One day Bob Devereaux was an admired foster father. The next he was an accused child molester.
The 58-year-old man cared for more than 300 foster girls over the years, showering them with Christmas gifts and driving some to Disneyland.
It took a couple of the more troubled girls, interrogated for hours by an unrelenting cop, to send him to jail.
Devereaux, who had no criminal record, joined a list of accused child molesters that eventually numbered 45 adults in Wenatchee and across the Columbia River in East Wenatchee. One victim called it “The Circle,” and the name stuck.
Adults were accused of raping and groping up to 50 children whom they passed around like hors d’oeuvres at parties and at church services.
The allegations devastated residents in this river valley of apple orchards and family values.
At first, the community shuddered at the ugly, unthinkable nature and scope of the crimes. Now many citizens and public officials insist The Circle never existed. They fear that while there is evidence of incest among some families, innocent people might be in prison.
The sex case against Devereaux was dropped last month.
He and others call the case the “Wenatchee Witch Hunt” and said it’s rooted in the obsession of a rogue cop and the fanciful claims of children with behavioral problems.
Prosecutors said there have been 25 convictions since 1993. This, they said, is not a miscarriage of justice like California’s infamous McMartin Preschool case. In that and similar high-profile debacles across the country, claims of group child sex ultimately could not be proven in court, but reputations were tarnished forever.
“Those other cases were based on preschool kids,” said Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen. “Our cases involve kids who are all 10 to 14 years old.”
Sixteen adults have entered Alford pleas: They did not admit guilt but acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict them. Nine others were convicted at trial, most on reduced charges.
Skeptics note nearly all of them were the perfect patsies - vulnerable people united by poverty, alcohol, illiteracy and IQs so low they’re functionally retarded. Nearly half are women, considered rare in child sex cases. Two of the women weighed more than 400 pounds, their acquaintances said, and were incapable of the kind of sexual gymnastics in tiny rooms vaguely described by their accusers.
The alleged sex ring is based on two people - Wenatchee Police Detective Bob Perez, 42, and his 11-year-old foster daughter.
Ten months after entering the Perez home, the girl named 89 people as molesting her, court documents state, including a “crippled man who stutters,” a “fat mother with black hair,” a “slender blonde woman with glasses,” a “bald guy with glasses,” “some Mexicans across the street,” and a “man with a goldish mustache.”
The girl said she was 2 years old when some of the molestation occurred. She also claims abuse by people years before they said they met her. Some suspects said they never met her.
Perez has credibility problems as well.
In his 1989 evaluation, his police superiors described him as a power-hungry “hothead” who “appears to pick out people and target them.”
Many sex ring suspects and child victims contend Perez bullied them into false confessions or admissions during lengthy interrogations. Others said Perez, who refused requests for an interview, fabricated statements.
Suspects said they were denied bathroom breaks during his questioning and warned they’d never see their children or the outside world again. Some signed confessions they couldn’t even read. Several child victims were whisked to a Coeur d’Alene psychiatric hospital after recanting their accusations or refusing to admit they were molested, court records state.
A few people were arrested only after they publicly criticized Perez’s heavy hand.
Last July, grocery baker and Sunday school teacher Honnah Sims was acquitted of raping two girls, including Perez’s foster daughter. Jurors decried allegations of church orgies involving Sims as ridiculous and a waste of time and tax dollars.
“Now I feel there is a witch hunt,” juror Danny McGregor said at the time. “There’s just no evidence.”
Sims, 31, is trying to rebuild her life.
“This is what happened with Hitler and the Jews,” she said. “We couldn’t organize a Halloween party let alone a sex party at the church.
“I could have gotten life in prison for molesting a little girl I didn’t know at the time.”
Felony charges against nine other adults have been dismissed. Ten people are awaiting trial. No suspects who hired their own lawyers instead of using public defenders have been convicted. And no one has been convicted of group sex with children - the whole premise behind the rumored sex ring.
Investigation critics wonder how Ricardo Robert “Bob” Perez Jr. ever got a job as a cop.
When he was 18 and again when he was 21, Perez was arrested for petty theft. He was convicted at least once, but his criminal record is sketchy because it was expunged - an option for some people convicted of misdemeanors.
In 1982, Perez was accused of accepting unemployment benefits while being paid as a trainee at the state police academy. He paid back the money.
Also in 1982, Perez’s first wife filed for a restraining order against him, calling her estranged husband “very volatile.” In 1986, another ex-wife told a judge Perez stalked her and broke into her house and car.
In 1989, Wenatchee Police Chief Kenneth Badgley and other department brass evaluated Perez’s job performance. He got low marks for professionalism, cooperation, public relations and mental acuity.
“When dealing with adults feels challenged and is defensive. Puts out a challenge, officer reaction is ‘let’s get it on,”’ the appraisal states. “Presents an image of looking down on people, badgering them. Gives the impression of wanting to trip triggers, likes confrontation and likes having power over people.
