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Ultimate betrayal: Sexual abuse survivor tracks man accused of preying on her daughter

Jerry Dunning was different from other men. Kym Brown Hunter could see it.

It was a Fourth of July weekend and Dunning, her husband's friend, went boating with them. He taught Hunter how to work the sails.

When her marriage ended, Dunning was there for her. They met for drinks a few times. One of those times, she said, it led to more.

Hunter had always been cautious with men. She was fiercely protective of her young daughter, especially around men she didn't know. She always watched how they interacted with the girl, how they touched her. A former private investigator, she would check the background of her daughter's friends and people she knew.

But she trusted Dunning. Enough so that one night, a few months after they began dating, she decided she had to tell him about her past.

She told him how she had lost her virginity to her father when she was 6 years old. How the old man had regularly raped her. And how she had kept it a secret for years, afraid to tell anyone.

Dunning said little. He told her he understood. Not long after that, Hunter and her daughter moved in with him.

Then came the day, four years later, when she got a call from police. Her daughter had told a school counselor that Dunning had been sexually abusing her.

Hunter felt betrayed, but also a sickening sense of guilt. She had vowed to protect her daughter and she had failed.

In the 13 years since, Hunter has struggled to make things right.

Whenever Jaime Brown came home from school, Jerry Dunning was there.

At times, he was a nice man who let her help him repair Jeeps in their garage or took the girl and her mother sailing off St. Petersburg on the boats he built for a living.

But Dunning had another side. Sitting at the kitchen table in her mother's home on a recent evening, Brown rolled the edges of a decorative cloth with her fingers as she spoke in a shaky voice about the other Jerry Dunning — the one whom only she knew.

It began one evening in 1996 as she was doing her fifth-grade anatomy homework at the kitchen table. Dunning peered over her shoulder and told her he could show her the body parts. He dropped his shorts and touched her over clothes, she later told police. She was 10.

Over time, things progressed. Sometimes he touched her in the shower, she said. A few times, he offered her money.

But the things he did were not always what bothered her most. Often it was the things he said.

One night, waiting for her mother to arrive home from work, Dunning came into her room.

When Mom gets home, pretend you're asleep, she remembers him telling her. Then come listen at our bedroom door and you'll hear what a real woman sounds like.

Brown was afraid to tell an adult. If she did, she thought she would have to somehow prove the things Dunning was doing. She tried to drop hints to her mother.

"I don't like him," she told her. But she never said why.

Hunter thought her daughter didn't like Dunning's attempts to discipline her.

Brown said her mother always sided with Dunning.

Brown told close friends about the abuse. They fantasized about ways they could catch Dunning in the act, concocting elaborate schemes to set up hidden cameras around the house.

Ultimately, Brown knew she had to tell someone. After two years, a friend persuaded her to go to a school counselor.

The counselor told police, who told Hunter. In an instant, Hunter's world collapsed. It was as if he died suddenly, she recalled.

Dunning was away on a trip. Before he came home, Hunter grabbed as many of her belongings as she could and fled with her daughter to her brother's house.

The next day, detectives set up a recorded phone call between Hunter and Dunning, during which he admitted to some of the allegations, police said.

Dunning cried, Hunter, 45, remembers. His voice shook. He made promises and said he would get counseling. He said he would meet Hunter at her office the next day to give her some money, she said. When he arrived, police were waiting.

Once Dunning was arrested, Hunter told her daughter what she had gone through as a girl. She thought it might bring them closer together. It didn't.

Finding out after the fact made things worse, Brown said.

Her mother should have seen it coming, Brown thought. She should have been able to identify Dunning as an abuser. But she didn't.

• • •

The youngest of seven children, Hunter grew up in a religious household. Her father made sure that his children conformed to his strict Christian views.

There were no concerts, dances or movies. No jewelry or makeup. The family went to church twice every Sunday and once every Wednesday.

"My father hid behind religion," Hunter says now.

He had been abusing her for years when she learned that he had done the same to her sisters when they were younger.

The abuse stopped when she was 12. Five years later, she learned that her 8-year-old niece was her father's latest victim. Hunter and her sisters told their mother and a pastor. Her father was arrested.

He pleaded guilty and served seven years in prison. His wife divorced him. When he was released, he moved to a new home and began attending a new church.

Soon, he was engaged to be married, the family learned. His bride had young grandchildren.

Hunter and her siblings met with their father and his pastor. They confronted the old man about what he had done.

Years of counseling taught Hunter that abusers never stop. She hasn't seen or spoken to her father since the early 1990s.

She later left her daughter's father when he became physically abusive. She had seen the bad signs in other men she dated. Yelling. Moodiness. Slamming doors.

"It doesn't end," Hunter said.

Dunning had an even temper. Little things didn't upset him. She had done a background check on him, as she did with everyone, and turned up a trespassing charge that he explained away. But after he was arrested, she looked at the report and saw that he had in fact been caught looking in people's windows.

Learning the truth of what he had done to her daughter was debilitating, she said. There were times that she couldn't rise from bed in the morning.

She and her daughter went to counseling. But Hunter knew the best therapy for Jaime would be to see her abuser brought to justice.

Facing Dunning in court was something Hunter looked forward to for months as she and her daughter testified in depositions. Before the trial, Hunter wrote a statement to read in court.

"Mr. Dunning, I am a survivor and I will survive the pain and suffering you put me through," she wrote. "My daughter's survival, on the other hand, is yet to be seen. You have stripped her of her innocence and childhood. They are lost forever."

She never got to read it.

On June 19, 1999, Dunning failed to appear for the first day of his trial. Neighbors saw him loading his belongings into a box truck the night before and driving away.

Dunning had told Hunter that he wouldn't be able to survive in prison. But that didn't lessen her outrage.

