Per: People – At the time she became pregnant, Crysta Abelseth was 16 and John Barnes was 30.
A watchdog group in Louisiana has asked outside authorities to investigate a recent ruling by a judge that granted an accused rapist full custody of the daughter his accuser — who became pregnant when she was 16 and the father was 30 — birthed nine months later.
Court records obtained by PEOPLE confirm that Judge Jeffrey Cashe also ordered Crysta Abelseth, 32, to make monthly child support payments to John Barnes, the man she alleges raped her in late 2005.
Cashe awarded Barnes, 46, full custody of the girl on March 21, 2022, despite allegations made by a child that Barnes had been sexually, physically and verbally abusive. Those allegations were first brought to the state’s Department of Children and Family Services by a school counselor. Barnes has not been charged with a crime in connection with those allegations.
“I just want my daughter home safe and my perpetrator out of our lives for good,” Abelseth tells PEOPLE. “My quality of life has suffered tremendously and it has bankrupted me financially. It is my faith in God that has kept me strong for my daughter because this is truly more than anyone should ever have to endure.”
The court documents, which were viewed by PEOPLE, include DNA test results, which confirm that Barnes is the biological father of Abelseth’s daughter. Abelseth got pregnant when she was 16 and Barnes was 30, which means the encounter, even if consensual, would have amounted to statutory rape. In Louisiana in 2005, the age of consent was 17, as it is today.
According to WBRZ, the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a corruption watchdog group, has asked that an outside agency investigate the ruling.
Sean Cassidy, an attorney for the non-profit Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, tells PEOPLE he finds Cashe’s decision “awfully baffling,” given the allegations. “I don’t know how something like this happens,” Cassidy says.
WBRZ reports that Barnes owns a web company called Gumbeaux Digital Branding that counts the Ponchatoula Police as a client. (Abelseth alleges Barnes raped her in Ponchatoula.)
“I have seen some bad decisions. I’ve seen some indifference by law enforcement. I’ve seen what looks like bias from some judges,” Cassidy continues. “But I have never seen the father of a child born out of a rape not only be awarded custody and some sort of payment, but also, that person even seeking custody. It is not something you see.”
We ‘Absolutely Dropped the Ball,’ Police Admit
In 2015, Abelseth filed a complaint with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office against Barnes, alleging he’d raped her on Dec. 13, 2005, after they’d both been drinking at a bar in Hammond, where Abelseth said she got in with a fake ID.
Abelseth told investigators Barnes had offered her a ride home. Instead, she said, he took her to his place in Ponchatoula. “I had woken up on the bathroom floor nude,” Abelseth wrote in her statement, saying she was unable to give consent as she was unconscious during the encounter. Abelseth further alleges in her written statement Barnes had threatened to seek full custody of the girl, should she ever pursue criminal charges against him.
Barnes has never been charged with a crime.
Abelseth’s 2015 complaint wasn’t assigned to a detective until this year, the court records show. The Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office in a statement acknowledged they did not properly investigate that allegation and said the case was turned over to prosecutors on Wednesday.
“In tracing this case back to the time the initial complaint was filed on July 1, 2015, it was discovered that the report never made it through the proper channels within the department to be assigned for investigation,” reads the statement. “Therefore, our department absolutely dropped the ball, and we simply must own our mistake. This is a mistake, however, that simply has never been a problem before or since, and we must make sure to keep it that way.”
Abelseth alleges in the filings that she didn’t report the alleged rape for years because she thought victims had only 24 hours to go to the police after such crimes occurred. She ended up reporting the rape after learning the statute of limitations for rape was 30 years after the victim turns 18.
Custody Battle Began After Barnes Learned He Had Child
The custody battle began in 2011, after the girl turned 5, and Barnes learned he might have a child; Abelseth tells PEOPLE she has no idea how he discovered the daughter’s existence. Barnes took Abelseth to court, and once paternity was established, Barnes sought and was awarded shared custody of the child, despite their ages at the time Abelseth became pregnant.
“I was under the impression I had no choice to let him be involved in my child’s life,” Abelseth tells PEOPLE. “He was threatening me. My attorney at the time knew he raped me and she didn’t advise me of my rights.”
According to documents obtained by PEOPLE, Barnes started paying $428 a month in support for the child in April 2013.
Judge Cashe took over the case in August 2015 — a month after Abelseth reported the rape to police, and several months after Barnes asked the court to find her in contempt for allegedly violating some of the terms of their custody agreement.
Six months later, a split-custody agreement was reached, and Abelseth was ordered to pay $78.41 to Barnes each month. That sum increased to $117.72 per month in 2017.
Abelseth requested that Barnes’ custody be limited, but Cashe denied that motion. Months later, Barnes began filing motions seeking to have Abelseth held in contempt after giving the daughter a cell phone; in a previous decision, Cashe barred the girl from owning a phone.
On Feb. 2, 2022, Cashe found Abelseth in contempt over the phone, and she was ordered to pay $500. He again told the mother not to get the girl a phone.
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In a March 18, 2022, hearing before Cashe, a child’s abuse accusations against Barnes were brought up, and Abelseth asked for full custody. But Cashe said criminal charges were never pursued against Barnes and that the evidence failed to support allegations he had abused a child.
Days later, Barnes filed for full custody, claiming Abelseth provided their daughter with a second phone. Cashe granted the request the same day. Abelseth tells PEOPLE the allegations made by Barnes she provided her daughter with a cell phone were “false.”
Cashe did not respond to PEOPLE’s repeated requests for comment. But on Wednesday, he filed a Reasons for Judgement, a document explaining his decisions in the case. In it, he says the allegations Barnes abused a child were only put forward by Abelseth after Barnes had asked to have her held in contempt.
Custody Trial Scheduled for July 15
Cassidy tells PEOPLE the judge should have realized the 2005 sexual encounter between Barnes and Ableson — consensual or not — amounted to statutory rape. He notes that state law bars men from having contact with any child that is the product of rape.
Barnes did not respond to requests for comment at press time. Neither did the Tangipahoa Parish District Attorney’s Office or Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is the brother of Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel H. Edwards as well as Frank Millard Edwards, the chief of police in Independence, a town in Tangipahoa County.
The issue of the daughter’s custody is set for trial on July 15, PEOPLE learns.
“This case is the ultimate example of a judicial system that has failed this rape victim and her daughter deplorably,” says Stacie Triche, founder and executive director for the non-profit SAVE LIV35 Foundation, who is working with Abelseth on her case.
“I thank God for the trauma counselor who advised her of her rights to file charges against her perpetrator in 2015, because her attorney at that time failed to do so. She has been drug through the mud in this court system by her rapist for ten years. I cannot fathom how this mother was forced to not only hand her 5-year-old daughter over to the man who raped her, but also forced to pay him child support and legal fees by the same system that is supposed to protect her rights.”
Adds Triche: “I pray justice is served and that child is brought home to her mother where she belongs — and the perpetrator is put behind bars where he belongs.”
Abelseth tells PEOPLE she hopes her story “will encourage women going through similar situations to have hope and to not give up.”
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