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How the bizarre child-abuse investigation of a school counselor became a crusade against troublesome parents -- courtesy of the Colorado Education Association.

In spite of that ruling, defense attorneys have found it difficult to extract their clients from the case. Court documents indicate that Shepard's attorneys wanted not only releases from the parents but guarantees that the defendants would indemnify Shepard against any future claims by their children, a proposition the parents refused to consider. Several parents did manage to buy their way out with cash settlements, but others have had little choice but to watch their legal bills mount as the case crawls slowly toward trial.

Kutzer notes that his clients, the Kannenbergs, never made any formal charges of child abuse. In fact, Shepard has presented no evidence that Tim Kannenberg ("a hardworking plumber," Kutzer says) made any statements about him whatsoever. Yet the couple was dragged through the litigation for years until Shepard's attorneys voluntarily withdrew his claims against them earlier this year. Now Tim Kannenberg has filed a countersuit against the CEA, Cooper and Shepard, charging malicious prosecution, abuse of process and civil conspiracy.

"I'm convinced they never saw this as a damage case," Kutzer says of the CEA. "That raises the question of motive."

The Hellners, Lawrences and Sandersons have filed countersuits naming the CEA, too. Ironically, their countersuits claim that the CEA has defamed the parents by, among other things, linking them to an alleged plot to kill Shepard. His original complaint, signed by Cooper, claims that all the defendants were involved in a solicitation of murder--an allegation apparently based on the off-the-wall encounter between the Perkinses and the servicemen in a Fort Collins bar.

It may be months or even years before the legal brawling concludes, but it's already left its mark on the litigants. Jack Shepard is now the special-education teacher at Cache La Poudre Elementary, which has added more windows to its counseling office. Some of the children who were his accusers are now nearly twice the age they were when the case began, and none of them attend CLPE any more. Three families have left the state, while others have moved to other cities in Colorado, places not at all like Laporte.

"The people sued by Jack Shepard have been scattered every which way," says Dale Parrish. "The effect this lawsuit has had on them has been absolutely devastating. It has impoverished them. It has traumatized them. It has strained their marriages. It has given them issues in their families, educational and the like, that exist to this day."

"It's just atrocious," says Susan Hellner. "The time. The stress. We talk about it every day."

Parrish says he has a difficult time understanding how the litigation has benefited Shepard, either. "If the purpose of this complaint was to exonerate Jack Shepard," he says, "can you imagine the effect of a trial? We know that a bunch of different children said a bunch of the same things about Mr. Shepard. We can prove that. And we can prove that the sheriff's office recommended the filing of criminal charges against Mr. Shepard. On those two items of proof alone, you tell me how that evidence presented to a jury in that community will serve to clear his name."

Of course, it's entirely possible that Jack Shepard has stuck to his guns because he didn't do anything wrong--just as he's always insisted, just as his longtime friends and supporters have always believed. But that doesn't explain the equivocal way the case was handled by authorities, who first encouraged parents to believe their children had been abused and then decided nothing could be proved. And it doesn't explain the actions of the CEA, which has tenaciously pursued Shepard's accusers as if they were all conspirators in a right-wing plot to overthrow the public education system rather than concerned, fearful parents, stirred to outrage by the inexplicable words and behavior of their own children.

"The hardest question for the union to answer," attorney Kutzer says, "is when Mr. Shepard asks them, 'Why am I being sued now?' How do they explain that to him?"

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