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Utah parents accused of killing 4-year-old daughter with water

By Christina S. N. Lewis
Court TV

Richard, center, and Jennete Killpack enter the Fourth District court with defense attorney Philip Danielson on Monday for their preliminary hearing.
Richard, center, and Jennete Killpack enter the Fourth District court with defense attorney Philip Danielson on Monday for their preliminary hearing.

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(Court TV) -- When 4-year-old Cassandra Killpack drank juice from a cup intended for her adopted sister, Heather Killpack, 7, the older child said she knew what would happen.

"I said, 'You'll have to go to Mom and do the drinking-water thing,'" the Killpacks' biological daughter said in a videotaped police interview played in court on the first day of her parents' three-day preliminary hearing. "She makes her drink 'til she pukes," Heather told police, according to a report on the hearing in the Salt Lake Tribune.

Cassandra's adoptive parents, Richard Killpack, 34, and his wife Jennete Killpack, 26, are charged with felony child abuse and felony child abuse homicide for allegedly killing her by force-feeding her too much water. If convicted they could each face up to 20 years in prison. Water intoxication occurs when a large amount of water is introduced into the body which dilutes the amount of sodium in the body causing the brain to swell.

The Killpacks have insisted they were using "water therapy" to try and help cure her emotional problems. In television appearances and through their lawyer, the couple maintains that a therapist recommended feeding their emotionally-troubled daughter by hand to promote dependence and trust.

They also say that they didn't know their daughter's sodium was already low because she had exercised earlier in the day and that she was only made to drink 12 ounces of water. But prosecutors in Provo, Utah aren't buying it.

Sherry Ragan, chief of Utah County Attorney's criminal division, told NBC's "Today" show that forensic evidence indicates that Cassandra drank much more than 12 ounces. She also said that cuts and bruises around Cassandra's mouth indicated that she was force-fed.

In the 911 call Richard Killpack told the operator, when she asked what had happened:

"[She] had a lot of emotional problems. To make a long story short, she had one of her temper tantrums today. We need to give her quite a bit of water. She threw up and then all of a sudden she's just not there. We can't keep her eyes open."

In the phone call Killpack speculated that Cassandra might have knocked herself unconscious during her violent fit.

The case has also drawn attention to the possible dangers of the treatments for emotionally withdrawn children practiced by the center the Killpacks attended.

Cassandra had ben diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder—which is frequently seen in foster care children and means they are resistant to emotional bonding. Doctors say that such children can become violent and that building a relationship with them can be very difficult.

The Cascade Center for Family Growth denied any involvement saying that water therapy was not on their list of treatments. After a three month investigation the center was cleared in the death. However, Utah officials are seeking to revoke the center's license and the state legislators have approved a resolution banning another controversial treatment called holding therapy, which involves physically holding a child in an attempt to revisit infancy.

A phone call the to Cascade Center was not returned.

Two years ago in Colorado Jeane Newmaker was convicted in the death of her 10-year-old adopted daughter, who suffocated after being wrapped in blankets and pillows during what was called a "rebirthing session."

Water intoxication is a relatively rare cause of death. There are cases of it being self-induced. For example a year ago a woman running the Boston Marathon died because she drank only water instead of alternating with a sports drink.  

Two other homicide by water cases have made headlines recently. In Florida a babysitter, Nancy Gayoso, is accused of forced 3-year-old Rosita Gonzalez to drink more than a gallon of water. She has pled not guilty.

In Long Island, New York, 11 fraternity brothers were charged last week with criminally negligent homicide for the death of an 18-year-old pledge to their fraternity. They allegedly forced Walter Dean Jennings to drink large amounts of water through a funnel until he vomited. The hazing ritual was reportedly called "water torture."

The Killpack's preliminary hearing was originally scheduled for December but was postponed because Jennete Killpack was nine months pregnant and her doctor was planning to induce labor that week.

The couple has two other children, one adopted, both of whom are in foster care.

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