Kristen and Will Stillman survived unspeakable horrors, but building a new life could be their toughest challenge
Kristen and Will Stillman survived unimaginable horrors during the dozen years they were prisoners of Eric Torrez. The twins were just eight when their mother, Karen, got kicked out of a fourth homeless shelter and took her children to a tiny house on Irving Street where Torrez lived with his wife and children and a slew of other relatives. They were to stay there, Karen told the twins, and they did, putting up with psychological and physical punishments that became increasingly severe as time went on.
Torrez started raping Kristen when she was twelve. By the time she was twenty, she'd had four children by him. To stop the talking — by neighbors, by teachers, by doctors — Torrez had her marry his son, Patrick, when she was fifteen. Patrick was raping her, too. By then, Kristen had lived half of her life in this house of horrors; she didn't think she had any choice. Whenever she or Will tried to tell someone what was happening, they were ignored. When a social services representative came by, Torrez or his wife were always there. When Kristen was in the hospital, she was never left alone.
But when Kristen was in the hospital after giving birth to her fourth child, Will managed to tell her that Torrez's father was abusing her oldest daughter — and finally, she realized she had to take action. Will came up with an escape plan, and they took the kids and fled to Kansas. Two months later, though, the cops showed up with a Denver court order granting the kids to Patrick and Eric Torrez. Will and Kristen followed their car back to Denver, then told a sympathetic neighbor what had been going on up the block all those years. She urged them to contact the police.
Detective Phil Stanford, who took the call, not only listened, he went to the house — and found out that everything the twins had told him was true. The entire family went to jail. So did Karen Stillman.
Eric Torrez went on trial in January 2010 for his crimes against Kristen, who'd been on the witness stand for more than a day when he took a deal. He wound up sentenced to jail for more than 300 years; in exchange for his plea, his wife and son got probation. Torrez's trial happened to coincide with the Darrent Williams murder trial, and the media was all over the courthouse — but Torrez only rated a few paragraphs. Court officials working with the twins marveled at that: Jaycee Dugard had just been found in California a few months before, after being kept a prisoner for more than a decade; the Stillman saga was even worse — if that was possible. And it had happened right in Denver's back yard.
I met Kristen last summer, introduced to her by a neighbor who thought I might be able to help with just one of the ironic injustices of her situation: She was being billed by the Denver Department of Social Services for the care of her four children. Kristen, who'd worked even when she was living with the Torrez family, had a job at a fast-food joint, but lost it when her license was taken away for failure to pay child support. She just wanted that bill to go away, she told me; she wasn't looking for anything else. And since those four children might never have been born if the Department of Social Services had really followed up on the tips about what was happening to Kristen and Will Stillman, it seemed a reasonable request.
As I worked on untangling that red tape, I met several more times with Kristen, who decided that she wanted to tell her story: She thought it might make a difference for another child who was abused. And even as she talked about the incredible ordeal she'd survived, she faced another one: She had a date in Denver Juvenile Court in September 2010 to surrender the parental rights to her four children. Kristen loved those children, but she'd had trouble caring for them during the brief period she had them on her own, and she knew that if she wanted them to have a chance at a normal childhood — something she'd never experienced — she had to give them up.
Westword published Kristen's story, "Spreading Her Wings," on September 9, 2010, and the response was immediate — and overwhelming. At Metro, where Kristen was going to school, people came up to her and hugged her. And two weeks later, I was there in court to watch her surrender her rights to her four children — and hear the judge praise her selflessness. Kristen never had the "goodbye party" with her children that was offered; by then she was five months pregnant, with a baby fathered by her very first boyfriend, and she didn't want her kids to think that she was just replacing them.
Nothing will ever replace those children. Kristen thinks of them every time she looks at Kaylee, the girl she gave birth to in February. But she knows she needs to focus on building a life for her.
Denver finally ripped up Kristen's child-care bill last fall. And the story that had been this city's shameful secret for so long continued to be told: in a Denver Post piece, in an article in Glamour in August that was hooked to the release of Jaycee Dugard's book. "Reading about your experiences and how you have provided each other strength has helped me in my struggles to find strength," wrote one widow in response, "and has also helped me have faith again." Offers of help keep trickling in, and lawyers are looking into setting up a trust fund for Kristen and Will and their children — Will's girlfriend is expecting a baby in a few weeks. And more money could come in after an Anderson Cooper interview with the twins airs later this month.
Kristen, Kaylee and Will went to New York in August to tape that segment. It was their first time on an airplane, their first time in New York City. "I thought it was totally fascinating," Kristen says. "I'm totally scared of heights; I don't even like to be picked up." Will walked the streets for hours, looking at everything. Kristen napped; she hadn't thought to bring a stroller and was exhausted from carrying Kaylee.
Like Glamour, CNN dressed the twins for the story — Kristen had worn a pink-striped shirt for the magazine, and the TV crew put her in a purple sweater and makeup, which she never wears. Will wore a long-sleeved shirt that covered his tattoos. They didn't look like themselves, she says, but that discomfort was minor compared to watching their mother, Karen Stillman, speak from a Colorado jail. "As usual, it was all about her," Kristen says.
Kristen has never read the Glamour piece. She knows the story, knows what happened to her. And although she's not particularly interested in telling it again, she'll keep talking if it will make one person listen, make one person take action the next time a child is being abused. She and Will will even tell their story in person on September 20, at a speech at Metro State.
"Whatever we think we are going through, I know for a fact someone else is going through something worse and can use our help," Will plans to tell the gathering. "I'm grateful to God for each day, and I hope all of you are, too."
"It is a story of survival and of motherhood," Kristen's speech begins. "It's a story of lost innocence and lost hope. And it's a request to each of you to use the power you have to help someone who may be helpless."
After that talk, Kristen may leave Denver. Her boyfriend is back in Wisconsin, dealing with a long-ignored warrant related to a charge from when he was a kid. Kristen wants to be with him. She wants her daughter to be with him. "He loves Kaylee to death," she says. "He loves us enough to turn himself in." She's never been to Wisconsin, either, but she knows she can get a job there, go back to school. "I'm going to be 24 in October," she notes. "I don't want to be all old when I finally get that degree that I'm looking for. I have a good idea what I want to do."
She wants to work in human services. "I know what the kids may be going through," she says. "I can see the signs. Obviously, lots of people can't."
That's the reason she's pursuing the possibility of a lawsuit against the state, although attorney John Scipione, who's on the case, says Colorado's Governmental Immunity Act makes any kind of successful claim difficult. Jaycee Dugard got $21 million from California; it's unlikely that Kristen and Will Stillman will ever see a dime from the state. A better route, he suggests, would be for legislators to take up this cause, to pass a law that would give an exemption to victims in very unusual circumstances — and hold government agencies accountable when they screw up this badly. And that's all Kristen really wants. She's broke, but she's never looked for a payday from this.
She'll take care of herself. She'll take care of Kaylee. She'll build the family she never had. She'll get on with life...somehow. "I want to do everything," she says, echoing what she told me the very first time she met me.
Kristen and Will Stillman survived unimaginable horrors. It's building a normal life — when they've never had a normal life — that could prove the toughest challenge.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.