In January 1994, after about a week of training, Robert Perez took over as head of the sex crimes unit of the police department in Wenatchee, Washington.
His investigation of allegations of the rape and molestation of children would set off a chain of events that would ultimately mushroom into one of the more baffling and painful episodes of mass sex abuse hysteria in American history.
The Wenatchee cases were among several groups of prosecutions that occurred in a wave of child sex abuse hysteria that swept through the country in the 1980s and early 1990s. Some (but not all) of these cases included allegations of satanic rituals. Many focused on day care centers. Nationally, there have been dozens of exonerations in child sex abuse hysteria cases.
In March 1994, just weeks after Perez took over the sex crimes unit he became the foster parent of nine-year-old Donna Everett of Wenatchee, Washington.
Everett was one of five children of Harold
and Idella Everett
. She had been in and out of foster care for two years, with her initial removal from home triggered in 1992 when she reported that two six-year-old boys had touched her genitals. Her 11-year-old sister, Melinda, joined her in the Perez home in June 1994.
In June 1994, Connie Cunningham
, 43, a homemaker and mother of four, and her husband, Henry, 46, a state rehabilitation counselor with a bipolar mental disorder controlled by medication, were arrested.
Henry Cunningham signed a confession implicating himself and his wife in sex acts with their three children, some of them in his state office. On August 15, 1994, he pled guilty to 23 counts and was sentenced to 47 years in prison.
On September 9, 1994, Connie Cunningham was convicted at trial of three counts of child rape and molestation. She was sentenced to 46 years in prison.
Not long after Donna arrived in the Perez home, she said that she had been sexually molested by her parents. In September 1994, after her sister, Melinda, said her parents had sexually abused her as well, Harold Everett, 65, and Idella, 41, were arrested. They pled guilty and were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
In March 1995, Perez put Donna Everett, by then 10 years old, in his police car and drove around Wenatchee and East Wenatchee. The girl pointed out places—homes and buildings—where she said she and other children were raped and molested beginning in January 1988. She identified 22 places in all, including the East Wenatchee Pentecostal Church of God House of Prayer.
She then went on to say that she had been raped or sexually molested by virtually every adult she had come in contact with and that the same had happened to almost every child she ever knew. She spoke of child-swapping orgies where adults took children six at a time into rooms and took turns having sex with them. Later, Donna's 12-year-old sister, Melinda, echoed the charges and added more names, first to Perez and eventually in court.
Police, prosecutors and social workers responded in force and began making arrests and filing thousands of charges of rape and molestation. Not all of the cases were built on the allegations of Donna and Melinda Everett.
In some cases, spouses embroiled in domestic disputes were both arrested and charged after one spouse alleged the other spouse was molesting their children. Adults and children were subjected to vigorous and lengthy interrogations and many, after resisting, began to tell bizarre stories of sex orgies involving children and went on to name friends, neighbors and relatives as participants.
Perez believed he had uncovered a giant sex ring made up of pedophiles that preyed on children. The group was referred as “The Circle” and at one point authorities believed there were more than 100 members.
Ultimately, authorities said they found 60 children, ages 5-16, who had been sexually abused or raped 29,726 times over a six-year period—an astonishing figure in the town of 55,000 residents.
A total of 43 people—including the pastor of the church, his wife, and 22 of other women—were eventually arrested and charged with thousands of counts of rape and an assortment of related charges. Many of the defendants were Hispanic; most were poor, illiterate or mentally ill.
The cases were built on the testimony of the children, on confessions and testimony from some of the accused, and on medical evidence that purported to show the children had been assaulted sexually.
Thirty of the defendants were convicted at trial, or pled guilty or no contest to some of the charges. Four, including the pastor and his wife, were acquitted at trial and the charges were dismissed against nine others.
The convictions or pleas of 18 defendants were later set aside. The charges against 11 of those defendants were dismissed and they were exonerated. The seven other defendants entered no contest pleas to lesser charges.
Of the remaining 12 defendants who were convicted or pled guilty or no contest, most received suspended sentences or were released immediately after receiving credit for time served.
In May 1997, the Washington Court of Appeals overturned Connie Cunningham’s conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that the admission of her husband’s confession was error because she was denied the right to cross-examination. Prosecutors dismissed the charges and she was released.
In 1998, the court of appeals received an appeal in Idella Everett’s case. The court appointed Whitman County Superior Court Judge Wallis Friel to hold a hearing to determine whether the Everetts’ legal rights had been violated.
In April 1998, Judge Friel issued a 64-page report that excoriated the evidence-gathering methods of Perez, other police, state social workers, and therapists.
Specifically, Judge Friel found that a videotaped recantation made by Melinda Everett in June 1996 was truthful. Melinda, who was by then 13, gave a 1½ hour video-taped statement in which she said that she had been pressured by Perez. She denied ever being sexually abused or witnessing anyone being sexually abused.
Although the decision applied only to Idella Everett’s case, the ruling would become a template that the appeals court used to set aside convictions of other defendants.
Judge Friel criticized Perez for continuing to be a foster parent to the two girls while investigating cases in which they were the chief accusers. That relationship, the judge said, was a factor in Perez’s failure to investigate the girl’s reliability as a witness.
Friel said Perez used improper interrogation techniques to get the two girls to accuse the Everetts and others and in getting Idella Everett to confess.
“It has become obvious during this hearing that Detective Perez was able to get the women of the Everett family to say whatever he wanted them to say,” the judge wrote.
The judge also noted Perez had little training as a sex-abuse investigator and little knowledge about how to interrogate child witnesses, and that “Perez's actions seem designed to create an atmosphere of fear among people who had an interest in the case.”
“Prevention of fair interrogation and access to the accusers, and the brainwashing of those who disagree with them, thwarts the judicial process in the same manner as improper interrogation procedures,” the judge said.
In September 1998, the appeals court, relying upon Judge Friel’s findings, set aside the convictions of Harold and Idella Everett. The charges were dismissed and they were released.
In March 1999, the court of appeals set aside Henry Cunningham’s guilty plea on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance from his defense lawyer. Cunningham claimed that his attorney convinced him to plead guilty without talking to Cunningham’s psychiatrist who would have said that Cunningham was sexually dysfunctional.
Cunningham said his lawyer did not interview employees at his office who would have testified that the crimes couldn’t have taken place.
Two of the couple’s daughters contended that Perez pressured them to make accusations against their father.
After the appeals court decision, Henry Cunningham was released and the charges were dismissed.
– Maurice Possley