1/9/8 1841696 In California, a Question of Abuse; An Excess of Child Molestation Cases Bri

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1/9/8 1841696 In California, a Question of Abuse; An Excess of Child Molestation Cases Brings Kern County's Investigative Methods Under Fire. The Washington Post, May 31, 1989, FINAL Edition BY: Jay Mathews, Washington Post Staff Writer SECTION: Style, p. d01 STORY TYPE: News National LINE COUNT: 314 WORD COUNT: 3456 BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - Only two of the children at the trial could even identify Gina Miller. She was Colleen Forsythe's friend, the only nonrelative in Bakersfield's infamous Pitts family child molestation and pornography ring. Identified or not, the jury found her guilty with the others in 1985 and sent the soft-spoken, auburn-haired fast-food worker to prison for 405 years, forcing her to end abruptly the breast-feeding of her fourth child, 10-month-old Tammra. After hearing the lurid allegations made during the seven-month trial, the 12 jurors from this San Joaquin Valley city of oil wells and fruit trees may have felt even the most severe punishment was insufficient. Children testified that several adult members of the Pitts family gathered regularly to sodomize and molest their own sons, daughters, nephews or nieces, often after forcing drugs or alcohol on them. Children said they saw cameras apparently filming the sexual acts. There had never been anything like it here, and in a city full of families from Oklahoma and the South who prided themselves on their Christian values and adherence to law and order, the reaction was horror and outrage. Children could not make up such stories, prosecutors repeatedly reminded the jurors and the public. "I can't conceive of a reason for something like this," said Superior Court Judge Gary T. Friedman as he pronounced sentences. "I doubt if our friends in the animal kingdom would treat their young in such a fashion." A few defense attorneys raised objections to the extraordinary prison terms. The total of 2,619 years for the seven defendants set a child abuse case record for California and probably the whole country. Defense attorneys noted that no adults had testified to witnessing the crimes, that there was no sign of the alleged pornographic films or videotapes and that the medical evidence was controversial. But such objections were buried in an outpouring of disgust at the trial testimony and a growing concern about mass child abuse cases materializing in many other parts of the country. Then, as months went by, a few Bakersfield residents began to wonder about the Pitts case and several other sexual abuse investigations that had been carried out for several years by a number of very active officials in the Kern County district attorney's and sheriff's offices. One analysis showed that in 1982 the county's rate of arrests for child molesting was twice the state average. Investigations that initially focused on just one or two children seemed to grow to include many more. Finally, a county investigation of an alleged satanic cult, a group that made the Pitts defendants appear kindly by comparison, careened irrevocably out of control. Child witnesses who had been repeatedly interviewed, much like the witnesses in the Pitts and several other cases, told investigators that the cult had not only molested children but conducted blood rites and even killed babies. Frantic efforts to discover the bodies proved fruitless, and then three young witnesses went one crucial step further. They identified as members of the satanic ring a sheriff's deputy, a social worker and a deputy district attorney--persons with impeccable reputations who could not possibly have been where the children said they saw them. This was the turning point. The credibility of both witnesses and investigators in the series of molestation cases began to come into serious question. Gina Miller, obsessed with thoughts of her children, said she felt her spirits lifting for the first time. Perhaps she had a chance to get out soon. Within months a special investigative team from the state attorney general's office had descended on Bakersfield and produced one of the most damning reports one California agency had ever written about another. The 80-page document concluded that a county child sexual abuse coordinator and sheriff's deputies overinterviewed and pressured child witnesses, gave them opportunities to share accounts of the case, and assumed anything a child said was true. The report said this prompted investigators "to accept the children's statements without question, to neglect to verify those statements through additional questions of the victim and others close to the victim, and to fail to seek additional corroborative evidence to support the children's claims." The county's investigation, the report concluded, "foundered in a sea of unproven allegations, insufficient corroborative evidence, and bizarre allegations that in some instances were proven to be false and raised serious questions about the victims' credibility." The state's highest law enforcement officials had decided that, in Bakersfield at least, horribly detailed stories of abuse and molestation told by innocent children might not always be true. Not only did the report challenge an article of faith in the conviction of the Pitts family and other defendants here, but it was directly critical of methods used by investigators who had participated, at least