The Wenatchee Sex-Crime Case -- Evidence On Trial
Seattle Times Staff Reporters
Wenatchee Police Detective Robert Perez tenaciously pursued his investigation into stories of sexual predators who victimized children - sometimes their own children. The more he heard, the more determined he became that justice be done. But critics say it was a flawed effort, built more on outrage than on solid police work. -----------------------------------------------------------------
WENATCHEE, Chelan County - His gut told him the whole, ugly story was true. Sick, that's how he felt. Every time he talked to another kid, Wenatchee Police Detective Robert Perez got the same feeling.
Building the nation's biggest child-rape case, Perez relied heavily on instinct. He'd seen a lot of ugly, but nothing like this. So it was on-the-job training, coupled with his own innate ability to read people.
He believed the children absolutely, no matter how fantastic their stories. Only if they denied being sexually abused by members of a loosely organized group, dubbed "The Circle," did he doubt them. Way he figured, those kids were scared or embarrassed, and it was up to him to convince them it was OK to tell it like it happened.
As for the suspects, Perez expected them to lie.
So some people thought he was "Evil Bob," so what? Given the chance, he wouldn't do anything differently.
"I don't have any trouble sleeping at night, if that's what you're asking," Perez says, rocking back in a battered office chair.
He reaches for a thick, black book - big enough to be a condensed world history, but it's really his collection of case reports. "My work stands for itself," he says, thumbing the pages. "Take a look at the record."
The record, it turns out, is rife with problems and questions: Interviewing child victims using tactics that violate standard guidelines. Using recanted adult confessions as a basis for arrests. Offering deals to two previously convicted sex offenders in exchange for their testimony.
And, perhaps most strikingly, the clear conflict of interest created when Perez's foster daughter began to make allegations of sexual abuse, becoming a key witness in the so-called Wenatchee sex-ring investigation.
The Wenatchee case began in the spring of 1994 as an iron-clad investigation into one family's abuse of their children. Over the course of two years it grew into a sprawling, bizarre collection of individual cases involving upwards of 40 children. Police say three loosely organized and overlapping groups of adults participated in child-swapping sex rings, sexually abusing the children over a period of eight years.
The prosecutions continue, with one high-profile case involving a pastor and his wife currently in trial. So far, 32 adults have been arrested, 14 have pleaded guilty, five have been convicted by juries and seven have been freed after charges were dropped, dismissed or in one case tossed out by a jury. Four other cases are pending.
By those numbers alone, the Wenatchee sex case is an unprecedented achievement for such prosecutions.
That record, however, has not proven a sex ring existed in Wenatchee. With one exception - a case in which a woman was convicted of abusing her own and other children at sex parties - individuals have been found guilty of incest or of sexually abusing children in isolated situations.
The Seattle Times conducted an exhaustive review of criminal court records, police reports and evidence files. Perez, Child Protective Services workers who teamed with police in the investigation and others involved in the case were interviewed at length.
That review showed Perez's aggressive style violated guidelines recommended by national experts on interviewing child-abuse victims. Among other things, he often informed child victims of what others were saying. He interviewed some children multiple times, sometimes for periods up to three hours.
CPS workers and Chelan County prosecutors defend Perez's style and say the investigation is solid.
But questions loom in the minds of some state officials, including Gov. Mike Lowry and House Speaker Clyde Ballard of East Wenatchee, who have requested a review of the investigation by the federal Department of Justice.
Whether innocent people were jailed or guilty people were set free is likely to remain uncertain long after verdicts are official. And as with other highly publicized child sex-abuse cases, the persistent doubts about the Wenatchee case threaten the credibility of the criminal-justice system and society's faith in its ability to protect parents as well as children.
"Mothers supposed to protect"
"The perception is I'm out cruisin' the streets snatching up people . . . but this is what I'm really doing," Perez says, sliding open drawers of a metal file cabinet.
