WALL STREET JOURNAL: WENATCHEE

Copyright 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Wall Street Journal September 21, 1999

COMMENTARY: RECKONING IN WENATCHEE

By Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of the Journal's editorial board

In September 1995, spectators filed into a Wenatchee, Wash., courtroom for the sentencing of Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez, a migrant farm worker convicted a few weeks earlier of child rape and molestation. Such events were by this point no longer new in this small city where, it was reported, Wenatchee's Child Protective Services workers and police Detective Robert Perez had jointly succeeded in uncovering rings of child molesters operating all over the place.

Here, it was alleged, bands of Wenatchee citizens met one or twice a week or more in order that they might, all together, abuse groups of children. These activities took place, according to testimony gathered by Child Protective Services counselors and Detective Perez, in an extraordinary variety of locations, among them a church and church camp, not to mention numerous private homes including one where--the chief child witness reported--townspeople waiting to molest children lined up outside the bedroom to wait their turn, while others used stepladders and climbed through the windows.

The 33-year-old Mexican worker awaiting sentencing that September day was but one of the many Wenatchee residents swept off to trial and prison in 1994 and 1995. By the time the investigations were done, 43 people had been charged, 21 of them imprisoned. In addition to being impoverished, as were nearly all those accused and convicted, Mr. Rodriguez could neither speak nor understand more than a few words of English. Still, he had no trouble grasping the implications when his court-appointed attorney told him to plead guilty in exchange for a short sentence, just six months--advice he had angrily refused.

Now in the courtroom, a translator whispered rapidly in his ear as Chelan County Superior Court Judge Carol Wardell pronounced the sentence--51/2 years. Once, early in his trial, Manuel Rodriguez had raised his voice, to shout that these were "all lies!"--and been advised to calm himself. This day he said nothing as he stood stiffly erect, eyes on the judge. He should also expect to be deported, Judge Wardell announced, after he had served his prison term.

Most of the Wenatchee residents charged with violating children had been named by two girls, ages 10 and 12. In 1995 the younger girl, Donna, accompanied Detective Perez (the newly appointed head of the police department's sex-abuse unit) and two rapt child-services workers, on a drive through town, wherein she pointed out all the houses (a total of 23) in which she and other children had supposedly been attacked--an event dubbed "The Parade of Homes." That name came from local skeptics of the sex-ring charges, of which Wenatchee had a small but intransigent number--a number who made themselves heard even in days when the city's only newspaper, the "Wenatchee World," and the city's entire professional and legal establishment brooked no doubts about the charges, or about the importance of the investigation that had uncovered so much unspeakable evil.

Mr. Rodriguez would likely not have been among those charged but for his marriage, in 1992, to the half-sister of the girls soon to begin telling Detective Perez about hundreds of rapes. These two star witnesses for the prosecution, it turned out, also lived in Detective Perez's household as foster daughters. This curious relationship did nothing to diminish the national attention that would focus on these prosecutions, with their nearly 29,000 counts of sex crimes, their allegations of church orgies and of child victims forced to march up to bunk beds in groups of six.

The younger girl, who had been undergoing psychiatric treatment for behavioral problems, in due course named her own biological parents as molesters, along with numerous others. In April 1995, in the course of questioning by Child Protective Service workers and a detective, she named Manuel Rodriguez. Four months later he was convicted, after a three-day trial, Judge Wardell presiding.

In Mr. Rodriguez's trial, the Chelan County chief prosecutor produced an adult witness in addition to the two girls. A twice-convicted sex offender recently arrested again, the witness had been spared the possibility of another felony conviction--and thus the prospect of a life term under Washington law--when the prosecutor offered a deal. In exchange for testimony against Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez and others accused in the Wenatchee cases, he would be allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge, and the prosecutor would recommend a short sentence, work release and time served. This witness duly testified that he had seen the defendant molest the younger girl.

The outcome of this trial would not have been hard to predict--though employment records showed Mr. Rodriguez was in California and Nevada and nowhere near Wenatchee for half of the six years he had was supposed to have spent molesting the girl. When concerned Wenatchee citizens concluded that the defendant badly needed a new lawyer and provided money to pay for one--one less reluctant to challenge the prosecutor--Judge Wardell refused to allow the delay necessary for the change. There was no need for any new attorney, the judge announced; she didn't know who this attorney was, and the current attorney was doing a good job.

Today, in the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Manuel Rodriguez spends the days cleaning showers, and waiting for the court's answer to his appeal. His English is by now much improved--enough for him to make himself clear about matters on his mind like the offers to take a plea. First his trial lawyer told him to plead guilty as soon as they met. Guilty. How could he say that he was guilty of such things? Just a few months ago the state again offered to let him plead guilty to a lesser charge, in exchange for immediate release, an offer he again refused.

There can be little question about the reason for the offer of a deal now. Taking a plea would end this prisoner's pursuit of an appeal--which, if won, would make eight Wenatchee convictions that have now been overturned. More appeals can be expected for the 11 people still in prison as a result of the Wenatchee prosecutions.

The prosecutors have cause for concern. Faith in their cases isn't what it used to be in Wenatchee or elsewhere in Washington, notwithstanding the views of Child Protective Services and its parent agency, the state's Department of Social and Health Services, whose representatives continue to maintain that horrific crimes of sex abuse took place in Wenatchee, as alleged. Notwithstanding either the views of a hard core of others that Detective Perez and the Child Protective Service therapists had comported themselves properly--indeed, heroically--in their pursuit of predators until the arrival of intrusive media from "the outside," as indignant local commentators refer to them.

