CARBONDALE, Ill. – Word that Sgt. Dan Kennings had been killed in Iraq crushed spirits in the Daily Egyptian newsroom. The stocky, buzz-cut soldier befriended by students at the university newspaper was dead, and the sergeant’s little girl, a precocious, blond-haired child they’d grown to love, was now an orphan.

They all knew Kodee Kennings’ mother died when she was 5. The little girl’s fears and frustrations about her father being in harm’s way had played out on the pages of the Daily Egyptian for nearly two years, in gut-wrenching letters fraught with misspellings, innocent observations and questions about why daddy wasn’t there to chase the monsters from under her bed.

It turns out daddy didn’t exist at all. The Chicago Tribune went to southern Illinois to learn about the bond between Kodee and Dan Kennings, and the life Kodee would face now without her hero.

There is no soldier named Dan Kennings. The charming girl people came to know as Kodee Kennings is someone else entirely, a child from an out-of-state family led to believe she was playing a part in a documentary about a soldier.

Using role players, including an employee of a local Christian radio station, the woman at the center of the hoax spun a remarkable wartime tale so compelling it grabbed the hearts of young journalists, university faculty members and readers, and left them blind to the possibility it could all be a ruse. There appears never to have been a monetary motive. In fact, the reasons behind all the lies remain unclear.

The tale began in 2003 when student reporter Michael Brenner was handed a letter from a 7-year-old girl saying she saw an anti-war protest on the Southern Illinois campus and it bothered her because her dad was a soldier. Brenner e-mailed the little girl, and as he learned more about her situation decided to tell her story.

The story appeared in the Daily Egyptian on May 6, 2003, detailing an 8-year-old’s struggles saying goodbye to her father, who was shipping off to Iraq with the 101st Airborne. Kodee, according to the story, had lost her mother years earlier, so Kennings was her only blood relative.

“I don’t have a mom,” Kodee was quoted saying in the newspaper story. “If he died, I don’t have anywhere to go.”

Upon Kennings’ departure, Kodee came under the care of a young woman named Colleen Hastings, the wife of Kennings’ adoptive brother. Outgoing and affable, she forged a friendship with Brenner and, he says, seemed to think the attention was helping keep Kodee’s mind off her dad.

Brenner, then the editor of the paper, started publishing unedited notes that Kodee would write about her dad, or about things happening in her life.

Last week Hastings contacted the newsroom and said Kennings had been killed in action in Iraq. A professor in the journalism school who was familiar with the Kennings story called the Tribune last Wednesday, and the newspaper had a reporter on the road to Carbondale, Ill., that night.

However, no details of Kennings’ death could be confirmed. His name didn’t appear on a Department of Defense Web site that lists U.S. casualties.

By last Thursday, the story was falling apart. Military officials could find no one named Dan Kennings in the Army or any other branch of the service, and no deaths in Iraq fit the time frame Hastings had described.

Hastings refused to speak with the Tribune, saying through Brenner – who had graduated in 2004 and was living with his family in West Chicago – that she wanted to shelter Kodee from the media.

On Saturday morning, cars began pulling into the gravel parking lot of a one-story American Legion hall in Orient, Ill., about 30 miles northeast of Carbondale. Hastings and Kodee got out of a red Grand Am, the little girl wearing an Army uniform shirt that hung down to her knees.

People inside the memorial service said both Hastings and Kodee were in tears. A video showing Dan Kennings in his fatigues speaking with a group of children at a church was playing, and there was a scrapbook filled with pictures of Kennings straddling a tank cannon or huddling with other soldiers.

By Tuesday night, Michael Brenner was pacing nervously outside a Dairy Queen in Cartersville, Ill., talking to Hastings on his cell phone. He handed the phone to a Tribune reporter and Hastings said she would come to the Dairy Queen and listen to questions.

Brenner, 25, said he was still convinced of Kennings’ existence and defended Hastings as a woman trying to protect a little girl.

Hastings pulled into the parking lot in the same red car she’d driven to the memorial service. She was told the military was denying Kennings’ existence and that the name Colleen Hastings appeared in no public records databases in Illinois. She was asked for a driver’s license and for a death certificate for Kennings. With each question, Hastings shook her head no.

