A collection of incestuous pedophiles lurked among the orchards and brown ridgetops here and across the Columbia River in East Wenatchee, sexually assaulting as many as 48 children, prosecutors allege.
The children called their alleged abusers “the circle,” and authorities say they fear the circle is growing.
Prosecutors suspect more than 50 adults were involved in the alleged sex ring, which went on for years. An East Wenatchee minister and his wife are the most recent of 13 adults charged with sex abuse of children.
Affidavits filed in Douglas County Superior Court say that Friday nights at the minister’s Pentecostal Church of God would play out this way:
Parents and children would meet in the basement of the modest church on Iowa Avenue to sing and listen to Scripture. Then the adults would order the children to undress and have sex with them, according to the affidavits filed last week.
The allegations are the latest in a series of criminal charges in Chelan and Douglas counties against people who stand accused of committing sexual acts with children, sometimes even their own. So far in the widening investigation, five of those charged have pleaded guilty and two others have been convicted.
Investigators expect more arrests, more charges and more accusations. As many as 50 more adults are under investigation, police said.
“It looks like ‘the circle’ is growing larger,” said Roy Fore, a deputy prosecutor in Chelan County.
The case also has spawned charges of “witch hunt” from local members of a national organization called Victims of Child Abuse Laws, who allege that law enforcement has run amok.
The latest to be accused are Robert and Connie Roberson, the Pentecostal minister and his wife. Each pleaded not guilty this week to four counts of rape of a child in the first degree and four counts of first-degree child molestation. Bail has been set for each at $1 million.
Affidavits filed with the charges indicate that the couple were named by an adult and a child who were involved in the alleged sexual activities in the church basement.
Meanwhile, charges were filed Wednesday against an East Wenatchee woman, the 14th adult to be accused of participating in the sex ring.
The official record shows that something rare and horrible is indeed happening here.
In nine earlier cases, five adults pleaded guilty or entered Alford pleas to the charges of sexual abuse of children. In Alford pleas, defendants maintain their innocence but acknowledge they probably would be found guilty at trial.
The statements they gave police are graphic. One woman who pleaded guilty said her husband had had sex with two of their sons and two of their daughters. Some were initiated as early as age 4, according to court documents. The woman said her husband forced her to take part.
“I feel like dirt right now,” another woman told police in a confession in which she said she and her husband had been having sex with their three children. She also pleaded guilty.
Douglas County Sheriff Dan LaRoche expects more cases in Douglas County stemming from what happened at the church. In Wenatchee, which is in Chelan County, police Sgt. Sherie Smith said her department is looking at perhaps 50 suspects.
“We’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg. Stay tuned,” she said.
Some citizens are urging reporters to do the same - but for different reasons. They say many of the court cases are a sham and a product of a police detective more interested in fueling his ego and punishing his critics than finding the truth.
“It’s a witch hunt. They are really overstepping their bounds here,” said Bob Kinkade, an East Wenatchee man who is trying to convince the public, news media and public officials that the charges don’t stand up.
Kinkade is a former police officer who was accused of sexual abuse of his teenage stepdaughter in 1993 and 1994. A jury acquitted him on some charges, but in two trials, jurors could not reach a verdict on other charges.
The investigation has taken some strange turns.
A state social worker who questioned police methods last summer was arrested, then fired.
A 10-year-old girl whose statements have brought charges against several adults is in foster care in the home of Bob Perez, the Wenatchee police detective investigating the sex-abuse allegations.
Police say they do not see the foster relationship as a problem. Authorities also say they can corroborate what the girl says with other witnesses and may be able to find physical evidence to confirm her allegations against the Robersons.
And so residents of the community are left to decide whether they have lived among a group of predatory adults who have brutalized children or if their police and prosecutors needlessly have sparked hysteria and ruined reputations.
Sex abuse of children is rare and most often committed by men rather than women, experts say. Also rare is incest.
Rarer still are cases in which parents swap children and engage in sexual abuse, said Roland Summit, a psychiatrist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
“This is very, very strange to have this amount of lascivious and uninhibited traffic in one’s own children,” said Summit, who has acted as a consultant to prosecutors in several high-profile sex-abuse cases.