One drawer is stuffed with blue sheets - CPS reports of suspected child abuse. On the wall are copies of 24 Washington state driver's licenses and identification cards: a visual arrest record of some of the people Perez says are guilty of the worst kind of crime.
"Gene Town, 20 years; Cherie Town, 11 years; Selid Holt, 14 years . . . " He's rattling off their sentences by memory.
"Most of them had nothing to do but collect monthly welfare checks and try to figure out ways to entertain themselves. Unfortunately, they decided to entertain themselves by having sex with their children and other people's children."
Next to the photos are peel-and-paste stickers of orange, yellow and blue. Blue means case dismissed. Perez scoffs at those. So far as he's concerned, everybody on the board is guilty. What really gets him is that more than half are women.
"When I was a child, it was a stranger in the park, maybe an uncle, but never this. . . . Nobody ever asked the question about mothers; it was too horrible. Mothers are supposed to protect their children."
After busting Gene Town, in an early case, for raping his own boys, Perez got to wondering: What was the mother doing all that time?
He asked; she confessed. That's what started the whole thing. It was April Fools Day 1994.
"I'm no better than any other investigator," says Perez. "I just asked the next question."
"An unholy alliance"
Perez, a 15-year police veteran, rotated onto the Crimes Against Persons desk of the Wenatchee Police Department two years ago. It was his first detective assignment.
His style contrasted dramatically with that of Mike Magnotti, his immediate predecessor. CPS workers liked Magnotti but some felt his low-key style didn't produce results often enough. There was little low-key about Perez.
Friends as well as colleagues, Perez and a tight clique of CPS workers became crusaders for kids. They worked hand in glove, with Perez setting the pace and tone. They got results. They documented abuse, adults went to prison and abused children were sent to foster homes.
"I know without our intervention these children would be leading lives of abuse and mental illness," says Katie Carrow, a five-year CPS worker who teamed with Perez in most of his interviews with children. "I've had some time to think about it, and I'm real comfortable with what we did - all of it."
Top officials at the state Department of Social and Health Services, Wenatchee Police Department, and prosecutors' offices also say the investigation was fair, legal and effective, as shown by their successes in court.
But critics say Perez and CPS went too fast, too far: That some people were wrongly arrested. That united in a common cause, Perez and CPS failed to check each other's individual prejudices and preconceptions, making it possible for individual incest cases to expand into conspiracies.
"My contention is CPS and the police have so closely cooperated in Wenatchee that they can no longer separate their roles," says Wenatchee attorney Steven Lacy, who represents three CPS workers, who were fired, and former foster parent Robert Devereaux. "It's an unholy alliance. . . . CPS is supposed to help kids and reunite families. The police are supposed to chase the criminals."
Arrested on 671 counts of child molestation and rape, Devereaux was not linked to the alleged sex ring until August 1994, a year into the investigation.
Perez and CPS characterized him as a ringleader hosting weekly orgies and ritualistic sex at his house. By one account, adults dressed in black and sunglasses encircled the children. Although Devereaux was central to the sex-ring theory, his house was never searched.
Prosecutors dropped all sex-abuse charges against him this fall, saying they didn't have sufficient evidence.
Lacy says CPS and Perez were out to get Devereaux, a single, divorced, foster father caring for a houseful of troubled girls.
Sex-related complaints had been filed against him from time to time in the past, but none could be substantiated. Tim Abbey, CPS supervisor for Chelan and Grant counties, concedes Devereaux came under heightened suspicion after his wife left him.
"A lot of people wondered," Abbey says.
Perez, who often dropped kids off at Devereaux's home over the years, says he thought it was a "good home" until the divorce left Devereaux alone with the girls.
"My suspicion started with a gut feeling," Perez says. "Devereaux brought a child into the police station. He wanted me to tell this child she shouldn't have sex with her boyfriend. But the way this came across, it wasn't so much that he was doing it as a concerned foster parent, but that he was jealous.
"Then I would see him out driving in his car and it would appear more as a social relationship than a parent-child relationship. . . . Then a child said he'd allow them to sit on his lap and drive the car. And that didn't sound right either."
