Collateral damage

Chicoan Kari Keith talks about her marriage to an admitted kidnapper and rapist, and her resolve to not let his crimes define her family

For Kari Keith, life will never be the same after her husband, Lonnie Keith, was arrested and charged with rape and kidnapping.

For Kari Keith, life will never be the same after her husband, Lonnie Keith, was arrested and charged with rape and kidnapping.

Photo by Melanie MacTavish

About the author:

Debra Lucero is a former journalist and editor who wrote for newspapers throughout California for eight years. She was also a public information specialist for the National Council of La Raza in Washington, D.C. Today, she consults several nonprofits in Northern California and resides in Chico.

It was almost two years ago that Kari Keith woke up to find her husband of 15 years missing. She was mad. She had had it. She was finally going to drive to his suspected lover’s home and confront them together.

“I woke up around 7 a.m. My youngest son was up. I wanted to exercise, but the thought of catching him in the act was stronger,” she said. She re-read the late-night text message he’d sent, which made her even angrier. She went to the garage and prepared the car to leave; she’d have to take her son.

Only she never made it out of the driveway.

“I opened the hatch and noticed a cop right outside. He pulls into the driveway and said, ‘I need you to stay here for a moment. Is your husband Lonnie Keith? I’ve been instructed to wait here with you.’”

Thoughts crashed through Kari’s mind. “I knew he was either dead or something like this had happened.”

Her mother’s words, spoken a year and a half prior, came back instantly. After disclosing to her mother that she had found syringes, zip ties and nylons—items Kari associated with his job as a physician assistant and possibly a kinky sex relationship with another woman—her mother asked, “Do you think he could be raping women?”

Kari had scoffed at the idea—chalked it up to her mother’s frequent viewing of Law & Order and other cop shows. She believed her husband was having an affair, though he consistently denied the accusation.

Lonnie Scott Keith, 41, was arrested that early morning of Jan. 26, 2013. He was charged in a series of kidnappings and rapes of young, petite coeds that took place in the spring and fall of 2012 in downtown Chico.

“The police told me they had conducted a surveillance operation to catch a suspected serial rapist and the items they found in Lonnie’s car matched the victims’ descriptions of what happened to them,” Kari said. Those items included syringes, vials of drugs, gloves, handcuffs, leg restraints, nylons and adhesive tape cut into strips.

When this reporter asked if she had heard of the series of rapes in Chico, Kari said, “No, I never heard anything about this. I was raising four kids and went to sleep before the news.”

After the police produced a search warrant, Kari started walking around the house, packing and crying. She called the house where her girls were at a sleepover that Saturday morning and asked if they could stay a little longer. She remembers trying to explain what was happening to her teenage son. “Dad’s been accused of some things with some girls. It’s really looking like he may have done this,” she told him, thinking about the evidence the police had collected and what she had found herself.

Sixteen hours passed before Lonnie called. “I was so angry,” she said, “… and he was like, ‘I’ll be at work on Monday.’ He did not defend himself. Later he would say, ‘Kari, I’ll have my day in court. It’s a big misunderstanding. My attorney has instructed me not to say anything.’”

In the back of her mind, however, images continued to flash. There was the time she saw several pairs of nylons charged on one of their credit cards. “He tried to convince me they were for me,” she recalled.

The day after Lonnie Keith’s arrest, Kari realized her children would be going to school amid a firestorm of media coverage about her husband’s arrest. “I went to the kids’ schools Monday morning and talked to the principal and [the children’s teachers]. ‘Please watch my children,’” Kari said. “It hit the fan that night. There were Facebook messages, television coverage, thousands of text messages.”

Friends began to bring meals and cared for her and the children. Gift cards piled up. Bags of food appeared. “I didn’t go out for three weeks. I lost 15 pounds. I couldn’t go out. I was so ashamed. I’m still so ashamed,” she said during an interview with the CN&R in March.

By many accounts, the Keiths were just a normal Chico family. The children’s faces have been blurred to protect their identities.

Photo courtesy of Kari Keith

Everything about the Keiths’ suburban home in Chico screams normal. There are scrapbooks and family photographs on every shelf, scented candles, fashionable pillows and comfy well-worn furniture. A quaint wall hanging reads, “Keith Family Motto—est. 1998” and “Family Peace.”

