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Joseph Allen

Other Child Sex Abuse Hysteria cases
On May 7, 1993, Margaret Grondin called the police in Lorain, Ohio, and said that her 4-year-old daughter, known in court documents as N.Z., had been sexually abused. Grondin said the abuse occurred when N.Z. was at the Head Start program for pre-kindergarten children run by the Lorain County Community Action Agency.

The initial allegations centered on 35-year-old Nancy Smith , a contract bus driver with the program. But Grondin also told investigators with the Lorain Police Department that her daughter had been molested by a man as well, possibly named “Joseph.”

Quickly, stories about the allegations ran in the local newspaper and also appeared on television stations that served Lorain, about 45 miles west of Cleveland. After one broadcast special, the parents of 15 children came forward with allegations of abuse. Many of those claims quickly fell flat. Some of the children didn’t ride Smith’s bus; others had stopped going to Head Start before Smith was hired.

On May 25, 1993, Detective Thomas Cantu interviewed the 11 children who rode Smith’s bus. Cantu would write in his report: “The children were questioned if Nancy had ever touched them in a bad way, or in any way which would hurt, or upset them, and each one stated that she had never touched them. The children were questioned if they knew anyone named Joseph, and they all indicated that they did not. All of the children stated that they liked Nancy, their bus driver, and that she was nice.”

Cantu gave Nancy Smith a polygraph test, which he said she passed. He wrote a report stating that he believed the allegations were unfounded and no charges should be brought. Cantu was then removed from the case. He would later say the officers who replaced him did not discuss the case with him.

The new officers continued their investigation, trying to determine the identity of “Joseph.” The parents also conducted their own investigation. Grondin took her daughter and another girl, known as A.W., to look at a peach-colored house belonging to a man with the last name of Ellis. Quickly, A.W. and another boy, known as A.P., identified the peach-colored house as the site of the abuse.

A few weeks later, A.P. changed his story. His father, F.P., had canvassed neighborhoods in Lorain and located a man with the last name of Jones, whom the father believed to be “Joseph.”

A.P. now said the abuse happened at the Jones house. He picked Jones out of a lineup as the “man Nancy took me to.” N.Z. also picked Jones out of a photo lineup, and two other children told police that they became scared when driving by his house.

Ellis and Jones were excluded, however, and police began focusing on 39-year-old Joseph Allen. He had no connection to Head Start, but he had a previous conviction for child molestation, and police were already investigating him as a potential suspect in an unrelated crime. In addition to his first name, Allen also lined up with the descriptions provided by some of the children of a man with spots on his face; he had a pigmentation condition that left him with splotchy skin.

There were wild inconsistencies in the statements of the children. At times, they described one of the assailants as either Black, white, or Hispanic. They identified seven different houses as the house where the abuse took place. They gave inaccurate descriptions of Allen’s house and its contents. Some children said the abuse happened in the basement, but Allen’s house sat on a slab.

Police arrested Smith on November 10, 1993, and charged her with rape, gross sexual imposition, attempted rape, and complicity to rape.

They arrested Allen on May 11, 1994, eventually charging him with four counts of rape, three counts of felonious sexual penetration, and one count of gross sexual imposition.

Prior to the start of trial, the state moved to try Smith and Allen together. Smith opposed the motion. Smith had no criminal record, and she argued that she would be prejudiced by Allen’s previous conviction. Judge Lynette McGough ordered the cases consolidated, noting that two of Smith’s charges alleged that she aided and abetted Allen. In addition, Judge McGough said she didn’t want to subject the children to the ordeal of two trials.

Their trial in Lorain County Court of Common Pleas began on July 25, 1994, less than three months after Allen’s arrest. Five children testified against Smith and Allen. Two of the children, A.W. and a boy known as J.G., recanted their accusations during testimony. A third child witness, J.S., was deemed incompetent at trial. N.Z. and A.P. were the other two child witnesses.

A.P. testified that Smith had taken him to Allen's house three times. He stated that a needle had been inserted into his rear end and that Smith had ordered him to take off his clothes. On one occasion, Smith told him to get on top of her and move around, which he did. Smith touched his penis with her hands and mouth. He also observed Smith touching J.G.’s rear end and penis.

N.Z. testified that Smith was her bus driver and that Allen drove her to his house in his car. She said that she, A.P., J.G., and A.W. would play games, such as the clown game, bad boys, and doctor, all with their clothes off. She said she saw Smith touching A.P. and J.G. on their penises.

A.P.’s father testified that his son’s demeanor changed during the school year, and that he became withdrawn. The father said that one time he found A.P. on top of his younger sister with all his clothes off. The father said A.P. told him that he had left school with Smith three times, accompanied by J.G., A.W., and N.Z.

