On a quiet street in Columbia River valley, 180 miles east of Seattle, Pastor Robert (Roby) Roberson's East Wenatchee Pentecostal Church of God House of Prayer sits back from the road, its yard cluttered with old buses and vans. At one end of the low-slung building stands a food bank for the poor; makeshift slides and swings are out back. It seems to be just what it looks Like: a hardscrabble church doing God's work. And it looked just this way on the recent spring afternoon when police raided the church to arrest Roberson and his wife, "Sister Connie," on 22 counts of allegedly raping and molesting children--both at the pastor's house and during Friday-night Bible classes.
If police and prosecutors are right, Wenatchee, an apple-growing valley of 55,000, is home to dozens of incestuous pedophiles tangled up in a kid-swapping, adult-led sex ring. But if you believe the accused, charges against Pastor Roby-a 50-year-old mechanic who found Jesus 12 years ago--cap a renegade cop's conspiracy to frame innocent people on horrific sex charges. "At this point," says Rufus Woods, editor of The Wenatchee World newspaper, "the only thing that surprises me is that 'Hard Copy' hasn't opened a bureau out here."
It would be a smart move for any tabloid. Aside from Roberson and his wife, who both remained in jail last week, 19 others, including the church's bus driver, have been charged since January 1994 with engaging in group sex with children. Last year the state investigated a local clinical psychologist for allegedly overprescribing Prozac after he put 600 patients on the antidepressant. (The BBC produced a documentary on the incident entitled "Welcome to Happy Valley. ") And Wenatchee has recently suffered a handful of grisly murders, unrelated to the purported sex ring but equally unnerving:
Last summer two 12-year-olds were clambering around the banks of the Columbia with three handguns, firing at rocks and trees. They came across a migrant worker who was camping there. The drifter threw a rock at the boys; they reloaded and shot him 18 times.
A 19-year-old, Michael Lauderdale, drove a 21-year-old male friend to a remote spot after a party last fall. There, Lauderdale bludgeoned his companion to death with a Louisville Slugger, then had sex with the corpse.
In April a woman and her 15-year-old daughter were found naked and slain in their tan rambler-style house. The mother worked for a leading car dealership; the girl was a popular ninth grader who played softball. Police say the two had been stabbed and "sexually mutilated."
This last, coupled with the ongoing sex-ring story, is driving Wenatchee toward hysteria, At Rocky's House of Guns on the main drag, sales of .38 special and 9-mm handguns are booming. Neighbors long accustomed to leading a Mayberry kind of life--unlocked houses, easy trust-find themselves drawing inward. "I've got a 9-year-old daughter who's not spending the night over at other people's houses any-more," says Mike Cassidy, co-owner of a local business journal. "And my 12-year-old son is going around locking doors and windows at night, for the first time ever. Everybody's shaken."
Of course, it's not unheard of for a brutal crime or spectacular scandal to unfold in a small town. But what authorities say is happening in Wenatchee breaks just about every sexual and social taboo you can think of. Is this depressingly long streak of civic bad luck a coincidence, or is there a reason so many bad things seem to be going on here?
Part of the answer may lie in the town's past. Until the late 1940s, there were two disparate classes here: the people who owned the apple orchards or timber mills, and the transients who picked the fruit or cut the forests. The owner class was affluent and stable. Many workers, however, lived in another, rougher, frontier world. Modern Wenatchee took shape in 1952, the year Alcoa built a huge aluminum-manufacturing plant and, with it, the middle class. This is the sunny, friendly town that prompted "The Rating Guide to Life in America's Small Cities" to name Wenatchee the nation's fourth-best "micropolitan area" in 1990--a distinction publicized by USA Today. Yet a small, loosely structured subculture remains, its tenuous social roots stretching back to the subsistence fruit pickers and tough lumberjacks. "There are two Wenatchees, and neither knows the other," says Jim Lynch, a lawyer who served as mayor for 16 years. "There's the middle class, which leads an insular life. Then there's the other half--and they have always had to live by their wits." In this separate Wenatchee, people tend to feel more clearly the impact of the region's lower per capita incomes - and the fact that both the area's unemployment and felony rates usually run 50 percent higher than state averages.
Though crime and child abuse aren't unknown in well-off circles, the recent troubles are connected, one way or another, with the less prosperous slice of Wenatchee. Few of the major players in the sex cases have jobs. The man who killed his friend with a bat was a newcomer who lived in a trailer; the suspect police have charged in April's double murder was unemployed.
Nothing has so gripped the town as the ever,growing sex-ring scandal. The complicated story begins, really, a few days before Easter in 1994, when a 9-year-old girl was placed in the foster care of a young Wenatchee couple--Luci and Bob Perez. The girl came from an impoverished, abusive background; in 1992, she testified in the successful prosecution of a family acquaintance who had molested her. Her parents' house was a shambles; her father was illiterate; and her mother, according to court documents, had an IQ of 68. There was one intriguing detail about the arrangement: Bob Perez, the girl's new foster father, is the city's chief sex-crimes detective. That spring and summer, Perez happened to be investigating several area parents on suspicion of sexually abusing their children and, more frightening yet, for exchanging kids with friends.