Only tranquility is hard for Kari to find these days. She’s lost a husband and her “best friend,” as well as an income (Lonnie was the sole provider). Her four children, ages 4 to 16, have lost a father. And the family may lose their home.

She’s gone back to being a hairstylist after 12 1/2 years of being a stay-at-home mom. When her mind isn’t overwhelmed with the bills that are piling up or the fact she’s trying to raise her children on a limited income, she thinks about the crimes her ex-husband committed and the victims of those crimes. She also thinks about the fact their family will never be the same.

“In some ways, we were on top of the world,” Kari said. “We had fun family vacations … Now, it’s food stamps and Medi-Cal. My girls cry, I have random outbursts of tears and my oldest son is really struggling.

“I’m hurting. I’m in pain. Some days, I want to roll into a ball and die. I probably would have if I had not been the mother to four amazing kids. But yet I am sitting here, exhausted, telling my story of a man I married and thought I knew better than anyone. I guess I was wrong.”

Kari met 18-year-old Lonnie when she was 15 years old in Salinas, where Lonnie grew up. She was from nearby Prunedale. “He was a pimple-faced pizza delivery boy who drove a nice car,” she said.

It took Lonnie a while to call her after that initial encounter, which occurred while cruising on South Main in Salinas. She recognized Lonnie’s car and knew one of her friends had dated him. “Ask Lonnie to take me on a cruise,” she told her friend. The half-hour cruise and a subsequent five-hour phone call cemented the relationship within a week.

“It’s been nonstop for 15 to 20 years. Sometimes he would pick me up from school. We’d go cruising on the weekends. I never had the high school experience because I was always with him. Sometimes we’d go on pizza deliveries together.”

Even then, the relationship was so up and down that she had his name tattooed on her body twice, then removed the body art both times.

On the surface, Lonnie seemed like the steady one. However, looking back, Kari suspected he had a sexual addiction issue. “I told him [in a recent phone call] that he should have taken care of this issue years ago. It was one of the reasons I left him in 1997,” after having walked in on him viewing pornography several times, she said.

But she became pregnant during the break-up by another man and went back to him to see if they could raise the child together. “He was the safe one—a man I could trust,” she said, her voice trailing off. They married seven years after meeting, and moved from Salinas to Sacramento to Chico to Davis and back to Chico—sometimes together and sometimes not. Three more children followed.

Their youngest was just a baby when Kari intercepted a text message in October 2011 that suggested Lonnie was having an affair. Lonnie consistently denied this, saying it was only texting and not physical. He suggested they go to counseling.

“I lost it. I began harassing him and the other woman. I’m not proud of how I reacted,” said Kari, who found the woman’s phone number and name from the text messages. She also spent hours poring over phone bills looking for evidence of his interactions with her.

“Lonnie, I feel, was, in ways, a drug I had to have and couldn’t be without nor allow anyone else to have him either,” she said. “But I had come to a point where I was ready to let go. Even though I was fighting for my marriage, I knew in my gut that something was terribly wrong. I needed to know what it was. I wanted her or him to just tell me what was happening.”

Lonnie would invoke his usual “‘It’s not what you think, Kari.’ He always justified everything and had a comeback—a story as to why something occurred … and I believed him.”

He moved out in January through May 2012 as the couple worked through the “affair,” although Lonnie still completely denied it. In reality, they lived apart only a couple of weeks during that time. “We were seeing the therapist,” Kari said. “We were working on our marriage and trying to keep it together. Toward the end [before his arrest], we went on dates—just the two of us—and things were better.”

Kari was 15 when she met 18-year-old Lonnie Keith.

Photo courtesy of Kari Keith

Lonnie had had a strange upbringing, Kari said. His mother and father both suffered broken backs in separate unrelated injuries. By the time Lonnie was 7 years old and his older brother was 9, neither parent was able to work. They had a hospital bed in the living room and usually ate off of TV trays. The family eventually lost their home and ended up living in a small apartment in Capitola, she said.

Lonnie had always been a hard worker, securing a paper route as a kid. “He never wanted to let his parents down,” Kari said. His brother was also driven, and went on to open a successful retail shop.

