I learned about Cassie's birth through a phone call — the same way I heard about her death, 17 years later. On a wintry Saturday morning in 1982, we got a call from the priest who had been helping us find a baby to adopt. A young woman who was unready to be a parent had given birth to a six-pound infant one hour earlier. "Be in Boise on Monday morning to pick up your daughter," the priest told us.
My husband, Curtis, and I were ecstatic. During the five-hour ride back from Boise to our home in Soda Springs, Idaho, we took turns driving so we could each hold our tiny, perfect daughter. Just outside of town, we pulled over and dressed Cassie in a brand-new frilly pink-and-white dress, then took her to meet her grandparents.
Cassie brought us luck. To my amazement, I was finally able to get pregnant, and our daughter Lindsey was born only 18 months after Cassie's adoption. Then came two more girls: Michaela and Jordan. Cassie was a bright, beautiful, caring child. She won a science-fair prize in sixth grade and loved music, learning to play the violin, clarinet and piano. The Christmas she was in the second grade, she cried when she heard that some children didn't get presents, and she came up with the idea that she and her sisters would give one of their gifts to charity, or, as she called it, the "angel tree."
It's a tradition we still follow every year. Sadly, my marriage to Curtis came to an end when Cassie was 13, but we were determined to put our daughters' welfare and happiness ahead of everything else. I took a job with Boise State University in Boise and moved to nearby Nampa, some 350 miles away from Soda Springs. Curtis and I worked it out so that the older two girls would live with me during the school year and with their dad in Soda Springs during the summer.
Cassie and Justin
When Cassie was 14, she asked to stay on in Soda Springs to start high school there. I wasn't happy about this, but I knew Curtis was a loving, responsible father, and I finally agreed. That decision will always haunt me. If I had insisted she return to Nampa, Cassie might be alive today. That summer, she had met Justin Neuendorf — the real reason, I later found out, that she wanted to stay in Soda Springs.
Cassie and Justin's first big date was to the school's homecoming dance that fall. Though Justin was just shy of 17, three and a half years older than Cassie, warning bells didn't go off in my head. He had been an altar boy at our family church, St. Mary's. According to Curtis, Cassie and Justin at first seemed to socialize as part of a group. Everything seemed pretty normal. But several months into the school year, Cassie began to change.
Her grades plummeted from A's and B's to D's and F's. She was no longer upbeat. And she was literally shrinking in size. Within six months, my five-foot seven-inch daughter went from 135 pounds to 100. I feared she was getting into drugs and pressured her to be tested. The results were negative. Worried it was cancer or some other dreadful disease, we had her go in for a complete physical — no clues there either. Whenever Curtis or I asked what was wrong, we got the same answer: "Why can't you just leave me alone? Nothing's wrong."
We Suspect Abuse
Cassie and Justin had been going out for about a year when we noticed bruises on her face, arms, legs, and hands. Cassie was very active and loved volleyball, basketball, and skiing, so it was easy for her to explain the bruises. We never suspected abuse until the spring of 1998, when one of Cassie's friends told Curtis that Justin had beaten her badly. Not believing Cassie's denials, Curtis found a letter that spelled it all out. "I'm sorry for almost killing you," Justin had written her. "I was on crank for the last week, stoned off my mind, and drunk ... and you know as well as anyone you don't try to stop me from doing something when I am like that. I was choking you because you were being so loud and I had to shut you up so I could just talk to you about me and you going back out together but when you wouldn't be quiet it made me go insane."
I immediately tried to put an end to the relationship, but Cassie denied the abuse and refused to discuss the letter. It seemed so unreal: How could my strong, smart, compassionate girl allow a boy to hit her and then cover it up? Her father wouldn't let Cassie meet Justin anymore, but she started sneaking off with him after school or after her part-time waitressing job. I tried to get through to Cassie so many times. We were on the phone nearly every day, and at this point I was making the 700-mile round-trip to Soda Springs every weekend and at least once during the week. It was frustrating not to live in the same town while this family crisis got worse and worse. I just couldn't stop worrying about Cassie.