Over lunch one day with CPS workers, Perez made a crude joke about Devereaux teaching the girls to drive a stick shift.
"When you have your lunch breaks, your off time, you blow steam off. . . . You say things that in regular circles would make people's hair curl or turn gray. But it doesn't mean anything," Perez says.
"All I said was I hope I'm still working in detectives when and if a child discloses and says something happened."
Two months after that luncheon, though it was not his case, Perez interviewed a teenage girl who'd attempted to poison Devereaux by putting iodine in his soda pop. He wanted to know if she had any "problems" with her foster father. The interview lasted two hours. Based on her allegations of sexual abuse, which the girl retracted the next day, Perez arrested Devereaux.
Perez interviewed four more girls - including his own foster child - who described one-on-one sexual encounters with Devereaux when they had lived with him. After more questioning by Perez and other police officers, the girls related stories of crowded sex parties at Devereaux's home most Friday nights.
Devereaux's name also began appearing in confessions taken by Perez from adults arrested in connection to the alleged sex ring.
Then two CPS workers, who had varying degrees of oversight of Devereaux's foster children and foster home, were fired. One was accused of sexually abusing children during parties at Devereaux's home, the other of leaking information about the police investigation to suspects. A third CPS worker was fired, he says, for speaking out against the investigation.
Shortly before trial, Chelan County prosecutors dropped the case against Devereaux. Some adults had recanted their confessions. The prosecution had found the four girls' stories full of contradictions. And the defense had lined up foster children who'd lived in the Devereaux house and would swear nothing happened.
Perez and Carrow still say Devereaux is guilty. And they still think there are sex-ring spies inside CPS. The fired CPS workers are suing the state.
Like a wild creature
Perez is out back at the house, feeding the chickens and two turkeys named Thanksgiving and Christmas. Normally, his two foster daughters tend the chickens to earn a little extra spending money. But today they can walk Princess, the German shepherd who is yipping to be let out of her kennel.
The detective's foster daughters are sisters, 11 and 13 years old. They are the key witnesses in the Wenatchee sex-ring investigation. The 11-year-old has identified 27 of the 32 adults arrested and charged with grotesque and repeated acts of child molestation and rape. She has been a key witness in six trials. Her sister has corroborated many of the allegations and named additional suspects.
Inside the house, the fridge is covered with construction-paper cards made by the girls. "I love you, Dad," is scrawled in a childish hand in purple ink - Perez's favorite color.
On the living-room wall are family photographs with the girls' school pictures prominently displayed. Compared with a photograph taken with their biological family two years ago, the difference is striking. In the newer photos, the girls are well-groomed, their smiles genuine and not forced. There's a glimmer of trust in their eyes.
The girls had come from a desperately poor and squalid home. Their father is illiterate, their mother mentally deficient. There was documented domestic violence and strong evidence of physical abuse. And while living with her parents, the younger girl was raped by a distant relative.
Perez and his wife, Luci, have decided they're with these girls "for the long haul."
When the younger girl first came to them, Perez says, "she was like a wild creature, she was terrified by every movement."
"She had been beaten and abused so often, she trusted no one. Imagine your child goes to bed every night . . . and when the lights go out, that child lays there expecting to be molested or even raped. Can you imagine?"
Perez and his wife listened with horror and grief as the younger girl described abuse by her parents - and eventually, over several months, abuse by Devereaux, by neighbors, acquaintances and even a pastor. Although the child had been seeing counselors for more than two years - and talking about the rape by the distant relative - she had never disclosed sexual abuse by her parents or others.
"We sat there, we sat and listened and I didn't take notes because I was a parent, not a policeman then. Luci and I comforted her, believed her. It was hard for her. She was curled up in a ball under the coffee table.
"That first night, when I asked how many were there, and she said, `There were too many,' it tore up my heart."
Too many conflicting roles?