As kids, emotionally and physically, Lonnie and his brother were on their own. Their father, who had served in Vietnam, had flashbacks.

On one of the few visits to Lonnie’s parents’ home, there was a blow-out argument. “Lonnie’s mother began to yell at Lonnie, belittling him,” Kari said, “and I went to his defense and then she turned on me. I looked at Lonnie and asked him, ‘Aren’t you going stop her?’ and he was blankly staring at the TV. I realized then that he couldn’t stand up to her.”

Sitting on the same U-shaped couch where two detectives and an FBI agent interviewed Kari the morning her husband was arrested, she said she now understands that Lonnie was a habitual liar. The FBI profiler used terms like “sociopath” to describe Lonnie, but she still wasn’t convinced.

Hours before Lonnie was arrested, at 11:23 p.m. on Jan. 25, he texted a nice goodnight message as was his custom since he often got home very late from work. “This place [Oroville Hospital] is going crazy,” he messaged. “How was your party? I hope your night is going well and that you had fun. Just you and the boys for the night, huh … I love you and sleep good.” He signed with a smiley face that was blowing a kiss and a red rose.

That same night, Lonnie had been pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer for speeding from Oroville Hospital after his shift. “The CHP let him go; he talked his way out. He was obviously driven to do this [kidnap and assault women] that night.” The cops learned of the earlier stop because a video camera, later confiscated from Lonnie’s car, had been set to “record” during the encounter.

Three hours after that text message, Chico police detectives stopped Lonnie for running a stop sign at West Fourth and Orange streets. The car had its rear-passenger windows partially covered with blankets and bedding—items he told police were for an upcoming ski trip. Lonnie consented to a search, where police found two syringes loaded with a clear substance, latex gloves, several nylons, and adhesive tape cut into strips.

A search warrant issued for his car revealed a flashlight with a stun gun, metal handcuffs, metal leg restraints, zip ties, multiple syringes, multiple vials of prescription drugs and latex gloves in a compartment under the front passenger seat.

Following his arrest, Kari frequently told her kids, “Dad’s been accused of some really horrible things; it’s not for us to decide if he’s done this but up to the jury.”

However, she was beginning to understand the truth of what was unfolding. She remembered the unlikely items she stumbled upon in odd places on three separate occasions—like a syringe loaded with a strange substance in a brown paper bag. “Are you using drugs? Are you depressed?” she’d asked. He explained the syringe away as being left over from the night before at work. Or the nylons and zip ties. She assumed these were related to kinky sex with his “mistress.” Lonnie had still not fessed up to a sexual affair with the woman he texted.

One day in August 2012, Kari woke up in the middle of the night. Lonnie wasn’t home. To monitor his whereabouts, she had secretly installed a tracking app on his phone, a way to find proof of a sexual affair with the other woman.

“I turned on the iPhone tracker and I see he’s in Chico,” she recalled. “I zoomed in and saw a dot moving on Warner and then I see the downtown plaza.” Kari said her first thought was that his mistress had moved to Chico. She called Lonnie and asked him where he was and he said he was working. She challenged him, saying, “I’m tracking you right now and it says you’re in Chico.”

He denied that he was in Chico and gave Kari an Oroville number to call and ask for him. It was the Oroville Hospital Emergency Room. “They told me he wasn’t there. I see the dot moving—on the Midway and then it’s gone. Offline. Thirty-five or 40 minutes later he called from Oroville Hospital. I may have literally saved some poor girl from being raped that night.”

Since Lonnie was a well-respected physician assistant, it seemed plausible that he could have been self-medicating with drugs to which he had access. After all, he had been working two jobs for several years and was putting in long hours to pay down his student loans from UC Davis and other debts. He had earned a graduate-level certificate as a physician assistant in 2006 and had scored one of the highest point levels in the class, she said.

But Kari knew that her husband was lying—either that or she was going crazy. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes darted about as she recalled the continuing, nagging thoughts about what her husband was telling her.

Judy Smith (seated), the woman the TV show <i>Scandal </i>is based upon, visits the Keith home to help film a segment for <i>Dr. Phil</i>, which has yet to air.