And then she drove off into the night.

The Tribune traced the license plate of Hastings’ car, and by Wednesday afternoon, a reporter was outside a home in Marion, Ill., looking for a woman named Jaimie Reynolds.

Reynolds agreed to talk.

Sitting on the back porch of her house wearing a maroon, long-sleeved Southern Illinois University shirt, her face flush from crying, Reynolds admitted she had pretended to be Colleen Hastings. She said Dan Kennings was invented, and those who met him had actually met a friend of hers who agreed to play the role.

She said, and the Tribune confirmed, that she was a broadcast journalism student at Southern Illinois. She graduated in 2004, putting her there alongside the very people she was deceiving.

Reynolds acknowledged the little girl actually is the daughter of friends, and said she persuaded the parents to let her bring the child regularly to Carbondale by saying she was filming a documentary about a soldier killed in Iraq.

“We told her it was for a movie,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the scheme was Brenner’s idea.

“Mike is my best friend,” she said. “In the last couple of years, he’s had a hard time with his career. He asked me if I would help him out. I said I would. It just got a little bigger than he told me it would. I went with it because supposedly he was my best friend. This needs to be over with. I don’t want to lie anymore. He just wouldn’t let it go.”

She also said she fell in love with Brenner, making it that much harder for her to stop the lie.

Brenner denied Reynolds’ accusation and said her claims were outrageous.

“Jesus Christ, that is completely not true,” Brenner said when he heard about the allegations. “Obviously she is making that up. I swear I’m telling the truth. The last two years of my life, I don’t know what to believe. It’s ridiculous. I feel stabbed in the back. They had an elaborate hoax. I’m telling the truth.”

On Thursday, 10-year-old Caitlin Hadley sat between her parents on a couch in the Nazarene church they run in Montpelier, Ind. She retold the two-year odyssey that began with her believing she was going to be the star of documentary film about a little girl named Kodee.

“It was sort of weird, but I had a lot of fun,” Caitie said.

Her parents, Richard and Tawnya Hadley, were angry.

“I just realized that I didn’t know this girl (Jaimie Reynolds),” said Tawnya Hadley. “In the profession that my husband is in, we move and meet new people all the time. What if she’d never brought Caitie back? We feel like we’re idiots.”

The Hadleys lived in Buffalo, Ky., when Reynolds started making the five- or six-hour drive from Carbondale to pick Caitie up and bring her to southern Illinois.

Caitie said that when she and Reynolds were with other people, Reynolds said they were “filming.” Caitie was to pretend to be Kodee, and “she said I needed to act like a tomboy because Kodee was a tomboy.”

Caitie’s understanding was that everybody she met in Carbondale was in the movie, which was being filmed by hidden cameras. So when they went into the Daily Egyptian newsroom the first time, she pretended to be Kodee, and believed the reporters and editors were playing along as characters.

“I met all the people she had in the movie,” Caitie said. “We were always on camera, but I didn’t see any cameras.”

As Caitie’s involvement continued, the Hadleys began asking why the documentary was not finished.

About a month ago, after a long silence, the Hadleys heard from Reynolds.

She said a new group of students wanted to finish the documentary, and they needed to borrow Caitie again for a memorial service because Dan Kennings had been killed in Iraq.

The parents agreed, and Reynolds drove Caitie down for one last experience.

The director of the Southern Illinois journalism school said he supports the young reporter.

“Just from knowing him personally, I don’t have any sense that this is something that he would have done,” said Walter Jaehnig, who also teaches an ethics course at the university.

Jaehnig said the Daily Egyptian would be publishing an apology regarding its coverage of Dan and Kodee Kennings. He said the university is embarrassed by the ruse, but hopes to use it as an opportunity to teach.

“I think my other concern here,” he said, “is that we find a way to ensure that this incident is a learning experience for our present students and that they understand the importance of fact checking and verification of everything they write.”

In her home in Indiana on Thursday, Caitie reflected on Jaimie Reynolds, the woman who over the past two years had become like a “big sister” to her.

“I feel sad for her,” Caitie said. “And I feel like she betrayed me.”

(Chicago Tribune correspondents John Bebow and James Janega contributed to this report.)

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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