in part, in gathering testimony used against the Pitts family and many others. The resulting furor has not drawn much attention outside California's San Joaquin Valley. Notable molestation cases like the McMartin Preschool trial in Los Angeles have preempted most national media attention. But the attorney general's report on Bakersfield paints a picture of what has to be considered one of the clumsiest and most destructive child abuse investigations in American history. The report leaves unanswered many questions about how to deal with such tragedies, and what to do about many other Kern County residents left in prison whose cases have not attracted a full-scale second look. For the attorney general's report said nothing directly about the Pitts defendants. Miller said she experienced a sinking feeling that the state's exposure of investigative clumsiness might not help them after all, and others raised the same concerns. Glenn Cole, a retired accountant who led the county grand jury from 1983 to 1985, said he believes "innocent people are in jail right today" because children were "questioned to the point where they could not tell truth from fiction." He said he thinks the initial investigators were not properly trained and the attorney general's office should have done more to right the wrongs. "I try to put it out of my mind," Cole said, "but I get very emotional about it." Some attorneys, particularly those defending the Pittses, are beginning to compare many of the Bakersfield child abuse investigations to the Salem witch trials. They say they fear that instinctive loathing over unusually egregious accounts of child molestation has subverted the rule of law and due process and unnecessarily shattered dozens of lives, including those of several children. In some minds the parallels across three centuries are very close. Michael Snedeker, a San Francisco attorney representing one of the Pitts defendants, said the Salem trials began in 1692 with two children who, after repeated questioning, identified many local people as witches. "The Salem witchcraft fever did not break until the children made absolutely unbelievable accusations, pointing their damning fingers at the governor's wife," he said. "They also accused those most eager in the prosecution of witches. Once disbelieved in a few particulars, they lost the power to condemn they undoubtedly never sought." Bitter arguments have broken out here over the guilt or innocence of the Pitts defendants and several others jailed after investigations similar to the discredited satanic case. At the very least, the turmoil shows how damaging a misstep in a child abuse case can be, and how it may take years to erase the effects of overzealous interviewing and an unshakable belief in the veracity of children, even those under severe emotional pressure. In the last several months two of the alleged child victims in the Pitts case have recanted, saying nothing at all happened in the green house on Sycamore Street where the molestations were supposed to have occurred. The sudden shift in the cases sparked unusual tensions between many leading Bakersfield citizens. Andrew Gindes, a former prosecutor who handled the Pitts case, has sued Alfred T. Fritts, former co-publisher/editor of the Bakersfield Californian, for libel after the newspaper printed a story about one witness's recantation. Gindes' complaint alleged that Fritts was hostile toward him because Fritts feared his "own activities would be disclosed if a vigorous policy was pursued by law enforcement against child molesters." Dennis Kinnaird, an attorney representing Fritts and other defendants in the case, called the allegation "totally incorrect" and said, "We don't think it has any basis in fact." Gindes, in an interview, expressed outrage that the results of a lengthy jury trial were now being questioned, and accused attorneys for the Pitts defendants of organizing a "media hype." "I don't think the media should be used to conduct a public relations campaign to attempt to prejudice the judicial system," he said. Investigators and prosecutors here who handled most of the cases say that their evidence stands up, and bitterly denounce the decision to drop the satanic cult case. Kern County District Attorney Edward R. Jagels, who refused to prosecute the satanic case, still defends the investigative methods and lengthy prison sentences in the Pitts and other cases. Arguments against them, he said, "just don't hang together." Although some attorneys with the state attorney general's office privately express doubts about the evidence in the Pitts and other cases brought during the widespread molestation investigations of 1982 to 1985, they say they can do nothing to overturn jury verdicts. Deputy Attorney General Thomas Gede, who was assigned to the Pitts case on appeal, said that after reading all 14,000 pages of trial transcript he is convinced of the guilt of all seven defendants. While those verdicts are being appealed, the Pitts defendants and many others remain in prison with multiple life sentences, wondering if they will ever leave prison and, if they do, ever restore a semblance of their previous lives. Colleen Forsythe, sentenced to 373 years in the Pitts case, said her 13-year-old daughter Windy, one of the two witnesses who have recently recanted, has been through several foster homes and returned more than once to the custody of juvenile authorities. During trial, Forsythe, now 30, insisted on her innocence. "There