Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Wenatchee: A True Story by Dorothy Rabinowitz

WENATCHEE, Wash.--The last time Pastor Robert Roberson and his wife, Connie, saw their 4-and-a-half-year-old daughter was on March 28. That day, the Robersons joined the ever increasing number of Wenatchee citizens arrested, over the past year, on grounds of child sex abuse.

The Robersons were taken off to prison, accused of sexual assaults against their own small daughter and an 11-year-old girl--charges that would in due course multiply to include sex crimes of a dazzling variety. The number of their alleged victims, too, would multiply as the Robersons' young accusers told rapt police and investigators from Child Protective Services of more and more children abused in various corners and crevices of the pastor's small church, the Pentecostal Church of God House of Prayer; of child rape in more conspicuous places, including the altar, during services; and of orgies in a variety of other locations around town.

Following their arrest, Connie and Robert Roberson's daughter, Rebekah, was taken off to a foster home and given over to the ministrations of Child Protective Services and allied abuse investigators. In short order the latter's interrogations of the child yielded fruit and delivered what is known, in the richly productive world of abuse investigators, as a disclosure--namely, of sexual assaults already alleged against her parents. Freed on bail after more than four months' imprisonment, the Robersons now await their trial--due to be held in November--and are forbidden any contact with their daughter.

However extreme, their circumstances are not particularly unique nowadays in Wenatchee, a town nestled in the foothills of the Cascades, population 59,000. Since the child sex ring investigations began here, more than 40 people have been arrested--several charged with 2,400 and more counts of sex abuse. One woman was charged with 3,200 counts of child rape--a lifetime's work. Child Protective Services has by now placed some 50 children of the accused in foster homes. Some children are taken off, for a time, to locked facilities (inaccessible to parents' defense attorneys and family members) to undergo therapy. For the prosecutors, at least, the benefits of this therapy are undeniable, given the fact that the focus of most of the treatment is, evidently, to get the detainees to give details of molestation.

Of the accused who have been arrested, 28 are now in prison. Eleven are awaiting trial. Some have plea bargained or confessed, they attest, under police threats of a lifetime in prison and loss of their children if they didn't tell the investigator what he wanted to hear. Many would soon recant their confessions, often studded with elaborate descriptions of orgies with children and, more important, the names of all the townspeople supposedly involved in these activities.

How the Wenatchee child sex abuse investigations first began is not easy to unravel. What is clear is that the current remarkable sweep of accusations and arrests came about mainly thanks to the single-minded work and preoccupations of one detective, Robert Perez, sex crimes investigator for the Wenatchee police--abetted by the like-minded staff of the local Child Protective Services. Whatever side they take, most here agree that the blond, rosy-cheeked investigator could never have uncovered so much molestation without the aid of one 11-year-old girl--the accuser and chief witness in most of the cases.

The fact that this chief witness also happens to be Detective Perez's own foster daughter and member of his household doesn't appear to have troubled anyone in law enforcement here. In 1992, she had already given clearly fanciful testimony in another case, ending in a child rape conviction. In 1994, she came to live in the comfortable home of Detective Perez and his wife, where she was soon joined by her older sister (also to serve as an accuser in the sex ring cases).

This January, the younger girl began confiding new names of molesters to an attentive Detective Perez, already pursuing a trail of such cases. In April, Detective Perez and two child care workers took the girl on a ride around town--reminiscent of the kind taken in the McMartin case, where children fingered half the population of Manhattan Beach, Calif.--and asked her to point out all the locations in which she and other children had been assaulted. By the end of this journey, now known to local skeptics as The Parade of Homes, the girl had identified 23 sites, the Robersons' house and church among them, as well as a molester or two passing by on the sidewalk. All this the child care workers earnestly recorded.

In court this week, the girl held a large teddy bear while testifying against her half-sister Donna, a terrified woman in her 30s who shook as the witness gave details of Donna's alleged sexual assaults. Troubled by a heavy cough, the young witness nevertheless appeared radiant, particularly on her receipt of a huge smile from her approving foster father, Detective Perez, seated at the prosecutor's table. All the accusing children--of which there is now a dependable core of four--were rewarded with extravagant shows of support and thumbs-up signs, notably from Child Protective Services personnel who packed the courtrooms during the trials.

Among those tried was 31-year-old Sunday School teacher Honna Sims, accused of raping and molesting children during the group sex adventures at Pastor Roberson's church every Friday and Sunday night--charges of which she was later acquitted. Each accuser offered versions of these festivities, some of them wonderful to contemplate. One child said that he was so tired from having to engage in sexual acts with all the adults at the church on weekends that the pastor would write a note to the school to get him excused on Mondays. Another told of inflatable sex toys kept under the altar, of the pastor lying on-stage crying "Hallelujah!" while attacking young victims during services, of mass child rape (at the church and elsewhere) by men all in black wearing sunglasses and by ladies wielding colored pencils and carrots, and of crowds of adults so organized that everybody got a turn with each of the children. Anyone who missed his turn with a child would, it was explained, get an extra visit that month.

Neither the 50-year-old pastor nor his 45-year-old wife were altogether surprised at their arrest. They had, after all, seen one person after another named as a molester over the past months.

Among them was child care caseworker Paul Glassen, who had the temerity to report that a girl who had just accused her foster father had come in, disturbed, to confide that she had "told the police a lot of lies about Dad." For his efforts to bring this recantation to the attention of this superiors, Mr. Glassen was promptly arrested--on grounds of tampering with a witness--immediately suspended from his job for "misconduct," and finally fired. More important, the caseworker's name suddenly began cropping up on the list of those identified as participants in the sex rings. This was enough for Mr. Glassen, who promptly packed up his wife and child and headed for Canada.

Pastor Roberson's problem began when it became clear that he was monitoring the arrests closely, and keeping records. Unknown to him, he, too, now began to be named in the allegations. In March he stood up at a public meeting and roundly criticized the investigators' tactics. Five days later, police took the Robersons to jail, where they were kept on a million dollars bail each, and where Robert Roberson was brutally beaten at regular intervals, the guards having informed prisoners of the child molester in their midst.

The list of suspected molesters grows apace. Investigator Larry Daly--a defense investigator in the Honna Sims case--was told, a few weeks back, that he could not enter offices of the Child Protective Services to interview plaintiff children, because of vague reports that he was wanted on child abuse charges. Now Tom Grant, reporter for CBS affiliate KREM 2 News, who has broadcast an unrelenting, generally remarkable expose of the Wenatchee prosecutions, may also soon come under investigation for sexual abuse, according to a high state official.

Few such suspects, needless to say, are likely to endure anything remotely like the trials of Robert Devereaux. The target of the allegations recanted by Mr. Glassen's client, Mr. Devereaux was by all accounts a singularly devoted foster parent until he became caught up in the swirl of charges of sex circles operating in his home. Today he sits in his darkened house sold to pay lawyers, a house empty of furniture, sold to pay the bills--a ruined man like many another in Wenatchee today.

copyright the Wall Street Journal, 1995

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