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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Still a struggle after two decades for childhood victim of sexual assault

Teri Henderson had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel.

“Should we tell her?” ...

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Teri Henderson had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel.

“Should we tell her?”

She’d been waiting for this. She knew what was coming. On some level – call it mother’s intuition – she knew her girls were being hurt.

“No.”

She was terrified.

She was relieved.

An hour later, she punched Robert Manship in the face. Nearly two decades later, she watched as he was walked carefully out of a Nashua courtroom on his way to prison.

The abuse started for Kelsey Manship, now 24, when she was 2. The Manships were living at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in Burlington County, N.J. She doesn’t remember much from that long ago, but she told her mom that her father, Robert Manship, had hurt her.

That was Henderson’s first clue. She took Kelsey to the hospital, but doctors weren’t able to determine for sure that Kelsey had been molested, and no one ever spoke to Robert Manship.

That was in 1991. Robert Manship and Henderson had been married for 14 years.

The abuse continued. Kelsey said it was frequent, multiple times a week. Robert Manship would find little ways to separate Kelsey and her sister, sending one to another room, saying she was in trouble in some way.

The abuse wasn’t all physical; it was psychological, too.

He was “obsessed” with Freddy Krueger, the villain in the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movie franchise. Kelsey remembered one night when her mother and sister went to rent a video. Robert Manship chased her upstairs, where she hid in a bathroom. He spent the time pacing back and forth, scratching his nails across the door over and over again until Henderson returned home.

He also scared them. He said they would be separated if they told anyone, their mother would leave them and they would be sent to foster homes.

“Obviously the physical abuse was really bad, but honestly, the mental abuse was probably the worst of it,” Kelsey said. “That’s what affected me more.”

Child predators are “so good at manipulating and hiding things. So good,” Henderson said. “He scared the girls so badly that they would lose me and lose each other, that they wouldn’t tell.”

Finally, the girls talked. They knew, of course, each was being abused, but it was something they didn’t talk about. One day, Kelsey’s older sister saw Robert Manship expose himself to Kelsey. For whatever reason, that was the last straw.

This was in 1995, and the family was in the process of moving to Litchfield, closer to Henderson’s childhood home in Maine. The girls continued talking to each other, but were still scared. They were in the car with their mother on the way to their home in Hudson, where they were staying until their new home in Litchfield was built. Kelsey turned to look at her sister.

“Should we tell her?” she asked.

Her sister didn’t want to, but by then Henderson knew what was coming and demanded answers.

Henderson confronted Robert Manship when she got home. He admitted to the abuse. She punched him in the face and then called Hudson police.

But Robert Manship wasn’t arrested.

Detectives talked to the girls briefly, Kelsey said. But they were stymied, since none of the abuse happened in Hudson. Henderson said Air Force authorities didn’t want to touch the case because Robert Manship had retired.

Then the case took a twist. Robert Manship moved to the Philippines, where, as best Kelsey and Henderson can tell, he spent years running a convenience store and not paying child support.

Kelsey and her sister went to police again about four years ago, mostly because of the thousands of dollars in child support he owed their mother, but nothing came of it.

But then in February 2012, a prosecutor in the Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office found the case file in some old boxes after a colleague left the office He decided something needed to be done.

“As soon as I got the file, I looked at it and saw the dates and said, ‘Yikes. We need to get this hopping,’ ” said Kent Smith, now the first assistant county attorney.

Local officials worked with the U.S. Marshals Service, which worked with authorities in the Philippines. They discovered Robert Manship was there on an expired visa and shipped him back to the United States.

Marshals were waiting for him at Los Angeles International Airport when he landed.

Smith said Hillsborough County’s case was the weakest of three possible prosecutions. It had the least evidence against Robert Manship. The case was much stronger in Strafford County, where prosecutors were ready to file charges if the deal in Hillsborough County fell apart.

Strafford County attorneys agreed to not prosecute Robert Manship as part of the Hillsborough County plea deal. Federal prosecutors made no such promises and could still press charges, Smith said.

“It’s been satisfying,” Smith said. “Kelsey and (her sister) are two fine young women who have developed extraordinarily well for what they were put through as children. It was really nice to be able to do something for them. They got to hear him say, ‘I did it.’ ”

A lot of things went through Kelsey’s mind when a letter arrived last year from Hudson police, letting her know the investigation was active again. She was shocked. Scared. She was pretty ticked off, too.

“And angry, because why the hell did it take them so long?” she said. “It made me mad, for sure.”

On May 23, Robert Manship pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault. Nearly 20 years after the abuse, he admitted it and was sent to prison, where he’ll stay for the next 15-30 years.

That’s well and good, but it isn’t really good enough for Henderson or her daughters.

Childhood was difficult for Kelsey. She was withdrawn from virtually anyone her own age. She was depressed and confused. She tried to kill herself several times.

“It evolved,” she said. “It went from anger issues to not caring about anything, ever. It changes.”

She’s still trying to figure out her life. Everything, all the feelings and helplessness, came roaring back last year when that letter from police arrived. She made some bad decisions, totaled her car and got a DWI. She’s living with friends now, trying to find a steady job and trying to find out how to finally move on.

“I’m kind of feeling a little lost and everything,” she said. “I was hoping that after the sentencing hearing it would be a little closure, but the skies didn’t open up and gold didn’t rain down like I was expecting. It’s still a struggle.”

Joseph G. Cote can be reached
at 594-6415 or jcote@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Cote
on Twitter (@Telegraph_JoeC).