The group's mission was strictly business. They were driving through the town's run-down neighbourhoods, gravel roads, rusting hulks of cars, grey wooden houses with peeling doors. The little girl was the centre of attention. She was pointing out homes where she said she had been repeatedly, routinely raped between January 1988, when she was four, and March 1994, when she was nine. By the end of the drive the grown-ups had jotted down 22 addresses.
The next morning the little girl - who for legal reasons must be known as "D E" - sat down with the same threesome at the office of the Child Protective Services (CPS) and told them the whole story. Her foster father took notes. He was a policeman, Detective Robert Perez. He had taken D E into his care in April 1994, four months after he had been shifted from patrol duties to the child crime investigating unit. He had received little training in detective work and none in the treatment of child-abuse victims. But he forged a bond with D E, and one day she started telling him disquieting stories. This interview at the CPS office was the latest in a series of attempts to transform those stories into criminal evidence.
Det Perez later wrote up the interview, which lasted six hours, in a 23-page report. It contains the names of 30 adults who, according to D E, made a habit of using her and two dozen other girls and boys as their sexual playthings. She described orgies where parents engaged in oral sex, sexual intercourse and other perverted acts with their own and other people's children. The women would touch and penetrate her "privates"; with the men she had to do "the wild thing". Of particular interest to Det Perez was her claim that a focal point for the rituals was a Pentecostal church, "the House of Prayer", across the Columbia River in East Wenatchee.
Among the characters D E implicated in her conspiracy of horrors were Robert Roberson, the pastor at the Pentecostal church, and his wife, Connie; Honnah Sims, a Sunday school teacher at the same church; Bob Devereaux, a single foster parent with six girls in his care; Paul Glassen, an employee of the CPS; Donna Rodriguez, the mother of a girl called Kim whom D E had known since kindergarten; and her own natural parents, Harold and Idella Everett. In mentioning her mother and father at the 14 March interview, D E was going over old ground. Her foster father, Det Perez, had arrested them six months earlier, on 23 September 1994. Acting on information D E herself had provided, he charged Mr Everett on 6,422 counts of child rape and Mrs Everett on 1,586 counts. He was jailed for 23 years and four months, she for four years and eight months.
Since Det Perez joined the town's child crime unit in January 1994, 45 adults - 24 men, 21 women - have been charged with sexual abuse of minors. Of these, 16 have pleaded guilty in exchange for reduced sentences; 10 have been convicted in court; 10 had their charges reduced and were set free; two were acquitted and seven await trial. The 26 people found guilty so far have been sentenced to a total of more than 300 years. The highest sentence, 46 years, went to a woman, Connie Cunningham.
Tim Abbey, a CPS supervisor who has worked closely with Det Perez, said last Friday that in 19 years working at the agency he had never encountered an epidemic of child sex crimes like this one. As a consequence the CPS has moved more than 40 children into foster homes. "I had my suspicions for many years," Mr Abbey said, "and now it's all come together because the children have reached an age when they can talk about these things and, no doubt about it, because of the dedication and energy of Detective Perez."
Gary Riesen, the town's chief prosecutor, said in a speech to the Wenatchee chamber of commerce on Thursday that he had total confidence in the professionalism of Det Perez's investigations.
Some people are not so sure. Every one of Wenatchee's 28,000 inhabitants agrees that something monstrous has happened. But whether it is a monstrous crime or a monstrous perversion of justice is a question that has proved bitterly divisive. So much so that the Governor of Washington State has called for an FBI investigation into allegations of a possible witchhunt.
The first serious doubts about Det Perez's investigations arose after Kathryn Lyon, a lawyer from out of town, compiled a 250-page report on the affair. "In 12 years working on more than 300 cases of child sex abuse I have never had a female client," Ms Lyon said. "Here about half the people charged have been women, which is absolutely remarkable. And there are other striking things. All those who went to jail had public defenders; all those who got off hired private counsel. Also, almost all the people who have been jailed have been poor, weak and vulnerable with extremely low IQs - Idella Everett's was tested at 58 - while those who were set free were significantly more intelligent."
Ms Lyon said 17 people who had confessed to Det Perez withdrew their confessions when they spoke to her. "I saw a pattern in the interrogations. He combines terrible threats to these vulnerable people with exorbitant promises, such as saying they will not go to jail if they come clean. One woman I spoke to said Perez had threatened to take away her wooden leg if she did not confess."
