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No. 2: Casey Anthony

On July 15, 2008, Cindy Anthony reported her granddaughter, 2-year-old Caylee, missing. The toddler lived with her grandparents and her mom, Cindy’s wild-child 22-year-old daughter, Casey, in an unassuming four-bedroom home in Orlando, Florida. Cindy told police that she hadn’t seen her granddaughter in a month and that Casey hadn’t been around much, either.

The Casey Anthony of that time was an unemployed mom who had never finished high school, never attended college, and never held a steady job, but she claimed to have done all three. She lived off her parents (her father, a former police officer, told the FBI she stole money from them) and had Caylee at age 20 but didn’t know who the father was. Casey suffered from seizures in 2007, but no definite medical cause was found; her mother suggested the seizures were a possible explanation for Casey’s bizarre behavior after Caylee’s disappearance. In July 2008, she was accused of stealing money from a friend, Amy Huizenga, and was found guilty of check fraud.

Casey’s troubling background began to emerge as U.S. media coverage of Caylee’s disappearance intensified. Her car smelled like death, her family reported to the 911 operator. Casey claimed that “Zanny the nanny” had been taking care of her daughter, but the sitter turned out to be a figment of her imagination. She lied to the police about working at Universal Studios, confessing the truth only after she led authorities to her “office” to show them around.

Understanding Casey Anthony
But beyond her jarring web of lies, who was Casey Anthony? People dug into details online, searching for Casey’s party pictures, MySpace page, diary entries, and more, but Casey herself wasn’t talking — and she hadn’t proved particularly credible. Investigators learned of Casey’s messy relationship with her mother partially through her grandmother, who wondered “if [Casey] hated her mom more than she loved Caylee.”

Casey’s love life was jumbled, too. She’s never publicly named Caylee’s father, and theories abound about who and where the guy is. (Cindy Anthony told People magazine that Caylee’s dad was “killed in a terrible car accident.”) For the first year or two of the baby’s life, however, Casey’s then boyfriend Jesse Grund claimed to play the daddy role.

The extremes of Casey’s deceit aside, what was it about this case that stoked the public’s interest to such an obsessive degree? The disturbing reality is that kids go missing — and are sometimes even killed — every day, often by parents. Among industrialized countries, the United States ranks highest in child homicides. And, sadly, children killed by their mothers make up 3 out of 10 murders.

“Grace” under pressure
Part of the media frenzy could be attributed to TV journalist and firebrand Nancy Grace, who built her name on the missing and the murdered. The former prosecutor claimed to take a  “victims’ rights” stance on cases she covered, but throughout 2011, Grace acted like she was leading a Casey Anthony witch hunt. She was adamant in her belief that Casey killed Caylee, and she appealed to viewers’ emotions instead of focusing on the evidence, which was spotty. With Grace’s ongoing verbal assaults against Caylee’s mom, the public interest shifted from the child to Casey: her looks, her penchant for partying (she entered a “hot body” contest while Caylee was missing), and her snowballing cover-ups.

Compounded in the public eye, these factors seemed to point to a motive. In the media, Caylee’s death was presented as having happened simply because she was in her mother’s way, an obstacle to Casey’s carefree life. The tabloids denounced it as a tragic example of a mother’s ultimate betrayal, calling Casey “the most hated woman in America.” In July, a latex mask of Casey’s mug — dubbed “the most frightening mask on the planet” — sold for $1 million on eBay. For many, Anthony became the living, breathing antithesis of everything expected of mothers in general (our culture demands that moms be doting, even sacrificial). Casey Anthony, flying in the face of this convention, transformed into a ghastly embodiment of the monstrous mom.

The Casey Anthony circus encompassed many themes that intrigue Americans, especially women: missing kids, unsolved mysteries, forensics, family dysfunction, and mother-daughter relationships. It was a juicy, real-life tragedy more dramatic than the craziest episode of “CSI” or “Law & Order: SVU.” Perhaps that’s why, when it came to Casey Anthony, we just couldn’t get enough.

Laura Barcella is a freelance writer and a Yahoo! copy editor. She has written pop culture, news, arts, and lifestyle pieces for more than 40 publications, including Salon, the Village Voice, AlterNet, Elle Girl, Nylon, Time Out New York, CNN.com, Bust, and the Chicago Sun-Times. She’s also the editor of the forthcoming anthology Madonna and Me, Madge-centric personal essays by women writers.

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