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Sunday, March 4, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sex-crime cop's pursuit: Who was telling the truth?

Seattle Times staff reporter

The old woman was dying.

Yet on that winter day last year, she propped herself up in bed and promised to listen.

Her grandson's girlfriend, Estera Tamas, then spilled out a tale of horrific sexual abuse by her foster father, a tale that began in early adolescence and continued until she was 19. By that time, she was addicted to drugs, her dreams of college replaced by a job as a stripper. Even worse, she had come to an awful realization: that her foster sister, a girl of 12, may have taken her place.

The old woman, too, had borne sadness; she, too, had secrets. Young and old, they had a bond. The old woman knew what Estera should do: She had to tell.

Surely someone would believe her.

In any good detective story, all the clues are there, just waiting to be put together. Mystery solved, case closed, credits roll.

In the real world of detectives, crime-fighting is messier, a game of gut instincts and second-guessing, of simmering frustration and unfinished business.

And so it was in early February 2006, when an old woman's dying advice wound its way to the desk of Redmond police Detective Jennifer Baldwin.

That's when a counselor reported the suspected abuse of a 12-year-old girl.

The girl was isolated, suffered anxiety attacks and often missed school — all red flags. Recently, she had a rash on her inner thighs that she said came from her then 51-year-old adoptive father.

The girl hadn't reported the alleged abuse herself. So who did? Baldwin, a veteran detective, knew talking to that person was crucial.

But the counselor refused to reveal her source. Patient confidentiality, she explained.

It was the first of many hurdles in what would become the biggest case of Baldwin's life.

Over the next few months, Baldwin would retrace the steps of child-welfare investigators in 26 prior complaints involving Enrique Fabregas, who cared for the adoptive daughter and two foster daughters, including Estera. She would conclude that the investigations were flawed, that he should have never been allowed to care for the girls.

Last June, Baldwin arrested Fabregas for sex crimes. He now sits in the King County Jail, charged with sexual exploitation of a minor and possession of child pornography. He has pleaded not guilty and professes his innocence to friends and reporters.

Meanwhile, the three girls recently filed a notice of intent to sue the state for $45 million for failing to remove them from the home earlier despite repeated reports of suspected abuse. David P. Moody, their lawyer, said Baldwin's investigation was instrumental to that claim.

Still, Baldwin can't shake the feeling that Fabregas will escape serious punishment. She has grown angry. Maybe even obsessed.

"I was accused of getting too personally involved in this case," Baldwin said. "Maybe that's because I was the only person to take it seriously."

Checking in

But back on that winter day, all Baldwin knew was she would have to do a "welfare check" on the 12-year-old — just pop in and see if she would talk even though her father would probably be around. Welfare checks can tip off suspects, but it was her only choice.

Enrique Fabregas answered the door. Five-foot-8 and nearly 200 pounds, Fabregas spoke colorfully, with a thick Spanish accent. His bedroom décor, Baldwin noticed, included a pink feather boa, a feathered hat and red roses. Out front, the license plate on his Mustang convertible read "Wyseguy." A real character, Baldwin thought.

Fabregas bragged that he was an informant for the police, flipping through a sheaf of letters from officers to prove it, she recalled. He kept stacks of other items documenting his activities as a sommelier, a model, a dancer — the list went on and on.

As for the girl, Fabregas had dated her mom years ago. He took her in as a foster daughter and then adopted her in 1999 because her mother couldn't control her own addictions, he said. He called her Simba, for the character in "The Lion King," her favorite movie, and said he would never do anything to hurt her. He said he felt the same way about two other girls he took in as foster children, sisters Estera and Ruth Tamas, but they had moved out some time ago.

(The Seattle Times, which generally does not name victims of suspected sexual abuse, is referring to the 12-year-old girl by her first initial, M. Estera, M.'s now 20-year-old foster sister, agreed to be named in this story; Ruth Tamas, now 18, who has alleged that she was physically abused by Fabregas but not sexually abused, also agreed to be named.)

Baldwin took M. aside, but the girl didn't disclose any abuse.

Fabregas, meanwhile, was getting teary. He pulled out a loose-leaf of records showing how allegations like this had been dogging him for years. He said the girls' mothers were to blame, that they were trying to get back at him. All the complaints were investigated and nothing came of them, he said.

This latest complaint was M.'s mom harassing him again, he said. He played Baldwin a saved phone message in which the woman threatened to call in a "welfare check."

