Last week, I tuned in for my weekly dose of 48 Hours. True crime can be gritty, violent, and uncomfortable—but sometimes you catch an episode and the case just sticks with you, because it matters. You feel for someone, you relate to their hurt, you wonder if and when justice will be properly served—you become invested. We’re human. We have to invest ourselves in tough situations, at least I do.
“Kristen’s Secret” isn’t going to be easy. Some subjects, some moments in our life are tucked away for years, too difficult to discuss or make sense of. Such was the case for Kristen Cunnane, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area. It was 1996 and she’d just gotten her braces off—she was in middle school. A science teacher named Mr. Witters, who’d been having inappropriate encounters with several of his students, lured Kristen into his classroom after class. She says, “Then something happened.” But erased that memory for good. This is how she fell into the next terrible trap, under the misguided net of a favorite P.E. and sports coach among the students, Coach Julie Correa.
Like so many of us who had favorite teachers and coaches in school, she thought nothing of their friendship—in fact, Kristen and her friends would often hang in Correa’s office in the girls’ locker room during lunch and after school. Kristen confided in her about what had happened with the Mr. Witter. In retrospect, she believes this is the event that made Correa feel she could isolate Kristen, because Kristen, lost and traumatized by the incident, had no intentions of telling on the teacher. Meanwhile, what Kristen’s parents knew was that she was spending a lot of new time with this coach, and they felt like coaches who pick favorites only upset the other girls, Kristen’s friends. Kristen’s mom even confronted Correa at one point to basically warn her of this, and Correa agreed completely, saying, “I totally see where you’re coming from and I totally respect that.”
It should have been that simple. But Correa, a married woman in her 20s, began to close in on Kristen even more. She decided to test the waters and kiss Kristen on a car ride home—and Kristen didn’t tell anyone. When Correa decided to rent out an apartment to be closer to the school, she invited Kristen and some other girls over to check it out (before her husband moved in with her). For whatever reason, Kristen went along, and when Correa instructed the other girls to go wait downstairs, she began to molest a very afraid and confused Kristen. The abuse continued to spiral out of control. Correa took Kristen’s virginity, who believed it was even possible she might get pregnant as a result. Kristen explains to the interviewer that she was very sheltered, so the trauma of these acts of abuse were only that much more horrific.
The interviewer nods her head and says, “Heartbreaking…” And then, very carefully asks Kristen to explain what kinds of things were done to her, “without going into too much detail.” This moment strikes me, because I watch a TON of true crime television and I’ve never once heard the interviewer instruct a survivor to filter their account of what happened—whether this particular moment was handled out of respect, empathy, or the stigma of female-to-female rape is left up in the air for you to decide.
But imagine this—a young girl, who hasn’t even made it through middle school, has now been sexually assaulted by not one, but two of her teachers—people that are supposed to be doing one job—educating, and yet took their relationships to the farthest of outer-bounds. To trigger all those unanswered questions and emotions, Kristen then learned that the science teacher, Mr. Witter, had driven his car off the Pacific Coast Highway and killed himself. Correa used Mr. Witter’s death to only manipulate Kristen further, saying such things like, “I’m going to have to do what Mr. Witters did.” By now, Kristen was in high school and Correa was the master of all plans, often telling Kristen how to sneak out, forcing her to have sex afterhours at the middle school, providing her with a cell phone she could hide in a Spanish-English dictionary she had cut pages out of. In between breaks, 48 Hour asks the viewers if we understand why Kristen didn’t tell anyone about the abuse. Do we understand? We weren’t there; it’s that simple. “Did she cry?” “Did she say no?” “Did she just ‘go along with it’?” We can speculate, but we don’t know.