No less disturbing are indications that Det Perez manipulated the crucial witnesses, the children. Mr Riesen, supporting his star investigator, stresses that D E was not the only child to furnish evidence of a huge sex ring. Thirteen other children had also been interviewed, the prosecutor said. I spoke to two of them last week.
KIM ALLBEE, a plump, bright girl of 11, knew D E well. She arrived for the interview with her mother, Donna Rodriguez, sat down and proceeded confidently to tell her story.
On the morning of 2 February, Kim said she was ordered to leave class and go into a room to talk to Det Perez. Perez said D E had told him that she, Kim, had been sexually molested by adults. Was it true? "I said 'No way!' But then he kept going and telling me, like, you were molested and everything like that. Then he drew a stick man and he asked me where the private area was. He said I should circle it, and I did. Then he asked me, 'Were you touched there?' And I said, 'Yeah, right!' " Kim curled her lip, indicating that the remark had been sarcastic.
"Then he picked up the phone and said, 'If you don't start telling me the truth you're never going to see your family again'. I stared at him. He put down the phone and said, 'You've got five minutes to tell me the truth or your mom goes to jail and you'll never see her again'." Kim buckled. Det Perez, she said, bombarded her with leading questions gleaned largely from the testimony of her friend, his foster daughter, D E. "To every question I just said 'uh-huh', you know, agreeing with him but not saying anything."
Kim fell silent and Mrs Rodriguez picked up the thread. "Fifteen minutes after Kim left school, four cop cars arrived at the front of my home. They arrested me and then I was questioned by Perez for two hours. He told me my daughter had said she had seen me sexually molest 14 other children. He said I had 'done' my daughter and then I had let Bob Devereaux 'do' my daughter. He said I'd go to prison for life. I was crying. Then I thought, 'Women raping little girls! I mean, like, really!' And I got mad. I pounded the desk and said if I ever saw a child molested I'd report it immediately. Then he put handcuffs on me and took me to jail."
Mrs Rodriguez was charged on 168 counts of child rape. She spent three weeks in jail before being freed on $25,000 bail. From jail she phoned her ex-husband, Kim's father, and got him to take Kim away from Wenatchee. She also hired a private lawyer. On 21 August, two weeks before her trial, all charges were dropped. In the absence of Kim, the only witness Det Perez had was D E.
Kim, who was only reunited with her mother after she had been cleared, wishes Det Perez had never been born.
Another girl whom Det Perez interviewed was Annie Rodriguez. She was the critical piece in the Bob Devereaux puzzle, the witness the detective believed would substantiate D E's allegations. As Det Perez saw it, Mr Devereaux, a foster parent to six girls aged 11 to 17, was the most sinister figure after Pastor Roberson in the child sex conspiracy. Police records show that D E said Mr Devereaux would invite 20 or so adults over on Friday and Saturday nights to have sex with his girls and 15 other children. This, she said, went on for six years. Mr Devereaux faced eight life sentences on 670 counts of child rape and 335 of molestation.
The case broke down after Annie, who is 16, recanted the story she told Det Perez. A victim of foetal alcohol syndrome, she has a mental age lower than Kim's. "Perez came across as all macho," she said. "I found him intimidating. He put his face in my face. He got me to say things." Enough "things" for Det Perez promptly to arrest Mr Devereaux. That was on 3 August 1994. A few days later Annie told Paul Glassen, a CPS employee, that she had told "a whole bunch of lies", whereupon Mr Glassen was arrested for tampering with a witness and later accused - again, on the basis of D E's evidence - of being a child molester himself. He fled to Canada, where he remains to this day. Mr Devereaux's case went to court, even in the absence of Annie's testimony for the prosecution. He spent $50,000 on his defence and lost his home, but the abuse charges were dropped and he was set free.
"I just feel so sorry for the people Perez has sent to jail," Mr Devereaux said last week. "Most of them - except for Honnah, Donna Rodriguez, the pastor and I, are retarded people - easy prey, especially for confession and plea bargaining."
