LACONIA — Jessica Washburn has a message for anyone who has been sexually abused as a child: “Telling the story about your abuse is not easy, but it’s worth it.”
Washburn should know. Her stepfather, Keith Chander, was convicted five months ago of sexually abusing her over the course of six years when she was between the ages of 11 and 16.
This past April, Washburn was on the witness stand in Belknap Superior Court for 10 hours, detailing the various forms of sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Chandler, according to court documents and her own testimony.
After a 3½-day trial, Chandler, 46, was found guilty on nine sexual assault charges, and is now serving a minimum of 17½ years in prison. He is appealing his conviction.
Calls to Chandler’s attorney, Nicholas Brodich, seeking comment on this series were not returned.
In the days following Chandler’s sentencing, Washburn came forward wanting to tell her story.
The Laconia Daily Sun, like many newspapers, does not generally publish the names of sexual abuse survivors unless, like Washburn, they give their consent.
While Washburn’s decision to go public puts the spotlight on her, she said she has taken this step in the hope of empowering others.
“It’s not about me gaining anything,” she said during an interview in June. “It’s (about) helping other people – those who might be on the fence.”
She said she wants those victims to know that help is out there.
“When victims see other survivors who have the courage to share their stories, they are often inspired to do the same,” said Madison Lightfoot, who until recently was community development specialist for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “When they see others shatter the silence, they feel empowered to share their stories. When survivors feel safe to come forward, we are better able to better help victims.”
But stepping forward to say what had happened did not come easily to Washburn. Until early 2017, she repeatedly denied she had been sexually abused. She said she even held back from telling her therapist about the abuse because state law would have required the therapist to report such information to authorities.
“It’s not black-and-white for these kids,” former Belknap County Attorney Lauren Noether said, explaining why victims can be reluctant to come forward to tell their story. “There are feelings of love and appreciation for these people (their assailants). It’s not like the case of the stranger-offender.”
Jessica Washburn’s life — she is now 19 — has been filled with disruption. Her parents broke up when she was three. She then lived for a time in Alaska and Indiana before moving back to New Hampshire about eight years ago. Even back in New Hampshire, the family never stayed in one place for very long. By the time Washburn was 16, she had lived in 14 different places, according to court testimony.
It was on top of this unsettled lifestyle that she was subjected to her stepfather’s assaults, which she testified escalated over time from groping to the point where she was being repeatedly raped.
Washburn testified that the assaults began when she was 11 or 12 years old and living in Tilton. Chandler came into her bedroom while her mother was at work and began kissing her neck, and touching her breasts and genitals. He ignored her pleas to stop, she said.
Things got worse after the family moved to Laconia when she was about 13. That was when Chandler began forcing Washburn to have intercourse, she told the court, her voice choking with emotion. As with the previous assaults, these also happened when Washburn’s mother, Heather Chandler, was at work, Washburn said, leaving her alone with her stepfather, according to her testimony.
The assaults continued, occurring “whenever he wanted to” have sex, she testified.
Washburn said if she asked Keith Chandler for permission to do something – like go to a school dance or rollerskating – he would sometimes insinuate that he would grant permission only if she had sex with him. If she told him to forget it and said she no longer wanted the favor, he would say, “It’s too late now,” and proceed to force himself upon her, she said during the interview.
Washburn testified that she kept the assaults secret for two years until, one day when she was 12 or 13 and alone with her mother, she disclosed what Keith Chandler had been doing to her. Heather Chandler explained away her husband’s behavior by saying it was due to his sleep apnea and other health problems, Washburn said under direct examination by Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois.
Washburn said her mother’s failure to believe her and intervene made her feel helpless.
“If my mom doesn’t do anything about it, why would anybody else?” she testified. “Like, that’s somebody that’s supposed to be there for me and, like, no matter what...back her kid up, and if she can’t even do that, then who else will?”
In an email, Heather Chandler said yesterday she wanted to tell “her side” of the story, but a call to the telephone number Chandler provided went to voicemail and a message requesting she call back to speak to a reporter was not immediately returned.
Washburn said she believed her life might have gone from bad to worse had she told her therapist about the attacks.
“Anything that I told her that was harming myself, others harming me or me harming other people, she would have had to report that...telling her, she would have to report it, and that would make things worse,” she said.
“It would make things worse, what do you mean by that?” Livernois asked her.
“I wasn’t sure what it would make worse because I don’t know what, out of all the threats I was given, would be, like, blank threats. So I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she answered.
It would be another two years before Washburn shared her secret with someone else.
In her junior year in high school, Washburn told her boyfriend at the time, Andrew Laramie. But she swore him to secrecy. It was a secret Laramie was uncomfortable keeping.
“I was made to promise not to tell anyone or she would leave me,” he testified in court.
“At that time, how did that make you feel?” the prosecutor asked.
“Kind of trapped, because I wanted to tell someone, but if I did she would (leave me),” Laramie said.
A month later after Washburn shared her secret with Laramie, the two of them broke up.
Laramie then told someone who was legally obligated to report the information. That set the wheels in motion that led state and local authorities to Washburn's doorstep in Belmont.
“That was a week or so after we broke up, so maybe late January or February,” he said from the witness stand. “... so she can’t break up with me again, so I decided I’d go and actually report it, instead of sitting on the information.”
In March 2017 Washburn spoke for the first time at length about the abuse she had suffered at the hands of Chandler.
For close to three hours she sat in a room at the Child Advocacy Center in Laconia and answered questions from an interviewer who was specially trained in asking children questions about the details of abuse. An inconspicuous video camera and microphone captured the interview. In a separate room, representatives of law enforcement, the state child welfare agency, and the Belknap County Attorney’s Office watched the interview on a video monitor.
Having watched the interview, Livernois concluded there was enough credible evidence to bring Chandler to trial. That would necessarily meant that Washburn would have to testify.
By the time the case came to trial two years later, Washburn was eager to take the witness stand.
“I wanted to confront someone who had been hurting me for so long,” she said in an interview in June.
Still, being on the witness stand and looking across the courtroom at her stepfather sitting at the defense table was a challenge for Washburn.
“It was a wave of emotions,” she said.
In cross-examining Washburn, Nicholas Brodich, one of Chandler’s attorneys underscored the many times that Washburn had denied to authorities and counselors that Chandler was mistreating her. Her denials that she had been abused far outnumbered the times she said that it happened.
At one point during cross-examination, Brodich asked, “And you told your Genesis mental health counselor that nothing like that had ever happened to you, right?”
“Correct,” Washburn replied.
“You talked about all kinds of sensitive topics, didn’t you?” Brodich asked further.
“Correct,” said Washburn.
“And in this safe environment, you never once said that Keith (Chandler) had done anything inappropriate toward you, right?” the attorney queried.
“Not until after March of 2017,” Washburn replied.
“And now you’re telling the jury that that was a complete lie too,” the attorney said.
“Yes,” Washburn said.
Washburn said during her June interview that she worked at “trying not to have any attitude” in her answers while being cross-examined by Brodich.
Washburn said the hardest part of the trial came during closing arguments, when the defense said she was not telling the truth, and what she had said about her stepfather’s treatment of her was all false.
The ordeal notwithstanding, Washburn has no regrets.
“If you tell the truth and do it on your terms, then it’s worth it,” she said.
To contact Michael Mortensen, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to get help:
New Beginnings of Laconia – services for victims of domestic and sexual violence: (603) 528-6511
24-Hour Domestic Violence Line:
24-Hour Sexual Assault Line:
Starting Point services for victims of domestic and sexual violence: Wolfeboro office: 603.452.8014
24-hour crisis line: 800.336.3795
New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence: (603) 224-8893