Kristen Stillman puts her family first. That's why she's letting her four kids go
Momentarily at rest, Kristen Stillman sits with her hands clasped, displaying the tattoos on her forearms: "family" on one, "first" on the other. She keeps her hands clasped as she slowly starts her story, a story of the most dysfunctional family imaginable, a story filled with unspeakable horrors.
It starts with the foggy memories of early childhood. Kristen remembers some good times, mostly involving her twin brother, Will. Her father was never around; her mother, Karen, could only be depended on to be undependable. "I really have no solid memories of Karen," she says. "She slept and was gone." They lived in a housing project, in shelters, at friends' houses. Sometimes Karen was there, sometimes she wasn't.
"Who leaves children at friends' houses?" Kristen wonders.
After Karen's father died — her grandfather was a musician on Blinky's Fun Club, Kristen thinks — there was some money. "We moved into a nice house and got a nice car...a Camry," she remembers. "And then we were homeless. We were sleeping in that Camry."
Denver Outlaws / Major League Lacrosse All Star Game
TicketsSat., Dec. 29, 6:00pm
No place was safe. Both Kristen and Will think they were raped before they were old enough to know what sex was. They think their mother, Karen, was probably on drugs. They think she might have sold them to a stranger for drugs.
Then things got really bad.
The twins were eight and the new school year hadn't yet started when their mother took them to a house in northwest Denver, on the quiet, tree-lined 2500 block of Irving Street. She told them to wait — Kristen and Will played in the alley — while Karen went up to the door and talked to a man. The house belonged to the parents of Linda Torrez, and the elderly couple still lived there, as did Linda's brother, but Linda's husband, Eric, really ruled the roost. "I remember her telling Eric that we were kicked out of the homeless shelter," Kristen says. "I remember her telling us we were going to stay there and to do what we were told."
And for twelve long years, Kristen did.
In the fall of 1996, the twins moved into the front room of the ramshackle house, a stark contrast to the other brick bungalows and two-story Victorians on the block. At first the Torrez family was "kind of nice," Kristen says. "I didn't really talk to them; I've always been a shy person. But Will was outgoing. He talked. I remember him playing video games with Eric's oldest son." There were two other Torrez children: a girl a couple of years older than the twins, and Patrick, just a year older.
The twins enrolled at nearby Brown Elementary School. Kristen didn't talk much there, either; she stayed in the shadows. But Will was acting out. When Will was suspended after a fight, Eric got mad that he hadn't beaten up the other kid. He made Will stand in the corner with a backpack full of sand. He shaved Will's head. "When I came home, Will was bald, and I started crying," Kristen remembers. "I didn't understand what was going on."
What was going on soon got worse. Will had bruises all over his arms; Eric told the teachers that Will was pinching himself for attention. But Eric was beating Will, and around Christmas, he started beating Kristen. Sometimes he beat his own kids. "Linda's mom would threaten to call the cops," Kristen says, "but Eric would just abuse us more when she said something. That's why she left." Linda's father stayed. Eric hit him, too.
The twins' mother would occasionally stop by. They begged her to take them away. She didn't.
"I would read all the time when I was in school," Kristen says. There were no books at home; she and Will weren't even allowed to do their homework there. They weren't allowed to have friends over, either; they just had each other. As she read, Kristen was looking for a story about a girl who was going through what she was, "a true story. If I had found it, I know I could have looked at my life differently." She never found that story, and so she had no other way to look at her life. It was just what it was. There was no escape.
No escape from the work that Eric — who bought abandoned storage units, then sorted and sold their contents — had them do, digging through the strange, sometimes toxic hauls that littered the yard and kept neighbors far away. No escape from the strange exercises he had them do, to make them strong. "It was soldier training," Kristen says. "We'd have to do push-ups and run in place, and stand on rocks and nails for hours. I remember being in the push-up position for 24 hours once. If I dropped to my knees, I was whupped with a bamboo cane." Eric would handcuff Will, hang him from a chain in the basement. Once he put him in an open sewage pit in the back yard for days. Karen, who was visiting him, turned the hose on him and laughed.
