A Town Possessed by Satan

'We were a family. Then all of a sudden, there's nobody left.'

The attorney general, Janet Reno, says she may order a thorough investigation of the child sex abuse epidemic in the city of Wenatchee in Washington State. In 1994 and 1995, 43 adults were arrested on 29,726 counts--that's not a typo--of sex abuse involving 60 children. (The police used calculators and their imaginations.) It is the largest child sex abuse investigation in American history.

In 1996, Janet Reno's FBI agents did "investigate" the charges, but on her orders, they were not allowed to question anyone--police, judges, or defendants. All the investigators did was send a batch of court papers to Reno. That's an investigation on the order of Rudy Giuliani looking into police brutality.

Reno changed her mind because of a five-part series earlier this year in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer by Andrew Schneider and Mike Barber--"The Power To Harm: A Record of Abuses in Wenatchee." It deserves to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The real abuses were by those in power, and their victims were the citizens they accused and tried on false child sex abuse charges. The victims were also the children, of course, including those who were pressured to tell false stories that sent adults to prison.

From the series: "Richard, now 17, expresses the pain shared by the true victims of Wenatchee. His mother and father were accused of more than 10,000 counts of rape and molestation. His sisters, who accused dozens of people of sex abuse, are in foster homes. He has no idea where his two younger brothers are.

'It's like a bomb went off and blew everybody away,' says Richard, now living with adoptive parents in the Midwest. 'We were a family. Then all of a sudden, there's nobody left."'

The chief instigator of the charges and arrests was Robert Perez, head of the Wenatchee police department's sex crimes unit. In the Post-Intelligencer series, there is this testimony:

"Kim Allbee was 10 years old when she was questioned at her school for five hours and then taken to a foster home. '[Bob Perez] kept telling me I was lying. He said other kids said I was molested and I better tell him. But nothing ever happened to me, and I never saw anything."' She was later forced, according to the Post-Intelligencer, to accuse her mother of rape.

Juana Vasquez was fired from her job as a supervisor by the state department of social and health services because she spoke the truth to her superiors, who were certainly not her moral superiors, about the investigations: "Warnings that they'd never see their parents again were held over the children's heads if they failed to say they had been abused."

Linda Miller, 38, a mother of four children, was arrested on 3200 counts of child rape. She was found guilty of eight counts of child molestation and was sent away for a 33-year term. She told the Post-Intelligencer:

"Perez never yelled at me, but kept telling me over and over I was lying. He said, 'If you ever, ever want to see your children again, you will do what I say.' I crumbled. I would have said anything, signed anything, done anything just for the assurance that he would not hurt my children and that I'd be able to see them again."

Perez did not tape-record his interrogations. He took notes. And then he destroyed the notes, so whatever he testified to in court was on his word alone.

As for Linda Miller, Andrew Schneider and Mike Barber note, "Appellate courts tossed out her conviction. The reason: too much hearsay was allowed in her trial, and she wasn't allowed to present an expert witness to explain why she might confess to something she didn't do."

By and large, there was a pronounced class difference in terms of who went to prison and who was acquitted. The difference, as it is everywhere else in the United States, was money. Defendants who had public defenders because they couldn't afford private attorneys did badly.

The Post-Intelligencer series tells of the defense of Idella Everett: "Her attorney, Rebecca Shaw, had been practicing law for barely a year when she advised Everett to plead no contest and accept a 56-month sentence in January 1995.

"...Everett's case was a hard call. Perez had arrested her on 1586 counts of rape involving 10 children. Chief Public Defender Jeff Barker says it would have been risky to put Everett in front of a jury. A tragic figure who weighs 400 pounds and who reads at a third-grade level, Everett might draw an unsympathetic jury and spend decades in prison."

But her lawyer, Rebecca Shaw, failed to make an argument that might have kept Everett out of prison. Dr. Dennis Sheppard, a Los Angeles forensic psychologist, had been asked to determine if Everett was competent to stand trial. He told Rebecca Shaw: "Mrs. Everett does not at this time have a reasonable understanding of her constitutional rights...and in all likelihood did not have such an understanding...at the time of her arrest and interrogation."

But Rebecca Shaw, inexperienced, advised her client to cop a plea. Had she presented Dr. Sheppard's statement to the court, the judge might well have dismissed the charges.

Another defendant, Robert Devereaux, had the money to hire Steve Lacy, an experienced lawyer who forcefully persuaded the prosecutor to drop child-rape charges.

But still, the Post-Intelligencer reporters say, "Devereaux was ruined. The former executive now ekes out a living as a convenience store clerk at a truck stop outside of town. He sold his home to pay defense bills and lives in a basement apartment in the home of a former foster daughter....

"'I came out good,' he says. 'If I had a court-appointed attorney, I'd be sitting in prison right now. I have no doubts about that."'

Next week: During this massive violation of constitutional rights in Wenatchee, where was the American Civil Liberties Union? Where was the press when the horrors started and for a long time after? Where were the agencies commissioned to help children? What were all these guardians of justice afraid of?

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