Witch Hunt in Wenatchee?
To local TV reporter Tom Grant and the national media, a child sex scandal in the small Washington town was actually a credibility-straining prosecution run amok. The Wenatchee World took a pounding for what some called its unquestioning coverage. Where does the truth lie?
By Jim Kershner
American Journalism Review
The “sex ring” story spilling out of Wenatchee, Washington, in 1995 sounded like something out of a lurid psychological thriller.
The problem was: Which lurid psychological thriller? The one about the evil sex ring? Or the one about the rogue cop? It all depended on which media outlet was telling the story.
One plot featured a group of adults systematically preying on dozens of innocent children in this apple-cheeked town (population 25,000) in north central Washington. These monsters allegedly committed despicable adult-child sex acts, sometimes right on a fundamentalist church altar while the entire congregation watched.
The other plot featured a supposedly out-of-control detective coercing child witnesses into making up fantastic stories of sexual abuse and leading an entire town on a witch hunt of “Crucible”-like proportions. It seemed nobody was safe; critics of the investigation became suspects. Dozens of innocent people were jailed.
The media, of course, were not interested in plotting a novel. They were just trying to get at the truth. But before long their search led them in two divergent directions. Wenatchee’s local paper generally followed the official line from the police department, while one Spokane television station soon began raising disturbing questions about those conducting the investigation. By the fall, reporters from “Dateline NBC,” the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Time and Newsweek all had descended on Wenatchee. Given the subject matter, the coverage was often sensational, breathless and shocking. And sometimes baffling.
Whom were readers and viewers supposed to believe? On one hand, the Wenatchee World (circulation 32,000) and Spokane’s KHQ-TV (Wenatchee has no TV station of its own) continued to cover the story as one of rampant sexual abuse. On the other hand, Tom Grant of Spokane’s KREM-TV raised the possibility early on that innocent people were being accused because of improper police techniques and an atmosphere of hysteria. The national news organizations followed Grant’s lead.
The truth still hasn’t been sorted out, but it probably lies somewhere in between. The hard facts show that 45 adults were charged with child sex abuse, 10 were convicted and 18 pled guilty. Yet the two highest-profile trials involving the alleged church sex cases ended in acquittal. According to news reports, jurors in those cases came away convinced that the church orgies, at least, never happened.
And for the media, some hard questions were raised: What is the best way to cover such a volatile case? How can reporters keep emotions from blinding them? And who is better equipped to cover the story, the local media who know the community, or the outside media who can claim detachment?
Since the investigation began more than two years ago, dozens of Wenatchee-area adults have been accused of raping or molesting up to 50 children in two loosely organized sex rings. Child witnesses told investigators of sex parties in which they were passed around like party favors. In the most sensational of the charges, Pastor Robert “Roby” Roberson of the East Wenatchee Pentecostal Church of God House of Prayer, along with his wife, Connie, were charged with first degree rape and molestation of children on the church altar while the entire congregation watched and sometimes joined in.
Police had several child witnesses and victims but, by far, the majority of the accusations came from one 11-year-old girl who, according to news reports, named over 80 different molesters. On one occasion, she says, she was driven around Wenatchee by police while she pointed out 21 houses where she was molested. This drive-through soon entered local legend as “The Parade of Homes.”
But one fact explains why this case raised such powerful questions of police propriety: The 11-year-old girl is the foster daughter of Robert Perez, the lead detective in the investigation.
The Wenatchee World originally picked up the story as part of routine police coverage, yet eventually the paper logged well over 200 stories from all sides of the issue, says Steve Lachowicz, the paper’s assistant managing editor. But the paper was bitterly condemned as being pro-prosecution by some of the defendants and their attorneys, and by the national media. Dorothy Rabinowitz, an editorial writer with the Wall Street Journal, called the Wenatchee World’s coverage “blindly credulous and extraordinarily unfair.” But the paper stood its ground in resisting the notion that local judges, doctors, police officers and juries would have concocted a grand conspiracy against so many innocent people. KHQ-TV in Spokane covered the story in much the same way.
Tom Grant of KREM-TV, on the other hand, was using the term “witch hunt” as far back as March 1995. Grant, 42, a TV reporter for 10 years and a newspaper journalist for six years before that, hammered away for the next nine months at allegations of improper police procedures, coercion of witnesses and conflicts of interest on the part of Detective Perez. (Perez has declined comment because of pending civil suits.)
Grant’s introduction to the story came by way of a phone call in March from a Wenatchee woman who said he should look into the injustice taking place in the town. He was leery at first, because sex abuse is “such a difficult subject to cover, so messy.” But after one mammoth day of interviews, he realized the story was a big one.
He eventually filed about 150 stories on the case, enduring some lean times when even his own newsroom grumbled about yet another Wenatchee story. But the station’s management lined up solidly behind him, even though every trip to Wenatchee—three hours by car from Grant’s newsroom—was like watching money drain away.