“Is like a wound up wire, ready to spring. Appears to have a pompous arrogant approach. Is developing a reputation of being a hothead in the community,” it continues. “Appears egotistical. Appears to pick out people and target them. A problem with image and judgment.”
As for Perez’s ability in public relations, the appraisal states: “Kids a 5, everybody else a 1.”
Perez testified in one recent case that he routinely destroys all of his notes from victim interviews and suspect interrogations. He does that, he explained, because years ago in another case his notes contradicted his police report.
A half-dozen telephone calls to Perez were not returned. When contacted at his Wenatchee office, Perez sent out a sergeant to say he no longer gave interviews on the sex ring case.
Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen said a common tactic among the accused is to discredit police. He said he hadn’t seen Perez’s 1989 evaluation.
“They tried it in the O.J. case, to deflect attention away from the defendant and put it on the police,” Riesen said. “It hasn’t worked here.”
Badgley, the police chief, and Mayor Earl Tilly also have defended Perez as a “fine” officer and his investigation as solid. Badgley has said that Perez’s job evaluations improved after 1989, but he has refused to release them.
The chief, who refused to comment, has brushed aside criticisms that Perez has an emotional conflict of interest - his foster daughter as principal accuser.
Prosecutor Riesen said overlooking the conflict “was a call made by the police chief.” Riesen is undeterred by the failings of the Devereaux case and is forging ahead.
“Their (Devereaux’s alleged victims) statements were inconsistent,” he said. “I thought there would be a risk in going to trial.”
Perez was named the department’s chief sex crimes investigator in January 1994, even though he had no formal training. Eventually, he trained for three days under a department predecessor and then took a five-day course at the state police academy.
Meanwhile, Perez arrested molestation suspects at a dizzying pace. All were disenfranchised members of the community.
Devereaux was portrayed as one of the ring’s leaders, a Charles Manson among child molesters worthy of eight life sentences plus 40 years in prison.
But last month prosecutors dropped 11 felony sex abuse charges against him when child victims and adult corroborators recanted or contradicted themselves.
His original accuser, a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome who is now 16, admits lying about Devereaux because he scolded her for promiscuity and reported her for poisoning his soft drink with iodine.
“I feel really bad that I lied,” the girl said over a McDonald’s cheeseburger. “He was the best dad I ever had.”
After losing his home to pay more than $40,000 in legal bills and unable to afford another $50,000 for a trial, Devereaux plea-bargained to two non-sexual misdemeanors - hitting a child with an open hand and warning another suspect she was going to be arrested. He got no jail time beyond the two days he had served and can be reinstated as a foster parent in two years.
Other than his accusers, police didn’t interview his foster children. Most of his accusers now claim they were coerced by police or admit to just plain lying. One girl admitted to a history of fabricating rape stories to get her way.
The sex ring case is unraveling.
Gov. Mike Lowry and the speaker of the Washington state House of Representatives recently infuriated prosecutors and investigators by asking U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to launch her own review. U.S. Attorney Jim Connelly in Spokane is leading it.
Earl Marcellus, the lone investigation critic on the Chelan County Commission, said outside scrutiny is long overdue.
“I’m not doing my own witch hunt here. I’m pro-law enforcement,” he said. “I want to throw the rascals in jail, but society has to have faith that the system works.”
Child abuse experts from outside the area are punching holes in the investigation while the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce has put itself in the bizarre position of defending authorities and, thus, the existence of a huge child sex ring.
Defense attorneys are promising “massive” civil lawsuits against police and state child welfare workers they accuse of aiding the police and targeting unprivileged families.
The number of alleged child victims is not 50 but 10, and several them have testified they were never molested.
Devereaux sold his large home and now rents a tiny cottage outside East Wenatchee. He took the only job he said a man who’s been accused of child molestation could find: the graveyard shift at a remote truck stop.
“I’ve lost everything,” he said. “They knew good and damn well I was innocent from the start. I’m facing eight life sentences plus 40 years and they let me plea down to this?”
In June 1994, Perez attended a Wenatchee luncheon with child welfare workers from the Washington Division of Children and Family Services.
Caseworkers Juan Garcia and Paul Glassen said Perez accused Devereaux of being a child molester and threatened to “get” him. Perez also joked about how Devereaux, who was not in attendance, probably put his foster girls in his lap and taught them to drive a stick shift.
State social workers long had been leery of Devereaux, a single foster parent who accepted only girls. When authorities insisted he hire live-in female maids, Devereaux complained of gender discrimination. Single foster mothers, he said, were never hassled like that.
Devereaux had joined the foster program seven years earlier when he was married. He and his wife cared for boys and girls, but learned a coed foster home often led to sex among the children. After his divorce, Devereaux wanted one gender exclusively. He had 10 girls and one boy, so relocating the boy was easiest.
