New American

August 11, 2003

Victims of the Fury
by William Norman Grigg

The tragic story of Wenatchee, Washington, is but one example of child protection services run amok.

Wenatchee, Washington, a quiet, orchard-strewn community of 28,000, is by all appearances unexceptional. For several years in the mid-1990s, however, Wenatchee was the scene of what has become the nation’s most notorious child abuse scandal. Between 1992 and 1995, 43 adults were arrested and charged with roughly 30,000 counts of sex abuse against scores of children. Eighteen adults were eventually convicted and sent to prison. Dozens of children were removed from their homes; some were sent to foster care, and others were placed for adoption.

Many of the charges involved accusations of macabre rituals in which men wearing black suits and sunglasses would molest children on the altar of a local Pentecostal church. Newspapers and television news programs nationwide chronicled each new revelation unearthed by detective Robert Perez, the lead investigator in the case, who was himself lionized for his tireless efforts on behalf of the child victims. Rallying the community to his crusade against child abuse, Perez became a celebrity: He was often seen with his "Purple Ribbon Brigade," a group of supporters who displayed that insignia as a token of loyalty to their hero.

With the 1995 publication of the "Wenatchee Report," a mammoth study by public defender Kathryn Lyon, the case pivoted 180 degrees. Lyon’s study convincingly documented myriad abuses of investigative standards and due process by Perez and the local Child Protective Service (CPS). By 1998, appeals courts — citing Perez’s illegitimate methods of interrogation and other official misconduct — began overturning convictions. Within three years, all of those convicted because of the investigation had either been exonerated outright or, in the words of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, had entered into "agreements … to plead guilty to lesser and usually unrelated charges." One of those convicted, for example, pleaded guilty to a charge of "spanking."

In 2001, a Spokane County jury found the city of Wenatchee and Douglas County guilty of negligence in allowing the investigation to run amok and awarded $3 million in damages to a couple who had been wrongfully convicted. A few months later, Harold and Idella Everett, the poor, mentally handicapped couple whose daughters were at the center of the scandal, won back parental rights to four of their five children (the fifth, 19 at the time, had been adopted by a Wisconsin family).

Nationwide Craze

Lurid and tragic as the Wenatchee case was, it differed only in degree from many similar episodes that erupted across the country between 1983 and 1998. Some of those scandals involved actual incidents of child abuse embellished into implausible accounts of huge child-sex rings — sometimes involving ritual murder, cannibalism, or, in one instance, evil robots. In some cases, no documentable abuse of any kind occurred. Almost always, the investigations were conducted by CPS officials and social workers who claimed unique powers of discernment and an open-ended mandate to "protect the children" at whatever cost to the rights of the accused — and the well-being of the children themselves.

As former Treasury Department official Paul Craig Roberts notes, these outrages resulted from "a new national bureaucracy" created by the 1974 Mondale Act. In Wenatchee, the scandal took place after local CPS workers "got the word from the state office to find some cases to justify its budget.... It was all a fabrication to justify a budget." Like states throughout the union, Washington was following federal mandates — and soaking up federal subsidies — to do battle against child abuse. These perverse incentives fueled the quixotic efforts of Detective Perez and the CPS to find as many abusers as possible, by whatever means necessary.

Veteran Child-snatcher

Prior to becoming a police officer in 1983, Perez had some experience as a private child-snatcher. In 1971, as an 18-year-old alienated from his parents, Perez (who had a criminal record for petty theft) was taken in by Lenny and Rebecca Williams, a young couple living in Wenatchee. Lenny treated Perez like a son until he discovered that the teenager was having an affair with his wife. Perez was evicted, only to re-materialize five years later when the Williamses divorced. Within weeks Perez had married Rebecca. Shortly thereafter the couple spirited the Williams children to Texas, where Perez adopted them. "It was a custodial kidnapping," recalls Williams. "I was left with basically nothing.... How could somebody take someone’s children?"

