When Stephen Hughes walked out of a California prison nearly nine years ago, he says he walked away from cocaine and check fraud.
He sold computer software, bought a big home on a big hill in Wenatchee and drove a vintage Mercedes.
And he started speaking out.
In letters to the editor and on talk radio, Hughes groused that the Wenatchee police investigation into what they called a massive child sex ring was nothing less than Stalinism.
His outspokenness landed him in jail, Hughes and his lawyer claim.
On May 15, the day after complaining at a Wenatchee City Commission meeting, Hughes was arrested on a 13-year-old probation violation.
He had not paid $470.13 restitution and court costs ordered by a judge after his 1979 guilty plea on a Spokane County forgery charge.
Hughes, then a 22-year-old student at Eastern Washington University, found a checkbook at a fraternity house and forged an $18.85 draft to the Ranch Thrift grocery store in Cheney, court records state.
A warrant for his arrest, issued 13 years ago, mysteriously surfaced two weeks ago.
Hughes, 39, blames Wenatchee police for doing a background check without cause to retaliate against his criticisms.
His Spokane attorney, Bill Parker, agrees the arrest warrant for his client was valid. But, he says, it was served to punish Hughes for exercising his free-speech rights, a civil rights violation.
“It definitely reeks of retaliation,” Parker says.
Hughes served five days in jail and was released last week after paying the restitution.
Spokane County Superior Court Judge James Murphy closed the case. “He’s paid his dues,” Murphy says.
Because Hughes lives in the Sunnyslope subdivision just outside the city of Wenatchee, he was arrested by a Chelan County deputy. Hughes says the deputy told him the warrant was referred by Wenatchee police, which, he says, bolsters his retaliation claim.
Efforts to reach Wenatchee police last week were unsuccessful. Department brass stopped commenting on the sex ring case last year, with outside media considered unfriendly.
Chelan County Undersheriff Daryl Mathena says Hughes’ claims of retaliation are “ridiculous” and that his office was just doing its job. Hughes, he notes, was a wanted felon.
“He had a felony warrant for his arrest, for crying out loud,” the lawman says. “He had the problem, he broke the law. To me, it’s absurd the media would even be interested.”
But Mathena told the Wenatchee newspaper after Hughes’ arrest, “We’ve got computers up here like everybody else, and if somebody brings that much attention to themselves, I wouldn’t consider it unusual for someone to run him to see if he’s got any problems.”
Criticism from the start
Charges of retaliation and intimidation have dogged Wenatchee Valley authorities since a rookie sex crimes investigator in 1993 claimed he uncovered the largest organized child sex circle in the nation’s history.
Wenatchee Police Detective Bob Perez alleged that 50 area children had been molested since 1988 by two loosely organized rings of adults. Of 45 men and women charged since 1993, 28 pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial.
But sex charges against 13 others were dismissed. And three of the highest-profile defendants - a pastor, his wife and a Sunday school teacher - were acquitted. One case is pending. Prosecutors whittled the number of child victims to about 10.
Investigation critics say most of the convicted were poor and could not afford good lawyers. Some were mentally disabled. The key child accusers were Perez’s foster daughters, a potential conflict of interest.
Those who were exonerated have filed more than a dozen civil suits seeking nearly $100 million. Some claim they were charged only after publicly criticizing police.
The Wall Street Journal, of which Hughes was a daily reader, reported last year that a Spokane television newsman was falsely labeled a child molester because of his negative reports on the investigation.
Hughes, who runs Great North Marketing out of his home, concluded last fall that the sex ring investigation was “a crock.”
Citizens who continued to back police “didn’t want to believe what I started to see,” Hughes says, “which was a very strong pattern of railroading people on flimsy evidence.”
Police visit follows admission of past
Hughes admits he went through a “stupid” phase in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The three-sport athlete at North Thurston High School in Lacey, Wash., thought he was invincible.
“I did some bonehead things,” he says.
After his forgery conviction in Spokane County, he moved to Southern California, got hooked on cocaine and started bouncing checks to pay for his addiction.
“I was not your garden variety boy next door,” he says now. “It was stupidity, and I thought I could get away it. But I never did. I was not a good crook.”
He served about nine months in two California prisons before his parole in 1988.
“I made a decision that I was never going to see the inside of those jail walls again,” Hughes says. “I moved to Seattle and got married in the summer of 1991. Then I moved to Wenatchee in June 1994. We figured Wenatchee was a good place to raise kids.”
Great North Marketing took off, and Hughes and his Canadian partner grossed nearly a quarter million dollars last year selling a dozen lines of computer software in the U.S. and Canada.
Hughes started going to Mass and became a lector.
“He’s at Mass every Sunday he’s in town,” says Deacon Bill Osborn of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.
Earlier this year, Hughes joined Concerned Citizens for Legal Accountability, a watchdog group critical of the sex ring investigation.
He fired off angry and sarcastic letters to the Wenatchee World and Wall Street Journal.
On May 13, a local newspaper reporter called Hughes to confirm rumors he had a criminal record. Hughes came clean. The next night, he spoke out at a City Commission meeting.
The following day, a plainclothes cop showed up at his front door.
“I told my wife that morning that something was going to happen,” Hughes says. “I smelled something.”
Hughes is considering a lawsuit and has hired a Seattle private investigator to see whether police used legal means - a background check - for an illegal end - harassment.
“You can’t go back and change things,” he says. “You can teach your kids to do better. You can make amends with your God. You can live a clean life.
“It’s an abomination of a democracy that a citizen is going to be investigated based on a comment he may make in a letter to the editor. This is what Joe Stalin did to people, except he didn’t give them access to a newspaper. The police here are the fear and intimidation squad.”
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