At that moment, Perez had a conflict of interest. Experts on child-abuse investigations say he should have immediately excused himself from the investigation.
Perez says he left it to his chief, Ken Badgeley, to decide whether to remove him from the case. Acknowledging the conflict, Badgeley nevertheless told Perez to stay on the investigation.
In an earlier interview, Badgeley pointed out that while Perez was lead investigator, other detectives assisted him. "And I have complete confidence in their work," the chief said.
"I was very aware that I had to remain objective," Perez says.
Numerous experts say Badgeley should have reassigned Perez immediately, or that the detective should have removed himself.
"You can't be a parent figure and investigator at the same time without compromising one role or the other," says Jack Annon, a Hawaii psychologist who has published guidelines for child-abuse interviews.
"There are too many conflicting duties and roles. It's confusing for the child," says Jon Conte, a University of Washington professor who is an authority on child-abuse investigations. "The whole value of investigation is that the investigator does not have a personal relationship in what is being investigated."
The detective's defenders say the conflict of interest was offset by the presence of CPS workers at the interviews with children, by corroborating statements made by other children and adults and by firm medical evidence of sexual abuse of at least eight of the children.
Others, defense attorneys in particular, say the conflict makes virtually all the children's statements and adult confessions suspect. They say Perez had a compelling personal interest in seeing people named by his foster daughter put in prison.
Busted windows, heaped trash
"OK, this is where Gausvik and Garass lived . . . and here's the Everett place. Real dives, huh?" Perez is behind the wheel of a dark blue van, driving around town, pointing out houses where alleged sex-ring members lived.
Some of the houses are dumps - stinking of urine, windows busted and boarded over, plaster peeling, trash heaped outside.
It was on a similar drive, Perez says, that the case really came together for him.
His 11-year-old foster daughter directed him and two CPS workers last March. Offering lurid recollections of supposed abuse, she pointed out 19 locations and named 22 people, including a passing cab driver named Frank. "He abused us, too," she told them, according to police records. The cab driver has never been charged.
Turning the corner, Perez points out a pretty, two-story colonial house that looks like something on a Currier and Ives card. Until recently, the house was owned by Devereaux; he sold it to pay his attorney's fees.
"I know it's hard for people to accept the scale of the abuse, that kids were passed around. But it's not such a big leap. . . . Everybody lived pretty close."
"The kid wants to please you"
An investigation into child sexual abuse is only as sound as the questions police ask. There are right and wrong ways to question young victims, who may be suggestible or easily intimidated.
"There are no perfect interviews, but there sure are bad ones," says Annon, the forensic psychologist in Hawaii.
Perez describes his approach as "proactive." DSHS Regional Administrator Roy Harrington describes it as "aggressive" but not coercive. Chelan County Deputy Prosecutor Roy Fore says it is legally sound.
CPS workers who assisted Perez with the child interviews strongly endorse his approach, saying he is sympathetic, caring, fair-minded, but tough. There were times, they agree, when Perez pressed the children. At those times, they say, Perez knew the children were withholding information.
Defense attorneys and some of the children Perez interviewed say he intimidated witnesses, prompting them to embellish and lie.
"It was a nightmare. For him to show up like that and ask the weird questions . . . " says a 16-year-old girl who recanted rape accusations against her former foster father soon after she told them to Perez.
After two hours of what she described as low-key yet relentless questioning by Perez, the girl says, "He put words in my mouth. . . . I just told him the story I thought he wanted to hear."
Nationally respected experts say that, when interviewing kids, police and others:
-- Should not begin an interview assuming they know the truth.
-- Should avoid introducing names of suspects.
-- Should not tell the child what others have said.
-- Should not threaten or offer rewards.
Failure to follow those basic guidelines increases the risk that children, consciously or not, may make false statements to please the interviewer. It is especially important to exercise caution in interviews when the investigation involves multiple victims and suspects, experts say. Even a single false accusation, if passed from one interview to another, can expand into fantastic allegations - much like the children's game of "Telephone."