Will kept telling people what was happening to them in that house, but no one seemed to care. "Will, he told a lot of people," Kristen says. "I gave up." Instead of talking, she started cutting herself, and beneath the tattoos, her arms still bear the scars of that outcry.
Kristen got her first period when she was ten, and the Torrez family told her she was "now a woman." Patrick instructed her in a new kind of exercise: sex, and he told everyone at school that he and Kristen were doing it.
When Kristen was twelve, right before she started seventh grade, Eric raped her one night when Patrick and Linda were bowling. "I didn't understand what rape was," she says. "Everyone in the house knew what was going on." The weekly bowling-night rapes continued.
In eighth grade, Kristen got pregnant. She found out she was going to have a baby when Eric gave her a pregnancy test. "I was already five months before I even knew," she says. She went to her mother's house and begged for help; Karen called Eric, and Kristen was soon back at the house on Irving Street.
When the baby was born, everyone said that Patrick was the father; Kristen didn't say anything. When she started ninth grade at North High School, she stayed silent. "I seriously didn't talk to anyone," she says. "I did my work, and that was it. Will and Patrick were there, and I didn't talk to them, either." Linda took care of the baby, parking her in a high chair in front of the TV all day. When Kristen came home, she did the laundry and made dinner.
Soon Kristen was pregnant again. This time, she knew what was happening. "I was so embarrassed," she says. "I didn't want to tell anybody." She would stop by the program that North had for pregnant teens and listen to the other girls talk, but that was no help: "Everyone was so excited about being pregnant."
She packed her bags, put them on the back porch. And then took them back inside. "Where was I going to go?" she asks now. "Eric was just going to lie about it, anyway."
One day in January 2004, Eric and Linda took Kristen to the Wellington E. Webb building. Her mom was there, all dressed up. "I thought she was getting married," Kristen says. But as it turned out, fifteen-year-old Kristen was the one getting married, to Patrick, and her mother was giving the bride away, signing the form that allowed a juvenile to marry. "They told me to go up there and sign that thing," she remembers. "I was signing my life away."
At sixteen, with two children, Kristen dropped out of school. "I felt there was no hope," she says. "I felt like it was hopeless. I just gave up."
She helped a woman in the neighborhood with her gardening, but she didn't tell her what was happening at the house. She didn't tell anyone; it was unspeakable. She didn't talk about the nights when Eric made her watch him have sex with Linda, when he made Linda watch him have sex with Kristen, when he made Kristen give Linda oral sex, when 300-pound Patrick raped her in the hideous bathroom with the mushrooms behind the toilet and the hole in the bathtub. Someone from the family was always with her, always watching her.
Kristen got a job at Taco Bell — Eric kept her paychecks — but was soon pregnant again. She kept working through that pregnancy, a boy, and then another pregnancy.
It was while she was in the hospital after giving birth to her second son, in June 2008, that she heard that her oldest daughter had been abused — by Eric's father, the man they called Apple.
When she got back to the house on Irving Street, she talked to her five-year-old daughter and realized it was true. "I begged Eric for weeks, 'Can I take her to the doctor, can I take her to the doctor?'" Kristen remembers. "He wouldn't let me. So I figured we had to leave."
She hadn't been able to escape for herself. But now, for the sake of her children, she would do it. Family first.
The escape took weeks of planning. Will, who had managed to leave the house for a job in Byers, came back when Kristen posted on MySpace that things were really bad with Eric. Kristen started secretly packing the kids' clothes and found some paychecks that Eric had stashed. Will and his girlfriend, Megan, used the money to buy a car. And then one day in early September 2008, when Kristen told Eric she was taking all the kids to back-to-school night, they got in the car and drove to Kansas.
They lived first at a shelter, then in a trailer in Paola. While Will's girlfriend watched the kids, Kristen got a job at Taco Bell.
She thinks that might be how Patrick and Eric tracked them down. In late October, Patrick went to the Denver courthouse and filed for divorce from Kristen — and also requested an emergency hearing to get custody of the kids. "Father has the support of his parents and he lives with his parents... Father has been the stay-at-home parent since January 2008," reads the order that the court granted. Patrick and Eric drove to Kansas, showed the order to the cops there, then went to where the family was living and grabbed the four children. They took them back to Denver on November 7, 2008.
