UPDATE: Lon Kennard died on Sept. 1, 2019, less than two weeks after he was released from the Utah State Prison.
Springville • The man who sexually abused her over and over again for years was supposed to die in prison.
When the Utah parole board ruled that Lon Kennard would never be released for inappropriately touching his four adopted daughters, Shumba Bila felt relieved. She could move on with her life without having to worry that he may harm others.
That was five years ago.
Then she received a letter in July. It was a page and a half form letter that quoted heavily from administrative rules.
But the gist was this: Kennard was getting out.
Bila read in disbelief that Kennard would go free under the Utah State Prison’s “compassionate release” program, which allows prisoners to leave state custody if they have serious medical issues that require more care than the prison can give them.
After absorbing this news, she crawled to a room in her Springville home, laid down and cried.
“It felt like I was worthless,” Bila said. “It was the worst feeling in my life.”
Kennard is just one of dozens of ailing prisoners who Utah officials release each year under this program, which has become more popular as groups in Utah and elsewhere rethink the criminal justice system.
The 77-year-old man left the prison Aug. 20 under strict conditions that he be placed in a skilled nursing facility. He’s now in a Salt Lake City acute care center, according to Utah’s sex offender registry.
But during this process, Bila said she has felt victimized all over again. There was no hearing where she could ask that her adoptive father remain incarcerated. She was never told what condition he is in. A week of panic and stress would go by before she would even find out his location.
“It’s reliving everything that happened to you,” she said. “You don’t have any voice.”
‘The man who saved my life’
Bila, now 34, spent her childhood in Kersa Illala, a small Ethiopian village right in the center of this east African nation. She was 8 years old when Kennard came to adopt two of her sisters after her parents had died.
When she heard Kennard was coming, she wanted to borrow nice clothes from her neighbors to look pretty. Her aunt told her no — that she was supposed to go as she was, lay on the ground and cry. Don’t stop crying unless the “ferengi”, or white foreigner, starts speaking to you, she was told. Don’t let him leave without promising he’ll come back for you.
A year later, Bila would arrive in Utah. She was one of six whom the Kennards adopted from Ethiopia. The Heber couple also had six biological children.
Bila said Kennard began touching her inappropriately soon after she arrived, when she was 9 years old. The sexual abuse continued for more than a decade.
She grew up thinking that what Kennard was doing to her was nothing unusual, that it was just something American dads did to their children.
It wasn’t until she was 21 and having a conversation with a coworker that her friend became alarmed and told her that his actions were clearly sexual abuse.
Bila was devastated.
This was her hero. Her Papa Bear. The man who not only helped her out of Ethiopia, but who went back to Kersa Illala and set up the Village of Hope to help others get clean water, food and shelter.
“I felt so stupid, and belittled, and dirty,” she said. “At that point when you start realizing it wasn’t OK, you feel nasty and you can’t wash — you can’t get out of your own skin.”
By this time, Bila’s relationship with her adoptive parents was strained for other reasons. She had a child at age 17, and they were fighting over custody. And it had become known among the family that Kennard’s adopted son had found inappropriate photos of his sisters on his father’s hard drive.
Bila called police, fearing that Kennard may abuse her son at some point.
Police arrested Kennard, and he was charged in 2010 with 43 felony counts of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of a child.
The allegations shattered his family and shocked a community. Kennard had been recognized for his work in Ethiopia, and had said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune for a 2009 profile that he believed he was born to help the children of Ethiopia and wanted to make a difference in a troubled world.
The Village of Hope he created had a fresh-water well and housing for orphans and children fleeing violence. They brought in medical workers, and taught local farmers new techniques in dry-land agriculture.
He had done so much to help Kersa Illala. But court records say that during this time, Kennard was also sexually abusing his four adopted daughters, and had planted hidden cameras in the girls’ bathroom.
He pleaded guilty a year later to three charges of first-degree felony aggravated sexual abuse of a child. A judge in November 2011 sentenced him to serve three five-year-to-life terms, ordering them to run back-to-back. Meaning he was to serve at least 15 years, maybe far longer. Kennard was 70 years old at the time.
“You were their father,” 4th District Judge Derek Pullan told Kennard at his sentencing, “and spiritual advisor and [you] groomed them to gratify your own sexual desires. You forced children to carry the crushing burden of guilt and shame. What you have done is devastating and evil.”
Bila said she looked at her adoptive father’s face on the day he was sentenced, but only saw a shell of the man he once was. She wanted him to see and feel her pain, but she saw nothing behind his eyes.
“It wasn’t the man who saved my life,” she said. “He did save my life. But at the same time, I felt like he was trying to take my life away.”
A few years later, in 2014, the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole ruled that Kennard would serve his entire life sentence. There would be no parole. Bila thought she’d never have to worry about him again.
Then came that July letter.
“The Department [of Corrections] has requested we reconsider our prior decision,” it read, “and grant a ‘compassionate release’ of Mr. Kennard to a long-term or hospice care facility, due to ongoing, serious, permanent medical or cognitive issues.”
Bila sent an emotional letter pleading with the parole board to keep him in prison, but she never received a response. The board approved the request earlier this month without a hearing.
Kennard got out after serving just under eight years of his life sentence.
The parole board has granted compassionate release to 87 prisoners from July 2017 to June 2019, according to state data. Those prisoners received a combined 12,349 days cut from the sentences they were supposed to serve — including 19 years for one man who was released in 2017 due to “profound medical issues” that required specialized care.
Every state except Iowa has some form of a compassionate release program, according to the national nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The programs have become more frequent as states pass reforms to reduce the prison population and save money.
Advocate groups like FAMM argue that it is cruel and costly to keep aging inmates behind bars if they are of little risk to the public because of their health issues.
Utah prison officials estimated in 2012 that only four to six inmates per year were being released then for compassionate release. But that number has more than tripled in recent years after state lawmakers passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill aimed at reducing recidivism and lowering the number of incarcerated Utahns. Now, an average of 30 inmates per year have been released over the past three years.
Utah corrections officials referred questions about the compassionate release policy to the Utah Board of Pardons, whose director pointed a reporter to the state rules that explain the process.
According to those rules, the Department of Corrections can request that the parole board release a prisoner if a person requires extensive medical care and their public safety risk is “significantly reduced” due to their age or medical condition.
The rules also state that the parole board must make a “reasonable effort” to contact an offender’s victims before making a decision — which it did in that letter Bila received in July.
But Bila said the parole board didn’t appear to consider her plea before authorizing Kennard’s release. She was never told what medical issues he has, or whether he’d be a threat to others in the facility.
It’s not clear whether Kennard’s new residence, City Creek Post Acute Care, took any precautions or informed its other residents that a sex offender would be staying there — its parent company, Ensign Group, did not respond to a request for comment.
Bila said she received a notification the day Kennard was released, but it didn’t say where he was going. She finally found out he was in Salt Lake City a week later, the same day his address was updated on the public sex offender registry.
But Bila said she still worries with Kennard being free. She doesn’t want to look over her shoulder or wonder if he’ll try to pop into her life again.
His release, she said, isn’t justice.
“I just want answers,” she said. “Why didn’t we have a voice? Why didn’t we get heard? But I don’t think they could all be answered. I just feel like they looked past our pain.”
Correction: Sept. 4, 2019 1:30 p.m.: Utah’s parole board has granted compassionate release to 87 prisoners in recent years, including a man whose sentence was cut by 19 years in 2017 due to “profound medical issues.” A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of years that were cut from that man’s sentence.