KAUNAS, Lithuania — A desperate father launches a bloody vendetta against an alleged pedophile network of judges and politicians that he says preyed on his 5-year-old daughter.
After two killings, Drasius Kedys hides in the countryside until he is found dead under mysterious circumstances.
It’s not the plot of a Stieg Larsson crime novel, but the outline of a sad and sordid case that has split Lithuania into two camps.
One side thinks Kedys fabricated the allegations as part of a custody dispute with the girl’s mother; the other sees a wider conspiracy of corrupt child molesters running the country.
Experts say the dispute, which has become a national obsession, reflects deeper currents of discontent in a post-Soviet society plagued by emigration and the world’s highest suicide rate.
Two years after Kedys’ body was found, the case still inflames passions in Lithuania, and last month even reached the U.S., where an angry mob of Lithuanian-American Kedys supporters swarmed the Lithuanian president’s motorcade ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago.
“If I were able to say where the truth is and who is right, I would have done so long ago,” President Dalia Grybauskaite told a group of Lithuanian-Americans in Lemont, the Chicago suburb where she ran into the protest. “Unfortunately, the whole story is very complicated and corrupted by investigators from the beginning.”
Vigilante hero or villain?
The drama unfolded in Kaunas, a city of 500,000 in south-central Lithuania notorious for lousy infrastructure, lopsided wooden homes, and not least of all, corrupt officials wedded to local crime syndicates.
Kedys, a bodybuilder businessman, was a father determined to retain custody of his daughter, Deimante.
Not only did he accuse the girl’s mother of pimping Deimante to a pedophile ring, but he videotaped the girl giving detailed descriptions of sexual acts he claims she was asked to perform by three grown men, then sent the video to more than a hundred politicians and law enforcement officials.
When his appeal fell on deaf years, Kedys took the law in his own hands.
In October 2009, he is said to have fatally shot two people he had accused of abetting the reputed pedophile ring - one of whom was the mother’s sister.
He then disappeared, only to be found dead six months later, in April 2010. Police said he died after binge drinking and choking on his own vomit - a finding that many Lithuanians don’t believe.
The tragedy didn’t end there. Two months later, one of three men whom Kedys accused of molesting his daughter, died after ostensibly falling from his dune buggy and drowning in a creek that was only 8 inches deep.
Lithuania appears evenly split between those who see Kedys as a vigilante hero, and those who think he snapped while trying to win the custody dispute against the girl’s mother.
The division cuts like a knife through Lithuanian society, souring dinner party conversations and ruining friendships.
The most fervent group of Kedys supporters - dubbed “the violets” after the color of a T-shirt Kedys wore in a now iconic photo of him and his daughter - have continued his struggle on the streets.
For six months, they surrounded the house where Kedys’ relatives were keeping the girl, determined to prevent police from enforcing a court order that gave custody to the mother, Laimute Stankunaite, who claims Kedys fabricated the pedophilia claims to discredit her.
Police finally broke through the wall of protesters on May 17 - arresting nearly 40 of them - allowing Ms. Stankunaite and her attorney to whisk the girl into an awaiting police van.
Later the same day, hundreds of enraged Kedys supporters turned up to demonstrate outside the president’s residence in Vilnius.
“Lithuania is being demolished with the help of authorities as they use force against an innocent child and destroy the republic’s moral foundations,” said protester Darius Kuolys, a former adviser to then-President Valdas Adamkus.
In Lemont, as she headed to a Lithuanian community event, a crowd of hostile Lithuanian-Americans blocked her car, shouting “disgrace” and waving banners saying Lithuania was “blind to children’s tears.”
Secret Service officers had to jump out of their vehicles and push aside protesters to let the motorcade pass.
An atmosphere of distrust
What actually happened to the girl is a mystery.
The main evidence cited by “the violets” is the 3-year-old video testimony Kedys made of the girl, who is now 8.
A psychiatric evaluation found it unlikely that she had made it all up, but skeptics say it’s possible that Kedys had coached her. Doctors who examined her found no physical injuries, and prosecutors dropped the investigation for lack of proof.
The fact that so many Lithuanians are prepared to side with a presumed killer despite such inconclusive evidence reflects an overwhelming lack of trust in public institutions.
A Eurobarometer survey in November 2010 showed that faith in the courts was the lowest in Lithuania among 27 European Union member states.
“People have found a way to express their dissatisfaction with their lives and their country. This is the main driving force of the movement,” said Andrius Kaluginas, a psychologist who has criticized the “violets.”
Lithuania remains one of the EU’s poorest members and has not overcome the social problems that have dogged it before and after the Soviet breakup in 1991. Alcoholism is rampant, and the suicide rate is the highest in the world, according to the most recent data from the World Health Organization.