Insider access, or lack of it, may have had an impact on the direction of the coverage. Grant says he was “squashed by the police in terms of access” after an incident when he asked some pre-interview questions the police didn’t like. They declared the interview over before it had even started.
“They shut me out,” says Grant. “All my information from the police comes from documents, or testimony in court.” This forced Grant to seek out other sources, and he says that’s how he ended up digging out the story. Grant concluded that the story was not about sex abuse, but rather about the failings of government.
“It was good intentions, driven to hysteria, and then funneled through some people, particularly Perez, who did not use the correct techniques in investigating these cases,” says Grant. “There’s no doubt that there was some child abuse in Wenatchee. Was there a sex ring? I think there’s very little evidence that there was ever a sex ring.”
The national media got wind of the Wenatchee saga in the fall of ‘95. Rabinowitz, who has written many stories debunking child sex abuse cases for the Wall Street Journal, did a series of scathing articles beginning in September about “spurious evidence and extorted confessions.” Her story summarized what other critics had been saying: Despite numerous convictions and guilty pleas, the methods used to obtain them raised some disturbing questions.
“Some [suspects] have plea-bargained or confessed, they attest, under police threats of a lifetime in prison and loss of their children if they don’t tell the investigator what he wanted to hear,” wrote Rabinowitz on September 29. “Many would soon recant their confessions, often studded with elaborate descriptions of orgies with children and, more important, the names of all the townspeople supposedly involved in these activities.”
Time magazine’s Margaret Carlson concluded in November that while some of the suspects “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.”
Carlson noted that many of those who pled guilty were those least able to defend themselves: poor, illiterate or with IQs so low as to be functionally retarded. “No one who has hired private counsel and fought the charges has gone to jail,” wrote Carlson.
“Dateline NBC” aired an hour-long investigation on November 8, hammering hard at the possibility of questionable police techniques and conflicts of interest. Minutes later, NBC affiliate KHQ opened its 11 p.m. news broadcast and proceeded to rebut the investigation it had just carried from its own network.
“Q-6’s own investigation into the child sex abuse cases reveals parts of the story that ‘Dateline’ didn’t tell you,” said reporter David Okarski. “…‘Dateline’ glossed over the fact that scores of those accused in Chelan County have pleaded guilty to child sex abuse.”
KHQ News Director Patricia Clemm-McRae says she was simply trying to tell the station’s side of the story. KHQ anchor Randy Shaw says that whenever anybody confuses the issue they need to be corrected, even one’s own network. Rabinowitz, however, puts it another way. “They’re in deep denial that anything was wrong,” she says.
Grant of KREM believes that too many reporters took the easy road by simply reporting what the authorities were saying.
“This troubles me a great deal,” says Grant. “All along there was easy access to all of the people who were accused, the neighbors, the church members. All you had to do was go ask. And the kids. Again and again they say, ‘Believe the children.’ Well I went out and talked to as many as I could find. Not one of them said anything bad was going on [at the church].”
KHQ, on the other hand, had access problems of its own. Authorities and prosecutors would speak with the station but Roberson and many of the defendants were giving most of their interviews to Grant. This one-sided sourcing, experienced by both sides, may have served to polarize coverage even more: You report what you can get. Meanwhile, Grant was having a more ominous problem with sources. He says five people he interviewed were arrested, three others were named as suspects in police documents.
“I talked to Pastor Roberson…and five days later, he gets arrested,” says Grant. “Larry Steinborn, I talked to him two days before he got arrested. I talked to Honnah Sims, I put her on TV, and she said it was ‘guilt by association’ and shortly thereafter she gets arrested. (Steinborn’s charges were eventually dropped; Sims and Roberson were eventually acquitted.)
“It’s hard to say who got in trouble for talking to me…,” says Grant. “But for a while, it was very frightening for me. It was like, I shouldn’t be talking to these people and having them go to jail. For a while there I had to tell people, there may be certain risks in going on camera with me.”
Even Grant found himself the victim of a whispering campaign. “There were rumors going around that, ‘Oh, geez, this guy must be some kind of molester to be doing this,’” says Grant. “In fact, we were told by two people in a public meeting that somebody stood up there and said I must be a molester to be doing this kind of stuff.” Rabinowitz later reported in the Wall Street Journal that Grant “may also soon come under investigation for sexual abuse, according to a high state official.”
Nothing ever came of it, but it served to strengthen Grant’s resolve. “I know what I’ve done and what I haven’t done,” says Grant. “I know if they’re saying that stuff about me, what could be happening to the people I questioned and put into the public eye, who don’t have the resources I do to protect myself?”
Still, Grant says, his health suffered, and he would wake up at night worrying about his coverage, especially after seeing other reporters pursuing what seemed to be an entirely different story. He and cameraman Duane Regehr would talk about their doubts on those three-hour excursions to Wenatchee. Their response was to dig even harder.