“I took kids no one else wanted. I felt sorry for them,” he said. “It didn’t look bad to me. Just because you’re a man doesn’t mean you’re going to molest kids.”
State officials investigated the Devereaux home but found no signs of abuse. They seemed satisfied with his all-girls home. The agency once held a panel discussion to initiate wouldbe foster parents. Devereaux was one of the featured speakers.
“He was the role model of foster parents,” remembers Janet Rutherford, who joined the foster program. “He was like a Greek god.”
Perez wasn’t satisfied.
In August 1994, he arrested Devereaux after one of his foster girls accused him of forcing her to sit in his lap and touching her breasts and genitals. The story was remarkably similar to Perez’s luncheon joke that summer.
The next day, the girl recanted to social worker Glassen, saying, “I told a whole bunch of lies yesterday to a policeman about Dad.”
Glassen reported the girl’s confession to superiors the following day. Within a week, he was placed on paid administrative leave and eventually fired for failing to report child abuse in an unrelated case.
Glassen and Garcia, who was fired for insubordination, are suing the state for wrongful discharge. So is an Hispanic supervisor, Juana Vasquez, who recently won a $104,000 racial discrimination lawsuit against the agency.
Glassen became one of Perez’s suspects in The Circle but was never charged. His name and that of other critics began showing up in statements by Perez’s foster daughter. Glassen moved his family to Canada to avoid what he calls police persecution.
“Anyone who questions what they’re doing is a suspect,” Glassen said in a telephone interview from British Columbia. “It’s a dangerous thing.”
Later, a Spokane television news reporter who aired reports critical of the sex ring investigation would be labeled a child molester.
Several of the alleged victims and their accused molesters attended the East Wenatchee Pentecostal Church of God House of Prayer, an evangelical church ran by Pastor Robert “Roby” Roberson and his wife, Connie.
They also ran a food bank out of the basement and fed 9,000 people a month.
The Robersons and their church became Perez’s targets when they proclaimed the innocence of one of the couples in their congregation. Idella and Harold Everett were convicted of molesting their own girl. The charges did not surface until after the girl had been placed under Perez’s foster care.
At one point, a state social worker called the preacher and said Perez threatened to arrest the Robersons if they interfered in the investigation or contacted witnesses.
At a sentencing hearing last January for Idella Everett, Roby Roberson appeared as a character witness and told the judge Perez threatened to arrest him.
When leaving the courtroom, Roberson said Perez told him: “We warned you, Roberson, we warned you.”
On March 28, deputies from across the river in Douglas County arrested Roberson, 50, and his 45-year-old wife. They were handcuffed and hauled away in front of 300 people waiting to collect food. Bail was set at $1 million each on numerous counts of child rape.
Perez’s foster daughter said the Robersons had done the “wild thing” with her years before, sometimes at the altar during church services while other adults and children joined in. Sometimes, church members would go to Devereaux’s home, dress all in black with sunglasses and gather in a circle to molest children, the girl claimed.
Devereaux said he has never been to the church, and that the Robersons and other accused molesters were never in his home.
State criminologists took several carpet squares from the church and analyzed them for semen. They all tested negative.
Once in jail, Roberson said other inmates in his cell block were notified that a child molester was in their midst. Roberson said he was beaten once by a guard and four other times by inmates.
He and his wife will be tried Nov. 6 by Douglas County Prosecutor Steve Clem. Clem also has filed fraud charges against the Robersons, alleging they hid their assets while collecting $27,000 in welfare. The Robersons call it harassment.
Their 5-year-old daughter has been removed from their home and now lives with relatives.
“It’s totally destroyed our family,” the preacher said. “All because we stood up against evildoers. It’s not just Perez’s fault or the prosecutors’. The community is responsible.”
The Robersons served 4-1/2 months in jail and were released when their bail was reduced to $12,500 each.
Their principal accuser, Perez’s foster daughter, recently suffered a breakdown. She was admitted to Pine Crest Hospital, a Coeur d’Alene psychiatric facility, to determine if she’s fit to testify at upcoming trials.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 5 Photos (4 color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CONFLICTS OF INTEREST Critics of the Wenatchee sex ring investigation, including lawyers, point to a number of conflicts of interest in the case: The lead detective, Bob Perez, is the foster father of the key child victim. Judge John Bridges, who has presided over several of the cases, is married to Susan Moore, a state child welfare worker. Moore is the ex-wife of Douglas County Prosecutor Steve Clem. Clem is prosecuting the highest-profile suspects in the case. Bridges used to be Perez’s personal attorney. Judge Pro-tem Kathleen Schmidt set bail at $1 million for one of the accused, Honnah Sims, and at the same time was the guardian ad litem for one of Sims’ alleged victims. - J. Todd Foster