The Violence Gets Worse
During one emotional talk, I finally got Cassie to admit that Justin had struck her. As I hugged her, she cried and told me what I would hear at least 20 times more: "But, Mom, if I was only better, he wouldn't have to hit me." I said through my tears, "Cassie, there is never anything you can do that gives him the right to put his hands on you. Please believe that." I knew in my heart that she didn't.
Because she told us so little, Curtis and I pressed her friends and sisters for information. (Two of her sisters were now attending high school in Soda Springs as well.) We learned Justin was trying to control everything in the relationship: who they saw, where they went, what they did. He constantly ridiculed Cassie, telling her she was ugly and fat, which explained why she was starving herself.
The violence was becoming horrifying, including Justin choking her until blood ran from her ears and nose. Almost as painful was the revelation that he used her adoption as a weapon: He told her that her birth parents hadn't wanted her and that we'd adopted her only because we believed we couldn't have children of our own. No one really wanted her. Except Justin. Curtis and I confronted Justin several times. When we first accused him of trying to strangle Cassie, I expected him to deny it. Instead, he looked right at me and said, "So what if I did? I can do anything I want to her and nobody in this town is going to do anything to me." I soon found out how true his words were.
Soda Springs is a fairly small town — population 3,000 — where everyone knows everyone else. I spoke to Justin's parents; they told me there was nothing they could do, even though he lived under their roof, because he was 18. The local prosecutor said he would only pursue cases the police brought to him, and the police said they would investigate, but they never followed through, even when we gave them written evidence and eyewitnesses. Justin's family seemed very well connected in town, and Cassie refused to cooperate in any legal action taken against her boyfriend.
Curtis and I desperately wanted Cassie to move to Nampa with me or to California with my brother. But she threatened to run away for good if we insisted, and we could see she meant it. In the summer of 1998, when Cassie was 16, the abuse seemed to intensify. Friends of hers told me that Justin had tried to throw her off an apartment balcony. On another occasion, they said, he'd beaten and choked her during an argument at a friend's house. Each time we learned of an assault, we reported the incident to the police. Each time, they told us they would investigate. Each time, nothing happened.
Cassie started disappearing for days at a time. Finally, in December 1998, I turned my daughter in as a runaway and had her locked up in juvenile detention for five days. The magistrate judge could see that Cassie was out of control and a victim of abuse. He gave her a year's probation, the conditions of which were a strict curfew and no with Justin. But it was only a couple of months before they disappeared again. On April 5, 1999, I tried to get a domestic-protection order from the court. District Judge Don Harding concluded that while abuse was evident, Cassie didn't fall into any of the categories for domestic-violence protection under Idaho law. Justin was not her spouse; they had never lived together; and they had no children together. I was responsible for Cassie's actions, yet I could not get a protective order on her behalf.
That Unforgettable Call
Domestic-violence counselors I talked to said keeping Cassie and Justin apart was our best hope. So when he got a summer job in Texas, I prayed he wouldn't return. Cassie went back to being the open, funny, and loving girl she'd been before. She even gained weight and talked about finishing high school back in Nampa with me. I was heartbroken when Justin came back and the two then took right up where they'd left off.
The police did nothing to help. In a confrontation with the town's chief of police, I wept as I said, "This guy is going to kill my daughter, and you're going to have to live with it because no one will do anything about it! You mark my words: He's going to kill her." Just a month later, I finished a day of Christmas shopping with my daughter Jordan and went to a minor league hockey game with her. At 11, Jordan was crazy about hockey. The noise inside the stadium was so loud, I never heard my cell phone ring. At halftime, I noticed a message on the phone and called Curtis back. He answered on the first ring. "I've gotta tell you something really bad," he said. "Cassie's dead." "He killed her, didn't he?" I screamed hysterically. "I know he killed her!"
