• U.S.


8 minute read
Margaret Carlson

LAST SPRING, AS PASTOR ROBERT ROBERSON HANDED out groceries from the food bank at his Pentecostal church in East Wenatchee, Washington, a SWAT team surrounded the building, then handcuffed the minister and took him in for questioning. At the same time, Roberson’s wife Connie was called out of a class she was attending at Wenatchee Valley College and arrested. Their daughter, four-year-old Rebekah, was taken by Child Protective Services, placed in foster care and subjected to intense recovered-memory therapy; the Robersons–who were imprisoned for 4 1/2 months–have not seen or talked to her since.

The Robersons were accused by 11-year-old D.E.–the state’s chief witness, who just happens to be the foster daughter of Wenatchee’s sole sex-crimes investigator, Robert Perez–of myriad acts of child abuse, allegedly carried out not in furtive encounters but in bizarre sex parties at their church. Lurid reports describe orgies and ritual sacrifice on the altar, with Roberson and his congregation of perverts shouting “Hallelujah!” after what D.E. calls “the wild thing.”

Maybe the Robersons, who go on trial this week, did run the Church of Unspeakable Acts. But a growing number of citizens, initially relieved that a despicable evil was being rooted out of their midst, have become alarmed by Detective Perez and his allies in CPS, who see abuse around every corner of this quiet community of 24,000 in the foothills of the Cascades. In the nearly two years since Perez began his work, D.E.’s memory has borne as much fruit as the town’s apple orchards. Most people were sympathetic when she first accused her parents, who are now serving sentences for abuse. But she has subsequently fingered more than 80 other adults, including the Robersons, and Perez has recruited several other children to corroborate her charges. These were made in unrecorded conversations with Perez and in one tour around town, during which D.E. accused a large swath of the population and pointed to 23 places as sites of her attacks. As a result of what came to be known as “the drive-by,” 3,200 charges of child abuse were lodged against one woman alone. Kathryn Lyon, a public defender who has investigated the charges and written a 250-page report, says, “Perez has abused the children in order to persecute the adults. Anyone can see he’s dangerous.”

It is a wonder Perez got the investigator’s job in the first place, since he has a history of petty crimes and domestic strife, and a dismal 1989 police-department evaluation described him as having a “pompous, arrogant approach” and said he appeared “to pick out people and target them.” Appointed in January 1994 after two brief training courses, Perez, who surrounds himself with teddy bears, often interrogated the most vulnerable, dysfunctional children named by D.E. without their parents’ being present. He did not videotape these interviews, as most professionals do, and did not even keep notes, explaining that he stopped after his notes were once used to impeach him on the stand. Instead, he drafted conclusory statements, which the children signed, often after many grueling hours in custody. Of the accused, more than 20 are now in jail. And while some of those may have actually committed child abuse of the more familiar variety–for example, an older male accosting a child–there is no credible proof of a Pentecostal sex ring. Lyon says many of those in prison are poor and functionally illiterate, and a number recanted their confessions once they were read back to them. Nearly half are women, almost unheard of in such cases. No one who has hired private counsel and fought the charges has gone to jail.

Perez’s tactics were on display in his questioning of Donna Rodriguez’s then 10-year-old daughter Kim, a classmate of D.E.’s. Kim was pulled out of school last February and questioned for four hours by Perez, who threatened to arrest her mom unless Kim admitted to sex orgies with various adults, including her mother. The child remembers being so scared that she was shaking when Perez told her, “You have 10 minutes to tell the truth.” She signed a two-page statement he thrust at her because he told her she would be able to go home if she did. Instead, she didn’t see her mother again for six months because Perez locked Donna up that day. Rodriguez hired a lawyer, and two days before her trial was to begin, prosecutors dropped all 168 counts against her.

Honnah Sims, a plump, soft-spoken 31-year-old woman who taught Sunday school at the Robersons’ church, was not so lucky. D.E. charged that Sims had raped her in the church office and bathroom as part of the twice weekly bacchanals involving numerous children and adults. By then the orgy claims had been embellished by D.E. and other children to include inflatable toys under the altar, penetration with various items, including carrots, and a round robin in which each adult got a turn with each child. Any child too tired from these exertions to go to school on Monday could get a note from the pastor, it was said.

As fantastic as this sounds, Sims was put on trial. She and her husband borrowed $80,000 and put up a defense showing that none of the charges could be corroborated with physical evidence and that Perez’s interrogations had tainted the children’s statements. After Sims was acquitted, juror Danny McGregor told a local paper, “I feel there is a witch hunt; there’s just no evidence.”

Robert Devereux, a businessman whose wife had been devoted to running a group home for troubled schoolgirls, which he kept afloat after their divorce, was also caught in D.E.’s web. He was “the best kind of foster parent, devoted and tireless,” says social worker Juana Vasquez,who was suspended in part for complaining about Perez’s sitting in on CPS meetings. But Devereux had crossed D.E. when he had her removed from his home for being unruly. When he later had a disciplinary problem with another of his charges, Anne W., who has fetal-alcohol syndrome, Perez swooped in and questioned Anne. She later admitted to her social worker, Paul Glassen, that “she had told a bunch of lies about Dad.”

Devereux was charged with enough offenses to merit eight life sentences. After he hired a defense lawyer, however, prosecutors were suddenly willing to reduce his monstrous sex crimes to two misdemeanors: witness obstruction (warning someone he would be the next target) and once spanking a child. But by then Devereux, 58, had lost his home and was $50,000 in debt. He has moved to a tiny house on the outskirts of town, where he works the night shift at a truck stop.

Meanwhile, for reporting Anne W.’s recantations, Glassen was arrested for witness tampering and fired by CPS. Then his name began appearing on lists of alleged sex-ring participants. Glassen decided not to risk having his child taken away and moved north to Canada.

Other families have been ripped apart. Mormons Mark and Carol Doggett asked CPS for help with their son, fearing he had molested their youngest daughter. CPS decided it was the parents who were doing the molesting and arrested them. The five children were separated in foster care, the better to “recover” their memories of rape, which they have since recanted. When Sarah, the eldest daughter, objected to what was happening, she was handcuffed, strapped to a gurney and sent to an institution in Idaho to get over her “pathological loyalty” to her family. After the Doggetts were sent to prison for 11 years, Sarah ran away, too afraid to go to school or attempt to contact her siblings, a child completely alone trying to get help for her parents. Now 17, speaking on the phone from her third temporary family, she weeps, “Why would they have gone to social services if they were molesters?”

When asked about Perez’s unorthodox methods, local prosecutor Gary Riesen defends his record but says, “It’s not part of my job to endorse police officers,” and admits there have been inconsistencies among the child witnesses. In fact, D.E., whose screaming has damaged her vocal cords, has been confined to a mental institution and may no longer be competent to testify. Governor Mike Lowry, who last year made a special appropriation for the uncommonly high case load in Wenatchee, has reversed course and, responding to a 2,169-citizen petition, has asked the attorney general to investigate “the actions of officials” in the area.

The Robersons, $97,000 in debt, are eager to go to trial. “There’s no difference between our case and Honnah’s. That was ridiculous,” says the pastor. They have lost everything–their congregation, their food bank, their reputation–but hope to have their daughter back soon. “People don’t know that this can happen in America, that someone can come in and take your child away on the basis of a crackpot detective’s word,” says Roberson. “Maybe now they’ll know.”

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