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Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 12:11 am

The faces of Jennifer Watkins

She’s sorry, and she wants her daughter back

 

Just two months ago, Jennifer Watkins and her daughter Sidney were living a new life in Massachusetts that now seems light years away.

Watkins moved from Florida to Massachusetts last summer. Wanted in Illinois for refusing to allow visits between her nine-year-old daughter and the girl’s paternal grandparents, Watkins had seemed safe in the Sunshine State, where she’d moved after the 2008 murder of Sidney’s father at the hands of Jennifer’s grandmother, who is serving 55 years for shooting Steven Watkins in the back of the head. After nearly six months in jail in Florida, Jennifer beat extradition in 2011 and was freed. Authorities in Illinois didn’t give up, but a 2013 Cass County arrest warrant for interfering with visitation went unserved by police in Florida.

Penny Watkins of Chandlerville, who has a court order mandating visits with her grandchild, says that Florida cops tried to arrest Jennifer on the 2013 warrant but were unsuccessful.

“They made several attempts to do it,” Penny Watkins says. “Either nobody answered the door or, when they answered the door, they said that Jennifer didn’t live there and they didn’t know where she was at.”

Police in Massachusetts had better luck.

After being tipped that Jennifer Watkins was wanted and living in a house on Shaw Street, police in Norwood, Massachusetts, waited outside on the morning of Sept. 29. When she emerged, after Sidney had departed for school, the cops clicked on the cuffs in the driveway. Child protective services picked Sidney up from school that afternoon, and supervised visits and phone calls have been the only contact Jennifer has had with her daughter ever since.

Pursuant to an order issued by Cass County Circuit Court Judge Robert Hardwick, Jr., Sidney is now living with relatives of Penny Watkins while authorities seek to strip Jennifer Watkins of her parental rights. And so Jennifer Watkins, who is back in Illinois after spending a week in a Massachusetts jail, is now faced with losing what she says is the most important thing in her life: motherhood.

“It’s horrible,” Jennifer Watkins says in a telephone interview. “It’s really hard on her.”

This year marked the first Thanksgiving that Sidney has spent apart from her mother. Each year, mother and daughter always broke the wishbone together, and this year would be no different, Jennifer Watkins determined. And so Jennifer says that she kept the wishbone from the turkey and brought it with her when she next saw Sidney for a supervised visit – under terms of Hardwick’s order, she isn’t allowed to see her daughter alone.

Jennifer Watkins with daughter Sidney Watkins
PHOTO VIA GOFUNDME.COM

“She was all excited about it,” Jennifer Watkins recalls. “As soon as we stopped, she just started sobbing – ‘Mommy, we do this every year. It’s a tradition.’ Sidney wants to come home.”

On a GoFundMe.com page recently set up to raise money for legal expenses and court-ordered psychological examinations of herself and Sidney, Jennifer Watkins says that her daughter cries herself to sleep each night and has been forced to sleep on a floor.

“Every mother in the world should know about this case and be concerned,” writes Jennifer Watkins, who says that she needs $35,000. “If this can happen to me this can happen to anyone.”

But it may not have happened at all if Jennifer Watkins hadn’t foregone what seemed a safe harbor in Florida, where she had lived for years, and moved to Massachusetts, where she was busted in fairly short order. Why would she move? The answer, apparently, is love.


“She got engaged”

Watkins moved to Massachusetts last summer to be with a man with ties to the Bay State.

“She got engaged,” says Ed Skinner, an uncle.

Watkins, 38, says that she met Frederick Thomas Giampa, 52, whom she calls Tom, at church in Florida about two years ago. Both are Seventh Day Adventists. Giampa has been a generous parishioner, giving more than $17,000 in 2009 alone to Adventist churches in Massachusetts, according to court papers filed in 2010, when he declared bankruptcy. The house where Watkins was arrested is owned by relatives of Giampa; he owns a home valued at nearly $1 million less than 10 minutes away in a nearby town.

