HUDSON — It's been three years since her trial was splashed on TV with headlines like "Mummified mother found under rock garden" and pundits jabbering about whether she was guilty or not. Three years since she had to sit on the stand and tell the world things she'd never told anyone, about the abuse from her father, the torture, the rape at gunpoint.
Even though Stacey Kananen was found not guilty in the slaughter of her family, she has had to continually explain her innocence as she sought to rebuild her life. She's only recently landed a job. It's at a convenience store and she's so thankful. The 46-year-old went on interview after interview, never getting anything, her bills mounting. It was frustrating, but Stacey understands.
Times are tough and when you have dozens of applicants, why would you go with the woman who has been charged twice with murder?
• • •
The children described Richard Kananen Sr. as a monster.
Stacey said he shut her and her brother, Richard Jr., known as Rick, and sister, Cheryl, in a house and set it on fire. Rick, the oldest, saved the girls.
She remembers her dad trying to drown their mother, Marilyn, and carving into her forehead with a knife, giving her a sideways "U" shaped scar. He beat all of them, all the time. And then at night he preyed on them sexually — his son, too. There was no escape. The house was silent because talking could get you beaten. Crying while being beaten could get you hit harder. For years, he kept the family isolated and on the move, California, Maine, Minnesota, Arkansas, moving in the middle of the night. Stacey said he didn't work, but her mom worked as a secretary. They got to Orlando in 1978 and stayed. Stacey thinks it was because it was a big enough town where no one would notice his horror.
And then he disappeared.
• • •
In 1988, her mother said her dad was gone.
Stacey, then 21, didn't question it.
"I hope he stays gone," she thought.
She and her family were so relieved he disappeared that no one reported him missing.
They tried to figure out what a normal life was. They didn't know how to have a holiday that didn't end in blood. But, Stacey said, they trudged onward. Stacey and her life partner, Susan Cowan, bought a house in Orlando. Stacey worked at Walt Disney World in food services and loved it. She doesn't know how she became a functioning adult after the years of abuse. She was determined it wasn't going to rule her life. So she shut all of the pain in a teeny box inside her head and blacked it out. She worked as many hours as she could get so she would be too exhausted to think.
She and Susan found a home a few blocks from her mother's house and, in March 2003, moved in. Rick, her brother, was down on his luck and needed a place to stay, so he moved into their extra bedroom. Cheryl, the sister, lived close by too.
Things seemed good.
Then, in September, her mother disappeared.
In November, detectives zeroed in on Rick as a suspect. Cheryl's 12-year-old son told authorities his uncle boasted to him that he murdered his father and hated his mother for not protecting him from the abuse, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
In December, Stacey and Rick were brought to the police station to be questioned. Stacey felt like she was being treated as a suspect. They were allowed to leave and, in the car, Rick made a confession to her.
"They are going to find our father under mom's garage and our mother in your back yard," Stacey recalled her brother saying.
Stacey said she shut down, the way she used to do when her father abused her, robotic, following orders. Her brother had a plan, she said. They both needed to commit suicide because Stacey would be blamed with the murder too, since their mother's body was in her back yard. He said for Stacey to save Susan, she needed to write a note saying Susan had nothing to do with it. They drove to a storage shed, where they planned to kill themselves with exhaust fumes. Stacey wrote the note. She told the Times she remembers little of that day. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the note said:
"Rick and I knew it was over for us. We had a part in Mother's Leaving."
Stacey said the note wasn't admitting guilt in the murder. She said she wrote that because if she hadn't allowed her brother to live with her, in a house so close to their mother's, this wouldn't have happened.
The prosecution didn't see it that way.
• • •
An officer trailing the siblings saved them and got them to a hospital.
Rick confessed to killing both parents and was arrested. The bodies were exhumed. Richard Sr. had been shot, stuffed in a freezer and buried underneath the family's garage floor. Marilyn, whom authorities said knew of her husband's murder and collected $100,000 of his Social Security disability benefits after his death, had been shocked with a Taser, suffocated, stuffed in a freezer and buried under Stacey's rock garden. Rick said the murders happened on the same day, Sept. 10, but 15 years apart.
Rick was originally found mentally incompetent to stand trial, but later found fit. Stacey was preparing to testify against him. Then, in 2007, he pleaded no contest to the deaths of his parents and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. After his sentencing, he talked with authorities.
He said his sister was the real killer.
• • •
He said Stacey shot their father in his bed.
As for their mother's death, he said the motive was money and fear. Rick told authorities their mother had inherited $250,000 from her own father, which the children wanted for themselves, and that she had threatened to rat them out in the murder of their father. He said they took their mother out for dinner and a movie, then killed her.
• • •
Since the discovery of her parents' corpses, Stacey and Susan left Orlando and had been living at Gulf Coast Resort, a nudist colony in Hudson. Stacey said they knew the owner and got jobs there.
Charged with her parents' deaths, Stacey was arrested May 9, 2007, and booked into the Pasco jail. She was later transferred to a jail in Orlando. Stacey spent more than a month behind bars before being released on bail. It was her first arrest. She said it was terrifying. And she was broken hearted and confused by her brother's accusations.
Her trial, televised on the cable channel In Session, was in March 2010. Prosecutors dropped the charge for her father's death, so the case was about her mother's murder. The trial lasted two weeks. If convicted, she faced life in prison.
The prosecution's case hinged on the brother's testimony and the suicide note indicating Stacey had a role in her mother's death. Rick testified that they planned the attack for weeks and drained their mother's bank account of $100,000, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Stacey testified she knew nothing about the murder and thought her brother only accessed their mother's account to pay bills.
The jury deliberated for three and a half hours before reaching a verdict of not guilty.
• • •
"I'm not okay," Stacey realized.
Testifying at her trial about the abuse she suffered made it all come back for her. She couldn't shove it into a dark compartment inside her head anymore. It was tempting to let the sadness consume her. But she said she wanted to keep fighting in honor of her mother, who survived so much horror with her father.
She found a therapist. She never had one before.
It's changed her life. She feels hope and wants to use her stories to help other survivors.
"You can have something good in your life," she said. "But you have to want it and you have to really, really work for it."
She and Susan live a quiet life in Hudson with their cat. As much progress as she's made, Stacey still berates herself. She feels guilty she never said anything about her father's abuse as she was growing up. She feels guilty she never noticed anything amiss with Rick. She feels guilty she let him in her home.
She misses her mom.
She doesn't know why Rick killed their mother. He gave many reasons throughout the years: money, fear, revenge.
"I think about him a lot. I think about why and what happened," she said. "I really don't know. I wish I could sit down and have a conversation with him."
Rick, now 56, is incarcerated at the state prison in Zephyrhills. But she said she isn't ready emotionally to sit down with him.
"Strangely enough, I don't have as much anger as most people think I should," she said.
Rick's accusations caused her to lose her career, her house. She became a scandalous headline. She still gets looks of suspicion. The future she and Susan planned was gone.
But she said she just feels sadness when she thinks of him.
"He lost reality somewhere," she said.
She hopes one day to be able to talk with him again. But it won't be soon.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.