was no way I was going to say that I did something like that when I didn't," she said during an interview at the California Institution for Women in Frontera. Miller rejected an early offer of a lighter sentence in exchange for testifying against the others. "People think I was crazy for not taking that deal, but how could I take responsibility for all these people?" she said. Bakersfield tree surgeon Roy Nokes, who spent $50,000 in a successful fight to clear his son and daughter-in-law of molestation charges in another case, said he thinks some innocent people who lacked the necessary financial resources accepted shorter jail terms after seeing the huge jury verdicts against those in the Pitts case and others. His son, daughter-in-law and others are suing a prosecutor and an investigator for the alleged harm done them and their families. "They should be hit hard enough that they never do anything like this again," he said. The Pitts case began in 1984 when Ricky Lynn Pitts, now 36 and a former truck driver and bartender, and his wife Marcella were accused of molesting Marcella's three sons by a previous marriage. The new wife of Marcella's ex-husband told authorities the boys had reported being molested during weekend visits to the Pittses' house on Sycamore Street. Marcella Pitts, 34, serving a 373-year sentence in the case, said the wife of her ex-husband made false charges because "she knew I was going to fight for custody of those kids and she knew I'd win." But the boys' account led authorities to take custody of them as well as eight other children and, after weeks of interviews with the 11 children, to file molestation charges against the Pittses, Forsythe, Forsythe's husband Wayne (they have since divorced), Forsythe's mother Grace Dill, 55, Dill's son Wayne Dill Jr., 33, and Miller. At the trial, some children said they were injected with drugs, forced to drink urine and alcohol and to engage in sex acts with adults and other children while as many as three cameras recorded the scene. In some cases, Ricky Pitts was accused of threatening children with being tied to a board hanging on the wall. The seven defendants all insisted on their innocence, and four took and passed lie detector tests. But the prosecution produced testimony from a physician, Bruce Woodling, that there were signs of molestation in two children. The prosecution said it produced medical testimony on only these two because they were the only ones who denied being molested. Many child witnesses were interviewed repeatedly by Carol Darling, the district attorney's child sexual abuse coordinator, before telling stories of abuse and agreeing to testify. Darling, who declined to comment on the case, retired on a disability pension last year for excessive mental and emotional stress. Andrew Rubin, an attorney who represented Ricky Pitts, said he saw many inconsistencies in the children's testimony and thought it sounded as if it came from an outside source, but the jury seemed impressed by the medical testimony and one moment of courtroom drama. A 6-year-old girl witness, whom Pitts said he had disciplined in the past, began screaming hysterically, "Don't let him get me! Don't let him kill me!" when she was asked to identify him at the defendants' table. Uncontrollable, she ran into the arms of Judge Friedman, who said after the trial he felt "she was definitely traumatized, as were the other children." At that point in the trial, Rubin said, "I realized I was in serious trouble in this case." The defendants began serving their sentences in the summer of 1985. Their continued protestations of innocence were largely ignored until Christina Hayes, now 14, Ricky Pitts' niece and the eldest of the child witnesses, had a conversation with her guardian's wife during the 1986 Christmas season. The wife, Mary Isabell, said she was concerned about the girl's hostile attitude and poor study habits. After a visit by Christina's grandfather, who firmly believed in the innocence of the Pitts defendants, Isabell invited Christina into her bedroom to discuss the trial. "I said, 'We have to talk about it,'" Isabell said in a taped interview with private investigator Denver Dunn, which is now part of the court record. "I told her, 'You have to tell me the truth. Good God, if it happened a little bit, not at all, a whole bunch, whatever happened, I need to know so that I can help you.'" After thinking about it for a moment, Christina changed her story and said that nothing had happened. In the course of several days of talk with Robert Hayes, the guardian she refers to as her father, and with Isabell, she said her trial testimony had emerged from hours of interviews with social worker Carol Darling and other investigators, in which she was told accounts of what other children were saying. She said Darling told her some potentially violent friends of the Pitts family were out to do her harm. "They told me that if I didn't cooperate they would take me away from my dad (Hayes) and put me in a foster home," Christina said in an interview conducted during a walk in her Bakersfield neighborhood with no other adults present. Her natural mother, Clovette Pitts, disappeared when the others were arrested. Hayes said he believes Christina is now telling the truth and noted that her grades and general attitude have improved. But Jagels, the county district attorney, and other county investigators said her new story is false, perhaps concocted to relieve tension in the family. They