Then, late one September afternoon, the girl told Perez that her parents had molested her and her brothers and sisters. Other siblings confirmed the story. After the mother, Idella Everett, confessed, she and her husband, Harold, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison. By March, after her parents were put away, the girl expanded her allegations, offering lurid recollections of supposed abuse by others in the community. The accusations are appalling: that dozens of adults swapped children at orgies that took place regularly from 1988 to 1994. Perez and two Child Protective Services caseworkers drove the girl, now 10, around town, and she pointed out 19 locations where she claimed to have been abused as part of what prosecutors say was known as "The Circle." She described gatherings where grown-ups would take children, six at a time, to a room with six single beds. "We had to undress and lay down on the bed; a kid on each bed," the girl said. "The adults undressed and got in a line and took turns with everybody. It was the touching thing, 'the wild thing'."
Such stories have some worried that Wenatchee is careening toward its own version of the McMartin Preschool case, where there are plenty of accusations but little truth to them. Prosecutors here do have a fair track record: of 21 group-sex cases brought in the last 16 months, 12 have resulted in guilty pleas or convictions; eight are pending; only one was dismissed, But the upcoming cases, including the Robersons', are based on elaborate, perhaps improbable, scenarios. "One of the things that sometimes happens in these cases," says Richard A. Gardner, a professor of child psychiatry at Columbia University medical school, "is that children may start out telling the truth, then begin to embellish. And the more incredible the allegations, the more likely they are not to be true."
Just who's telling the truth is precisely what now divides the town. Many critics of the police united under Bob Kinkade, a former cop and part-time Alaska fisherman, in a group called Victims of Child Abuse Laws. "Pure and simple," says Kinkade, "this is a witch hunt orchestrated by Bob Perez." He claims that Perez is on a power trip, leading child witnesses into making false accusations and berating adults into confessions. But prosecutors and Perez's police superiors deny any wrongdoing. They point out that Perez is routinely joined by fellow detectives or caseworkers from the local Child Protective Services.
All the same, Kinkade's running a one-man press office for the accused, feeding out-of-town journalists' allegations that Perez was arrested for petty larceny in 1975 and was also cited for receiving unemployment benefits while enrolled in the Police Academy in 1988. (Perez and police officials refuse to comment on the specific charges, saying the matters are being investigated internally.) "I've just taken a beating since this whole thing began," Perez told NEWSWEEK. He knows, however, how to hit back. Striding down the hallway of the county courthouse, the tall, leather-jacketed Perez cuts a formidable figure, his sidearm and handcuffs jingling on his belt. "You know," he says to a reporter, not slowing his pace, "you might just take a look at Bob Kinkade's record. He's been through the system a few times himself." That's true: Kinkade was twice tried on charges of molesting his stepdaughter. He was found not guilty on two charges, and the jury hung on three others.
The competing versions of reality--one from the authorities, the other from the accused-are fighting it out in the Roberson case. (The House of Prayer was one of the sites where the girl says she was abused.) In all, there are three named sources for the charges: Perez's foster child; a 18-year-old female friend of hers; and Linda Miller, 85, a parishioner who confessed to participating in group sex at the church, then recanted to a Spokane television station, saying Perez had forced her to implicate herself and the Robersons. But according to statements the two girls have given police, the pastor, his wife and other grown-ups forced them to have sex. In one incident, the 13-year-old claims, Roberson asked the girl to come into his shag-carpeted office just off the sanctuary. There, the pastor and three other adults raped her. "The pastor told the girl," prosecutors say in an affidavit, that "if she told what had occurred he would hurt or kill her or would come after her family and friends." Then, allegedly, Roberson said to the girl: "We're done. Pull up your pants and you can go."
Yet Roberson and his lawyers deny any of this ever happened. They claim it's a pay-back from Perez because the pastor was looking into whether the detective was railroading poor, uneducated people into jail--people, in fact, like Perez's foster daughter's parents, who sometimes attended Roberson's church. Such small-town coincidences could be the prosecution's undoing. The thinking is that the girl, to please her foster father, might embroider or fabricate allegations. Roberson's lawyers plan to make that potential conflict of interest their first line of attack.
Because physical evidence in sexual-abuse cases can be unreliable. taking either side requires equally large leaps of imagination. For the critics to be right that law-enforcement officers are manufacturing charges means believing there is collusion between police, prosecutors and social-service workers in the Wenatchee area's two counties. But it is also difficult to believe that a score of adults and children could have rowdy, frequent sex together for so long without being noticed. "None of it is true--nothing they have said about us," Roberson, sitting in jail, told NEWSWEEK. "And I know the Lord is going to allow us to be his instrument s in getting to the root of this." Such talk heartens Roberson partisans like Mary Sparks, who's certain the police have overreached. "There are a lot of very nice people here whose lives are being destroyed by this," says Sparks, an unemployed truckdriver who attends Roberson's 40-member church. Sparks had his two little gifts examined once the story broke; they were unharmed.
Last week a tiny congregation gathered in Roberson's dank-smelling sanctuary. Plastic ivy adorns the church; there are seven pews on each side below fluorescent lights. On this Sunday, the substitute preacher, Roy Selby, led the nine congregants in the hymn "This Is the Day the Lord Has Made" and preached on "Is Jesus in Your Boat?" Yet there was palpable distress. Several women wept. Wearing an old polyester blue suit, Selby, as expected, asked for prayers for the accused. Then he mentioned the accusers. "You know, we need to think of them and say that no matter which way it went, Jesus died on the cross for all of us," Selby exhorted. "So let's remember everybody involved, and pray that God will touch their hearts." The congregants raised their voices in assent: "Praise the Lord." Then, simply, "Amen." In Wenatchee, it seems, there is certainty only in prayer.