Anger lingers over Wenatchee sex rings case

Defendants sue over 'discredited' investigation

Associated Press/May 25, 2004
By John K. Wiley

Wenatchee -- It has been a decade since the first whispers of orgiastic sex between groups of adults and children brought unwanted international notoriety to this orchard-ringed city.

The investigations and prosecutions of scores of Wenatchee-area residents sparked a book, several award-winning investigative newspaper and TV reports and years of legal appeals that eventually freed most of the accused.

But while the world spotlight has dimmed, the ill will caused by the so-called sex rings investigation continues to reverberate in a community of about 54,000 people.

"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 the Rev. Robert Roberson, who was acquitted with his wife, Connie, of child sexual abuse charges in 1995.

An apology is unlikely anytime soon, given the dozens of civil lawsuits filed in the wake of the investigations. 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-Wenatchee 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 said there was police misconduct and presented evidence that defense attorneys provided ineffective assistance.

The investigations were the topic of a series of Seattle Post-Intelligencer articles in February 1998. The series found state workers responsible for protecting children often did more harm than good and police, prosecutors, judges and even public defenders permitted civil rights violations.

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 eventually convicted of felonies, 18 had their convictions overturned or accepted plea agreements on lesser charges after their accusers recanted. Four served their sentences, three were given suspended sentences and one person remains in prison.

Some of those prosecuted and later freed have filed lawsuits against the city, counties, law enforcement agencies and Perez.

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."

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