WENATCHEE, Wash. (AP) – It’s been a decade since this placid town of alpine lakes and apple orchards first came to be haunted by whispers of a pastor and his flock taking children to the church basement and forcing them to take part in sex orgies.
The prosecutions of scores of Wenatchee-area residents tore the community apart and brought it international notoriety before children began to recant – and most of the accused were freed.
While the spotlight has dimmed, the bitterness lingers for those who say they were falsely accused.
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“Some way or another, I want an apology out of this community … for what they’ve done to us and all these other innocent people,” said Rev. Robert “Roby” Roberson, who in 1995 was acquitted with his wife, Connie, of leading the alleged sex ring.
An apology is unlikely anytime soon, given the dozens of civil lawsuits filed against local authorities and the lead investigator. Many of those involved declined to be interviewed, or did not want to comment while lawsuits are pending.
Along with other local officials, Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen, whose office prosecuted many of the cases, declined to comment.
“I think it’s all been said,” he said.
Beginning in April 1994 and continuing through the following year, nearly 60 people were investigated. Forty-three people were charged with more than 29,000 counts of sexual abuse involving some 50 children. Many of the accused were poor, uneducated or developmentally disabled.
Most of the arrests were made by then-police detective Bob Perez, whose two foster daughters made the majority of the accusations. Both sisters later recanted, saying they had been pressured by Perez to make the statements.
Lawyers for the Innocence Project Northwest, who began representing 13 clients in 1998, found evidence that the defendants had been badgered and pressured to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
Project lawyers also argued that there was police misconduct and presented evidence that defense attorneys were incompetent.
In 1999, the state Court of Appeals ordered Whitman County Superior Court Judge Wallis Friel to conduct fact-finding hearings, resulting in new trials for some of those convicted.
Of 26 people convicted of felonies, 18 had their convictions overturned or accepted plea agreements on lesser charges after accusers recanted. Four served their sentences, three were given suspended sentences, and one person remains in prison.
Few people would suggest that no abuse took place at Wenatchee, but the idea of ritualistic orgies involving dozens of people has now been discredited.
Perez, who no longer works for the city, has said he would not have changed how he investigated the cases.
That infuriates those who were targets of the investigations.
“There’s been no healing,” Roberson said. “The city and county leadership has done nothing to resolve the problem. They’re continuing to stand on the position that it was a tight and thorough investigation, despite being thoroughly discredited.”
Roberson, who has a civil lawsuit pending, is still pastor the East Wenatchee Pentecostal church which – along with several congregants – became targets of the child-sex investigations.
He works with youth groups and delivers dairy products to food banks in the area.
At first, Perez’s foster daughters told of orgies involving their birth parents and many other people they knew.
Eventually, investigators would allege that children were forced to have sex – sometimes in groups – with adults in two loosely organized rings, including one based at Roberson’s church.
Connie Fry became an early critic of the investigations when fellow members of her Mormon church were charged. She helped found Concerned Citizens for Legal Accountability, calling for independent investigations into police and prosecution conduct in the cases.
Fry said she doesn’t think much has changed in the decade since the first sex-rings arrests.
“I think people in Wenatchee just wish this would go away and people would be quiet about it,” she said. “But I don’t think we’ve learned our lesson. They sent innocent people to prison and people don’t feel bad about it.”
Roberson, one of the few defendants able to hire his own lawyer, believes he knows why authorities are unwilling to make amends to the accused.
“To eliminate the cloud, or to apologize, or admit wrongdoing would literally admit their guilt and affirm our innocence,” he said.