Kristen Lewis Cunnane has started dreaming again. ¶ For more than a decade, the 30-year-old Walnut Creek woman buried her traumatic youth and dared not aspire to larger goals. Until the past burst to the surface and nearly killed her, she had lived moment to moment.
That's how her trusted teacher and sports coach at Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School in Moraga groomed her. When PE teacher Julie Correa started raping her after eighth-grade graduation, often in Correa's Lafayette apartment, Cunnane stayed in a petrified silence throughout nearly four years of sexual abuse and well into adulthood.
Not anymore. Today, Cunnane not only dreams, she fights back, and wants others to fight back, too.
In summer 2010, Cunnane went to police and told them what Correa did to her in the 1990s. Cunnane fought for a conviction, bravely phoning her molester repeatedly to coax a confession in a harrowing series of taped conversations. It worked.
Now, months after she helped put Correa behind bars for eight years, Cunnane is telling her story, hoping to prevent similar tragedies and encourage other victims to come forward and move forward.
"When I was a kid, I believed that if no one else knew what was happening, then it wasn't real," Cunnane said. "Now I know that other people can help people like me through it."
It has been an often overwhelming path, but the associate head coach of UC Berkeley's elite women's swim team -- the squad has won three of the past four national championships, including this year's -- has prevailed.
Not lost on Cunnane or her circle of friends is the irony that she now coaches young women. She is the mentor Correa should have been.
"She just didn't crawl into a hole and stay a victim; she's making a difference," said Teri McKeever, Cunnane's boss at Cal and the U.S. Olympic women's swim coach for the London Games in the summer. "I think the experience has really opened up her ability to be even better at what a good coach does."
While Cunnane has made strides since coming to terms with her past, she remains in therapy. She still can't return to her parents' Moraga house, where some of the abuse occurred.
"As a young and naive 14-year-old, I did not know that my reliance on Julie was dangerous," she told a judge at Correa's December sentencing. "I did not know that she would use my trust and shred my world to pieces."
As the phone rang that summer day in 2010, Cunnane sat on a hotel bed biting her lip, her heart pounding as she waited for the woman who stole her youth to answer the phone. "Hello?"
It had been 10 years since Cunnane last heard Correa's voice, and it took her breath away.
When Cunnane came forward to police weeks earlier, investigators told her that for criminal charges to stick, she would need to call Correa and secretly record her implicating herself. Re-engaging with Correa was unbearable, but it allowed Cunnane to take an active role in regaining control of her life. For sexual abuse victims, a sense of control can be a critical step to recovery.
After several failed attempts, Cunnane reached Correa while in Los Angeles for a swim meet. With the help of McKeever, who sat in the hotel room bathroom timing the call on a stopwatch, Cunnane jumped in, sharing small talk with Correa, who was living with her husband and two sons in Utah.
"I know that you're coaching at UC Berkeley ... and I know that you got pretty deep into the Olympic trials in your senior year," Correa told Cunnane.
She is stalking me again, Cunnane thought, just like when I'd spot her watching my high school swim meets through binoculars from a distant hill.
After listening to a series of unsuccessful recorded calls, Lafayette police Detective Berch Parker told Cunnane she should stop phoning, that Correa was trying to lure her to Utah, back under her control.
"I can do this," Cunnane responded. "I have to finish this and I know I can."
Scott Cunnane advised his wife: "You have to say, 'It doesn't feel the same when Scott kisses me as when you used to kiss me.' " Cunnane, a prosecutor for Contra Costa County, believed his wife could say such things about their own sex life to get Correa to confess.
"You want to know what I was daydreaming about for three hours?" a trusting Correa said over the phone. "I was daydreaming about what it would be like to see you again ... what would occur ... what it would be like ... I don't know if I could see you and ... not have to touch you. And if I touched you I don't know if I could ... resist."
"So you think it was wrong that we were together when I was 14 and 15?" Kristen asked.
"No. I don't think it was wrong," Correa said, "but a lot of people would."
Correa confided: "I remember everything."
It started in 1993 on Cunnane's first day at Joaquin Moraga, a bucolic middle school in the small, affluent Contra Costa County suburb. The 11-year-old jock spent her childhood swimming for neighborhood club teams and excelling at soccer and basketball. An innocent sixth-grader who had never kissed a boy, Cunnane stood in line for her first PE class with a mouth full of braces.
In walked Correa. All the most athletic seventh- and eighth-grade girls looked up to her, and Cunnane quickly did as well.
Over the next three years, Correa became one of Cunnane's closest friends. The two would secretly leave the closed campus at lunch and go on Slurpee runs. The newly married Correa would give Cunnane gifts, including an Eddie Bauer watch. Slowly, the girl confided more and more in her volleyball, softball and basketball coach and less and less in her peers.
"Like a predator hunting prey," Cunnane would say as an adult, "Julie used the trust and influence inherent to her position as an admired teacher and coach to insert herself into every aspect of my life."
It is a typical tactic for pedophiles.
When Cunnane's science teacher Dan Witters touched her inappropriately in his classroom, she told only Correa. She, in turn, told Cunnane she would alert school administrators, but Moraga School District records obtained through a public records act request show she never did.
Soon after, the relationship between Correa and her student crossed the line from inappropriate to criminal. Cunnane was a Campolindo High freshman in 1996 when Witters killed himself as authorities launched an investigation into multiple allegations of child molestation. Correa used Witters' suicide to further intimidate Cunnane, telling the girl they would both be dead like Witters if anyone found out their secret
The memories haunt Cunnane to this day. She recalls being inside Correa's Lafayette apartment, staring at a familiar painting of a sleeping Labrador retriever curled up on a bed as Correa raped her on the bedroom floor. She would pretend to lie inside the dreamlike print, only to be startled back to her spiraling reality from the scrape of the thick brown carpet on her back.
