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.
And every weekend, Helm would send for Cassondra to come and stay with him and the children. Or he would come by with the children to Dean's apartment.
"It was like we were a family," Dean says, "at first."
Bishop J.A. Jones remembers seeing the couple together at his church, True Vine Holy Temple, late last year. While there, Bishop Jones talked with the couple. He said the two "were acting like they were already married," so he asked Helm if he wanted to marry Dean. Helm said he would.
"He said, 'I would like to do that,'" Jones recalled. "She didn't respond at all."
But Dean says she learned that Helm had a girlfriend in Chicago. She ended any romantic relationship with him, but still took Cassondra to see him often.
Dean's mother, Lavada Gasaway, says she saw Helm and Cassondra together. He treated the girl "like a father" would. "He would sit her down and talk to her when he thought she was having problems," Gasaway says. Helm even told people Cassondra was his child, Gasaway says.
All that changed about the time the story ran. It was the week before Easter. Cassondra and her two half brothers were planning to join Helm in a Bible study and visit. But Helm called and canceled, Dean says.
The next Sunday, Cassondra told her mother that Helm was in the paper. "I saw it and I read it, and I read it, and I read it, and it mentioned nothing about his daughter," Dean says.
The following Tuesday, Cassondra called Helm and asked him why the story about his family didn't mention her. Helm told her that the story was about the science-fair project one of the nephews had won and had nothing to do with her, she says. Two days later, Cassondra called again asking him when she could come and visit. Helm wasn't kind. "He said that I don't know for sure if he is my father, that my mom could have been sleeping with anyone," Cassondra recalls. "It made me mad."
Dean was furious. She says she called The Dallas Morning News and told the reporter about Cassondra. She asked if there was some way that her side of the story could be told. The reporter told Dean there was nothing she could do until the paternity suit had been filed in court. Dean recalls the reporter telling her that such a story could affect the donations coming in for the children.
But the paternity suit was already on file regarding Dean's claim. Dean filed her petition to establish paternity March 27. A subpoena was sent out that same day. A name check in the court's computer would have turned up the suit for inclusion in the two subsequent stories written about Helm. But neither Dean nor Cassondra was ever mentioned.
Dallas Morning News reporter Laura Griffin would not comment on Dean's allegations. She referred calls to executive editor Ralph Langer, who did not return them.
The News story made Helm a hero. And for the most part he was. He dropped out of college in Chicago last summer to remain in Dallas to raise his five nieces and nephews. Helm was often up at 4:30 a.m. getting the children ready to go to school and taking the bus to his job. The six of them lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a shelter that houses homeless ex-convicts with families--from which his drug-addicted sister had been expelled. The story held Helm up as an example, a man who didn't leave the children in his life, but stayed to give them hope and strength.
The public around the nation couldn't get enough of the wonderful story of this 26-year-old man who took on the responsibility of raising his five nieces and nephews. He received hundreds of letters and donations amounting to $75,000, and a used car and van.
Dean doesn't deny that what Helm is doing is worthy and even wonderful. She does not begrudge him the donations or his new life. She has a new boyfriend and two other children from two other fathers, both of whom pay child support. All she wants, she says, is for Helm to take care of his financial obligation to Cassondra and to go back to being as he was before the story ran--a loving father to her.
"She hasn't stopped loving him," Dean says. "I would try to get him to call her, and he would say he would and he wouldn't. It's not like he's in Chicago and can't do it."
Cassondra is puzzled by her father's behavior, but says it hasn't changed the way she feels. "He's my daddy," she says. "I just want to be able to go over to his house some more."
Under the order, Helm has until May 15 before he has to begin paying child support for Cassondra.
"I just want him to stop running from his responsibilities," Dean says. "It's going to catch up with him sooner or later. A day doesn't go by that I don't think about him and why he has done this to her.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.