“If I could have found one single bit of evidence that said this happened, I would have turned my back on Pastor Roby and all of his people in a heartbeat,” says Grant. “It didn’t exist.”
The Roberson acquittal in December took the pressure off Grant, but some vindication had already come with the avalanche of national media coverage in the fall, most of it echoing what he had been reporting. The national media attention also granted relief to some local critics of the investigation. Kathryn Lyon, a Tacoma, Washington, public defender, was in Wenatchee spending her own time and money to write the massive “Wenatchee Report,” which detailed alleged misconduct in the investigation. She too feared she might be arrested for witness tampering. “After the national media came into it, I was much less frightened of being arrested,” says Lyon. “I stopped being afraid, stopped parting my curtains when a car pulled up. We were protected, because someone would listen when we got arrested.”
The national coverage also raised questions about the quality of the local coverage. NBC producer Geoffrey Stephens, who produced the piece for “Dateline NBC,” says he couldn’t give his opinion about KHQ’s rebuttal for reasons of affiliate relations. However, he made it clear what he thought of the overall coverage.
Stephens credits Grant, who works for a CBS affiliate, with getting the story right. “Tom Grant got that story. Tom Grant is responsible for uncovering that story. Tom Grant did award-winning reporting on that story,” says Stephens. “He was the only one who was really digging into that story, asking the hard questions.”
Rabinowitz refers to Grant as “lonely hero.” Yet according to the Wenatchee World’s Lachowicz, many in the regional and national media failed to notice that this story had two sides, or that there might be gray areas. In November, Lachowicz wrote an angry column about “shameless pretensions at journalism,” and “so many national journalists (and I am forced to use the term loosely)” who have failed “to get so many of their facts straight, ignoring credible evidence of abuse presented in numerous trials…
“The stream of twisted, one-sided reports might have our newsroom laughing every morning were we not so busy shaking our heads in depressed dismay at the conduct of some of our peers,” Lachowicz continued. In a later interview, he said that most of the media glossed over the gray areas in order to “simplify things and make a comprehensible story.” “They came in and did their big splash,” says Lachowicz. “We didn’t really do a big splash. We did it bit by bit, day by day, following the trends and the developments in the whole thing. And we trusted in the end that all of the material we reported on both sides would somehow lead to some conclusions.”
KHQ’s Randy Shaw, who did a three-part investigation in May 1995, says the child victims became “the forgotten story” once the detective and the defendants became the main story.
“If anything troubled me more than anything else, in reference to the overall coverage by everybody, it was the lack of talk about these alleged victims, and make no mistake, there were victims,” he says. “People have been convicted, people have confessed. Some have been acquitted, but indeed there were victims.”
However, Lyon says that some reporters were wearing blinders of their own. Lyon says she was told early on by reporters and editors that “they wanted to take the side of protecting children: that is, children would not lie about something of this kind.” She said this attitude made reporters reluctant to question authorities, which is exactly why she thought that Grant’s work was so important.
“What struck me, as someone from outside, is he was doing hard-hitting documentaries every night, and it was virtually ignored,” Lyon says. “…And when the other media started to look into this, which was really surprisingly far into it, a lot of the work had been done, and a lot of that was Tom Grant.”
In one sense, the Wenatchee story was a classic clash of local vs. national media. In this case almost all of the media were from outside.
The central Washington city, known for its apples, sunny climate and beautiful setting at the foot of the Cascades on the Columbia River, is a long way from any metro paper. It’s 138 miles from Seattle and 165 miles from Spokane. It has no TV station and is on the farthest edges of both the Seattle and Spokane TV markets. So for local news, the locally owned Wenatchee World is practically all there is.
From the beginning the paper’s staff felt patronized, criticized and demonized by its outside colleagues. “We were generally regarded as backwoods country hicks who didn’t know what the heck was going on, and dismissed as generally incompetent,” says Lachowicz. “I don’t think that was particularly fair.”
Lachowicz says his paper was never given credit for covering all aspects of the story on a day-by-day basis, months before anyone else showed any interest. He says that back in February and March 1995, his paper reported the concerns about Detective Perez and his foster daughter. “It wasn’t until seven months later the Wall Street Journal and others seemed to find this such a big deal,” says Lachowicz.
Wenatchee reporters and editors say they were amazed at how wrong many of the stories were, even in the small details, such as place names. “l was shocked, in a way, at how a lot of inaccurate information was passed around,” says Wenatchee World Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner. “It seemed to me that a lot of reporters were writing their stories after reading other reporters’ stories, who had read other reporters’ stories.” It wasn’t just the newspaper; the community as a whole felt as if it were under siege. A Wenatchee radio talk show host said that critics of the investigation were “waging a media war on the community.”