As a police officer, Perez was rebuked by a supervisor for displaying an appetite to control and manipulate others. A 1989 evaluation commented that Perez "likes confrontation and likes having power over people.... Has the idea that people always do what he tells them all the time." This disposition, coupled with Perez’s gift for manipulating children and his proven skills as a child-snatcher, would come powerfully into play as the Wenatchee tragedy unfolded.

In 1992, CPS officials questioned the Everetts’ youngest daughter, Ann, after she complained that other children at school had abused her. Because of the Everetts’ poverty and mental disabilities, the CPS was predisposed to conclude that Ann had actually been abused at home. But the child insisted that this was not the case. Moreover, repeated physical examinations failed to corroborate CPS’s suspicions. She was allowed to return to her parents — but she and her siblings (two sisters and twin brothers) were forced to undergo therapy administered by CPS.

Within a year, the children had "disclosed" that they had suffered from parental mistreatment. The older daughters, Melinda and Donna, were sent to live as foster children in the home of detective Robert Perez. In 1994, Perez (who had undergone a few hours of specialized training in child abuse investigations) took his foster daughters on a ride through the streets of Wenatchee, asking them to identify places where they had been abused and people who had abused them. Many of those thus accused were members of the East Wenatchee Pentecostal House of Prayer, a congregation led by Pastor Robert and Connie Roberson.

Most of those caught in Perez’s dragnet were poor, socially isolated families — which provoked the interest of attorney Kathryn Lyon. "I went to Wenatchee to observe and investigate the development of a mass child abuse prosecution," writes Lyon in her book Witch Hunt. "Poor, mentally disabled, and otherwise vulnerable parents were aggressively questioned by government agents who flatly refused to accept information contrary to their expectations. Most of these parents at last yielded, ‘confessed’ and named friends, neighbors, and relatives as their accomplices to bizarre and ritualistic sex orgies. Only by confessing and naming others could an accused person assure himself or herself of a measure of relief."

The same brutal tactics were used against the children the CPS and Detective Perez supposedly sought to save. Lyon describes a nightmare akin to Communist China’s Cultural Revolution:

According to government documents and child interviews, children who failed to cooperate with the inquisition were threatened with arrest; removed from school, neighborhoods, churches, and all extended family; medicated; placed in "recovered memory" therapy; or locked for extended periods in mental facilities where for twenty-four hours a day they were surrounded by professionals who unconditionally believed that they were victims. Not surprisingly, "confessions" proliferated and the circle of "abusers" grew as children and vulnerable adults were encouraged to name others in order to save themselves. Those who dared to speak out on behalf of the accused were suspected, sometimes charged.

Pastor Roberson was himself arrested in April 1995 after speaking out against the methods and tactics employed by Perez and the CPS. As Wall Street Journal reporter Dorothy Rabinowitz observes in her new book No Crueler Tyrannies, a small but determined group of Wenatchee residents "raised questions about the arrests, demanded accountability, and tried to find defense lawyers worthy of the name.... Connie and Mario Fry, leaders of the group, managed to live serenely enough, despite [having] a car window shot out, a living room window shattered by a thrown rock, eggs tossed at their house, anonymous warning letters. During regular meetings held at the Frys … police cars slowly circled the house, while an officer recorded the license plates of the cars in the driveway." The Frys mortgaged their home to finance the defense of one accused couple.

Among those who found themselves denounced as "non-believers" by Perez and the CPS was the late Juana Vasquez, a child welfare supervisor. After expressing skepticism of Perez’s investigation in August 1994, Vasquez was placed on administrative leave and eventually fired. Social worker Paul Glassen was arrested for "witness tampering" and investigated for child abuse after challenging the CPS’s methods. Chelan County Commissioner Earl Marcellus received the same treatment after one of Perez’s foster daughters confided to him that her accusations were bogus.

Thanks to the efforts of these embattled people, and others like them, reason finally regained its footing in Wenatchee — but not before innocent people had been jailed, dozens of families had been rent asunder, and scores of children had suffered genuine abuse at the hands of their supposed protectors. "They robbed me of my childhood, and that’s a terrible thing to do to any child," recalled Kim Allbee.

The same could be said of millions of other children nationwide.

False Child Abuse Allegations
Truth in Justice