In 1998 a state appeals court appointed Whitman County Superior Court Judge Wallis Friel to hold hearings into the conduct of the investigations and the evidence against one couple--to become, inevitably, a commentary on all the cases. Harold and Idella Everett were central figures in this story, not least because they were the parents of the girls who had made all the accusations. In his findings--a lethal description of the behavior of Child Protective Services therapists, counselors and state witnesses--the judge enumerated in elaborate detail the accusations of the state's two star witnesses, Donna and her sister Melinda, and concluded that "no rational trier of fact would believe these allegations."

In March 1998 a Chelan County jury deciding a wrongful-termination suit awarded $1.57 million in damages to former Child Welfare Services supervisor Juana Vasquez--a critic of the abuse investigations and prosecutions in which her agency played a central role. Prominent among the factors leading to her dismissal, it appears, was her refusal to cooperate with investigation and, in particular, her failure to report on the supposed sex crimes of one accused foster father (the alleged host of the weekly revels involving predators climbing through windows and children in bunk beds).

If it were the case, as the judge said, that no rational trier of fact would believe the allegations of the state's star witnesses, it was no less true that any counselor or other child services caseworker expressing skepticism about the charges could expect trouble. At the very least they were to be forbidden all contact with the children involved lest they could undermine the prosecution of these cases. According to a 1994 order by officials of the Department of Social and Health Services children were to be removed immediately from counseling with any staff member harboring doubts about the allegations. As was soon clear, the child-services agencies had no lack of counselors who could satisfy the requirement for absolute belief.

Their number included one Rodney Daut, assigned to counsel Richard, the one high-functioning and literate child of the Everett family--14 years old when his sisters had begun making their molestation charges against their parents and others. From the outset Richard told investigators the charges were all lies, that his parents had abused no one--assertions that so offended Mr. Daut that his counseling sessions with the boy consisted mainly of shouting that Richard was in denial and sick in his mind. Ultimately, the Everett hearings revealed, Mr. Daut charged that Richard was not only a victim but--thanks to his refusal to admit the fact--also a victimizer of children and, quite possibly, a future sex offender.

Among the few staff members to raise doubts, social worker Paul Glassen could not have imagined the trouble to come when he quickly reported, as he was certain anyone must, that a 15-year-old girl he was counseling had just recanted her story that her foster father had molested her--a story she told, she confessed with shame, because she had been angry at him for disciplining her. The foster father, Robert Devereaux (supposed host of the bunk bed parties), was a prime target in the sex-ring investigations. In short order police entered Mr. Glassen's office with a search warrant and arrested him for witness tampering and several other offenses. Child Protective Services supervisor Tim Abbey fired Mr. Glassen, alleging that he had failed to report other abuse--but even this did not bring him to full appreciation of the trouble in which he had put himself. That he began to grasp when his name began showing up on the list of molesters identified by Detective Perez's witnesses.

Unlike most of those charged--the poor and the indigent--Mr. Glassen was educated, a trained social worker, and he could see the possibilities. For one, Child Protective Services could move to take his child away. This was enough possibility for him. In no time he and his wife and small son were in a car headed for British Columbia, where his wife's family lived. At the time he thought in a year he could well look back and see he'd been foolish to uproot his family, that his trouble with the agency and the investigator would soon fade.

"I decided I was willing to take that chance," he says, today. As it turned out there was plenty of trouble. The first months were pure misery in a basement apartment, with no money coming in, and certain of his wife's relatives, who couldn't help exhibiting a certain suspiciousness toward him when they learned why the couple had come. The main trouble was getting work, impossible for him to do for nearly a year and a half. He had no idea why until he discovered that each time a prospective employer conducted a criminal behavior check, as social-service agencies were all required to do, his name appeared along with a report.

The employer could read in that report that Paul Glassen had been a suspect in the molestation of more than 50 children. Further, one of the children he was suspected of victimizing had been his own child. The latter claim suggested that his fears the Child Services agency might come and take his child weren't altogether off the mark. The end of the report advises any employer who wanted more information to get in touch either with Detective Perez or with Ross Carmen. An investigator for Washington State's Department of Social and Health Service.

Mr. Glassen's luck changed late in the summer of 1996. With great trepidation--he had been out of work a long time--he approached the Canadian agency administrator who had just hired him and informed her of what she would be finding in the criminal background check: mention of a felony, obstructing police, suspicion of molesting 50 children. She listened to the details without interruption, he recalls, and then she asked, "Does this mean you'll be able to start full time?"

He is still employed at the agency, eternally grateful for that moment and that woman. The experience of being named a molester of children--the memories of all that had been possible in Wenatchee, with a few accusers, zealous investigators and therapists, and a vast social services establishment--does not go away, Mr. Glassen reflects. Still, he has a settlement of a few hundred thousand dollars from the city of Wenatchee, a pending state suit and a letter declaring that he was not involved or suspected of crimes of child sex abuse.

In Wenatchee, in the meantime, prosecutors keep busy struggling against reversals of conviction in these cases. Last week the state Court of Appeals upheld its 1997 reversal of Mark and Carol Doggett's convictions. (The Doggetts, whom Judge Wardell sentenced in 1995 to 10 years and 10 months, are represented by New York appellate attorney Robert Rosenthal, also Mr. Rodriguez's appeals lawyer.) Over the weekend prosecutors announced that they would challenge the court's ruling.

Meanwhile, officials of Child Protective Services and others in the Department of Social and Health Services have been busy with their own special projects, namely preparation for the lawsuits still to come.


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