This section is continued from part two of this story. Please see the link below to read part two.
Residents of Kersa Elawa have mixed feelings about the good and evil Kennard has done. Photo by Rick Egan.
It takes a lot of patience
Dozens of Utahns joined Kennard in Kersa Elawa for a few days or weeks at a time. The tall, gaunt man with piercing blue eyes told the people he invited that they could do more good in a few days in Africa than they could in their entire lives back home. But some who visited got another vibe—that Kennard was in it for personal aggrandizement. They noticed he seemed to delight, especially, in walking among the children, caressing their heads and taking them in his arms. They called him “father.”
Back home in Utah, his own children sometimes felt as though he’d forgotten them .
“We used to joke that he must have had a family in Ethiopia, because he was always spending so much time there,” Kennard’s oldest daughter, Jill Jensen, recalled.
In the fall of 2009, when a group of young volunteers arrived in Ethiopia to serve in Kersa Elawa, Kennard was nowhere to be found.
In the confusion of the ensuing days, a boy who was being cared for at the Village of Hope orphanage had gone missing—Kennard said the boy was taken by one of the organization’s local managers, to whom the boy was related, without permission. In the search for the child, police noticed that the non-profit’s licenses weren’t up to date. Apparently seeking leverage to get Kennard to face questioning, officers arrested several nurses.
It took months to work things out, and Village of Hope board members still aren’t clear about everything that went wrong, but it was obvious that Kennard was in over his head as an administrator.
At that point, Utah entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Morrell stepped in to help stabilize things.
“The situation wasn’t good,” Morrell said. “But that’s not an uncommon thing in Ethiopia. Things that seem to be going well all of the sudden are in crisis and it takes a lot of patience and hard work to get things into better shape.”
By early 2010, the Village of Hope was back on track—but without Kennard, who had returned to Utah. In a letter to supporters, Kennard called Morrell’s involvement “a stabilizing Godsend to Village of Hope.” And, in what seemed to supporters to be a selfless gesture, he bowed out.
This is how you rationalize
At about the same time Kennard’s daughter, Jill Jensen, was coming to terms with a disturbing childhood memory.
Police had contacted Jensen saying they suspected her daughter had been molested, along with other students, by their elementary school teacher.
That was bad enough, but the questions brought back to Jensen troubling memories she had denied to herself for years. Now, sitting across from her daughter, discussing the incidents at school, Jensen finally confronted her own secret—that her father had come into her bedroom at night and sexually fondled her.
Finally, she accepted that it really had happened.
“I thought—and I don’t know why I thought this, but I guess this is how you rationalize these things when you have been hurt in these ways—that maybe even if it were true, he had changed,” Jensen said. “Everyone revered my father. He was this big hero. He had done so much to help so many people. That’s what we were all led to believe. So for me to come forward with accusations that I’d buried for so long, it just didn’t seem possible to me.”
She told her daughter: “I had been too scared to say anything. But if I found out one day that he had hurt anyone else, I couldn’t forgive myself.”
Though her daughter joined the other classmates in testifying against the teacher, Jensen herself still could not take that step against her father.
In a few weeks, Jensen would learn, however, she was far from her father’s only victim. Kennard had allegedly molested at least five other children—including others in his family and a girl in Ethopia. The teenaged girl—a relative of one of his adopted daughters—was not yet 18 when Jensen began spending time with her near Kersa Elawa.
Like many abusers, Kennard manipulated his victims with a combination of fear and isolation from each other.
On March 5, 2010, everything changed.
Months had passed since Kennard’s unexplained ouster from Village of Hope, but already he was hatching a plan to return. Over email and the telephone, the then-68-year-old man was promising the young girl back in Ethiopia that he was going to leave the United States and live out the remainder of his life in Africa. He was planning to establish a new non-profit organization, Love One Another, that he said would address social and economic issues in Ethiopia.
As he discussed his plans with the African girl that evening, he didn’t hear the soft click as his wife picked up an extension phone in another room. “When I leave here, I will never return,” Kennard told the girl as his wife listened in.
With that, the lies began to unravel. Kennard’s biological and adopted children joined to support their mother. The secrets finally were brought to light. The sexual abuse had begun, Staking would later testify, almost immediately after Kennard took custody of her and her siblings in Ethiopia.
That evening, Matthew Kennard—the youngest of Kennard’s biological children—broke into his father’s office and copied the contents of an external hard drive. There, he found pictures of naked children, one including his adopted sisters taken in Ethiopia and Utah. Many of the Utah photos appeared to have been captured wrisith hidden cameras.
Two weeks later, Lon Kennard was arrested by Wasatch County Sheriff’s deputies on charges of aggravated sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and forcible sodomy.
“I was just so happy and relieved,” Staking said. “I’d been so sad and scared, and I was happy that I would not have to pretend I was happy anymore.”
Soon word of his crimes reached Ethiopia.