Giampa recently pleaded guilty in a massive insurance fraud scheme based in Florida and is facing a maximum sentence of five years. He previously had been accused in a suspected murder-for-hire scheme, but never was formally charged. Asked about the fraud case, Jennifer Watkins proves reluctant to talk.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Watkins says during a phone interview. “Tom is a wonderful man. Things that have happened to you do not define you. He’s an amazing father. He’s an amazing companion.”

Within an hour, Watkins calls back. The relationship, she says, is over.

“Sidney is my number one priority, no matter who or what is in my life,” Watkins explains. “I felt that this was going to become an issue, so I put a stop to it. I called it off. I just don’t want anything to interfere with Sidney coming home. Sidney is my life.”

On Nov. 22, Giampa pleaded guilty in a $175 million fraud case prosecuted by the U.S. attorney’s office in southern Florida. Prosecutors say that Giampa and 15 co-conspirators bilked insurance companies via crooked physicians, kickbacks and bogus prescriptions for drugs that cost as much as $31,000 for a single tube of cream to treat skin ailments. Giampa worked for a corrupt physician and also was employed by NuMed, a Boca Raton company that billed itself as a pharmacy management company but actually was “a base of operations for fraud activities,” prosecutors say in court documents. As a NuMed compliance officer, Giampa fielded questions from insurance companies and dealt with claims denied by insurers, prosecutors say.

Steven Watkins with his daughters Alexendrea, left, and Sidney, right, prior to his death in 2008.

The Florida case wasn’t the first time that Giampa has faced fraud allegations. In 2005 and 2007, he was sued in Massachusetts by insurance companies that alleged he and cohorts submitted millions of dollars in false claims while he held a chiropractor’s license. Fraud accusations resulted in the state of Massachusetts revoking Giampa’s chiropractic license in 2010; his license had previously been suspended in 1999 after he was accused of overbilling. Accusations against Giampa run even darker.

After two attempts on the life of the lead attorney for the insurance company that sued Giampa in 2005, prosecutors opened a murder-for-hire investigation to determine whether he’d ordered a hit, according to filings in the lawsuit. With a criminal investigation pending against him, Giampa couldn’t testify in the lawsuit without jeopardizing his Fifth Amendment rights, and so civil proceedings were put on hold for two years.

No criminal charges were filed against Giampa, but three men were convicted of charges in connection with attacks on the insurance company’s lead counsel, who was stalked and beaten with a baseball bat and brass knuckles in two separate attacks. The civil fraud lawsuit eventually was settled. Attorneys for the insurance company, which alleged $1.8 million in losses, maintained in court filings that Giampa had ordered the attacks on the lawyer who sued him, which prompted the victim to withdraw as lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

“In order to protect, facilitate and maintain the fraudulent billing scheme…and in furtherance of the conspiracy among all the defendants, defendant Frederick Giampa…solicited the murder of plaintiff’s former lead counsel,” lawyers for the insurance company wrote in a 2008 motion.

Michael Goldberg, Jennifer Watkins’ lawyer, said that he doesn’t believe that his client’s relationship with Giampa will have an effect on the legal battle over Sidney. He noted that his client has broken off the relationship.

“I don’t see it as an issue, since that’s not going to be someone that Sidney’s going to spend any time with,” Goldberg said. “I’m not aware that it’s something that’s being considered by the court.”


“I was wrong”

With Giampa in her past, Jennifer Watkins says it’s time to focus on the future.

“Let’s go ahead and set up these (grandparent) visits,” she says. “Basically, I’m a how-can-I-fix-it type of person. My thinking of how I can fix this is, comply with what the judge says. Let’s set a visitation schedule.”

But it may be too late. The state of Illinois is now pushing to strip Jennifer Watkins of her parental rights on the grounds that she has neglected Sidney. If the state succeeds, the girl presumably would be put up for adoption, with relatives of Sidney’s late father prime candidates to assume parental duties.