And then, finally, Kristen called the child-abuse hotline. The next day, she, Will and Megan drove back to Denver — and Kristen and Will went straight to the Denver Police Department. It was time to speak up.
Detective Phil Stanford wound up talking with the twins. The interview stretched over two days. "The first day, he thought I was nuts," Kristen remembers. "I had no emotions. I was like an empty soul. On the second day, he started to believe."
And then Stanford and another officer went to Irving Street, which they found "uninhabitable and unsafe for any child due to exposed walls and wiring, no heat and open flames coming from the stovetop." They placed a protective hold on all four children, taking them out of the house and putting them in the hands of the Department of Human Services on November 10.
The next day, a therapist interviewed all of the children. The oldest girl definitely showed signs of having been abused and told the therapist about what Apple, the man she thought was her great-grandfather, had done to her. The second girl said that it "was not okay for people to lick your private parts."
Apple — whose real name was Andres Torrez — was arrested on November 13 and charged with five counts of sexual assault.
Eric, Linda and Patrick Torrez were arrested on November 17, 2008, and all charged with varying counts of sexual assault on a boy and girl who had been left in their care by their mother. According to the arrest affidavit, the girl had first been raped by Eric Torrez when she was twelve, and "remembered Eric telling her that he should not be doing it, but he loved her and she was beautiful."
Karen Stillman was arrested on November 26, after admitting to Stanford that the marriage between her daughter and Patrick was a "sham," and that she was aware of the sexual abuse.
Kristen had told Stanford that she wasn't sure whether Eric or Patrick had fathered her children; the police ordered DNA testing. But other than the question of the children's paternity, everything that she and Will had told the officers quickly checked out.
While the DPD and the Denver District Attorney's Office were investigating the crimes that had occurred on Irving Street, the Department of Human Services was trying to decide what to do with the youngest occupants of that house.
Already, it was finding evidence of how the department had failed to help Kristen and Will.
"Denver Department of Human Services has received several referrals," a January 2009 memo noted, "beginning with a referral on December 12, 2002, which stated that Ms. Stillman was pregnant and living with 'Uncle Eric,' who is her legal guardian. The reporting party had concerns that Mr. Eric Torrez was the father of Ms. Stillman's unborn child, due to the fact that he was 'controlling and intrusive.' This referral was unfounded for sex abuse as there was no disclosure of sex abuse.
"On January 16, 2003, the Department received another referral when Ms. Stillman gave birth....The referral alleged 'inappropriate behavior' between Ms. Stillman and Mr. Eric Torrez during the delivery due to the way Mr. Torrez was touching Ms. Stillman. The allegations were unfounded as there was no disclosure of sex abuse.
"On July 3, 2005, the department received another referral which stated that Ms. Stillman was 'raped' by her husband and that Ms. Stillman was not sure who the father was to her third child, with whom she was pregnant at the time. The allegations were unfounded and Ms. Stillman refused services."
"On July 9, 2008, the Department received a referral alleging sexual abuse and domestic violence in the home. Ms. Stillman, who was living in the Torrez home at the time, reported that her husband Patrick was the father of her four children and denied allegations that her children were not fathered by Mr. Patrick Torrez. The children did not make any outcries of abuse, therefore the allegations were unfounded."
Kristen remembers Eric and Linda coaching her about how to talk to the social workers who occasionally stopped by, the city officials who came by the house to check out zoning violations. Usually Eric and Linda stayed in the room when Kristen talked to anyone — social workers, cops, the doctors and nurses at the hospitals where she gave birth. And when they weren't there, their threats were always hanging in the air.
"These people — they should have won some kind of medal for how they can lie," Kristen says. "I'd even believe them, and I know it's a lie."
