Standing on the back of a pickup at Leander High School with a Radio Shack megaphone in his hand and hundreds of people staring at him, Jake Brydon realized he had just done something either really good or really, really bad.
It was the summer of 2014, and the Williamson County construction company owner had kick-started an effort to help convicted sex offender Greg Kelley. Brydon didn’t know Kelley. He didn’t know Kelley’s family. He didn’t know if Kelley had actually committed the crime for which he had been jailed.
But the more he learned about the case, the more it bothered him. So Brydon, who knew some of Kelley’s supporters, got involved. That July 2014 night, while meeting with about 500 of Kelley’s supporters at the school, Brydon decided to put himself on the line to make sure, he says, that justice had been done.
“I still didn’t know if he did it, but I felt called to it,” said Brydon, 32, who has spent more than three years leading the effort to free Kelley and has personally covered some of Kelley’s legal bills (he won’t publicly say how much he has given). “I can’t explain it. I’ve never been called to anything. It’s like somebody sitting on my chest. It’s like a constant pressure.”
That magnetic pull has made Brydon a key figure in another blockbuster legal saga from the Williamson County criminal justice system that produced the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Brydon is one of countless people with no previous connection to Kelley who hold deeply rooted beliefs that he’s either a child molester rightly sent to prison or a wrongly convicted man railroaded through the system.
The movement has not waned in the past four years. Supporters maintained their vocal energy throughout Kelley’s trial in 2014, but the revelations of recent months have heightened their momentum.
The social media campaign
Each year, tens of thousands of child sexual assault abuse cases quietly churn through Texas courts, and sometimes, they also lead to appeals similar to that of Kelley, who is seeking to have his conviction and mandatory 25-year prison sentence overturned.
But rarely do they receive fanfare, garner public interest or see the defendant elevated into near-hero status. Williamson County District Attorney Shawn Dick said during his decade as a defense attorney, it was rare for a child sexual assault defendant to muster more than a handful of supporters — much less hundreds — or for anyone other than a victim’s family to closely monitor the case.
But in the four years since his arrest, Kelley’s case has sparked endless public fascination, bitter feuds among the players that have reached well beyond the courtroom and social media wars between complete strangers who tangle over whether a single fact or sliver of evidence proves their side.
Once, Kelley critics created a Twitter slideshow of mug shots of Kelley supporters who had been arrested for unrelated offenses. Brydon was featured because of his arrest for driving with a broken tail light.
Inevitably, reporters covering the case have been hit with a few social media blasts, too. Kelley supporters, for example, were incensed the American-Statesman covered a Texas Ranger’s search warrant that stated Kelley has given conflicting statements to investigators. Ranger Cody Mitchell also reported that Kelley regularly viewed pornography with “deviant” material in the weeks before the boy told his parents that he had been assaulted.
And at one point during the case, Cedar Park Police Chief Sean Mannix, angered by what he considered an assault on his department’s work, branded Kelley’s team a “cult-like group.”
While Kelley’s legal case has played out in the courts, it’s cyberspace that has kept his mass of supporters together for the last three years.
Since 2014, the GRK Foundation (a group made up of Kelley supporters) has updated its Facebook page with voluminous posts and videos updating 9,000-plus followers on the status of the case. Brydon has regularly recorded himself telling people to show up for rallies or thanking them for their support.
Kelley embraced the medium as soon as he could. A video he posted in the car after being released from the Williamson County Jail was viewed 40,000 times. The video he made the next day — one in which he criticized his trial attorney — has been viewed 63,000 times.
Most recently, Kelley’s supporters hosted a “welcome home” party with hundreds of members of the public showing up to meet or take selfies with Kelley after he was released on bond. That move inflamed his detractors, who questioned how anyone could celebrate a man still convicted of child molestation and who has not been cleared of any wrongdoing. After months of investigating, Mitchell testified that Kelley remains one of three suspects in the case.
Because of the intense and steadfast public attention that has spanned years, observers have called Kelley’s case a local version of O.J. Simpson’s, or more recently, that of Casey Anthony, a Florida mother found not guilty of killing her 2-year-old daughter.
Riveted, and riled up
Social scientists have studied cases similar to Kelley’s and what it is about them that attracts followers bent on consuming every detail.