James Mead, a police consultant who taught the child-abuse investigation course Perez attended shortly after moving to his current post, says introducing names violates the first rule of child interviewing.
"One of the dangers you get into is you put the person's name in there and the kid wants to please you. You put a name in and they pick up on it," he says. "The temptation . . . if you're not getting the kid to say this happened, is to break the rules."
Perez's own reports describe questioning that, under those guidelines, would be considered risky at best and, at worst, extremely prejudicial. The reports describe him introducing suspects' names, telling children he already knew what happened because he had confessions from their parents and telling children what others had said in interviews.
In one report, for example, Perez wrote:
"I introduced myself to (her) and told her that I had information that there were some problems occurring in her home. I told her that I could help her if she had any problems and when I said this, she started crying. . . . At first, she said she had no problems but it was apparent that she was holding back. . . . I told her that I had already talked with one of the other girls in the home and with Devereaux. After she heard this, she appeared more relaxed."
Most experts say interviews should be kept short - generally no longer than an hour, that children should not be questioned repeatedly, and that no more than one child should be interviewed at a time.
According to police reports in Wenatchee, officers questioned Perez's foster daughters together in at least one instance. Interviews sometimes lasted up to three hours and some children were interviewed as many as six separate times. Police interviewed one girl five times before she went beyond her initial allegations of sex abuse in her home to describe weekly sex orgies with two dozen adults and children at a neighbor's house.
Many experts also say taking careful, verbatim notes is critical to dispel questions about the truth of children's statements.
Perez admits to taking few notes, instead relying heavily on notes taken by CPS workers. But in at least one instance, both stopped taking notes early in a 2 1/2-hour interview with an 11-year-old girl.
"I became a very human person," says CPS' Abbey. "So my notes were very brief . . . very scratchy stuff."
Nevertheless, a statement attributed to that child was used to arrest her mother.
Phillip Esplin, an expert on interviewing child-abuse victims, testified for the defense in two Wenatchee sex-ring cases. On the witness stand he spoke only to proper interviewing methods, but both prosecutors and defense attorneys say his testimony supports their conflicting views of Perez's work. In a follow-up interview, Esplin made it clear he does not endorse the detective's interviewing style.
"It's obvious he lacks a fundamental understanding of children, children's memory and the risk factors in obtaining accurate information," Esplin says.
Perez says he hasn't had time to study guidelines not adopted by his department.
CPS' Carrow, who has more than 50 hours of state-funded training in interviewing child sex-abuse victims, says Perez carefully avoided leading questions. She says it's OK to introduce names, in the latter part of an interview, especially with older kids.
Neither police nor social workers have adopted concrete rules for interviewing children.
They must meet legal standards. And by that measure, CPS' Abbey says, Perez and CPS workers did an excellent job of interviewing children: "We were heavily scrutinized by the judges on those, and every one was ruled admissible."
"Ask the right question"
Perez pulls into a muddy, trash-littered parking lot. He's been here so many times before that the people hanging out of windows in an adjacent apartment house duck inside when they see the van. Perez walks over to a house where four of the people convicted as a result of his investigation used to live. Now they live in prison.
"I know there are people who can't believe this whole thing but . . ." He pauses to kick aside a discarded beer can. "First, I never said everybody was having sex with everybody at the same time. Or that every adult had full intercourse, and reached orgasm, 15 times in a night. I never said that. No child ever said that.
"But, look, there was a sex ring. I know there was a sex ring, OK? I did the work - my work is tight. I'm proud of my work."
Perez stops at the entrance to the home's root cellar, "One of the guys used to live down here. It's basically a hole in the ground."
Climbing back into the van he says, "Anybody naive enough to think Wenatchee is the only place this happens is in for a shock. . . . I'd love to say this is a bunch of baloney but I know that there are people, all across the country, who are doing the same disgusting things to their children and others' children. . . .
"All anybody has to do is ask the right question, the next question."
