How this Louisiana woman lost custody of her daughter to a man she claims raped her at 16

·10-min read
Crysta Abelseth alleges that John Barnes attacked her when she was 16-years-old and he was 30, according to local news reports  (WBRZ/video screengrab)
Crysta Abelseth alleges that John Barnes attacked her when she was 16-years-old and he was 30, according to local news reports (WBRZ/video screengrab)

She says he raped her. He says he had no idea she was underage and no rape occurred. Sixteen years later, they’re fighting for custody of the daughter conceived in the encounter.

The case is playing out in Louisiana, where sexual relations with a person under 17 constitute statutory rape, regardless of consent. Tangipahoa Parish authorities are now investigating claims made by Crysta Abelseth, 32, that she was raped by John Barnes, 46, in December 2005 during a one-night liaison when she was 16 and he was 30.

Ms Abelseth, after receiving counselling, went to police with her retroactive allegations in 2015. In a statement last week – after she went public with the case and after a judge unsealed some court records – Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office admitted it had “dropped the ball” and only started really investigating in April, when Ms Abelseth followed up on the matter.

“Upon receiving notice, a team of investigators were assigned to and worked diligently to delve deep into the facts surrounding the case. Due to the complex nature of their findings, the case was turned over to the District Attorney’s Office,” the statement said.

But just months ago, before authorities launched an in-earnest investigation, Mr Barnes was awarded sole custody of his daughter with Ms Abelseth, who has also been ordered to pay child support to her alleged rapist.

Mr Barnes, who has not been charged with any crime, denies all guilt; he insisted in a recent Fox News interview that he is solely focused on what’s best for his daughter and keeping her “on the right track like any loving parent.”

As for the rape allegations, he said: “I had no idea she was 16, and I didn’t rape her. That is absolutely, unequivocally false.”

Mr Barnes has not returned multiple requests for comment from The Independent.

A court date has been set for 15 July.

So how did this flawed and complicated situation unfold? And what happens now?

The case stems from a night before Christmas in 2005, when Ms Abelseth was out at a bar with friends in Ponchatoula and ran into Mr Barnes, whom she’d never met before, she says.

He offered to drive her home but instead took her to his house, she says, where he “proceeded to rape me;” she maintains she did not give consent, though it doesn’t matter under Louisiana law – sex between an adult and a 16-year-old still constitutes rape.

“It was the next morning, whenever someone walked in - somehow I ended up in the bathroom, completely nude - and someone walked in and turned the light on and startled me,” she told The Independent. “And I don’t know how I got there or anything. And I just ran into the nearest bedroom to hide myself.”

Ms Abelseth, who wrote in the 2015 police report that she’d been “highly intoxicated” but told The Independent that she “remembered bits and pieces ... the first part” of what had happened.

Mr Barnes, for his part, alleged that Ms Abelseth had used a fake ID to get into the bar where they met and was “telling everyone she was a college student”.

When she became pregnant, she says, she did not name Mr Barnes as the father. Her ex-boyfriend is listed on the baby’s birth certificate.

As time went on, though, a few people close to her learned the truth. She’s still not sure how, but at some point Mr Barnes found out that he had fathered her child. He contacted her when the girl was five, she says.

“He wanted to meet up; he wanted me to talk,” she told The Independent. “He wanted to basically gauge me, I guess, and see where I was at. We hadn’t spoken since that night.”

Ms Abelseth felt “terrified” and “nervous,” she says.

“I didn’t know him, and I didn’t exactly know what his plan” was, she said.

Though they lived in a small community in Tangipahoa Parish – around an hour northwest of New Orleans - she “didn’t know any specific details” of his life.

“I had heard a couple of rumblings; I didn’t know [if] that were true or not.”

After a paternity test confirmed that Mr Barnes was the father in 2011, he and Ms Abelseth agreed to share custody, though she says the situation made her nervous.

“Honestly, it was just like a bull in a china shop,” Ms Abelseth says. “He just came in with a wrecking ball, and I had to send my poor daughter, who had never even known him or seen him before, alone with” Mr Barnes.

She eventually began seeing a trauma counsellor, she says, and detailed the circumstances surrounding her daughter’s conception. The counsellor told her that, despite the intervening years, she could still file charges - so in 2015 she went to police.

Nothing ever came of it, as explained by Thursday’s statement from the sheriff’s office.

In the meantime, following the initial custody agreement, various parenting disputes ensued between the child’s biological mother and father, with allegations on both sides. They fought about issues ranging from the child’s phone access and therapy to parental overnight guests in the presence of the teenager.

Mr Barnes, a veteran, runs a successful business named Gumbeaux Digital Branding, which has listed Ponchatoula police as a client. He has been involved in a custody dispute with another woman, as well, and sought to bar his daughter with Ms Abelseth from being contacted by the man she was initially raised to believe was father and called “daddy”.