“We are primed every single day with fictional TV shows, movies, news shows, and they are moving us all toward a pretty extreme emphasis on true crime,” said Katherine Ramsland, a forensic psychology professor at DeSales University near Allentown, Pa.
Kelley is appealing for several obvious reasons, they say. He is handsome, a high school football star in a state where football is king, and a devout Christian who has the unwavering support of his lovely high school sweetheart. Just before his release on bond, there was persistent talk of a wedding proposal right outside the jail in Georgetown.
“It’s human nature,” said Scott Bonn, a criminology professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who has written books on the issue. “We are drawn to attractive people.”
For some, these cases become an extreme sort of entertainment.
“Sometimes something is missing in their own lives,” Bonn said. “It’s a distraction, and there are individuals for whom it becomes almost a passion or hobby. They sometimes go from one criminal case to the next.”
Ramsland said, “People invest themselves because sometimes they identify with certain aspects of it. They get obsessed and they need to master the facts, even if they aren’t correct. People also don’t like mysteries hanging in the air, and they want these things resolved and explained to their satisfaction.”
Others likely have followed the case because they worry for the abused child. The public often feels compelled to protect those who can’t defend themselves from violent acts, experts say.
Amy Smith, who did not respond to interview requests, blogs about sexual abuse cases and has been vocal on social media about her cause. She routinely weighs in on the Kelley case and has done so for years.
Immediately after news broke that prosecutors were reopening the case and had declared Kelley’s friend, Johnathan McCarty an “alternative suspect,” she posted a lengthy statement: “Holding rallies, posting misleading information on social media, and trampling the courthouse lawn in front of news cameras on behalf of a convicted sex offender endangers kids by causing those who see, suspect and suffer child sex crimes to fear speaking up.
“Those who believe Kelley is innocent should visit him, pray for him, write him and help his family,” she wrote. “But they should do so in ways that respect the child victim and his family and do not advocate forgoing the judicial process or scare or intimidate other victims of abuse to into staying silent.”
Drawn to injustice
Brydon admits that Kelley’s appearance might make some people do a double take, but he says that’s not what keeps supporters committed. What drew him to help Kelley, Brydon said, was outrage over what he sees as injustice.
“I think the biggest log we have on the fire is when you look into this case, you see how screwed up it was on every level,” Brydon said.
That’s what convinced Fran Keller — who, along with her husband, Dan, spent more than 21 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of child molestation — that Kelley is innocent. She and Dan attended court hearings to support Kelley and were present when he walked out of jail on bond in August.
“They have just ruined that boy’s life,” Keller said.
The case against Kelley started in 2013 when a 4-year-old boy told his mother that he had been sexually abused at an in-home day care facility run by Shama McCarty in Cedar Park. Kelley was living in the house because his parents were sick and because he was friends with Shama McCarty’s son, Johnathan.
In 2014, Kelley was convicted of super aggravated sexual assault of a child and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Brydon had only vaguely followed Kelley’s trial, catching a few snippets on TV. Once, he saw Cedar Park Police Department Detective Chris Dailey talking about his investigation of Kelley.
Another time, Brydon saw his old high school teacher David Anderson onscreen with his daughter, Gaebri, Greg Kelley’s girlfriend. That made Brydon pause.
“I thought something’s not right about this because David Anderson has been known for his high character for 30-plus years,” Brydon said. “He’s not the kind of guy who would hitch his wagon to a pedophile.”
Still, Brydon let it go until after Kelley’s conviction, when a friend who had followed the trial told Brydon he believed Kelley had been railroaded.
Brydon called David Anderson for more details. The bottom line, Brydon remembers, was that Kelley’s supporters had given up hope because Kelley had signed away his right to appeal the case when he took a deal for a 25-year-sentence, the minimum. Brydon refused to accept that.
“There is always a way, but you’re going to have to fight like hell,” he said.
But Brydon wanted to gauge just how much community interest there was. He asked Gaebri to call a meeting at the Leander High School parking lot. He was shocked when about 500 people showed up, and he ran to the store to buy a megaphone so everyone could hear.
Brydon made up his mind. He agreed to pay for an appeals lawyer and a private investigator to work on the case.
“At that moment, it was pretty scary to me because I didn’t know anything about Greg,” he said.
Now Brydon is so convinced of Kelley’s innocence that Kelley is living with Brydon, his wife and their three children while out of jail on bond.