Baldwin wasn't sure what to think. But she found herself liking the guy. He was devoted to his faith, just like she was. And he was funny, a real "lovable, colorful, charismatic person," she thought.

Maybe M.'s mother was harassing him. Maybe she was behind the call to the sexual-assault counselor.

Her gut told her Fabregas was telling the truth.

Major hole in story

Four days later, Baldwin got a call from Estera Tamas. The sexual-assault counselor referred her, she explained.

The detective's mind raced. Estera spoke with the counselor? That meant it wasn't M.'s mother — and that Fabregas' story had a major hole.

"This changed everything dramatically," Baldwin would say later.

In an interview room off the Redmond police station's lobby, then-19-year-old Estera was stony-faced. Fabregas gave her marijuana, ecstasy and cocaine, getting her addicted, she told Baldwin. And he abused her.

Estera matter-of-factly stated that he'd have her dress up in lingerie, pose her with props, then take photos or video of their sexual activities. She said Fabregas liked to dress up in women's lingerie, too.

"Estera was like talking to a dead person inside of a live shell," Baldwin explained.

Estera said that she and her younger sister, Ruth, came into Fabregas' care around 2001. That's when their mom, Fabregas' former girlfriend, went to prison after Fabregas told police she was plotting to kill someone. She later pleaded guilty to attempted assault and was sentenced to just over two years in prison.

Estera went on to say that M. had a rash on her inner legs and had told Estera her dad had one, too. She'd also been staying home from school a lot. That made Estera wonder whether Fabregas was giving M. drugs, like the Ecstasy he had recently bragged about. Then she found lingerie in the little girl's dresser.

She told Baldwin she came forward not for herself but because she worried for M. Those concerns grew after her boyfriend's grandmother urged Estera to talk to a counselor.

"She never cried on her own behalf but when she related any concerns about [M.] her eyes flooded with tears and splashed onto her lap," Baldwin later wrote.

Someone was lying.

"We set out," Baldwin said, "to see which way the scales would tip."

Finding the truth

Baldwin never intended to get into police work. She always thought she'd be a veterinarian. But back in the mid-1980s, when California was desperate for women who could pass their police physical-fitness test, a recruiter suggested she give it a try. Maybe she could be a K-9 handler, she thought.

Baldwin got the job and has never looked back.

After stints with two California police departments, she came to Redmond in 1988. After a few years, the department pegged her as good with kids, made her a detective, then watched as she developed a niche investigating child abuse. Over the years she has trained many Child Protective Service workers on child-abuse-reporting laws.

Redmond police Commander Terry Morgan calls her an "outstanding investigator." King County Prosecutor Scott O'Toole, who worked with her on several child-abuse cases, says "she's somewhat unorthodox in her approach but her instincts oftentimes prove correct."

In her Redmond office, with a 4-foot-tall teddy bear sitting nearby, Baldwin began studying Fabregas' foster-care records.

Between 1996 and 2004, the state Department of Social and Health Services received 26 complaints involving Fabregas, many of them alleging child abuse or neglect. DSHS said its investigators looked into each complaint thoroughly but found no evidence of abuse:

• M. was overheard at school telling a friend that her dad had drugs.

• A woman reported regularly seeing Fabregas leaving the house at 10 p.m. with 14-year-old Estera "dressed like a hooker." The woman was scared to give her name.

• A patron at a fast-food restaurant reported seeing Fabregas "kissing and holding [M.] as if she were a girlfriend or lover."

• Fabregas was accused of giving alcohol and cigarettes to Estera and Ruth. DSHS sided with him, even though Estera had a bottle of wine in her room that Fabregas said he gave her as a collector's item.

Baldwin was troubled that it appeared many of these complaints were not passed on to police, despite laws requiring such checks and balances. DSHS spokeswoman Kathy Spears said she can't comment on this particular case, but she said the law requires the department to pass evidence of criminal child abuse on to police.

Unfounded complaints, therefore, aren't passed along.

In all the cases but one, DSHS investigators deemed the complaints unfounded or inconclusive. The single complaint they found with merit? That Fabregas failed to tell DSHS he had a dog.

Fabregas was an "exceptional caregiver," one investigation concluded. That quote was repeated several times in Fabregas' file. Over the course of the investigation, Baldwin studied the complaints and compared them to the way Fabregas presented himself.

Once, he came to the station and asked Baldwin to hold his hands and pray. Another time, he invited her to see him sing at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond. Determined to learn all she could about Fabregas, she accepted. Of all the people in the choir, Baldwin recalled, you couldn't help but focus on him, the way he danced and praised the Lord with such exuberance.

