them stepped off my porch, got into their car, and drove away.
As I watched them disappear from view, I could hear my own pulse in my ears. I stood there clutching that business card in my right hand and rubbing my thumb back and forth over the surface of it. I felt dizzy. My mind tried to process what had just happened. I looked down and saw my son's dirty sneakers on the porch. An hour ago that porch had been filled with laughter. A few minutes ago we'd been getting ready for our first day of summer. I'd been getting dressed for our day at the pool. Now I was — Wait. What just happened?
I started shaking. I leaned one hand against the door frame to hold myself up.
Do they really believe I did something to those girls? Who else did they talk to? Who else has been talking about this? How many people know about this? Did something happen to those three girls? Did someone molest them, and for some reason they —
Then it hit me. All at once.
Oh my God. They think I'm a monster.CHAPTER 2
ack in 2005, when I first came to work in Chickamauga, Georgia, I coulda sworn I'd stepped foot into a real-life version of Mayberry R.F.D.
You hear about places with only one stoplight, where life's a little bit slower and everybody knows everybody. How many of us ever really get the chance to live and work in one? Driving my old GMC Yukon up to that one red light in the center of downtown, with its old brick buildings and little Western-style storefronts that look as if they were plucked off an old movie set, I felt like I'd finally hit the jackpot. I was so excited about getting a job teaching kindergarten at Chickamauga Elementary that I spent hundreds of dollars of my own money to set up my classroom that summer. I bought a nice comfy rug for the children to gather on. I made up a sign that said "Welcome Home to Kindergarten." I bought a whole new set of stamps with letters on them, plus books on tape and cans of shaving cream so the kids could practice writing letters on their desks with their fingers in the messy sort of way that kindergarten-age kids absolutely love. I'd accumulated lots of fun classroom supplies in all my previous years of teaching, too, and I brought them all in to make my classroom feel like a true home away from home for my students.
People might not think teaching kindergarten is the toughest job in the world, but it sure is a far cry from babysitting, I can tell you that. It took exhausting amounts of work every night and weekend. And I loved every second of it. In fact, I loved it so much I decided to pursue my master's degree in teaching even before I started my new job. It would stretch my night and weekend time like crazy over the next couple of years, but to be quite frank, as a single mom, I needed the salary bump that master's degree would get me. And seeing those smiling faces every day, knowing I was making a difference, knowing I was getting a chance to improve myself and my ability to teach those kids while getting to start my life over in such a beautiful school, in such a beautiful town, made all of the sacrifice worth it.
I was still living in Tennessee for that '05–'06 school year. After finally emerging from a horrible divorce over the previous couple of years from my ex-husband, Joal — the father of my two children — I'd lived in my parents' house for a few months. Then I was lucky enough to find a town house on the street just behind my parents' that I could rent for a while with the luxury of knowing my kids could safely run over to Grandma and Pop-Pop's anytime they wanted, or anytime I needed. That was another wonderful thing about Chickamauga: It may have been in a whole different state, but it wasn't even twenty miles south of the very house where I grew up in East Ridge, a quiet suburb of Chattanooga on the Tennessee-Georgia line.
One of the first people I met in Chickamauga was Sandra Lamb. From the very first moment on the first day of school, Sandra was there. She was always there. You couldn't miss her! The tall, flashy brunette in blinged-out designer jeans. Throw in her son and daughter and a well-to-do husband named Greg and they were the picture-perfect All-American family. Her cute-as-a-button blond daughter, Brianna, was in my class. Brianna was an aspiring actress, and Sandra shared all sorts of excitement over the developments in that little girl's acting career. The way they talked, it seemed Brianna was headed for Hollywood stardom.
Sandra stepped right up as one of the classroom moms before I even asked for volunteers. She seemed to already know just about every other parent who walked through the door and was always flitting around the hallway saying hi to everyone before and after school.
She was quite the character, but having Sandra take a shine to me as her daughter's teacher provided a big leg up in the community for me: She introduced me to just about everyone she knew with a big smile and the most glowing words. "Tonya is the greatest friend and teacher in the world!" she'd say, which always left me red-faced, but I couldn't have asked for a nicer introduction in a small town.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Accused"
Copyright © 2015 Tonya Craft.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART I — The Promise,
PART II — The Marathon,
PART III — The Fight,
PART IV — Freedom,
About the Authors,