One day last fall, some of Nashville's most influential people received an email from Townes Duncan, describing how his son had been indicted for child rape and sexual battery.
The story was on the evening news, saying only that Edward Duncan, then 18, was free on $150,000 bond. Townes didn't like what he was hearing.
The former white-shoe attorney, who now owns a stake in SouthComm, owner of The City Paper, wanted his friends to know the details. "Since all you have heard is a charge of rape," he wrote, "I think you deserve more information."
When he hit send, the message was delivered to a who's who of elite Nashville. What he didn't mention is that the charges had come from rival elites: the three young daughters of Patrick and Phillipa "Pip" Keeble. They're part of a longstanding Nashville family with deep ties to the old L&C Insurance Company—formerly one of the area's major corporate entities.
So began the skirmish over Edward Duncan, whose odyssey has taken him from a Russian orphanage to Belle Meade society to accused sex offender charged with violating small girls in one of Nashville's most expensive zip codes.
On the muggy evening of July 23, 2007, Townes and Ellen Duncan invited the Keebles over for dinner at their home on Cheek Road, just off Highway 100. It's a lovely, leafy neighborhood filled with luxury cars and children romping across broad green lawns, their faces scrubbed with that Ivory-clean look of wealth and privilege. The Duncans had moved in while their Green Hills residence was being remodeled. Townes' email describes a pleasant evening of new neighbors getting to know each other.
After dinner, the three Keeble girls—ages 5 to 7—went to the backyard to eat ice pops. Nightfall had come to Cheek Road, and a nearly full moon hung in the sky. Mounted floodlights illuminated the yard, which is overlooked by a bank of windows in the home's rear.
When the girls finished dessert, they asked Edward to help them catch fireflies. About 10 minutes later, wrote Townes, his wife Ellen checked on them. She soon returned with a report that "a happy firefly hunt was in progress."
Soon, "all four parents went outside and found the three girls playing happily, clamoring for Edward to give them piggy back rides." The evening seemed to end as amicably as it began.
But a month later, word came that something vile had taken place in the backyard that night. One of the Keeble daughters alleged that Edward exposed himself and asked the girls to "touch their mouths to his genital area and that all three complied," Townes wrote. "The other two daughters later supported this story."
The accusations would add a dark new chapter to Edward's rags-to-riches story.
Edward's upbringing wasn't typical Belle Meade. He was born in Russia to alcoholic parents, then abandoned to an orphanage along with his two younger sisters.
The Duncans first heard of his plight in church. The sisters were being adopted by a Tennessee couple who couldn't take in a third child. The then 13-year-old Edward would be left behind in Russia.
The Duncans decided to adopt him on the spot.
According to an email circulated by Ellen Duncan, Edward weighed just 77 pounds when he arrived in the U.S. He was held back in school due to differences in the Russian education system. But over time, he would blossom to an average American teen.
His is a story seemingly fit for the fairytale genre: a poor, neglected villager shepherded off to a shiny new land of wealth by a loving family.
So Ellen was jarred that day last fall when the Keebles arrived at her door with accusations that her son was a pervert. "They definitely played what I called that night 'the orphan card,' " she writes. "...[T]hey made assumptions about him because he has had a different past—not the affluent Belle Meade-bubble upbringing—and from that, made the assumption that there must be something in his past that would presume guilt."
This wasn't the Edward she knew. "...[B]ecause of his resilience and ability to adapt and move forward, he is a better, more courageous person than most adults I know."
He will need every ounce of that courage for the legal travails ahead. Shortly after the Keebles informed the Duncans of the accusations, Edward was arrested and charged with violating the three girls.
Neither family would consent to interviews with the Scene, and the county clerk's office says that documents related to the case are unavailable, since Judge Monte Watkins is reviewing motions.
But Townes writes that his son "categorically denies that any such thing—or any impropriety of any kind—occurred." He claims that it is impossible to believe that Edward could have performed such a brazen act in an "easily observable" place with all four parents so close at hand.
A grand jury didn't see it that way. Edward was indicted on one count of statutory rape, two counts of child rape and three counts of aggravated sexual battery.
Due to his friendship with Duncan, District Attorney Torry Johnson has recused his office from the case, naming former Williamson County District Attorney Joe Baugh as special prosecutor. Baugh could not be reached for comment.
A trial is set to begin on Sept. 29, but sources say both sides would like to reach a settlement before that day arrives.
If that occurs, we may never know what happened in the backyard that night. All that's left is the word of one well-connected family against another. Whether either side finds justice is very much an open question.
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