“I’m okay with myself, I sleep pretty good at night,” the 30-year-old, once dubbed “the most hated mom in America,” said, adding that she feels a kinship with O.J. Simpson.
PEOPLE began covering the case the day after Caylee was reported missing, interviewing more than 200 key players in the case. Here is PEOPLE’s cover story on the crisis enveloping Caylee family from Feb. 9, 2009.
The police who showed up at the Hawaii Motel in a seedy section of Daytona Beach, Fla., on Jan. 22 didn’t know what to expect. They were looking for George Anthony, whose daughter Casey is scheduled to go on trial in March for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter Caylee. During the day George, 57, had been sending text messages to his family in Orlando suggesting that he was about to harm himself, telling them he wanted to be with Caylee. Tracking George’s cell phone, authorities traced him to the motel. When George let officers in the room, they discovered two empty pill bottles and a rambling eight-page letter, in which Anthony claimed to have swallowed some pills. Except George seemed perfectly lucid—and when brought to the hospital he told a nurse, “I haven’t taken anything,” according to one police source.
But George’s attorney Brad Conway insists it was a suicide attempt—that George took sleeping pills and blood pressure medication and mixed them with alcohol. Whatever the case, it was a bizarre episode, one that took place amid startling new disclosures about Casey, 22, and her family that—as far as prosecutors are concerned—significantly tighten the case against her. What’s more, based on a review of a trove of recently released documents from the state attorney’s office—along with PEOPLE’s own interviews with family and friends—it becomes clear that the family has been seriously dysfunctional for years. George and his wife, Cindy, 50, were frequently at odds and, though almost everyone agrees that Cindy was an exceedingly devoted grandmother, she and Casey had an intense rivalry.
The evidence laid out in the documents, much of which comes from clues gathered from Caylee‘s body, which was found in a wooded area less than half a mile from the Anthony home on Dec. 11, also adds heartbreaking new details about the way Caylee may have died. Investigators discovered Caylee‘s mouth had been sealed with duct tape—and a small heart-shaped sticker had been placed over her mouth. “You have to think about a person who would duct tape a child,” says Pat Brown, a Washington-based criminal profiler who is familiar with the case. “Nobody is going to duct tape a child after she is dead.” A source close to the investigation told PEOPLE the duct tape is “of considerable value.” When pressed on whether that means fingerprints have been found on the tape, the source would only say, “Read between the lines.” It may also turn out that the items found with Caylee that can be linked to the Anthony home, such as a blanket and a toy horse, undercut Casey’s contention that she dropped her daughter off with a babysitter—then went a month while the child was supposedly missing before authorities were notified. To top it off, law enforcement specialists who examined Casey’s cell phone found no record of the purported sitter. “We’ve got a really solid case against Casey,” says the law enforcement source. “We know that the killer had to have access to the house and also had to know what [Caylee] liked and what her favorite toys were.”
It is an open question how much the disclosures helped put George over the edge. There is little doubt that he was in genuine anguish the day he went missing. According to Daytona Beach police chief Mike Chitwood, who was at the motel, George appeared “melancholy.” Later, on the ride to the hospital, says Chitwood, “he said, ‘You just don’t understand. You’ll never understand what this is like.'” Authorities were able to have Anthony committed for observation. As of Jan. 26 he remained in the hospital, though his lawyer said he had regained the “will to live.”
The documents and interviews make it clear that recent years—even before Caylee‘s murder—have been tough on the family. Casey and Cindy quarreled constantly, according to one source who knows the family well. “They were always at each other’s throats about something,” says the source. “Cindy would tell Casey she was immature, and Casey would tell Cindy she was ruining her life. They couldn’t communicate if it wasn’t for their fighting and bickering.” Things were scarcely better between Cindy and George. In an interview with the FBI last year, George said that he and his wife had separated for more than six months starting at the end of 2005. They reconciled, but there was no mistaking the rift between them. “I’ve watched Cindy berate George over the littlest thing, just nasty, mean stuff,” says the source. “She’ll say, ‘George, you’re so stupid,’ in front of his friends.” (The Anthonys referred all interview requests to their attorney, who did not make his clients available for an interview.)