Jennifer Watkins
On the internet, Watkins lashes out at Judge Hardwick, the Cass County jurist who awarded visitation to Sidney’s paternal grandparents in 2010, then ordered that she be arrested for disobeying his order. In ordering visitation six years ago, Hardwick said that Sidney would suffer if she grew up not knowing her grandparents, Dale and Penny Watkins, who would be best able to tell her about her father.

“There is an evil in Jennifer Watkins that I do not understand,” Hardwick said six years ago. “There is an evil in her that has caused the problem that has brought us here today, and it is an evil that is going to harm this little girl unless Dale and Penny Watkins are granted visitation. … Without meaningful visitation, the court is absolutely convinced that mental or emotional harm will come to this little girl.”

When Jennifer Watkins shortly afterward asked the judge to delay visits, Hardwick made his feelings clear in denying the motion.

“I feel sorry for Sidney, primarily because she lives with you,” Hardwick told her.

In her plea for money posted on GoFundMe.com last month, Jennifer Watkins tells would-be donors that Sidney’s grandparents don’t actually want to see her, but Hardwick is nonetheless out to get her.

“The judge…is a small-town judge who is very good friends with the grandparents,” Watkins writes. “He is an elected judge official (yes, that is correct, he is elected to office like a politician). … The judge is using Sidney to get back at me for not following his mandate (sic) grandparent visitation orders. Grandparents who won’t spend any time with Sidney. This is why he jailed me and why he continues his vindictiveness on me.”

In her internet plea and in court filings, Jennifer has insisted that she hasn’t denied Dale and Penny Watkins visits with Sidney – they were welcome to come to Florida to see the child when she was living there, she has said. In an interview, however, Jennifer said that she should have followed Hardwick’s visitation order issued in 2010.

“I was wrong in what I did,” Watkins says. “I admit that. I should have followed Judge Hardwick’s orders. I was wrong in doing that. I am very sorry for doing that. I’m doing everything I can to make that right.”

Jennifer says that visits between Sidney and the girl’s paternal grandparents were already on her mind when her daughter was taken away from her in September.

“This is not something that, oh, all of a sudden, you’re arrested,” Watkins says. “This was something that was in the works. It just happened a little sooner and not quite the way we wanted it to. It took longer than I would have liked. Like I say, I was wrong. Let’s make it right.”


A special child

Penny Watkins says that she had no recent contact with Jennifer Watkins or anyone else about setting up visitation with Sidney prior to Watkins’ arrest in September. On one point, both Penny Watkins and Jennifer Watkins agree: Sidney Watkins is an exceptional child.

The best proof that Sidney has not been neglected is Sidney herself, her mother says. She gets straight A’s and loves math – as a fourth grader, she can do basic algebra and is tackling fractions. She adores animals, wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up and misses her Shih Tzu named Fifi and her cat called Princess that were left behind when she was taken from her mother.

“She asks about them all the time,” Jennifer Watkins says. “I am mandated to bring pictures of them (during visits).”

Sidney has, Jennifer Watkins says, been told what happened to her father. She said that Sidney has a scrapbook that includes photos of her father that go back to the days when he and Jennifer were dating.

“I think she was about six or seven when she asked me what happened to her dad,” Jennifer Watkins said. “I planned a whole day. We took a picnic – I wanted her to go to where she knew we had fun, I wanted her to be in a very easy and calm environment. We played, we ate, I sat her down and I said ‘I know you have some questions. I will answer them.’ … I explained it at an age-appropriate level. We cried together, we laughed together.”

On GoFundMe.com, Watkins writes that Steven was headed toward a bedroom to kill her and take Sidney when her grandmother, Shirley Skinner, pulled the trigger.

“Knowing that he would come and kill me, she (Skinner) grabbed a gun and fired one warning shot which happened to hit him in the back of the head,” Jennifer Watkins wrote. “This was an act of self defense.”