Photo courtesy of Kari Keith

“He knew I would ‘spin’ on things,” she said. “It was almost like he purposely let me believe it was an affair.’”

He fabricated a Christmas card (unopened) and a letter from the other woman. “He hid it in our closet. He knew I would look for evidence. And now … I think the affair was simply a decoy.”

Lonnie never did confess to the affair but during the police investigation, Kari was told the “other woman” admitted it had indeed been a sexual relationship.

Visiting an incarcerated individual was a new, cold reality for the Keith family. Lonnie, the dad who threw around the football at home, gave the kids airplane rides to bed and prayed with the children each night, was being held on $3.2 million bail at the Butte County Jail. In there, Kari said, the inmates called him “Doc” and “Preacher.”

“We went pretty religiously [to visit him] up through October 2013,” she said, adding there were nightly phone calls that allowed Lonnie to pray with the kids. These calls became less frequent as the children became uncomfortable and unwilling to speak to him.

“I never make them talk to him, but the truth is they miss their dad—the guy who barbecued, coached their sports teams, and wrestled and played with them in the pool. They miss him terribly.”

Kari realized, in the days following his arrest, that she and her family needed help. She called Butte County to find out what resources might be available to them as “victims” of her husband’s actions. The harsh reality was the system does not consider perpetrators’ families as victims and thus no resources—counseling or financial—are available.

“It’s an interesting dilemma, isn’t it?” said Stacey Edwards, Butte County deputy district attorney and prosecutor on the case, during an interview in March. “There are services for victims of crimes but in many, many cases, there are collateral victims or damage. Certainly, her life as she’s known it is completely changed. The children have lost a father and [Lonnie’s presence] is gone. I don’t know of any services. We deal with actual victims of the crimes committed.”

Kari said that while friends and family have been wonderfully supportive, some of the things she needs are simply not there. The kids’ college funds (as small as they were—$100 per month per child was what Lonnie had been putting away) is long gone. Her eldest son is having difficulty in school and there is the need for counseling they can’t afford.

Despite the hardship, Kari said, “It doesn’t mean the end to the Keith family. This crisis doesn’t have to define us.”

Resourceful and determined, she heard the nationally syndicated Dr. Phil Show provided counseling services to guests. She emailed the show and the producers were interested. Judy Smith, the woman who inspired the TV show Scandal, flew out from Washington, D.C., to counsel Kari as part of Dr. Phil’s vetting process. They filmed a segment in February in both Chico and Los Angeles with the promise that it wouldn’t air until after Lonnie’s trial. An air date has yet to be scheduled.

“I went on the show because I felt like I was to blame. Maybe he did these rapes because of me not wanting to be intimate with him [after giving birth to our youngest child],” Kari said.

Dr. Phil assured her that Lonnie’s actions were not her responsibility. She admits she still feels some degree of guilt for the affair that Lonnie was having. “I had baby on the brain; our youngest even slept with us, but Dr. Phil said rape is about control, not usually about sex.”

Kari has received 10 therapy sessions, paid for by the show, with the marriage and family therapist she and Lonnie were seeing prior to his arrest. It’s still hard for her to understand Lonnie’s actions.

These days, her new focus is on starting a nonprofit to assist the unlikely victims—perpetrators’ families—in crimes like these. Kari is sympathetic about the fact Lonnie’s victims will have to live with the memories of being kidnapped and/or raped; nothing takes those nightmares away. “I can’t imagine the pain of the victims,” she said.

The case against Lonnie will not go to trial. On Aug. 28, he took a plea deal, agreeing to one felony count of forceful rape and three felony counts of kidnapping. He was scheduled for sentencing Sept. 17, a few hours after CN&R’s deadline. He was expected to get 26 years in state prison (see sidebar, page 22).

Although Kari’s divorce from Lonnie became final earlier this year, it’s difficult for the children to divorce their dad no matter what he did, she said.

“Lonnie won’t see our youngest start kindergarten or his daughters walk down the aisle or the graduation of his kids,” she said. “I’m sorry for my children. It’s hard enough being a child and especially a teenager and now they won’t have their dad. It’s just one more thing they have to go through.”