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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Dark cloud still lingering over Wenatchee

John K. Wiley Associated Press

WENATCHEE – It has been a decade since the first whispers of orgiastic sex between groups of adults and children brought unwanted international notoriety to this orchard-ringed city.

The investigations and prosecution of scores of Wenatchee area residents sparked a book, several award-winning investigative newspaper and television reports and years of legal appeals that eventually freed most of the accused.

But while the world spotlight has dimmed, the ill will caused by the so-called sex-rings investigation continues to reverberate in this community of about 54,000 people.

“Some way or another, I want an apology out of this community … for what they’ve done to us and all these other innocent people,” said the Rev. Robert “Roby” Roberson, who was acquitted, along with his wife, Connie, of child sexual-abuse charges in 1995.

But an apology is unlikely anytime soon, given the dozens of civil lawsuits filed in the wake of the investigations. Many of those involved declined to be interviewed or did not want to comment while lawsuits are pending.

Along with other local officials, Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen, whose office prosecuted many of the cases, declined to comment. “I think it’s all been said,” Riesen said.

Beginning in April 1994 and continuing through the following year, nearly 60 people were investigated. Forty-three people were charged with more than 29,000 counts of sexual abuse involving some 50 children. Many of the accused were poor, uneducated or developmentally disabled.

Most of the arrests were made by then-Wenatchee police detective Bob Perez, whose two foster daughters had made the majority of the accusations. Both sisters later recanted, saying they had been pressured by Perez to make the statements.

Lawyers for the Innocence Project Northwest, who began representing 13 clients in 1998, found evidence that the defendants had been badgered and pressured to confess to crimes they had not committed.

Project lawyers also argued that there was police misconduct and presented evidence that defense attorneys had provided ineffective assistance.

In 1999, the state Court of Appeals ordered Whitman County Superior Court Judge Wallis Friel to conduct fact-finding hearings, resulting in new trials for some of those who had been convicted.

Of 26 people eventually convicted of felonies, 18 got their convictions overturned or accepted plea agreements on lesser charges after their accusers had recanted. Four served their sentences, three were given suspended sentences and one person remains in prison.

Some of those prosecuted and later freed have filed lawsuits against the city, Chelan and Douglas counties, law enforcement agencies and Perez.

Perez, who no longer works for the city of Wenatchee, has said he would not have changed how he investigated the cases.

That infuriates those who were targets of the investigations.

“There’s been no healing,” Robert Roberson said. “The city and county leadership has done nothing to resolve the problem. They’re continuing to stand on the position that it was a tight and thorough investigation, despite being thoroughly discredited.”

Roberson, who has a civil lawsuit pending, is still pastor of the East Wenatchee Pentecostal church, which, along with several congregants, became a target of the child-sex investigations.

He works with youth groups and delivers dairy products to food banks in the area.

At first, Perez’s foster daughters told of orgiastic sex involving their birth parents and many other people they knew.

Eventually, investigators alleged that children had been forced to have sex – sometimes in groups – with adults in two loosely organized rings, including one at Roberson’s church.

Connie Fry became an early critic of the investigations when fellow members of her Mormon church were charged. She helped found Concerned Citizens for Legal Accountability, calling for independent investigations into the conduct of police and prosecutors in the cases.

Fry said she doesn’t think much has changed in the decade since the first sex-rings arrests.

“I think people in Wenatchee just wish this would go away and people would be quiet about it,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ve learned our lesson. They sent innocent people to prison, and people don’t feel bad about it.”

The investigations were the topic of a series of Seattle Post-Intelligencer articles in February 1998. The series found that state workers responsible for protecting children often did more harm than good and that police, prosecutors, judges and even public defenders had permitted civil rights violations.

The Wenatchee World recently estimated more than $7 million has been paid by various county and city agencies in civil settlements and jury awards. Many other lawsuits are pending.

Roberson, one of very few defendants who were able to hire their own lawyers, said the stigma of a failed legal system is not likely to be erased soon.

“To eliminate the cloud, or to apologize or admit wrongdoing, would literally admit their guilt and affirm our innocence,” he said. “Their position is they have to stay on the Titanic until it submerges.”

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