emphasized her lengthy, detailed testimony on the stand, which defense attorneys point out consisted mostly of short, affirmative answers to detailed prosecution questions. Jagels said he thought it significant that she could not specify precisely where and when she heard the details of the molestations she testified to. Jagels also noted her recantation came shortly after she learned her grandmother, Grace Dill, had broken her leg in prison. Three weeks after Christina Hayes changed her story, district attorney's investigator Tam Hodgson interviewed Windy Betterton, Forsythe's daughter, producing a transcript that is now in the court record: Hodgson: "Okay. Those things that you testified to, are all of them true, some of them true, none of them true?" Betterton: "None of them are true." Her cousin, Sherril Boyd, told Hodgson that she had informed the girl of Christina Hayes' recantation and cautioned Windy to be sure she was telling the truth. Boyd said the girl began to cry, and then said "the people at the DA's office had kept asking, or saying over and over and over that they knew she had been molested. She had finally just made up something to keep them from questioning her anymore." In the satanic cases, the attorney general's report criticized Kern County investigators for interviewing "victims repeatedly, covering old ground, reiterating other victims' statements, failing to question the children's statements, and urging them to name additional suspects and victims." Despite state guidelines against multiple interviews, one child in the satanic case "was interviewed 24 times by sheriff's deputies and a total of 35 times in the investigation," the report said. Critics of the Kern County investigations, citing the attorney general's report, have focused on several other cases investigated about the same time by some of the same Kern County officials or by other officials using similar methods: Scott and Brenda Kniffen and Alvin and Deborah McCuan, two couples with two small children each, were given prison terms of 240 to 268 years for molesting their children, despite evidence that some of the children had falsely accused other adults and had come under the influence of a mentally disturbed relative who resented some of the defendants. Prosecutors used testimony from Woodling that was challenged by David Paul, an internationally recognized child abuse expert. David A. Duncan, a 39-year-old former oil field worker, was sent to prison for 60 years in 1984 on a molestation charge. Duncan was accused by child witnesses discovered during a sweep of a neighborhood in another investigation. The children were repeatedly interviewed before they testified, and testimony by a jail-house informant was also used against Duncan. He was released in late January after an appeals court reversed his conviction and the prosecutor dropped the charges. Howard L. Weimer, a 65-year-old former automobile repair shop owner, has been in prison for a year after a woman he and his wife cared for as foster parents years before accused him of molesting her. Eventually sheriff's deputies, in part through lengthy interviews, found four other former foster children of the couple who made similar accusations. The trial judge imposed a 42-year sentence. John A. Stoll, a 45-year-old former gas plant foreman, received a 40-year sentence after being convicted of molestation on testimony from his son and some other children, including some who later recanted. Many investigators and attorneys who handled Bakersfield child abuse cases in the early 1980s vigorously defend their actions and ridicule the attorney general's report. "It was just junk," former deputy district attorney Gindes said in an interview. He said he still believed the satanic cult accusations might have merit. In a follow-up interview, Gindes denied criticizing the attorney general's attack on the satanic case investigation or saying he thought the satanic case might still have merit. He declined to say what his attitude toward the case was. Carol Darling's husband Brad, a lieutenant in the Kern County sheriff's office, has continued to speak to church groups about his belief in some of the satanic charges. He told one group, according to a transcript, that his witnesses "described things that I can't fathom a child knowing about or learning on television." The Darlings declined to be interviewed. Snedeker said an expert witness, University of California Irvine gynecologist R. David Miller, has concluded that the medical evidence used at the trial was meaningless. But appeals and new trials take time. Despite the widespread doubt about many of the Bakersfield molestation cases, the people sent to prison expect to be there for some time. Gina Miller said she is certain she will be free some day and thinks she can start a new life with her children in another state. Her friend Colleen Forsythe is less hopeful. When she is freed, she said, she may not try to retrieve her children from their new homes. "I'm scared of kids. I'm scared to death of kids," she said. "I'm glad I can't have any more." CAPTIONS: Gina Miller, of the defendants in the Bakersfield trial. Grace Dill, Marcella Pitts and Colleen Forsythe in prison. Christina Hayes, eldest of the child witnesses, has since recanted her testimony. LV witnesses, has since recanted her testimony. LV NAMED PERSONS: MILLER, GINA; FORSYTHE, COLLEEN; PITTS, RICKY LYNN; PITTS, MARCELLA


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