From 1996 into 2000, while Cunnane was a standout high school athlete and student, Correa was sexually abusing her. Using intimidation and the girl's own fear against her, Correa kept her from telling anyone. Nor, for years, could Cunnane confront Correa with the horror she felt.
"Your parents will never understand. If they catch us, I will take care of them," Correa would tell the teen. "This is your fault. I wanted to wait until you were older, but you made me."
Correa carved out pages of a Spanish-English dictionary and placed a cellphone inside, telling Cunnane she must carry it with her at all times. Correa would climb seven 6-foot-high fences in neighbors' yards to sneak into Cunnane's family home, at times hiding underneath her bed or in the closet as she waited for Cunnane's parents to fall asleep. In one instance, Correa jumped out of the girl's second-story bedroom window, breaking her leg, to avoid being seen by the family.
Unlocking the chains
Everything changed for Kristen her senior year, when classmate Scott Cunnane asked her to go to a high school football game. That night, she discarded the secret cellphone -- the first step toward breaking free of her abuser.
But stopping the calls only made Correa's actions more erratic. Kristen said she expected to be slain the day after her 18th birthday, when she finally found the courage to tell Correa to leave her alone.
"I no longer cared if she killed me," Cunnane said. "It's hard for me to describe to people, but I just hated her so much that it being over was more important to me than living."
The two were in a Claremont Hotel room in Berkeley when Cunnane called Correa a monster and threatened to run to the hotel clerk. That her threat succeeded in ending the abuse was a revelation to Cunnane.
"The chains I felt around my heart and wrists, they weren't real," she said. "But when I got rid of her, I got rid of the part of my brain that knew that happened."
By spring 2010, Cunnane's long-suppressed memories of sexual abuse had bubbled over. Debilitating flashbacks were triggered by an abuse scandal within USA Swimming and another coach's decision to leave his wife for a student athlete. Suddenly, everyday tasks -- eating, brushing her hair, getting out of bed in the morning -- seemed impossible. Cunnane avoided her own kitchen, afraid of the sharp knives.
"Every day I had to fight to not kill myself," she said. "I desperately wanted not to kill myself."
It was on a women's retreat with strangers that Cunnane let loose with her emotions and said out loud that she was a rape survivor. Then she had to deal with those emotions -- and tell husband Scott her secret.
Scott had suspicions about Correa since the couple's senior year in high school. Once while he and Kristen jogged on a Moraga trail, Correa jumped out of some bushes and stopped Kristen, speaking to her face to face, very close, as a confused Scott looked on.
By May 2010, with Kristen's depression spiraling out of control, she sat Scott down on a couch and struggled to get the words out.
"Everything changed" after confiding in Scott, Kristen said. "Everything was livable."
They agreed Kristen needed to tell the police.
"Didn't it feel good?" a defense attorney asked Kristen Cunnane on the witness stand during Correa's preliminary hearing.
The difficulties for molestation victims who come forward were unfolding before Cunnane, as the defense painted the abuse by Correa as a consensual relationship.
Cunnane had been prepared for such questions after Correa's arrest on Aug. 4, 2010. What she didn't expect was the sight of former teachers, classmates and their parents in court.
Cunnane had thought about reaching out to some of them in those weeks leading up to Correa's arrest.
Did they have their own memories that could strengthen the prosecution's case?
Did they remember Correa defending criticisms that she had an inappropriate attachment to the girl?
Did they ever have suspicions of Correa crossing the line with another student?
Suddenly, those people were in the courtroom -- not supporting her, but her abuser.
"I'm so glad you aren't here today," Scott wrote in a text message to Kristen from a hastily scheduled bail hearing. Before the prosecution's evidence was made public, more than 20 Joaquin Moraga staff members, past and present, sat in the gallery. They stood up at a defense attorney's prompting to show a judge they were there to support Correa, Scott Cunnane said. It was the only one of Correa's court appearances Kristen missed.
"It crushed her," her husband said. "I would guess that for a victim of sexual abuse, your biggest fear is that you'll tell people, they won't believe you and they'll rally around your abuser.
"That's exactly what they did."
It has been five months since Cunnane's friends got her dressed and held her steady as she stepped into the courtroom for Correa's sentencing. Standing in her Walnut Creek home office recently, Cunnane picked up a Christmas gift from her husband: a framed copy of a court document in which Correa pleaded to committing sex acts on Cunnane. She placed it on a table filled with greeting cards, letters and photo collages she has collected from friends, family and Cal swimmers since she exposed Correa.
Cunnane considers McKeever and her close circle to be members of "Kristen's Army," a group that includes Detective Parker and state prosecutor Geoffrey Lauter. Collectively, she said, they and others gave her the strength to survive the past couple of years.
Cunnane now spends nights writing a book, "Undoing Jane Doe," about her ordeal. She knows there are other survivors of sexual abuse who do not have a husband, a boss, a family and a team willing to walk with them on the painful road to justice, and she hopes the book will help provide support.
"I feel lucky because I had all the things lined up to have me succeed," Cunnane said. "Every step of that was hard and every step of that was worth it.
"It was justice."
Investigation reveals new details about the Moraga School District's role in another teacher sex abuse scandal.