“Those East Coast reporters can make you look like a complete goober,” Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen told a Spokane reporter. For her part, Rabinowitz has nothing but scorn for the small-town attitude she found in Wenatchee. She says media all over the country have already learned the hard way from similar cases to be skeptical of sweeping, logic-defying charges. The Wenatchee World, she says, “comes a bit late with its head buried in the sand.”
“You have the Wenatchee World, this little cabal, used to having it their own way,” says Rabinowitz. “…When you’re in this tight little island, you really are immune from other pressures, and you don’t feel that you can do any wrong.”
On the contrary, says Warner of the Wenatchee World, local reporters have to be more careful because they have to live in the community they cover. “If you come in to cover a story with a point of view, and you’re from out of town, you can listen to one side of the story, whatever side you want, and you can go home and write whatever you want, and nothing ever happens,” says Warner. “But if you live in the town where it’s happening, everything’s different. I can walk out of my office here, and Pastor Roby might be there, or a policeman.”
That begs the question: Were local reporters too entrenched in the community establishment to see the real story? Rabinowitz thinks so. She accuses one Wenatchee World reporter of being so tied in to the Child Protective Services agency as to be “hysterical on the subject” of the Wenatchee cases. Emotions had been spilling over the brim since the beginning. This was a story drenched in supercharged elements: sex, religion and, most emotional of all, children in danger.
Add the high legal stakes into the mix, and journalistic detachment could be tough to maintain. Lyon, in fact, believes that emotionalism drove some of the pro-prosecution reporting. The alleged crimes were so heinous, reporters may have been loath to give the suspects anything resembling comfort. Lyon says the media were provided with some of the witnesses’ statements. “They are extremely detailed, and extremely disgusting,” says Lyon, “and it gets hard to read that and not be concerned for the kids.”
Kerry Tomlinson, who covered the story for a third Spokane TV station, KXLY, remembers how shocking some of those statements were. “They did have police reports that were extremely graphic,” says Tomlinson. “It was nauseating at some points. Our newsroom is very ‘anything goes,’ but when I brought those back, I didn’t want to share them with anybody.”
In response to increasing cries of “witch hunt,” the Wenatchee World decided in November to be much more explicit in printing details of the abuse charges. Lachowicz explained this step to readers in a November 12 column: “We have generally tried to skirt around the graphic details of various sexual penetrations to this point, but several readers have told us they now feel the need to know more of the details so they can better evaluate the truth of various charges—those against both the alleged molesters and against the various media.”
Meanwhile, Grant was felt by many to be blinded by a different kind of emotionalism. He was so close to the defendants that he no longer seemed to be a detached observer—he was seen as being in their camp.
Grant is willing to concede that something like this might have happened during his long months in Wenatchee. “As is common in this business, as you develop close relationships with your sources, they’re willing to tell you things they won’t tell other people, and too, you may tend to see things through their eyes,” says Grant. “I frankly considered that with my stories, whether I wasn’t being fair because I had such good access to people on the other side. That’s a very fair criticism of my work. Was I too close to the other side?”
But he came to the conclusion that some of these people had been falsely accused, and he began to feel a sense of mission. He remembers cameraman Regehr saying to him during the long drive to Wenatchee, “Maybe this is the story we were put here to do.”
The awards are already coming in. In April, Grant won a George Polk Award for his Wenatchee investigation. Rabinowitz was a Pulitzer finalist this spring for her columns on the case and other alleged child abuse cases.
Lachowicz is not impressed. “I’m not particularly surprised that a lot of journalism juries will look at this coverage and draw some conclusions that I don’t think will be justified,” he says.
Yet Lyon, an attorney who had never considered herself much of a fan of the media, found that this whole experience gave her much more respect for journalism. “Without the media involvement there would have been a lot more prosecutions and a lot more convictions,” says Lyon. “Maybe this comes close to the pure motive behind journalism: Accurately record information so people can learn from it, and this information can affect a change.”
Maybe so, but Warner of the Wenatchee World said the media’s “trial by columnist” had little effect on the trials themselves. “Journalism had a big impact on this town, but how much it had on the criminal cases, it’s hard to say,” says Warner. “The jurors in the Roberson trial, the highest profile trial, seemed to be saying it didn’t have much impact at all. They acquitted Roberson for very good reasons: There was not enough evidence to convict him. In fact, they said the controversy over Detective Perez made very little difference to them.”
Nonetheless, Rabinowitz says the press is “extraordinarily important” in these cases, and that all journalists by now should have learned a few lessons from similar cases around the country: Children do lie, people can be led, and reporters should take care that they are not among the ones being led.
Yet one disturbing fact remains: Most child-sex crimes don’t take place on an altar in front of a whole congregation. They take place in secret, where proof or disproof can be impossible. That’s a hard truth for journalists dedicated to seeking the truth.