When Andy and Jenifer Thyssen first brought their newly adopted 12-year-old son from Kazakhstan to the United States in 2004, they felt they had honored the call of God. The way they saw it, they had saved the boy from a grim future of spending his youth in an orphanage.
It soon became clear that their path would not be easy. The slender, blue-eyed and brown-haired boy named Koystya struggled not only with language but with basic skills such as taking out the trash or making himself a sandwich. A test showed he had an IQ of 74 — considered borderline intellectually disabled.
Within months of bringing him into their family, his new parents’ concerns deepened. Koystya began fondling himself in public. When they overheard him muttering English words such as “rape,” they began to wonder if he had been molested — or even was molesting children himself.
Soon, he confessed to it.
Over the next decade, Koystya claimed to have sexually molested nine children, according to his parents and police records. The Thyssens say they tried to get help for the son they love while protecting potential victims. Each time he confessed to a possible sex crime, the couple reported it to police.
The Thyssens tried counseling. Eventually, they put their adopted son in foster care, hoping the state would help get him the special therapy he needed. They asked their friends and preacher to pray for his healing.
Over time, the Thyssens told friends, they felt increasingly powerless. Koystya told his parents he still was molesting children — even in foster care — and fantasized about hurting more. But each time he described another incident, investigators were never able to corroborate the events, and Koystya was never charged.
As Koystya grew and entered adulthood, the Thyssens worried about the damage their now 23-year-old son might inflict on society. Out of ideas, they resorted to a final option they thought would protect their family.
They furnished a single-room apartment with a concrete floor on their suburban Hays County property with a microwave and cot. They moved Koystya inside. The couple told him they would visit regularly and deliver food and would take him on supervised trips out several times a week.
Then they pulled the door closed behind them and locked their son inside. It seemed an imperfect but protective and humane solution.
So the Thyssens were baffled when, a year later, a Hays County sheriff’s department patrol car pulled up in front of their Dripping Springs home and they were led away in handcuffs. The May 2014 news reports, broadcast around the world with their mugshots, seemed like they were about a family they didn’t recognize: A local churchgoing couple charged with kidnapping their adopted son? Abusing a boy by sealing him inside an isolated and locked garage?
Did they really deserve 10 years in prison?
Many families unprepared
When the Thyssens had their first son 15 years ago, they dreamed of growing a large family. But after several years passed without Jenifer Thyssen becoming pregnant, the couple began considering adoption.
Through a church program in the summer of 2003, they had learned about a group of children from a Kazakhstani orphanage who were coming to the United States with the hope of finding a home — and an escape from the grim orphanage conditions that they’d heard included abuse and malnutrition.
Experts say that such conditions can leave children scarred for life and that prospective parents often are unprepared for the intensity of behavioral and mental issues with which their new children arrive.
“We see a lot of families who don’t avail themselves of professional guidance before the adoption and end up in situations that exceed their abilities both financially or relationshipwise,” said Dana Johnson, professor of pediatrics and founder of the International Adoption Clinic at the University of Minnesota, which helps parents evaluate their ability to handle a troubled child.
Another family initially was supposed to adopt Koystya, but those plans collapsed when that set of prospective parents backed out. The Thyssens decided to meet him for a trial period together and fell in love.
“They were determined to lift that child out of the horrible conditions he had been in,” said Wendy Brockett, a pediatric nurse and family friend who met Jenifer Thyssen through a music group. “They prayed about it, and they felt very strongly that God was calling them to take this child.”
The yearlong adoption process was grueling and an emotional roller coaster. The couple frequently enlisted the help of a church friend, Dastan Aitzhanov, who also was from Kazakhstan, to serve as an interpreter when they called the orphanage to speak to Koystya.
“They were totally excited,” Aitzhanov said. “I still just remember thinking, I can’t believe there are people out there like that, who have such a big heart.”
Frustrated by how long it was taking to complete the adoption and determined to see it through, Jenifer, a singer who frequently is invited to perform with church groups, and her younger biological son moved to Kazakhstan for six months while bureaucrats in the former Soviet bloc country finalized the process. Andy Thyssen, a software engineer, stayed behind to help pay for their temporary residency and prepare for Koystya’s arrival.
The Thyssens at last finalized the adoption paperwork on May 18, 2004, and moved their second son into his new home. It wasn’t long, however, before the couple started noticing troubling signs.
“At first they didn’t think much of it,” Aitzhanov said. “Then it became more serious.”
The initial signals were subtle. Aitzhanov said Koystya was unusually “touchy-feely” for his age. But he and the Thyssens first dismissed those behaviors as needing love and physical affection.
Before long, though, the parents discovered other concerning clues in their home — that their son was stealing and using their underwear for his sexual gratification.
As his misbehavior continued, the Thyssens began feeling overwhelmed — documented by an adoption caseworker who visited their home within his first year. The caseworker wrote in a report that the Thyssens had begun consulting with counselors “to help manage their son’s needs and behaviors.”
Then, in the fall of 2005, a year and a half into his new life, their son made a series of alarming confessions — that he had molested children while visiting the homes of family friends.
They alerted Austin police. According to reports made in October and November 2005, detectives interviewed alleged victims and their parents. But they could never confirm the details of Koystya’s confessions.
There were indications Koystya may have been only describing images from a vivid and disturbed imagination. Parents of alleged victims insisted that he had never been alone with their children, and the alleged victims were too young to provide viable statements. Yet there always seemed to be just enough details to make his claims plausible.