Suspects confess, recant
Detailed descriptions of weekly orgies with staggering guest lists did not make their way into the court record until a full year into the investigation. After that, sex-ring allegations could only be found in probable-cause affidavits filed by prosecutors in more than a half-dozen cases. By the time most suspects had been charged and convicted, any mention of the sex rings had been replaced by a few standard counts of child molestation or rape.
The failed case against Donna Rodriguez is a particularly striking illustration of the shaky foundation of the sex-ring theory. Rodriguez had the misfortune of living kitty-corner from the family home of Perez's foster daughters. She sometimes ran errands for the family, and let the children play in her yard.
Rodriguez's arrest was based on statements made by the detective's 11-year-old foster daughter and on two highly suspect confessions by adults.
One confession had already been recanted at the time of her arrest, and prosecutors now say they suspect the woman may have thrown some names into her statement in a futile attempt to win Perez's favor.
The other confession was deemed unusable by prosecutors, because the woman - the natural mother of Perez's foster daughters - is of such a low IQ that she would not make a good witness. And she refused to repeat incriminating statements that had originally been sought by Perez.
Recantations have become a real problem for prosecutors. At least a dozen suspects who gave Perez statements have retracted their words, many of them saying Perez put words into their mouths.
Without those witnesses, prosecutors say they've made deals with two previously convicted child abusers.
One of them, Larry Steinborn, agreed and gave a lengthy statement, then recanted. The other, Gary Filbeck, held to his statement given in exchange for a light sentence. Filbeck, who is mentally deficient, already had convictions for statutory rape and indecent liberties with a minor.
Had Filbeck not made a deal, he could have faced 40 or more years in prison. Instead, he is expected to be sentenced to one year in jail and given work-release privileges.
Prosecutors say they chose Filbeck because he was cooperative and a critical adult witness. Although he had a record of child abuse, he wasn't as bad as some of the defendants, says Fore.
"He didn't offer up his kids. It (children) was made available to him," he says.
Filbeck is a key witness for the prosecution in the trial of Pastor Robert "Roby" Roberson and his wife, Connie, now under way in neighboring Douglas County. The Robersons are charged with raping or molesting five children at the Pentecostal Church of God House of Prayer in East Wenatchee. Filbeck is the state's only adult witness who claims to have seen the Robersons sexually abuse the children.
The biggest success story for prosecutors to date has been the conviction of Linda Miller. Fore says it's the only one that can be considered an affirmation of the sex-ring theory. A jury in September found Miller guilty of abusing Perez's two foster daughters and her own two daughters during sex parties.
A pending case against another woman, Kerri Knowles, includes allegations of sex abuse at adult gatherings, including some at Devereaux's house.
The checks and balances of the court system are there to separate the good cases from the weak cases, says Lucy Berliner, a Seattle victims' advocate who has testified for the prosecution.
She cites the cases prosecutors have dropped or lost in Wenatchee as evidence the system is working. They dropped the charges against three of the accused and declined to press charges against three others. A jury found one woman, a Sunday-school teacher, not guilty.
"If mistakes are made, we do have protections," Berliner says. "If an imperfect investigation means some (innocent) people have to endure being charged with crimes longer than they want . . . it's an unfortunate circumstance. But I guess I'm saying in the long run, they are getting resolved through the courts."
Back to patrol duty
For Detective Robert Perez there is no question The Circle existed. He believes the children absolutely. He expected the suspects to lie.
Given more time to work the case, he says, there would be still more charges of unspeakable crimes against the children.
But his two-year stint as Wenatchee's chief sex-crimes investigator is almost over.
He returns to patrol duty on New Year's Day 1996.
He leaves the position, and the investigation, reluctantly.
"I've developed expertise, established a foundation of knowledge. The next person, no matter how good he or she is, is going to take at least six months to get up to speed and that's not fair to the children," he says.
"If I had my druthers, I'd stay where I am. Of my 12 years in the Wenatchee Police Department . . . I've made my biggest impact here."
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