After kidnapping, Christian group focused on ‘PR’
IOWA CITY (AP) — Days after two Iowa girls were kidnapped, a national group that provided faith-based counseling to their abductor before his release from prison was putting a public relations plan in motion and preparing to protect its image, records released Thursday show.
A Prison Fellowship vice president sent a prepared statement to the Iowa Department of Corrections that he said would be made public only if the group received media inquiries about Michael Klunder, according to emails the department released to The Associated Press under the public records law.
"Our PR folks asked me to send this and say this is what we would plan to release," Sam Dye, Prison Fellowship's vice president for program delivery, wrote May 23 to Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta. "If I receive any media inquiries, I will let you know."
At the time, a massive search involving police and volunteers was underway in central Iowa for 15-year-old Kathlynn Shepard. Authorities say Klunder kidnapped Kathlynn and a 12-year-old friend on May 20 while the girls were walking home from school in Dayton. He committed suicide hours later after the 12-year-old escaped from a hog confinement facility where he had taken them. Kathlynn's body was found in a nearby river earlier this month.
Klunder was discharged in 2011 after serving roughly 20 years in prison for two kidnappings dating back to 1991, which involved a 21-year-old woman he attempted to assault and two 3-year-old girls he left in a trash bin.
Klunder had gone through Prison Fellowship's Bible-based program, called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, while he was incarcerated at Newton Correctional Facility from 2000 through 2002. Court records show that his Bible counselor heaped praise on Klunder when he was discharged, saying he was at the top of his class and "a very intelligent young man."
"He is a changed individual with a good prospect of success," the counselor wrote.
Klunder had cited his Christian-based treatment in litigation in which he was seeking parental rights for his son while behind bars, and in statements to the parole board pleading for his release. His requests for parole were denied, but he was released without supervision when his 41-year prison term expired. His time behind bars was cut short because of an Iowa law that shaves an additional 1.2 days from sentences for every day served.
Founded by former Nixon aide Chuck Colson, a figure in the Watergate scandal, Virginia-based Prison Fellowship calls itself the world's largest outreach group for inmates and their families. The group's statement on Klunder — never released until Thursday — planned to call the kidnapping and suicide "profoundly disturbing and heart-wrenching."
"We pray fervently for his second victim to be found free of physical harm as quickly as possible," the statement read. "We share in the grief of the Iowa community rocked by this development."
Dye, who is based in Knoxville, Iowa, said Thursday the statement was sent to Corrections officials "as a courtesy and for informational purposes, not for their approval." Scaletta forwarded the statement to several department officials asking, "You all okay with this?" No one raised objections.
"Yes sad," department official Sally Kreamer wrote.
The group, which says inmates can be "redeemed, restored, and reconciled through the love and truth of Jesus Christ," no longer offers the program in Iowa, Dye said.
The emails released Thursday also show how Corrections officials were considering possible changes to state law and policies in response to Klunder's release without supervision. Kathlynn's family members and others have called for longer sentences for violent criminals and other steps to prevent similar crimes from happening.
Corrections official Lettie Prell wrote to colleagues that she believed the "cleanest proposal" would be to extend an existing law that puts some sex offenders on lifetime parole to include kidnapping cases that have a sexual element.
"That way we don't have to invent any new twist to the Iowa Code, which would engender more ICON programming, (Attorney General) opinions and case law," Prell wrote. ICON is a data computer system used by the department.
Prell also noted that the state's parole board was already working to ensure that fewer offenders were released without at least some supervision, which research shows reduces the likelihood of reoffending. Thirty percent of inmates who were discharged in fiscal year 2011 were released without supervision, a record high, but that number has dropped in the first five months of this year to 20.6 percent, she wrote.
Another department official, Cathy Engel, said she believed that "a thoughtful, deliberate approach is warranted."