In November 1988, a school nurse spotted a bruise on the leg of a 10-year-old girl in Phelps, New York. The girl said her father had struck her there with a belt when she refused to take medicine for a sore throat. After the nurse filed a child abuse report, the Ontario County Department of Social Services—without interviewing the girl or her parents—took the girl and her three sisters, ages 4, 6 and 8, from their home and put them in foster care.
During extensive interviews with Becky Wendt, an unlicensed counselor for a local rural domestic violence program, the girls alternately denied being abused either physically or sexually and claimed that they had been sodomized and raped repeatedly by their father, 40-year-old Richard Knupp.
In December 1988, a pediatrician examined the girls and the two younger ones denied they had been touched, kissed or in any way hurt in their breasts, vaginas or rectums. The two older girls, who were interviewed together, said Knupp had kissed their breasts, but denied any other sexual abuse. A physical exam suggested possible sex abuse of the 10-year-old girl while an examination of the 8-year-old girl showed no evidence of sexual abuse.
In February 1989, an Ontario County grand jury indicted Knupp on 2,134 counts, including 531 counts of first-degree sodomy, 531 counts of first-degree sexual abuse, 531 counts of incest and 539 counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Knupp’s wife, Deborah, was indicted as well on 480 counts of first-degree sexual abuse and child endangerment based on the same evidence.
Knupp went on trial in Ontario County Supreme Court in the summer of 1989. The trial judge dismissed the charges against his wife for insufficient evidence.
The prosecution’s first witness was Becky Wendt, who testified that her role was to determine the credibility of victims of child sex abuse and to counsel them if they were credible. She told the jury the children were “certainly very symptomatic of the child abuse syndrome” and displayed “symptoms common to the intrafamilial child sexual abuse syndrome.” Wendt said that two of the girls, after telling her they were sexually abused, developed self-destructive eating habits and that the 4-year-old showed “sexualized behavior.”
Three of the daughters testified via live closed circuit television. The oldest daughter gave sworn testimony. The 4-year-old and the 6-year-old gave unsworn statements, which was allowed under New York law for a witness under the age of 10, although the law prohibited the conviction of a defendant solely on the basis of unsworn testimony.
The oldest girl testified that Knupp “would bite us all over the place.” Her father also touched her, she said, “mainly the parts of the legs, parts of the arm or anything like—it’s like spots that didn’t feel too good.” Asked to be more specific, the girl said, “Well, maybe around the private part, but not on it...The back, but not the butt.” She later said, “It’s not anywhere near the privates.”
The girl said she watched “dirty” movies with her parents, which she described as movies “like with sexual contact and stuff like monsters and everything.” She said her parents sometimes punished her by striking her with a belt or a broom.
The 4-year-old testified that Knupp had licked her on her “personals” or “privates.”
Knupp’s defense attorney called no witnesses. Prior to jury deliberations, the trial judge dismissed 2,123 of the counts for lack of evidence, leaving 11 counts for the jury to decide. In June 1989, the jury convicted Knupp of three counts of first-degree sodomy, one count of first-degree sexual assault and seven counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Knupp was sentenced to 13 to 39 years in prison.
Two months later, in August 1989, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper published an investigative report on the Knupps that revealed new details. The newspaper reported that Deborah Knupp’s mother—the girls’ grandmother—had been trying to obtain custody of the girls for several years, starting when the oldest child was just a baby.
Twice before, the grandmother had made allegations of child sex abuse against the Knupps. In 1984, when the family was living in nearby Seneca County, the grandmother accused Richard Knupp of having oral sex with his oldest daughter, but offered to drop the complaint if the Knupps gave her custody of the girl. The Knupps refused and no charges were ever brought. Later, when the Knupps moved to North Carolina, the grandmother followed them there and raised similar allegations. County authorities investigated and decided the charges were unfounded.
The newspaper found close relatives who did not like Knupp, but nonetheless said they would have testified on his behalf that the charges against him were the result of the grandmother’s plot to obtain custody of the girls. The newspaper also pointed out that Knupp had been convicted of child endangerment for showing pornographic movies, but an examination of his video rental records showed no X-rated or pornographic movies.
The newspaper quoted forensic psychiatrists who were critical of Becky Wendt for serving as the children’s therapist and as an expert witness for the prosecution. According to the forensic psychiatrists, Wendt, in her dual role, may well have encouraged the girls to say things they thought Wendt, as their therapist, wanted them to say.
The newspaper hired a polygraph expert, Warren Holmes, who had given polygraph tests for the FBI and CIA. Holmes administered a polygraph to Knupp and concluded that he was truthful when he denied sexually abusing his daughters.
After reading the news article, Rochester attorney Felix Lapine volunteered to handle Knupp’s appeal. In January 1992, the New York Appellate Division reversed Knupp’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that Wendt’s opinion testimony about intrafamilial sex abuse symptoms was inadmissible and served to “set the stage” for the testimony of the girls. “Obviously, the prosecution was attempting to raise the inference that, because the children exhibited those symptoms, they had been sexually abused,” the court said.
In April 1992, Knupp went on trial a second time. Prior to trial, he was offered a deal to plead guilty to one sodomy charge and be sentenced to the three and a half years he had already served and be released immediately. Knupp rejected the offer.
At the second trial, only two of the girls testified. The oldest daughter testified and denied experiencing or witnessing any sexual abuse. However, the girl who was six when she testified at the first trial testified again at the second trial and maintained that she had been sexually abused.
Wendt again testified that she believed the children had been sexually abused, but admitted that she told attendees at a recent child abuse training seminar that “we have made a lot of mistakes” in previous child sex abuse cases.
Knupp and his wife, Deborah, both testified and denied that any of the girls had been sexually abused. Knupp admitted he had harshly disciplined the girls at times. He admitted that he beat his wife and was an alcoholic. Deborah testified that though Knupp had beaten her and she wanted to divorce him, he did not sexually abuse the girls. Several of Deborah’s relatives also testified that Knupp did not sexually abuse the girls.
The defense called Charles Patrick Ewing, a psychologist and lawyer, who specialized in assessment of child sex abuse. Ewing testified that according to American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry guidelines, it was inappropriate for Wendt to serve both as a therapist and as an evaluator of the girls’ experiences. Ewing also testified that Wendt had engaged in repeated and suggestive questioning of the girls—practices which can lead children to believe things that “may or may not be true.”
On April 22, 1992, the jury acquitted Knupp.
Following the acquittal, Knupp’s wife, who had supported him during both trials, divorced Knupp and obtained a restraining order that barred him from seeing his children. He died of cancer in 1997.
The same year that Knupp was acquitted, John Michael Harvey
was convicted of sexually abusing his daughter in Texas based on the testimony of Becky Wendt, who had examined the girl when she was staying in New York with her grandmother. In 2003, 11 years after the conviction, the girl recanted her claim that Harvey had molested her. Harvey was exonerated and released in 2004.
– Maurice Possley