Haunted by one night 30 years ago, Hernando woman sees Cosby verdict as a turning point

Published April 28 2018
Updated April 28 2018

SPRING HILL — He had to call her name three times.

"Jen!" Bill Thompson, 77, shouted from the living room. He had been flipping between NFL draft coverage and the Bill Cosby trial on cable Thursday when he saw the jurors back in the courtroom.

His daughter, Jennifer "Kaya" Thompson, 47, was in her bedroom, watching a documentary. The sound was turned up. She couldn’t hear him.

"Jen, Jen!" he tried again.

Finally, she came out. "Guilty!" he shouted at her.

They exchanged hugs, and then came the happy crying.

She started making phone calls, first to her older brother, then to some of the other women. Then she told her mom.

• • •

The verdict was a turning point, Jennifer Thompson said Friday while sitting on her living room couch.

Thompson is one of more than 50 women who have come forward to accuse famed entertainer Bill Cosby of sexual misconduct. Pennsylvania prosecutors only filed charges on behalf of one, though, a woman named Andrea Constand.

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The jury convicted Cosby, 80, of drugging Constand at his Pennsylvania home 14 years ago and sexually assaulting her. He was found guilty of three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault against Andrea Constand. Each count is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Cosby has not yet been sentenced and plans to appeal.

"It restores a lot of faith," she said. She had always questioned whether there is a higher power. "But now, I believe there definitely is."

It wasn’t always clear a verdict would come. The criminal trial that ended Thursday was a retrial after one last summer ended in a hung jury. And even though it wasn’t Thompson’s case that was on trial in a Montgomery County, Pa., courtroom, Constand stood in as a proxy.

"Yesterday was huge," Thompson said. "It’s super affirming. I don’t want to wallow in victimhood. But it is. I’m super grateful."

Like dozens of other women who have come forward, she, too, tells a story of the entertainer exerting his fame and influence to pressure her into a non-consensual situation.

• • •

Thompson met Cosby on a fluke in 1988 when she was 17. She had been modeling in Washington, D.C., for two years, and everyone told her she needed to be in New York. She had graduated high school a year early, but her parents wouldn’t have it. So one day, without her parents’ permission, she took the Metro from their hometown of Gaithersburg, Md., traveled to Union Station and bought a round-trip Amtrak ticket to New York.

She visited her first modeling agency and within the hour was sent to Queens, where The Cosby Show was taped.

She was star struck. She grew up watching Cosby on television play Cliff Huxtable, America’s Dad, and her father had Cosby’s comedy albums. When Cosby talked to her during that first meeting, she said, he sounded to her like the squawking adults in Charlie Brown; she was in such awe she couldn’t hear individual words. He immediately took a liking to her. Within weeks, Dr. Huxtable persuaded Thompson’s parents to let her move to New York to pursue a career in modeling and acting.

No need to worry, he told them. He’d take care of everything.

• • •

Thompson became one of Cosby’s favorites, accompanying him to events all over New York City.

She enjoyed it, until Cosby told her he had a movie role for her that he wanted to discuss over dinner. There was a catch, she said: Afterward, she’d have to spend the night.

She knew what that would likely mean. She put it off, but found herself at his place one day anyway. She wouldn’t say what happened, only that he pressured her to do something sexual she didn’t want to do.

What happened next was 30 years of post-traumatic stress disorder, Thompson said. She graduated from the University of North Carolina with an international studies degree, but the Cosby encounter weighed on her. She abandoned her modeling and acting career and became withdrawn, spending more time alone and indoors.

She followed her parents to Florida in 1997, working first as an educator in a domestic violence shelter and then for the St. Petersburg Times as a freelance sports writer and office manager. For 10 years, she hardly watched television, resentful of the power and deference viewers give their favorite stars.

Her relationships faltered. She married in 1998 but divorced three years later. She was on medication and experimented with other substances. She saw several therapists, some of whom didn’t believe her when she said she had been abused by such a famous man.

"Because everyone was so in love with him, including my family and my town, there was no recourse," she said. "The reason it was so hard for so long is because he’s a celebrity, a public figure. And now he’s publicly been, by a jury, called out in our legal system as guilty."

• • •

Moving forward was a constant challenge for Thompson. In the tough moments, the rock in her life was her mother, Judith Thompson.

"She was the kind of person who would look into your eyes and say, ‘You’ll do it.’ And you would do it," Jennifer Thompson said. "That, from her, was priceless."

The two were close from the beginning. Judith Thompson had a successful career as a health care administrator, but still managed to get her daughter to 5 a.m. swim practice.

A white woman who married a black man in the 1960s, Judith Thompson had a tough skin and a piercing humor. Once someone asked how much she was paying her lawn man, pointing at her husband, Bill Thompson.

"I’m sleeping with him," she quipped.

After the Cosby incident, her mother created a refuge where Jennifer Thompson could share and heal. She died from cancer in 2016 at age 73.

Jennifer Thompson wishes her mother could have been there to share the moment right after the verdict. She knows her mom would be overjoyed. She believes her mom is still listening, so she took to Facebook with a post:

Mom, did you hear?

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.