Baldwin learned that Fabregas kept a file full of apology letters that he had the girls write when they lied or misbehaved. And Ruth, he said, told a lot of lies.

Thinking about all of this made Baldwin uneasy.

Wasn't it a little strange that he so quickly pulled out files showing positive information about himself? And that he just as quickly pulled out files of Ruth's apology letters, showing them to friends, neighbors and investigators alike?

The girls' supposed "credibility issues" led the state to close at least one case. But Baldwin noticed that Fabregas had some credibility issues of his own.

He told caseworkers that he was a Green Beret — and a Navy Seal. But he couldn't remember when. He said he graduated from high school but couldn't recall the name of the school or the year he graduated. He told Baldwin he quit a recent restaurant job but Baldwin found he was really fired.

Could Baldwin's initial instinct about Fabregas have been wrong?

Proof is elusive

In sexual-abuse cases, evidence is often elusive. Usually, it's just one person's word against another's. But with Fabregas, it appeared prior investigators never really looked for such proof — even when presented with an opportunity.

One month after her 16th birthday, Ruth Tamas walked into the Kirkland police station with an astonishing story. It was June 2004, and she had just moved in with a new foster family that she said gave her the courage to speak.

Fabregas had been using cocaine for years, sometimes intravenously, she told a detective and a child-welfare worker. But one morning about a month earlier, Ruth found something that she couldn't keep secret. In Fabregas' room, she found a videotape of Estera and Fabregas having sex.

"My heart nearly jumped out of my body," she told investigators. "It just really scared me." Mostly, she was scared of him. He had threatened to kill her before, she said.

When DSHS questioned Estera, she denied the abuse. Victims often do that, experts say. But in this case, authorities suspected Ruth was lying — maybe at her mother's urging.

As the months passed, however, Estera began to waver. By August, Estera told the officer the story was true.

Authorities removed both Estera and M. and placed them in new foster homes.

Investigators still had doubts, so Ruth agreed to take a lie-detector test. There was no evidence of deception, according to the paperwork. But, investigators said, "the test can be beaten."

And that was the end of that. The day after DSHS learned of Ruth's test results, M. was returned to Fabregas. And Estera went back to Fabregas, too, later explaining she was so messed up she didn't know what else to do.

Not long afterward, the Kirkland police received a faxed statement from Estera recanting her claims of abuse.

Meanwhile, DSHS had asked Fabregas to take a sexual-deviancy evaluation. He declined, and in October, DSHS revoked his foster-care license.

Seizing an opportunity

Baldwin was frustrated. Two years earlier, Ruth said there was videotaped evidence of a sex crime, yet no one bothered to look for it.

By now, it probably was long gone. Baldwin decided she wasn't going to let an opportunity pass again. The problem was, authorities had declined to believe the girls in the past, so getting prosecutors to buy in would be difficult.

"I started the painful journey to work it alone," she said.

Working overtime, she took the unusual step of writing up her own search warrant and getting a judge to sign it, all without the prosecutors' help.

On Feb. 16, she burst into Fabregas' home looking for evidence. That day, she took M. into protective custody.

In court documents, Baldwin said she found hundreds of photos, many of them sexually explicit images of Estera or Fabregas. Just like Estera said.

Baldwin felt vindicated.

A few months later, Baldwin decided to arrest Fabregas, without first taking the usual step of calling prosecutors. (The King County Prosecutor's Office declined comment on the case or Baldwin's actions.)

Fabregas was charged with three counts of sexual exploitation of a minor (Estera) and possession of child pornography. In a police interview, Fabregas admitted to oral sex with Estera, according to court documents.

In court, he pleaded not guilty and is being held on $1 million bail. Friends are sticking by Fabregas, convinced that Estera's mother set him up. His trial has tentatively been scheduled for May.

An unsure ending

If this were a detective story, the credits would be rolling right about now.

But real life is much more complicated.

In the year since she found the photos, Baldwin's feeling of triumph has begun to fade. The evidence she seized didn't include the videotape Ruth reported. She worries even Fabregas' admission and some of the photos might not be conclusive. He claimed the sexual contact with Estera occurred when she was 18, and it therefore wasn't a crime.

Without solid proof of when those photos were taken, it's once again Estera's word against his. Estera's testimony will likely come under attack by the defense, since she has a history of drug abuse and recanted once before.

"I don't have any doubt," Baldwin said. "Not one fraction. But will we prove it in court? I don't know."

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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