Jurors saw it differently in a 2010 trial that Jennifer Watkins did not attend and convicted Skinner of first-degree murder after less than 90 minutes of deliberations, during which time they also ate lunch. A wrongful death lawsuit filed against Jennifer Watkins and her family by Dale and Penny Watkins on behalf of Sidney and her half-sister Alexendrea was settled by an insurance company in 2014 – court files in Cass County show that each girl received $23,450. Jennifer Watkins, once a suspect in the killing of her estranged husband, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights and did not testify in the civil case that resulted in Hardwick awarding visitation to Sidney’s grandparents.

“Everybody in this room would like to know exactly what happened that night, but nobody knows, because nobody who was there is talking,” Hardwick said from the bench in 2010 when awarding visitation to Dale and Penny Watkins.

During an interview, Jennifer Watkins doesn’t go into details about what she has told Sidney about her father’s killing, but she says that her daughter knows that Steven Watkins is dead.

“Now, of course, you’re not going to go into great detail because of the age,” Watkins says. “Like I said, we cried together – that story, to anyone, is going to be a little hard to take. I made sure it was age appropriate. I didn’t overwhelm her in any way. I did let her know that her dad loved her. There are certain things that you don’t explain at this age.”

Penny Watkins says it isn’t true that she and her husband, Dale, don’t want to see Sidney. It’s also not true that Sidney has been forced to sleep on a floor, she says. And Penny Watkins has always been steadfast: Steven Watkins, his mother says, wasn’t a threat to anyone. Quite literally, she says, he gave his life in a quest to see his daughter.

Sidney, Penny Watkins says, has blended in well with relatives that include several children.

“Lots of laughs, lots of enjoyment – she’s just like one of the kids,” Penny Watkins says. “There’s nothing where there’s a hesitation that she’s part of (us). It’s just a natural flow, a natural family environment.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Watkins’ GoFundMe.com campaign is trending hard, with 5,700 shares on Facebook in less than one week. Still, she remains $33,675 short of her $35,000 goal. There is, she says, no backup plan in the event donors don’t come through with sufficient funds to pay for legal help and court-ordered psychological exams.

“This is my backup plan,” she says

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


A CASE LIKE NO OTHER

The battle over Sidney Watkins dates to 2008, when her father, Steven, filed for divorce from Jennifer Watkins after less than two years of marriage. The couple met in a Springfield parking lot between two buildings where Steven and Jennifer worked, he for the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services, she for AT&T, and they were married within months. Sidney was just 11 months old when her dad filed for divorce and asked for full custody – he already had custody of a nine-year-old daughter from a prior relationship.

After Steven filed for divorce, Jennifer Watkins accused him of sexually abusing Sidney, an accusation that state investigators determined was unfounded. Steven’s visitation rights were subsequently expanded by a judge, who signaled in November 2008 that he would grant Steven the right to overnight visits that never happened. Two days before Thanksgiving in 2008, Steven was shot in the back of the head when he went to the Ashland home where Jennifer lived with relatives – he’d gone there to pick up Sidney for a court-ordered visit. Shirley Skinner, Jennifer’s grandmother who also lived at the Ashland house, confessed to killing Steven as soon as Ashland police chief Jim Birdsell arrived at the home, but there was no physical evidence, and Birdsell had never before handled a homicide case.

After state police took over, Skinner was charged and convicted of first-degree murder in 2010. During her trial, prosecutors called Jennifer Watkins’ family a clan that considered Sidney their property and would do anything to prevent Steven from taking his daughter out of their control. Prosecutors offered to reduce Skinner’s bond so that she could be free pending trial if Jennifer would allow visits between Sidney and Steven’s parents, but Jennifer refused.

After Skinner’s conviction, Cass County Circuit Court Judge Robert Hardwick granted visitation rights to Steven’s parents, Dale and Penny Watkins, but Jennifer did not produce Sidney for visits as ordered by Hardwick, who found her in contempt of court. By then, Jennifer Watkins was living in Florida, and a 2011 extradition attempt failed. A 2013 arrest warrant issued by Hardwick went unserved until September, when Jennifer Watkins was picked up by police in Massachusetts and Sidney was placed in the care of her late father’s relatives. –Bruce Rushton

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