For Brown, it was a relief. Dunning's disappearance meant no more testimony, no more looking back at what he had done, and no more reliving the pain he had inflicted.

• • •

When Dunning first got out of jail, his mother, Camden, paid his $5,000 bail. When he fled, she paid the $25,000 forfeited bond.

Camden Dunning later moved to Maryville, Tenn. Hunter suspected Jerry Dunning was hiding there. Using techniques she learned as a private investigator, she embarked on a personal quest to track him.

Hunter made multiple trips to Tennessee in 2000 and 2001. She decorated Maryville with yellow "wanted" posters bearing his mug shot. She found a Maryville apartment registered to "C.J. Dunning." Neighbors identified Dunning from photos as the man who lived there, Hunter said.

He was going by Chester, his middle name, she was told, and had been working as a truck driver delivering seafood. Hunter contacted the local police and they watched the apartment, but Dunning never appeared.

She later sued Dunning, who was tried in civil court despite his absence. A jury returned a verdict in Hunter's favor, awarding her $750,000. But with Dunning still on the run, she saw little of the money.

It didn't matter, she said. The lawsuit wasn't about money. All she wanted was to see him captured.

Her efforts were not futile. Based in part on the information she assembled, federal authorities issued a warrant in 2004 charging Dunning with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.

Four years later, the FBI put his photo on the "most wanted" section of its website.

• • •

Kevin Dunning says he hasn't seen his half brother in more than 12 years, yet he still gets periodic visits at his Largo home from police and FBI agents. They often question his neighbors, too.

Dunning, 54, is tired of it.

He was never close with his brother, he said, and he doesn't know where he is.

Camden Dunning declined to comment other than to say that she also doesn't know her oldest son's whereabouts.

Kevin Dunning said the whole episode has tarnished the family's name. "I wish he would've just turned himself in," he said.

He at first thought his brother was innocent, but the fact that he ran away gives him doubts.

Still, he reserves most of his ire for Hunter, whom he accuses of concocting the allegations and harassing his family.

He imagines his brother is somewhere near water, perhaps in the Virgin Islands, where he once traveled. He imagines him working in a marina, maybe building boats.

"God has a funny way of prevailing," he said. "If he's guilty, he'll slip up. If he's guilty, he'll be in jail."

• • •

Hunter left St. Petersburg long ago and moved to Brooksville. She and her husband, Jon Hunter, share a home surrounded by woods and wildlife. It is a simpler place, she says.

Brown isn't far away. She is 25 now, working as a substitute teacher and studying to become a nurse.

And she is a mother. Her son is about to turn 3. She visits her mom regularly. Both describe their relationship as good. Things got better with time, they said. But there is still tension.

More than a decade after Dunning left their lives, another man has stepped between them.

Hunter never liked her daughter's boyfriend. She tried to accept him, especially after he fathered her grandson. But it didn't work.

Brown thinks she knows why.

The cops have been called. Once he was arrested for hitting Brown. It was "minor," Brown said. But he had done the same to a previous girlfriend.

"Things got better since he went to jail," Brown said. "I hope with time her mind will change about him."

He has sought counseling with a church minister, Brown said. He's trying to learn to control his anger. And he's trying to find work, but it's tough with the economy.

"I guess I do, to some extent, fall into that cliche of the 'cycle of abuse,' " Brown said. "I guess we fight more than most. He does have a temper."

They were separated for a time, during which he fathered a child with another woman. Now Brown has a son and a stepdaughter.

She tries to protect them. Watching her kids interact with other people puts her on edge.

"I get really uneasy," Brown said. "I get very wary very quickly. I haven't figured out how I'm going to cope with it when they get older and start going to friends' houses."

Even alone, Brown is still nervous when she is with men she doesn't know — a fear she attributes to the abuse she endured as a child. In high school she suffered flashbacks, ducking behind corners if she saw a man with curly hair and glasses like Dunning's or stopping in her tracks when something would remind her of the man who abused her.

But it passed, she said.

She and her boyfriend plan to get married when they get into a better place financially, she said. She knows he can be a good father. Their kids are their life.

• • •

Kym Brown Hunter thinks Dunning will be captured. She still combs public records and puts money into online searches in hopes of finding him. She still longs to face him in court.

Doing so would help take her back to where she was in life before her daughter's abuse started, she said. But she thinks Brown would be the one to benefit the most.

"When I faced my father and told him what he did and how it affected me, it was really a turning point in my life," Hunter said. "It was a huge relief. That's one thing that people have the hardest time with. They say don't put your child through that kind of testimony. But you've got to get past that. Otherwise, it's just going to eat you inside."

Jaime Brown isn't so sure. She knows Dunning still needs to be punished. She wants to see it. But will it help her?

"I don't really think it would magically fix my life," she said. "I don't really see it making much of a difference. I don't think there is much of anything that would make everything okay.

"You can't undo it."

Times news researchers Caryn Baird, Carolyn Edds and John Martin contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

Jerold Chester Dunning Jr.

Charges: lewd and lascivious behavior with a child, failure to appear

Date of birth: Dec. 7, 1959

Height: 5-7

Hair: Brown

Eyes: Brown

Occupation: Boat builder

Aliases: Jerry Dunning, J.R. Dunning, Chester Dunning, C.J. Dunning, Junior Dunning

Distinguishing characteristics: Dunning has ties to Florida, Tennessee, Michigan and Virginia. In the past, he has traveled to California, Arizona and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He is known to enjoy outdoor activities like four-wheeling, camping, fishing and skiing.

Anyone with information about Dunning's whereabouts can call the FBI toll-free at 1-866-838-1153. Callers can remain anonymous.

Ultimate betrayal: Sexual abuse survivor tracks man accused of preying on her daughter 04/20/12 [Last modified: Sunday, April 22, 2012 1:00am]
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