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Tuesday, March 3, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Michelle Malkin

One Brave Soul's Crusade For Truth About Wenatchee

Times Editorial Columnist

KATHRYN Lyon's quest to document the truth about alleged child-sex rings in Wenatchee began in earnest after an encounter with Political Inertia personified.

Washington state House Speaker Clyde Ballard, a Republican from East Wenatchee, met with Lyon in mid-1995 to hear her concerns about how dozens of poor and mentally disabled parents were prosecuted for child rape and molestation with scant medical evidence, gross breaches of civil rights, and nightmarish police interrogations. Ballard appeared "genuinely troubled" by the prosecutions, Lyon recounts in her new book "Witch Hunt: A True Story of Social Hysteria and Abused Justice" (Avon Books). But he warned that pursuing the cases would be potential "political suicide."

"Keep me in the loop," Ballard told Lyon as she was leaving his Olympia office. "But don't give me any facts."

That passive-apathetic attitude infected both political parties, the business establishment in Wenatchee, and more than a few newsrooms around the state. "I couldn't even talk Seattle-area newspapers into assigning a reporter to write about the case," Lyon noted.

The dark possibility of massive human-rights abuses just across the mountains spurred Lyon, a public defender on leave from her job in Pierce County, to action. She "had no money, no powerful ties, no experience with activism or even with politics, no strategic brilliance adequate to the magnitude of this mess," Lyon writes.

But with her boss's encouragement, her family's emotional support and a bank loan secured with a mortgage, she plowed forward and moved to Wenatchee for several months to compile an investigative case history "that would give those with power the ammunition to do something."

Working alone, Lyon sifted through police reports, court pleadings, transcripts, medical and social records, and other official public documents. She conducted extensive interviews of the accused, as well as social workers and children. And then, in an extraordinary individual effort, she wrote it all down:

"I got up before 5 every morning to outline the sections I wrote each day, hunched over records and interview notes, and typed until I was exhausted," she recalls in "Witch Hunt." "It took about four months to research and five grueling near-all-nighters to complete the two-hundred-page report."

(By comparison, the commendable five-part series on Wenatchee published last week by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was written by two reporters with a support staff of seven after a five-month investigation and the benefit of much hindsight and tilled earth.)

Lyon's simply titled "Wenatchee Report" - which served as the basis for her book - is meticulously annotated. Like any honest researcher, Lyon acknowledged the study's shortcomings up front. It was of admittedly limited scope and contained considerable anecdotal material. Her agenda was not to prove the truth or falsity of all the allegations, but simply to raise questions, suggest patterns, and provide a "starting point for analysis and further investigation."

The two-inch-thick report helped rivet national media attention on the flaws in the Wenatchee prosecutions and provided a road map to other open-minded investigators. It was also an invaluable piece of journalism that shed light on the human faces behind the social hysteria.

Laura Holt, a handicapped Wenatchee resident who received an exceptional sentence of 40 years for child rape, told Lyon of a hellish interrogation at the hands of Detective Robert Perez - the chief orchestrator of the charges and arrests. "He threatened to take my artificial limb away from me," Holt said. According to Lyon's report, Perez told Holt and several other accused women - some with IQs under 60 - "You'll never see your kids again."

Three years before teenager Sarah Doggett's story was finally told on the front page of the Post-Intelligencer, Lyon recorded the girl's outrage about her parents' rape convictions (overturned on appeal three months ago). Doggett also told Lyon about her involuntary commitment at Pine Crest Hospital in Idaho, a locked mental facility where several Wenatchee children were sent on the basis of dubious diagnoses.

"They strapped me down and then wheeled me out and put me in an ambulance," Doggett said. Lyon noted that she was committed for five weeks without ever having seen an attorney, gone to court or shown legal paperwork of any kind.

Ballard, who still refuses to lead any legislative reform initiative in the Wenatchee aftermath, had cautioned Lyon in 1995, "If you go out on a limb, they'll cut you down."

While civil-liberties groups and erstwhile champions of faith, flag, family and freedom all perched safely in their tree tops, Lyon and a handful of other brave souls stepped forward - risking jobs, reputations and jail. In February 1996, Detective Perez's lawyer served Lyon a subpoena in an attempt to force her to reveal her sources. She resisted and prevailed in court.

Why risk so much for strangers? "The decision was simple," Lyon wrote. "Do the right thing or live with the ultimate cowardice of doing nothing at all."

Why bother? Because, as truth-tellers from Salem to Wenatchee have learned for centuries the hard way, apathy can pose as great a threat to individual liberty as unchecked zeal.

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: malkin1@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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