Ms Abelseth, who has a masters degree, ended her relationship with that man, remarried twice and has a 17-month-old at home.

Throughout their increasingly contentious custody battles, Ms Abelseth’s 2015 assault report filed with Tangipahoa authorities was sitting uninvestigated. No mention was ever made in court of her rape allegations against Mr Barnes until this year.

In February, Ms Abelseth filed for a temporary restraining order against Mr Barnes for herself and her daughter. For the first time in court proceedings, she detailed allegations that he had raped her when she was 16.

Mr Barnes countered that Ms Abelseth was instigating investigations into false allegations to obstruct his custody efforts.

The court decided in his favour; in his reasons for judgement, Judge Cashe noted that Ms Abelseth didn’t make her allegations until Mr Barnes accused her of “promoting inappropriate behaviour” in regards to the daughter’s cellphone use.

“Moreover, there was direct evidence previously submitted in the case supporting the need for immediate protection of the child considering the failure to comply with the Court’s order to allow the father to review the child’s cellphone contents. ... Therefore, due to the allegations set forth in his Petition for Ex Parte custody, the court found sufficient evidence to show that a minor child would suffer certain harm, unless the Court issues an ex parte temporary custody order.”

Ms Abelseth told The Independent she “didn’t get a chance to defend myself or anything” – and was wholly unaware of the order until her daughter called her while in the custody of Mr Barnes.

“We were having our phone call, like we normally do ... and she’s like, ‘What is this? Why is he telling me I can’t go back to your house?’

“I didn’t know about it,” she said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know – and then they’re on speaker phone, and he’s like, ‘Well, the judge signed an order; I’m going to send it to you.”

She says she “tried to remain calm and just took some deep breaths, and I called my attorney.

“And she’s like, ‘What? I didn’t receive that or anything.’ So I sent it to her. She couldn’t believe it, either.”

As per the order, Ms Abelseth is currently only allowed supervised visits.

“I’m not doing well,” says the mother, who recently remarried and has a 17-month-old at home. “Mentally, emotionally and financially, just exhausted all the time to the point where it’s affecting my qualify of life – work life, home life, the rest of my family, just a strain on everything.”

She says she is “terrified” for the safety of her daughter.

“I don’t know what this man is capable of,” she said. “He’s only proven ... hardships and the other things that have happened to me. How can I trust someone like that?”

She said she feels hugely let down by the justice system – which she previously “had no reason” not to trust – after its failure to investigate her rape allegations for years and, now, decision to grant sole custody to her alleged rapist.

Authorities, she said, “had given me no problems or ill will, but I haven’t experience this before. This is the only time I’ve ever had to deal with, basically, law enforcement at all – and it’s not a great first experience.”

Ms Abelseth continued: “Every time I have to let her go and go back home without her, it’s very hard.

“I do get emotional, just like anyone else would, and I feel like I am a strong person, though – and I am fighting it, and I will continue to fight for her until my last breath.”

Stacie Triche, who runs nonprofit Save Liv35 Foundation, has become a vocal advocate for Ms Abelseth in Louisiana.

“We really need to get the word out there about what’s happening, because this child has no business being in the custody of this father,” she told The Independent. “And that statement is made because that’s what Louisiana law states.

“Louisiana law is very, very clear that all of his rights shall be terminated due to carnal knowledge of a juvenile.”

She added: “The law says that a 16-year-old is not able to consent; of course the right should have been terminated. Immediately. She should not have been forced to be drawn through this lie for 10 years.”

Ms Triche told The Independent that, through her foundation, she’d previously had “great dealings” local authorities and could not fathom the way this particular case has played out.

“It completely baffles me,” she said. “I mean, there’s nothing arduous about this case at all. It’s black and white. It’s in your face.”

She said: “I’m absolutely convinced that political corruption is involved, because ... it makes no sense that this man was not arrested immediately.”

Mr Barnes has hit back at any implication of corruption or using connections, telling Fox News: "All I have been trying to do is protect my daughter.

"There is no way in hell I have influenced seven very high-level organizations that are geared toward protecting children’s rights and safety into sweeping her claims of rape ... under the rug."

It was unclear on Monday where, exactly, the teenage girl at the centre of the case currently was; Louisiana’s Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) said it could not comment on individual cases.

In the meantime, as Ms Abelseth legally pursues the matters of her own alleged rape and her daughter’s custody arrangement, she said she is treasuring the grabbed moments she’s allowed with her daughter.

The talk about “what she wants to do in her life, where she wants to go to college ... whatever comes to mind,” Ms Abelseth told The Independent. “We just talk, talk, talk to try to catch up in the ... little bit of time that we have.”

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