The last of 28 so-called child sex-ring cases is wending its way toward trial, but the drama is far from over for the defendants, their accusers and authorities who tried to sort it all out.
For more than a year, critics have denounced the case as a product of the sordid imaginations of a rogue cop and overzealous social workers and prosecutors.
Despite five convictions and 14 guilty pleas to child rape and molestation charges, defendants’ supporters accused judges, social workers, police, prosecutors and public defenders of conspiring to put innocent people behind bars. They cite sensational child-sex-abuse cases in other states, where verdicts were overturned by appeals judges who attributed the convictions to mass hysteria.
National media outlets, from Reader’s Digest to the Wall Street Journal, chronicled the critics’ claims in passionate editorials that condemned authorities’ handling of the cases in Chelan and Douglas counties.
“We’ve become a real punching bag,” Mayor Earl Tilly said.
But now Cheri Greenfield, who founded the Concerned Citizens for Legal Accountability here because she was worried that defendants’ civil rights were being violated, has switched sides.
“As far as I can see with all the research I’ve done, nothing illegal has happened in this investigation,” Greenfield says now.
“Everyone did what they were supposed to do. The system did work.”
Filled with remorse about her role as a leading critic, she’s on a publicrelations mission to spread what she now believes to be the truth.
Searching for the truth
But truth is the one thing that remains unclear.
Despite the criminal trial verdicts, and no matter what comes of a lawsuit seeking millions in damages for alleged trampling of defendants’ rights, only the accused and the children know what really happened.
Prosecutors say dozens of children were raped or molested by two loosely organized sex rings in Wenatchee and nearby East Wenatchee, from 1988 until investigators closed in two years ago.
Of the 28 people charged with child rape and molestation, 14 pleaded guilty, five were convicted and charges were dismissed or greatly reduced against five others. Three people were acquitted, and one case is pending.
But one child - a key witness at four trials whose own parents were jailed in the case - recanted her testimony in June, saying she had never been molested. The 13-year-old girl told The Associated Press that she lied because Wenatchee police Detective Bob Perez, the lead investigator and for a time her foster father, pressured her to do so.
Perez has refused all requests for interviews, but experts in the field of child sexual abuse say recantation is not uncommon.
“It’s understandable why children who in fact have been abused will recant. The effects of the allegation are frequently devastating to the child,” said Tom Lyon, a law professor at the University of Southern California Law School who also has a doctorate in psychology.
Looking at both sides
Auburn attorney Robert Van Siclen, who won acquittals for three defendants and filed the lawsuit on behalf of six defendants and their families, is confident that he’s on the side of the angels.
“You’ve had 24 people say these cases shouldn’t have been brought, that there was no evidence,” Van Siclen said, referring to the two juries that acquitted his three clients.
“I think this is a case that’s worthy of being reviewed by 12 good men and women,” he said of the civil case.
On the other side, Wenatchee attorney Pat McMahon is just as sure that authorities can be proud of their record in the case. He is defending the city of Wenatchee, Police Chief Ken Badgley and Perez.
McMahon said he could not address specifics because of pending complaints and the lawsuit. But he wanted to make one thing clear:
“We’re not afraid of defending these cases. We’re actually looking forward to it because we think the facts and the evidence are going to completely exonerate the investigation and Bob Perez.”
The governor steps in
Gov. Mike Lowry requested a Justice Department review of the case last year at critics’ urging. In January, the agency said it found no evidence that defendants’ civil rights were violated.
Greenfield, who formerly ran a rape-crisis and domestic-violence center in Wenatchee, has been an activist since high school in the 1960s, when she got involved in American Indian rights movements and migrant workers’ causes.
As a volunteer worker with the developmentally disabled, she took interest in the sex-ring cases when she learned that many of the defendants were illiterate and mentally slow. Greenfield worried that investigators were violating their rights.
A former foster parent, she also was concerned about the children - especially rumors that their foster parents or legal guardians were not allowed in the room when they were questioned.
“So I started a group to look into allegations and see if they were true or not,” Greenfield said in a recent interview.
She now believes the stories were untrue.
No snap decision
But the 41-year-old mother of four didn’t reach that conclusion overnight, and says her fervor caused a lot of damage. She related getting so caught up in the cause that she helped create rumors to feed to reporters.
“We’d take the minutest details, the minutest bit of information, and make our own” explanation, she said.
“We used to sit around and speculate, and we’d speculate until the point that it became a truth, and that’s what we’d say.
“We were picking and choosing what we wanted the truth to be,” she said.
“If we were going to say everything she said about Bob Perez was true, why wouldn’t it be true what she said” about the three defendants - one of whom was acquitted.
“What I really want to accomplish is to silence these people who use the tactics they’ve accused Bob Perez of using,” said Greenfield of her former associates.
“They use intimidation. They use harassment, veiled threats.”
Calls to the group’s current leadership were not returned.
Pastor defends tactics
Robert “Roby” Roberson, a recently ordained pastor who was acquitted with his wife, Connie, of child rape and molestation charges in December, bristled when questioned about his supporters’ tactics.
Area authorities “have been criminal in what they’ve done,” said Roberson, whose East Wenatchee church was attended by several of the defendants.
“To continue to try to cover it up or excuse it or whatever just shows the dishonesty in those, the authority figures in our own community, who continue to try and represent this thing as a valid sex ring, as credible law enforcement, as a credible law and justice system.”