As the investigation has continued over the past several months, children have been removed from homes in which they had been abused. Many are in foster care.
A second group of defendants, including the Robersons, were accused this spring.
Donna Rodriguez, 45, of Wenatchee, was charged in mid-March with four counts of rape of a child in the first degree.
Linda Miller, 35, of East Wenatchee, was arrested March 24. She was charged with nine counts of first-degree child molestation.
Keith Howard, Miller’s attorney, said she was questioned by police from after midnight to 6 a.m. and gave investigators a statement, which included allegations against the Robersons. Last week, she recanted the statement.
Court documents also allege that Rodriguez and Miller had one common victim: the 10-year-old girl who has been in Perez’s foster care. Her parents, who were among the first nine charged, have been sent to prison for sexual abuse.
The two women and previous defendants share similar backgrounds: Most had modest or limited incomes; a few had steady work; some depended on public assistance. Most were represented by public defenders in the child sex cases.
Some defendants also attended the same church. Rodriguez and Miller attended Roberson’s Pentecostal Church of God in East Wenatchee.
In a community already rocked by bizarre sexabuse cases, the arrests of the Robersons hit a nerve. “Pastor Robby” and “Sister Connie” are highly thought of in East Wenatchee.
Roberson has been at the church for six years and started a community food bank there. He has been a familiar sight working at the food bank or cajoling local merchants for donations, people in the community said.
“All I know about the man is good,” said one worker at the food bank. “I don’t believe it (the series of allegations against the Robersons).”
“I don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about,” Roberson said at a court appearance last week.
Prosecutors used the accusations of Miller and a 10-year-old girl as the evidence needed to charge the Robersons. The 10-year-old is the same girl who made allegations against Miller and Rodriguez.
The girl told investigators that Roberson and his wife had engaged in sex with her at the couple’s East Wenatchee home, court documents show. Twice, another girl was involved, and once, four other girls were, according to the documents.
“She also described other children being abused at the church. The abuse would occur on youth nights, including on Friday evenings. The victim described a multipurpose room in the basement of the church where the abuse would occur. Robert and Connie Roberson and other adults would participate in the abuse,” according to court documents.
Miller also told investigators that she, the Robersons and other adults had had sex with children in the church’s basement.
The allegations against the minister - and the unstated allegations in court documents that more people will be charged - have frightened more than a few local residents. Some parents have sent their children to live with relatives, fearing that police will interrogate and needlessly terrorize them, Kinkade said.
Some community leaders wonder who might be next now that a local minister has been arrested.
Investigators in Chelan and Douglas counties say law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear.
But Roberson’s supporters say he is being punished because he spoke out. At a meeting in late March of Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL), he questioned the investigations.
Earlier, he had spoken in court on behalf of a congregation member as she was being sentenced for abusing her own children.
“The only reason that Pastor Robby is in jail today is that he stood up at that VOCAL meeting and spoke out at Bob Perez,” Kinkade said.
Prosecutors deny that charges have been filed to retaliate against critics.
People such as Roberson had been identified as possible suspects before a VOCAL chapter was organized in Wenatchee, Fore, the deputy prosecutor in Chelan, said.
Smith, the police sergeant, returned calls to Perez asking for comment. She said police have based their arrests solely on evidence.
Roberson isn’t the first critic of police methods to run afoul of the law. In August, Paul Glassen, a child-welfare worker with the state Department of Social and Health Services, talked with a 15-year-old girl whom Perez had questioned about possible sexual abuse.
The girl, who was in juvenile detention, told Glassen that she had not told the truth to the police officer, Glassen said. He notified local authorities and later filed a report with state welfare officials critical of Perez’s methods.
A couple of days after talking with the girl, Glassen was arrested. A charge against him of obstructing a police officer ultimately was dismissed.
DSHS put Glassen on leave for a number of months, then fired him in March for incorrectly reporting suspected child abuse.
Glassen disputes his firing and has filed a claim with the state - his first step in bringing a lawsuit.
The number of arrests and the profile of the cases have made Perez a focal point for criticism. VOCAL complained to the Wenatchee Police Department, but the department said it could not sustain allegations that the detective was forcing children to lie about abuse.