Twice-divorced, living many miles away and sometimes late in child support payments, Ken Arrasmith wasn’t always near at hand for his four children.
But when he learned his 15-year-old daughter, Cynthia, was molested, authorities say, the Sunnyside, Wash., truck driver put himself on the line by killing the couple suspected of the molestation.
The Nez Perce County prosecutor said the case “reeks of vigilantism.”
A growing pool of Arrasmith supporters, however, contends even murder is not too rash an act given Ron and Luella Bingham’s two decades of abuse and intimidation, which only now is coming to full light.
“If they were still alive, I’d be crazy,” said Cynthia Arrasmith in her first interview since the murders. “I’d have to be locked up for the rest of my life because they’d be after me for the rest of my life.”
Since the couple was murdered two months ago, 17 other victims have come forward to say they were raped and tortured by the Binghams. Many more parents defend what Arrasmith, 44, is accused of doing.
“At least 250 parents have told me ‘I would probably have done the same thing had it been my kid,”’ said Bob Hough, a brother-in-law of Arrasmith. “I don’t think 250 is stretching it at all … I’m going to guess at this point that I can think of 17 dads that could be pulled into court and be sitting in jail right alongside Kenny. Any one of those dads could have done what was done.”
The story has drawn national attention, in part as a classic example of Western justice on the banks of the Snake River.
The murders also evoked frustration with a justice system that raided the Binghams house for pot and speed one month but failed to arrest the couple for rape the next.
“If they had enough proof to kick the door in to look for drugs,” Arrasmith said from the Nez Perce County Jail, where he is being held without bail on a first-degree murder charge, “they had enough proof to kick the door in to save an innocent victim.”
The traditional prohibition against speaking ill of the dead is waived in the case of Ron and Luella Bingham.
“It’s good riddance to bad rubbish,” said Dorothy Poirer, who keeps the books at the cemetery near the Clarkston home where the Binghams lived with their 16-year-old son and Luella’s mother.
“They’re not human,” said Tina Cole Turner, whom the Binghams were accused of raping in 1984. “He (the Binghams’ killer) didn’t take two human lives. He just put Satan back in his place. I don’t know any humans or any animals that are that cruel.”
“Those people didn’t just rape me,” said Cynthia Arrasmith. “They tortured me. They did things to me that were torture … I wish they would have stopped it in ‘74 so I didn’t have to go through this.”
The Binghams first ran up against the law in 1978, when they were charged with raping their 13-year-old niece. Watching guard over them while officers searched their home was a young Asotin County deputy sheriff named Ken Arrasmith.
Although investigators were familiar with the Binghams for nearly two decades, suspecting them of both sex and drug offenses, the couple managed to operate with an impunity that puzzles and angers residents throughout the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.
The charges of raping their niece were dropped when she left town.
Charges brought in 1986 for raping Turner when she was a 16-year-old baby sitter were dropped against Luella Bingham under a plea bargain in which her husband pleaded guilty to second-degree rape. He served 18 months in prison.
Rilla Smith, Luella Bingham’s mother, said she never saw any sign the couple sexually abused anyone.
“They’re not crucifying the criminal in this case,” she said. “They’re crucifying the victims. I get so angry when I think about it that I can hardly function. They were beautiful people, that’s all … The only reason they got in trouble is because they were trying to help people out.”
The Arrasmiths and Turner said helping others was only part of the Binghams’ pattern of befriending young vulnerable people, often runaways like Turner, then giving them drugs and a place to stay.
In Cynthia Arrasmith’s case, they hired a young mechanic with whom she was living after moving out from her home. The Binghams let the couple move into their Clarkston home, then fired him and kept her as a tenant, according to both Ken Arrasmith and Rilla Smith.
Cynthia Arrasmith lived with the couple for two months, Smith said, at times referring to Luella and Ron as Mom and Dad. They bought her clothes, Smith said.
They also had another side, Cynthia Arrasmith said.
“They can be the sweetest to you and buy you whatever you want and be so motherly to you - and then,” she said, throwing out a soft, incredulous laugh. Her voice wavered. “Just turn on you like that.
“And Ron was not the one that started it,” she said. “It was Luella. She gets all the girls in and does stuff to the girls first.”
A letter from the Binghams’ niece, discovered among piles of pornographic photos in a search of their home after the murders, suggests the couple saw no act as too depraved. The niece described abuse that began at the age of 9 and included intercourse, oral sex, enemas, objects placed in her vagina, and being forced to pose for pictures.