The parents turned to the state for help. For the next three years, Child Protective Services caseworkers, with the Thyssens’ blessing, placed Koystya in a series of foster homes through a joint conservatorship arrangement. Throughout the separation, during which their son received numerous treatments and therapies for both child victims of sexual abuse and for adolescent sexual predators, the Thyssens’ friends said they never considered permanently giving Koystya up.
“They stayed the course,” Brockett said. “This was their family, and they gave them everything they could possibly give them. They just tried harder and harder to find help for him.”
In the meantime, the Thyssens continued growing their family. Despite the couple’s earlier fertility problems, Jenifer Thyssen had had five children, now ranging in age from 1 to 15 years old. The family also adopted another teenage son, whom Jenifer met while visiting Koystya before the adoption. Today, he is an adult living in Montana.
Koystya’s behavior continued to deteriorate. Records show that at one point, he told a therapist that he fantasized about an array of disturbing sexual behavior.
“They had turned to so many people and agencies for help, but it was a problem they had to deal with every single day, and the problem got worse as Koystya became older,” said John Nagle, an Austin software company owner who worked with Andy Thyssen.
State records show the Thyssens repeatedly warned CPS officials that they thought their son was still molesting children in foster homes, based on his own confessions. He moved in and out of a half-dozen homes, according to Perry Minton, the Thyssens’ attorney.
By 2009, the couple decided Koystya was better off back in their home.
Even after returning, he remained in treatment. At one point, Jenifer Thyssen, hoping to give therapists a complete picture of her son’s history, recorded an interview with him. During it, according to a transcript, Koystya recounted detailed stories of sexual violence. Because of the limited information, however, police were never able to fully investigate the claims.
Over the next several years, the Thyssens remained on edge, fearful to leave Koystya alone. The parents particularly worried about their other children.
By 2011, the family had outgrown their Cedar Park home, where they had lived since 2008, and bought a new house near Dripping Springs. The two-story brick home sits along Meadow Ridge Drive, a quiet rural road where houses have sprung up in open fields in the past two decades. The stand-alone garage sits about 50 feet from the main house.
Early on in the new home, the Thyssens, following what friends said was a therapist’s advice, set up an alarm system in which lights would activate if Koystya left his room.
“The frequency of Koystya’s acting in sexually charged ways toward the family continued to grow, and their need to maintain physical safety required them to make daily decisions on how to handle the situation,” said Minton, who represents the Thyssens.
In a last-ditch, tough-love solution, they decided to set him up in the makeshift apartment. With its isolation and locked doors, the arrangement allowed the Thyssens to relax for the first time in years. They also hoped it would give Koystya an opportunity to learn to care for himself by preparing his own meals and living independently.
The arrangement lasted a year. On April 29, 2014, a Tuesday afternoon, records show Koystya used a screwdriver to pry open the windows, climb out and break into a neighbor’s house. According to police reports, he stole two pairs of women’s underwear.
‘Koystya … believes it’s wrong’
When Hays County deputies learned of the break-in, they called Koystya in for questioning. Before long, he revealed that he had escaped from his locked apartment, and the focus of the investigation turned to the Thyssens.
In police interviews, Koystya described a lonely existence shut off from the world and having to survive on food rations from his family. “Koystya stated if he runs out of food, then he has to wait until they bring him food again, which is usually Saturdays,” an affidavit said.
He said he was permitted to leave only once a week to visit a counselor and could “shower in the main residence prior to the visit.” But he added he never got to have dinner with his family, only “sometimes” received gifts during holidays and rarely spent time in their home.
“Koystya stated he believes it’s wrong how he is treated but doesn’t say anything,” the affidavit said.
Koystya, who admitted breaking into the neighbor’s home, was charged with burglary. Yet within days, investigators also charged the Thyssens with kidnapping, a crime for which they face up to a decade in prison. A judge first set their bails at $300,000, though later lowered them to $70,000 each. While their son remains in jail, the Thyssens are out on bond.
Hays County District Attorney Wes Mau won’t discuss specifics of the case but defended his decision to criminally charge the Thyssens. “There are legal procedures in place for dealing with people, whether they are your own children or not, who have particular issues that might make them a danger to themselves or others,” he said. “You have to limit yourselves to those ways; otherwise, we are letting individuals decide how other individuals are treated.”
Friends and associates of the Thyssens have rushed to their defense. They said the duration Koystya stayed locked up and reports of prisonlike conditions he lived in have been overstated. They said that the family routinely allowed him out of the apartment to socialize with them and that Andy Thyssen sometimes took his son to work with him.
No trial date has been set for the Thyssens. But if prosecutors move forward with a trial, Aitzhanov said he hopes he is called to address the jury.
“They have done an incredible job of handling this difficult circumstance,” he said.
The Rev. Jack Smith, associate pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, where the family attends weekly services, said he hopes it never gets to that point and that the case will be dropped.
“I think if everyone heard the whole story they would say, ‘Wow, this isn’t what I thought it was,’” he said.
About this story
Over the past four months, the American-Statesman reviewed hundreds of pages of court records, including therapists’ notes and Child Protective Services documents, and interviewed numerous friends of Andy and Jenifer Thyssen, who declined to comment directly for the article. The newspaper also interviewed law enforcement officials and adoption experts.