Honnah Sims, who is 31 and married with one son, is the Sunday school teacher at the Pentecostal church. Her accusers were D E and a little friend of hers, A S. "D E told Perez I stuck my fingers in her," Mrs Sims said. "A S said I used carrots and pencils, too. I was facing two life sentences for child rape." Mrs Sims hired a Seattle lawyer, Robert Van Siclen, to defend her. She said he demolished D E and A S in court. When Mr Van Siclen asked A S why she would turn someone in if it was not true, the court record shows she replied: "To get my way."
Mrs Sims, like Mr Devereaux, was bankrupted, but it was worth it. Her trial lasted a week and the jury took just half an hour to acquit her on all counts.
HER church, however, remained under suspicion. Last Friday the trial began of Det Perez's prize catch, Pastor Robert Roberson. His problems began when he undertook too vociferous a public defence of D E's parents, both of whom had been members of his congregation. In October last year the CPS warned him to keep out of the case or he would be arrested for tampering with police evidence. But he continued to dig for evidence of his own. A close friend of the Everett family, who were among thousands of beneficiaries of a food programme for the poor that the pastor ran from his church, he was begged by D E's 15-year-old brother, Richard, to help his parents out. Richard, according to members of the church congregation, insisted that his sister was lying. At Idella Everett's sentencing hearing on 30 January, Pastor Roberson stood up and denounced the court's findings.
"As I walked out of the court Perez said, 'We warned you, Roberson, we warned you'," the pastor said. "I was afraid but I let it all hang out at a town meeting on 23 March. Five days later, 11 police cars turned up at my church. I was handcuffed and arrested, held for 135 days, beaten up five times and charged with four counts of child rape. My wife, Connie, has been charged on two counts of rape."
The basis for Pastor Roberson's arrest was the statement D E gave on the day after her drive around Wenatchee. She described an encounter between herself, her sister Melinda, her three brothers and the pastor and his wife. "Pastor Roby touched me and did the wild thing and did the same to Melinda ... Connie put her fingers inside me and my sister. She did the wild thing to all three boys."
To Pastor Roberson's initial dismay, an adult witness stepped forward to corroborate the evidence against him. Gary Filbeck, a previously convicted paedophile, was arrested for child rape this year but was offered a reduced sentence by Wenatchee prosecutors if he testified against the pastor. Mr Van Siclen, who is defending Pastor Roberson, said Mr Filbeck told Det Perez "he saw Roberson butt-naked, bonking little D E in front of at least 29 people inside the church". Filbeck said he saw the pastor ejaculate and cry, "There goes the devil."
"I interviewed Filbeck two weeks ago," Mr Van Siclen said on Thursday, "and he told me none of this happened. Yet the prosecution say he will testify to his original story in court.
"In 25 years doing these kinds of cases I've never seen anything like this. Ordinarily, if there's nothing there the police and the prosecutors drop the cases. Here they just throw the evidence in the air and let the jury decide. And this when the chief witness is living with the chief investigator! I'm not saying there are no sexual abuses in this community. I'm sure there are. But they don't involve this investigation or anyone in this church."
The curious thing about the Roberson trial is that D E will not be called as a witness. She is a child, welfare records show, with a history of psychiatric problems. Although Det Perez has sought to convey in court the impression that he formed a strong bond with her after admitting her to his home in April 1994, a CPS document shows that in January this year he found her so troublesome he tried to have her removed from his care. She has terrible screaming fits and a tendency to break things. On 22 September she was arrested by the juvenile delinquency department for "malicious damage" and then sent to a hospital for observation. Mr Abbey, the CPS supervisor, said D E had been too drained by her ordeals to testify again.
Other children have been drained, possibly damaged, by their exposure to the Wenatchee justice system. Kathryn Lyon said at least a dozen children who have fallen into the scope of the sex abuse investigations have been sent to a psychiatric hospital, in some cases for retracting evidence they had given against the alleged child rapists.
As for Det Perez, who is variously described by his detractors in Wenatchee as an "egomaniac" and an "evil whacko", he admitted to me that he felt "under the gun". He is also unhappy that at the end of the year the Wenatchee Police Department plans to return him to patrol duty.
But he came across as confident that his experiment in detective work had proved of service to his community. "I have no second thoughts about any of the cases I have investigated. Not one. The criticism against me has been generated by a handful of people in this area who have been either suspects or have been convicted."
What about the threatened FBI investigation? "That would be fine. There's nothing to hide here. I'm very satisfied. I've made a major impact on the lives of these children."Reuse content