“I will guarantee you that the courtroom, whenever there’s testimony from the past victims, the courtroom will be a mass of nothing but tears and there will actually be some people that will throw up, it is that bad,” Ken Arrasmith said. “And these people were hidden, hidden in our society, but not really. People knew little bits and pieces, but nobody knew all of it. And it’s horrifying.”
“We’re doing the best we can”
The Binghams operated untouched in large part by intimidation: threatening to hurt their niece’s sister, slowly stalking Turner in their large green car, and reportedly offering a pound of amphetamine to anyone who would kill Ken Arrasmith.
Arrasmith supporters say the Binghams also were protected by a judicial system that for some reason - bureaucracy, cumbersome civil rights laws, rules of evidence - was too slow to act.
When Jennifer Arrasmith, 20, called her father in early May and said she thought her sister had been molested, he drove from Sunnyside in a matter of hours.
He told the Asotin County Sheriff’s Office his daughter was sexually assaulted. The office had already heard from a woman who had witnessed the assault, said Craig Mosman, an Arrasmith lawyer.
A few weeks earlier, the Quad Cities Drug Task Force searched the Bingham home and found small amounts of marijuana but not the large amount of methamphetamine it was seeking. Among the eight people in the house was Cynthia Arrasmith.
While refusing to comment at length about his department’s Arrasmith investigation, Sheriff John Jeffers said the county was contending with a variety of obstacles: an overworked staff, taped statements that needed to be transcribed, collecting evidence, all while dealing with three other sex crimes.
“I’m not concerned about what’s being said one way or another,” Jeffers said. “We’re doing the best we can.”
Arrasmith, a sheriff’s deputy for about two years in the late ‘70s, did his own investigation, at one point confronting the Binghams directly.
“Their response was total denial,” he said. “But their eyes said something different. My feeling then was I wanted to throw up.”
Instead, investigators and the Nez Perce prosecutor say, Arrasmith hunted down the couple at an East Lewiston auto shop, where he found Ron Bingham working beneath a pickup.
“I’ve got something special for you,” a witness recalled him saying. Hidden in a narrow box was a Tec-9 semi-automatic pistol, one of a few handguns so lethal its continued production was outlawed by last year’s assault weapons ban.
Arrasmith shot Ron Bingham 23 times, then put six bullets into Luella Bingham’s back as she tried to run, Nez Perce Prosecutor Denise Rosen said in a hearing last month.
Soon after, Arrasmith turned himself over to Clarkston police. Investigators found five weapons in his pickup.
“I’m having a very bad day and I’d love a cold beer,” he told one officer.
His lawyers won’t discuss defense strategy, but have said the Binghams’ past would come out at his trial, scheduled for November.
Arrasmith’s defense could use a strategy of “alternative theories,” said UI law professor Myron Schreck. His lawyers could first argue there is not enough evidence to warrant a guilty finding, but if there is, the crime was justified, Schreck said.
In last year’s second-degree murder trial of Patricia Gallagher, a Boundary County woman accused of shooting her abusive husband, Mosman argued the state failed to prove she fired the fatal shot. If she did, Mosman and fellow attorney Janet Jenkins argued, it was to protect her and her family from her husband’s beatings and torture. Gallagher was acquitted.
“It’s not this case,” Mosman said recently, referring to Gallagher’s trial, “but in some aspects there are similarities.”
Meanwhile, Arrasmith and his family have mounted an effort to find more of the Bingham’s victims, raise defense funds and fight to change the judicial system’s process for punishing sex crimes. The defense is expected to cost upwards of $100,000; family and friends have raised more than $7,000 and plan a July 22 spaghetti feed and auction and a Aug. 12 raffle.
Support has come from as far away as Florida and as close as Sharp’s drive-through hamburger restaurant in Clarkston, where owner Lon Sharp oversees one of the two dozen donation canisters in area businesses.
“Most that I talk to think they (the Binghams) got what they deserved,” Sharp said. “It’s a tough situation. No one wants to see people take the law into their own hands. But most people feel if the law ain’t going to take care of them, somebody should.”
Arrasmith and his family take pains to avoid talking about the shootings. Rather, they wear buttons that say “Protect the Children” and speak heatedly about a system gone haywire. A fund-raising appeal opens with the question: What would you do?
“If people say, ‘Isn’t it terrible when someone takes the law into their own hands?”’ said Donnita Weddle, Arrasmith’s current wife, “our response is, ‘That’s right, isn’t it terrible if people are forced to do that?”’
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