Judge backs new trial in Wenatchee abuse case
Tainted, coerced testimony cited in Hidalgo conviction

Saturday, September 25, 1999


In a blistering opinion, a judge said yesterday that one of the men prosecuted in the Wenatchee sex-abuse cases should be granted a new trial because his child molestation conviction was based on tainted and coerced testimony. 


Whitman County Superior Court Judge Wallis Friel issued his opinion in the case of 37-year-old Manuel Hidalgo Rodriguez. In July, Friel conducted a rare fact-finding hearing ordered by the state Court of Appeals to evaluate whether Hidalgo received a fair and just trial in 1995.

Friel said recent revelations of tainted testimony and substantial evidence discovered since Hidalgo's trial indicates "there is a probability Mr. Hidalgo would not be convicted upon retrial." 

Due to "improper, suggestive and coercive interviewing tactics" by former Wenatchee Police Detective Robert Perez, the main investigator in the case, it's likely the testimony of the two chief witnesses against Hidalgo would not be allowed in any retrial.

Those witnesses, Donna and Melinda Everett, were Perez's foster daughters at the time of the investigation and their accusations were key in many of the criminal cases he pursued. 

Continuing developments in the aftermath of the Wenatchee child sex-ring investigations. 

Robert Van Siclen, an Auburn attorney representing Hidalgo, yesterday said he is buoyed by the decision. 

"It's a very big decision," Van Siclen said. "It's an important one." 

His client was deeply relieved to hear the news, he said. Hidalgo is > currently serving 5 1/2 years in prison. 

"He was very emotional, very, very happy to hear it had happened," the attorney said. "He's very anxious to get out." 

The Court of Appeals will now consider Friel's opinion and rule on whether to grant Hidalgo a new trial, Van Siclen said. The court likely will not issue a ruling for several weeks, he said. 

Also yesterday, lawyers for the Innocence Project Northwest reported that the Court of Appeals has ordered a similar reference hearing for Randall Neil Reed, who is serving a six-year sentence on two counts of child molestation.

The Innocence Project is a group of lawyers, educators and law students who have volunteered their time to seek appeals and new trials for those convicted in the Wenatchee cases.

Hidalgo was one of 43 people in Wenatchee charged with sexually abusing 60 children in 1994 and 1995. 

Gary Risen, Chelan County prosecutor, said he was braced for Friel's decision. The judge issued a similar opinion last year in the cases of Harold and Idella Everett, the parents of the two girls, who were freed from prison by the appellate court's action. Hidalgo was married to Harold Everett's daughter from a previous marriage. 

"I wasn't surprised," Risen said. "I think we expected this." 

Among Friel's findings: 

Melinda Everett was believable when, 10 months after Hidalgo's convictions, she admitted she and Donna had lied when they accused him of molesting them. On June 2, 1996, at the home of Chelan Country Commissioner Earl Marcellus, Melinda told Spokane television reporter Tom Grant that Perez knew she had lied, and claimed the detective forced her and Donna to lie about being raped and molested. "The recantation of (Melinda Everett) repeatedly states that the accusations made by both girls were untrue and the result of pressure by Detective Perez on both of them," Friel wrote. 

The sheer volume of accusations of molestation and abuse made by the two girls should have prompted questions about their credibility. 

"The Hidalgo accusations made by (Donna and Melinda Everett) are merely two of accusations so numerous that the number alone is an (indication) of falsity," the judge wrote. "They were so spectacular and far ranging as to test each juror's common experience and common sense." 

Evidence discovered three days into Hidalgo's trial -- but never introduced -- would have countered the important prosecution testimony of a Wenatchee emergency room physician. That doctor said his examination revealed "proof positive" that Melinda Everett had been raped. However, a pediatrician who examined the girl during the trial was unable to insert even the smallest medical instrument into her vagina during an examination, making the allegation of rape doubtful. The pediatrician's testimony, if he had been called, "seriously impeaches" the testimony of the emergency room doctor, Friel wrote. 


P-I reporter Andrew Schneider also contributed to this report. Reporter Elaine Porterfield can be reached at 206-467-5942 or elaineporterfield@seattle-pi.com

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