According to the documents, at one point Cindy wanted to divorce George but changed her mind because she feared losing the house and her savings in a settlement. The main problem in their marriage seemed to be their vastly different personalities. The source who knows them describes Cindy, who works as a nurse, as the domineering type. “Cindy is very type A, and she really runs that house,” says the source. “She’s the one who earns the money. George sort of defers to her, does whatever she wants, treats her like royalty.”
As George, a former police officer, explained to authorities, his own work record has been spotty—including short-lived business ventures with his father and on his own after he left the force. During one period when he was unemployed, he sheepishly told investigators, he fell prey to an Internet scam. He provided few details of the swindle, except that it involved e-mail come-ons and $2.2 million purportedly in a United Kingdom bank. “I should’ve known better; it was stupid,” he said. He admitted he lost about $30,000 of the family’s money—and then lied about it to Cindy, telling her that he had blown the money on gambling. At the time of the interview with authorities he said he still hadn’t come clean with his wife. “She doesn’t know I did this scam thing,” he said.
In the Anthony family, lying at times seems to have been the default position when dealing with inconvenient facts. The released documents, for instance, highlight Cindy and George’s strange handling of Casey’s pregnancy. Cindy’s brother Rick Plesea recalled the time that Cindy, George and Casey showed up at his wedding in June 2005. The first thing he noticed was that Casey was clearly pregnant. But when he asked Cindy and George about it, they denied all, explaining that she was “just putting on weight.” When he later questioned them again, Cindy blithely said that Casey could not be pregnant because Casey had assured her “she did not have sex with anyone.” Plesea was astounded: “So I’m thinking if it’s not a baby it’s a tumor, and she only has a short time to live because it’s big.” Two months later Casey gave birth to Caylee—with conflicting stories about who the father was.
If anyone was hoping that the arrival of Caylee would help bring the family together, they were to be disappointed. In fact the birth of the baby only sharpened tensions between mother and daughter that had been festering for years. In the documents there is an account of how in the hospital after the delivery it was Cindy who held the baby first—which remained a source of friction. That pattern was to be repeated again and again. “Cindy called herself ‘Mommy’ to Caylee right in front of Casey,” says Jesse Grund, Casey’s former fiancé. “It was a calculated move to get under Casey’s skin.”
More recently, the suspicious circumstances under which Caylee went missing also created strain between Cindy and her brother Rick Plesea. A slew of e-mails between the two that were released by investigators (see box) shows that Plesea quickly concluded that Caylee was almost certainly dead and that Casey was somehow responsible—and couldn’t understand why Cindy, who staunchly defends her daughter, didn’t draw the obvious conclusions. “No parent would be at a nightclub every Friday after their daughter is kidnapped,” he wrote. “She has no remorse and doesn’t care about anyone except herself. You are so far out in left field on this, you have lost touch with reality.”
There is also reason to believe that at other times Cindy had little regard for her daughter. Grund, who has been interviewed by investigators and is considered a witness, recalls a dispute between Cindy and Casey. “All of a sudden, Cindy starts railing on Casey,” says Grund. “Cindy tells Casey what a loser she is and starts saying really awful stuff right in front of me. Then she asks me things like, ‘How could you be with her?'”
Casey remains in the county jail, awaiting her trial. Her defense team points out that so far there is no indication that investigators have established a cause of death for Caylee, a fact that they plainly hope to exploit. “If there’s not trauma to the bones, what are you going to say Ms. Anthony did to her child?” says a defense team spokesman. But are her parents still completely convinced that she is innocent? When asked that question by reporters right after George’s hospitalization, attorney Conway hedged. “They don’t know, they don’t know,” he said. “None of us know.”