When DNA testing showed that Eric was the father of all four children, Patrick no longer had a claim to them. Although Eric said he wanted the court to prohibit Kristen from seeing the kids, that request was denied. Instead, the Department of Human Services came up with parenting plans for Kristen...and Eric. "Mr. Torrez reported not participating in any services offered at Denver County Jail," one department update notes.
But Kristen was trying. She was seeing counselors and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. "It is important to note that she discussed her past experiences in a tone of voice that was devoid of emotion and intellectually distant," one therapist reported to Human Services. She sometimes washed her hands fifty times a day. She liked to keep moving. "Another way it appears that she attempts to cope with her unsettling memories and related anxiety is to keep busy in order to distract her," a psychologist noted. "She stated, 'I've always got to be doing something.'"
Despite her psychological challenges, Kristen was able to hold down a job at Jack in the Box and move into management training. "I didn't have much experience being an adult," she says. "I didn't have much experience other than work. The only thing I learned with Eric was to be a hard worker. That's what I did."
Back from Kansas, at first she lived in a homeless shelter, then with a paternal aunt — "My father doesn't want to meet us," she says — and then found a place with Will that had room for the kids. She wanted to create a home for her children, even though she'd never had a real home herself. "Although she knows it will be a challenge to parent four children, she has stated that she is ready to do it, and feels she has the tools and support to be successful," a July 2009 Human Services evaluation notes.
Kristen was overly optimistic. She got the boys back, then the girls. Four kids under the age of seven: It was too much. In September 2009, "it was decided that all four children would be placed back into foster care," Human Services reports. "Ms. Stillman expressed being overwhelmed, and feeling like she could not take care of all four children at that time."
And she had plenty to feel overwhelmed about. The girl who wouldn't talk was now going to be the star witness at the January 2010 jury trial that Eric Torrez had demanded.
The courthouse was crazy that week: the trial of Willie Clark for the murder of Bronco Darrent Williams was going on, and the media was all over that. But they missed the drama unfolding right next door, which amazed court officials. The national news was still full of the story of Jaycee Dugard, the California girl who'd been kidnapped by Phillip Garrido, then hidden in his yard for years, while she gave birth to two children. Kristen's story was even more spectacular — and it had happened in our own back yard.
Kristen was on the witness stand for two days, telling all the horrible stories she'd first told Phil Stanford, the unspeakable stories that had turned out to be all too true. "I felt like passing out," she remembers. "I'm not good at public speaking." But if she did, Eric would win again.
In the middle of the trial, Eric Torrez suddenly decided to plead guilty: to five counts of sexual assault on a child, eight counts of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust, two counts of sexual assault on a child, pattern of abuse, one count of sexual assault and one count of sexual assault, position of trust — pattern of abuse. (Other charges against him, involving an alleged assault on another child in the neighborhood, had already been dropped because of the statute of limitations.)
After Eric pleaded, Linda Torrez pleaded guilty to sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust; she was later given an indeterminate-to-life probation sentence with a minimum of twenty years.
Andres Torrez, who was really the grandfather, not the great-grandfather, of the girl he'd abused, had died in jail.
Patrick Torrez had already pleaded guilty in October 2009 to second-degree assault and contributing to the delinquency of a minor; he is now a registered sex offender sentenced to an eight-year program. "It is likely that Mr. Patrick Torrez has been a victim of some type of abuse or neglect by his father Eric, or his grandfather Andres, based on the severity of his father's and grandfather's offenses against other children," reads one Human Services report.
Karen Stillman had pleaded guilty in November 2009 to child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury, and had already started a sixteen-year prison term. "She completely lost it in jail," Kristen says. "It made me sad to hear her only concern was her cats, not her kids. Not even an 'I'm sorry.'"
Eric Torrez never said he was sorry, either. On May 13, 2010, he was sentenced to the maximum prison sentence possible: Three hundred years in the Colorado Department of Corrections. Will and Kristen Stillman both spoke at the sentencing hearing; so did Detective Stanford. As he handed down the sentence, Denver District Court Judge Ken Laff said he hoped that Torrez would spend the rest of his life in prison for what he had done to his victims.
