Tarnished hero

When a heart-warming story gets ugly

Cassandra Lee Dean says she isn't looking to bring anyone down or ruin anyone's life. All she wants to do is make the man who fathered her child acknowledge his daughter. Especially since that man has become a celebrated symbol of paternal responsibility.

Dean, 26, received a default judgment in a paternity suit against Eugene Helm May 6. Helm, you might remember, is the single Dallas man whom The Dallas Morning News made into a national hero March 31 in the first of three stories about his struggle to raise his five nieces and nephews. The judgment names Helm as the father of 11-year-old Cassondra Leigh Dean and orders Helm to pay $18,960 in back child support as well as $165 each month in child-support payments.

The order finds Helm as Cassondra's father, despite his not having submitted to a blood test to determine paternity. The default judgment resulted when Helm didn't contact the court to set up a paternity test or show up for the hearing last week. Such default findings of paternity are not unusual, said Alicia Terry, spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office.

Dean, however, is concerned with more than money. She wants Helm to treat Cassondra as his daughter, the way she says he used to, before The Dallas Morning News published the stories that launched him to fame and away from his daughter. "I just want him to be a father to her again," she says. "I want him to be as much a father to her as he is to those kids."

Helm's attorney, Louis Kinard of Legal Services of North Texas, says his client will appeal the judgment. Helm missed last week's court appointment because he got the days mixed up, Kinard says. He adds that Helm only recently learned of the child's existence, and has serious doubts that she is his daughter.

Helm himself isn't saying much about the paternity matter. When asked specific questions about the case, he told the Observer that he "can't really remember" Dean or her daughter. The newspaper article "came out and then there she was looking for me."

Dean filed her paternity suit March 27, however, a few days before the story came out. She says she filed the suit after years of trying to wrangle support from Helm for their daughter, but received nothing but empty promises. She says she at one point filed papers on him in Chicago, only to get his name confused with his father, also named Eugene G. Helm. Dean says she first filed for child support in 1993.

Earlier this year, after getting a copy of Helm's Illinois driver's license, she again approached the Attorney General's Office about filing for support.

"I kept hoping we could work something out," she says. "I didn't know if he was going to be stable."

Helm would not answer questions about Dean's allegations that he had acknowledged Cassondra as his daughter until the articles came out. He says the suit and the judgment were a biblical, Joblike test.

"You know how the devil tries you," he says. "But we all have a victory in Jesus."

Beyond that he would only say, "We just want to get down to the bottom of it. We will make sure."

But Dean is sure. She says that, 11 years ago, she and Helm were a pair of passion-struck teen-agers. Helm came over all the time to visit and see her when they were dating. They lived near each other in South Dallas and both attended Florence Junior High School.

When she and Helm were both 15, Dean learned that she was pregnant. Though she tried to hide it, her mother eventually found out and told Helm's mother. Helm's mother, Dean says, thought the unplanned pregnancy was a disgrace and sent Helm away to Chicago to live with his father.

"I was embarrassed," Dean says. "I felt like I was in a world by myself. I said, 'I'm not going to have an abortion, so I might as well be happy with it.'"

She says that after Cassondra was born, Helm's mother helped a bit with the baby, buying her dresses and baby-sitting her while Dean worked. Helm's mother even had the baby over to see Helm when he came home to visit from Chicago, Dean says. But those visits stopped after Cassondra turned 5. Cassondra didn't see her father again until a little over a year ago when Cassondra, by then 10, attended Mrs. Helm's funeral.

"He went up to her at the funeral," Dean says. "I don't know what he told her, but he reconciled with her. She forgave him, I guess. They were like father and daughter then. They spent most of their time together when they could."

Dean says that after Mrs. Helm's death, Dean and her mother helped Helm with the five nieces and nephews. One of Helm's sisters died of tuberculosis and another was in and out jail, Dean says. She washed clothes, cooked meals, baby-sat, ran errands, and tried to keep the peace between Helm and his sister, Dean says. She got Helm a job working with her mother before he found a job with Eckerds, she says. He even stayed at her place when he and his sister had a fight, Dean says.

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