As it turned out, the day before, Cassie had gone to school and worked her evening shift at the Trail Cafe in Soda Springs. Then she went to a girlfriend's house, where she had told her father she was spending the night. I've pieced together the rest from what her friends told us and what I heard in court. Around 11:30 p.m., Justin, who had reportedly been drinking all day, picked Cassie up at the friend's, not even letting her put on a coat before hustling her out the door. First he had a friend who was 21 buy him another case of beer (Cassie purchased Mountain Dew, the clerk testified), then he picked up his friend John Peterson for a ride. At half past midnight, Justin apparently plowed through almost a foot of snow on a U.S. Forest Service road. According to the police, the truck careened down an embankment, coming to rest in an old mining pit some 400 feet from the roadway.
All three young people were apparently thrown from the Toyota Tundra. Justin broke his wrist; John lost consciousness. Later John testified that when he came to, he heard Cassie crying and begging Justin to get help. John said Justin refused. Around dawn, Justin and John walked out of the wilderness; a passerby picked them up and gave them a cell phone to call the hospital and their parents.
Neither mentioned Cassie to the driver or to anyone else. Later that day, while being taken to another hospital, John was lucid enough to remember there was a third person in the pickup. "How's Cassie?" he asked an attendant. It wasn't until then that Justin was confronted — and he told officials he had left Cassie behind. It was early evening when a sheriff's deputy made his way through the wintry backcountry terrain. More than 300 feet from the roadway, he found Cassie facedown in the snow, arms and legs askew, like a rag doll dropped and forgotten by a child. Clad only in a shirt, jeans, and sandals, her body was frozen solid.
A Mother's Quest
Even though I'd predicted that Justin would kill Cassie, I was completely unprepared to bury my child. She would never go to her senior prom or become the first-grade teacher she had always wanted to be. She won't be there for her sisters' graduations or weddings. During the nearly 18 years she'd lived on this earth, she was loved by so many people. Seven hundred mourners attended her funeral.
I couldn't let this horrible death be my daughter's epitaph. When State Senator Bob Geddes, Jr., who also lives in Soda Springs, came to the viewing, I told him that what happened to Cassie was more than an accident. The boyfriend who had abused her had crashed his truck while driving drunk and left her to die. I told him I had tried to get help for two years, but that there were no laws to help Cassie because she was a minor, even though her abuser was an adult. He agreed to help me.
I quit my job at the state department of health and welfare and cashed in my retirement savings to lobby for a new bill. I called state legislators and handed out pamphlets describing Cassie's life and death. Taking language from laws in other states, I expanded the definition of domestic violence in Idaho to include dating relationships that involved minors. Sponsored by State Senator Jerry Thorne, the bill specified that a minor victim or the victim's parent or guardian has the right to seek a protective order. On July 1, 2000, "Cassie's Law" went into effect, making Idaho the 25th state to implement dating-violence laws.
Her Spirit Lives On
In September 2000, I went to Washington, DC, to press for a Cassie's Law addendum to the national Violence Against Women Act. With the help of U.S. Senator Mike Crapo, the law was changed so that all victims of dating violence — no matter what their age — can access domestic-violence programs.
After Cassie's death, the Caribou County sheriff's department launched an investigation, but there were delays. A special prosecutor finally charged Justin with felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. (He was never charged with driving under the influence; the hospital did not give him a blood-alcohol test until almost 15 hours after the wreck.) Justin went to trial in February 2001, in the same court where his mother works as a deputy clerk. He was convicted of a lesser charge of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to one year in jail and six months in intensive drug and alcohol rehabilitation, with eight months suspended — a slap on the wrist considering the consequences of his actions.
As far as I know, he is free and on the streets today. The sadness I feel hasn't gone. I still sometimes forget Cassie is dead and expect to see her walk through the door. But I also have hope — hope that the law will protect the next girl who is battered. For Christmas 2001, my daughters and I decorated the Christmas tree in purple, Cassie's favorite color. The only ornaments were angels. Her Christmas gifts from 1999 — diamond earrings, clothes, perfume and a 60-minute phone card she could use to call home anytime — remain unopened.
The national Violence Against Women Act with its Cassie's Law addendum is now federal law. Last October, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft appointed Barbara Dehl to a two-year term on the Justice Department's Advisory Committee on Domestic Violence. Dehl has created a Website — — that both honors Cassie and provides links to online resources for young women trying to escape an abusive relationship.
This story originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of GolfHr.