For months, Kristen juggled her schedule of work, counseling, appointments with investigators and visitations with her children, who had lived together and apart, moving through several foster homes. The girls would ask about their father; Kristen has told them just that he's in jail. "I don't talk bad about him. He never hurt them physically," she says. But she did tell her oldest daughter that she doesn't like him. "That's all they know."
It hurt to see her kids, to have them ask when they were going home. "I thought I could handle this a lot better," Kristen admits. "I feel bad when I haven't seen my kids, but I feel bad when I see them. It hurts too much. It's easier not to see them."
Finally, she realized that she would have to give up her children permanently, voluntarily relinquishing all parental rights, if they were ever to get the help they need, have a real family. "Realistically, me taking care of four children...that's crazy," she says, clasping her hands.
On September 14, there's a hearing scheduled in Denver Juvenile Court to permanently revoke Kristen's parental rights.
But she'll have plenty to remember her children by, including big bills. Denver County has been charging her for their foster care. Charging the victim of countless rapes for the care of the children who resulted from those rapes.
Kristen couldn't cover the thousands of dollars for foster care with her Jack in the Box pay. And she lost that job after she lost her driver's license: The state took it away when she did not pay child support. The bills keep mounting — over $5,000 by now.
The Department of Human Services, which cannot comment on this particular case (the information in this story came from court files and interviews), says that it has no leeway in assessing fees for foster care, citing this language in the state statute: "The county department or designee shall collect a fee from the legally responsible custodial parent(s). All fees must be established using the Colorado child support guidelines to determine the amount to be ordered. County staff shall not deviate from the guidelines."
Eric Torrez is not paying child support, because he is in prison for life. His parental rights were terminated — but he is appealing.
There's an appeal process for her child-support bills, too; Kristen hasn't explored that yet. But then, she hasn't had much luck going through official channels. "It makes me mad when I think how we told people and social services didn't do anything. We could have been out of Eric's house. I don't understand how no one saw."
The foster-care bill isn't the only one Kristen thinks about. She still has hospital bills for the births of her children. This woman who endured unspeakable horrors worries about her credit rating, the minutes left on her cell phone. She writes down all of her appointments in a notebook covered with notes in colored ink. She has trouble making many of those appointments. She gets distracted. She recently lost her bus pass.
She asked a guy at the bus stop for change, and he gave her two dollars. "I had a half hour to wait, so I talked to him," Kristen says. "He told me that he was going to kill himself because he was going to jail for three years for driving under the influence. He felt there was nothing left to live for. He was serious. I told him every life is worth living, and yours is, too. He told me no one cared about him. I told him, I care about you. How do you think I'd feel if I heard you were gone? He told me I was his guardian angel — that made me feel good."
Kristen helps out an elderly woman who lives across the street; she calls Kristen her guardian angel, too.
Back in 2009, Kristen had a set of angel's wings tattooed on her back. "I feel like I've earned my wings," she says. The "family first" tattoos were inspired by one of Will's T-shirts.
Kristen thinks maybe she was meant to survive so that she could tell her story and help other people. "That's what I think my story will do," she says. "I'm sure it will help lots of people. I know there are more people living a life like me, and they're not going to say something...if they don't kill themselves."
Kristen tried to kill herself when she was twelve, cutting and starving herself. "I thought the people I was living with would do it for me," she told a therapist. "This would have been a blessing." But now she's glad she didn't succeed in her suicide attempts, glad that she survived the Torrez house. She knows she has so much left to live for.
She has a boyfriend, her first. "I was afraid of love," she says. She met him when he was dating her best friend: "That's not a story to tell our kids."
And, yes, Kristen is pregnant again. "I went to the doctor, told her I had four kids, and she looked at me like I was an idiot," she says. "People look at me like I'm so bad." She will be 23 next month.
Somehow between pregnancies, Kristen got her GED. She's now enrolled at Metro State College, taking all kinds of classes, spreading her wings. "I thought I was nothing. Now I'm a college student. I want to succeed so bad. I know I will. I just want to do everything. I want to change the world. Or at least some of the world."
Kristen recently looked at her grades for her summer classes.
She got a B in public speaking.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
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.