Grondin, N.Z.’s mother, testified that her daughter’s enjoyment of school changed in early 1993. She said that N.Z. would not want to get on the bus if she saw Smith was driving. In early May, Grondin testified, her daughter told her that she hadn’t gone to school that day. Instead, Grondin testified, N.Z. said that Smith told the child that school was closed and they would go to Allen’s house. Grondin said N.Z. told her that Smith and Allen had tied her hands, put tape on her mouth, and inserted a stick inside her.

Although J.G. recanted his testimony, his mother testified that in February 1993, the boy complained that “his butt was burning” and that he did not want to ride the bus. She said he began waking up crying in the middle of the night and “screaming that the cops were going to get him.” She also said he began engaging in sexual acts with another child.”

The children’s testimony was at times nonsensical. One child said Smith had asked a child to stick a needle into her vagina. Another said Allen had tied them to a tree outside his house, which was on a busy street. Another said Allen had shot a child in the face.

There was no physical or forensic evidence to support the claims of sexual assault, but the state presented witnesses who bolstered the general allegations against Smith and Allen and refuted part of their defense, which was that they had never met until joined at trial as co-defendants.

Willie Mae Smith, whose grandchild attended the Head Start program, testified that she saw Allen on Smith’s bus one time. In addition, a bus driver and a bus aide testified that they identified a photograph of Allen as that of a man they had seen hanging around the schoolyard. In court, neither could make a positive identification of Allen.

Elizabeth Powell, an aide assigned to Smith's bus, testified that she had seen Allen once, when Smith had stopped the bus at a store to go inside. She said a man tried to get on the bus, and he said something to Powell, which included the word “Nancy.” Powell said she ordered the man off the bus and locked the door. A few minutes later, Powell said, the man came out of the store, arm-in-arm with Smith. Powell testified that Allen was that man.

Joel Miller, a detective with the Lorain Police Department, testified that N.Z. told him that “Joseph” sometimes wore a pink dress. He said that police found a large pink dress at Allen’s house. He also testified that police found a Halloween mask consistent with descriptions the children provided.

Smith testified and denied that she had ever abused any children or that she even knew Allen, who did not testify. "I have never touched any of those children in a sexual manner at all," Smith said. “I was their bus driver, and that was it.”

The defense also presented the testimony of Michael Taylor, a parent of a Head Start child. Taylor testified that he came forward after reading about Powell’s account. He said it sounded like an incident he had experienced, where Powell yelled at him and slammed the bus door when he tried to board the vehicle to see his son. Taylor said he then went inside the store and found Smith, who apologized for the outburst by her colleague.

Glen Thaler, the transportation manager for the Lorain County Community Action Agency, testified that officials checked the bus mileage regularly and would have detected any side trips. Another Head Start employee said the day care had a system to ensure that the children were properly counted and that they didn’t get into unauthorized vehicles.

The jury convicted Smith and Allen on all counts on August 4, 1994. Smith was convicted of rape, attempted rape, complicity to rape, and gross sexual imposition, and received a sentence of 30 to 90 years in prison. Allen was convicted of four counts of rape, three counts of felonious sexual penetration, and gross sexual imposition, and received five consecutive life sentences, in addition to 22 to 50 years on three other counts.

“I don't even know this man,” Smith said at her sentencing, referring to Allen. “I'm a mother. I just want my children … I never touched these children, never. I never hurt them in any way.”

Allen also said he was innocent. “I wasn't present when this crime occurred,” he said. “I don't know nothing about those victims.”

Smith and Allen appealed their convictions separately. Smith said in her appeal that the trials should have been severed to avoid any issue where she might be tarred with Allen’s previous conviction; that the testimony of the parents about what their children told them should have been excluded as hearsay evidence; and that prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence in a timely manner. Allen’s appeal also said his prior conviction shouldn’t have been introduced. Both appeals said the children’s testimony had been contaminated by parents, police and prosecutors, who pushed the children to give incriminating responses during interviews.

In separate rulings in 1996, Ohio’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed their convictions. The court said that the judge had given the jury sufficient instructions to prevent members from evaluating Smith through the prism of Allen’s conviction. In both rulings, the appellate judges said that the age of the children allowed a wider latitude in the rules of hearsay evidence.

Following the convictions, several parents and their children sued the Lorain County Head Start provider for damages their children had suffered because of the sexual abuse. The case settled in 2003, with four plaintiffs each receiving $1.5 million.

Smith, in 2008, and Allen, in 2009, filed motions to correct what they said was an error in their sentences, because the trial order failed to note how they were convicted. After a hearing, Judge James Burge of Lorain County Court of Common Pleas ruled that the sentencing entry was deficient and didn’t constitute a final judgment. Smith was released from prison on February 4, 2009, pending a new sentence. Allen was released on April 14, 2009.

Judge Burge then prepared for a sentencing hearing and reviewed transcripts and evidence from the trial. On June 25, 2009, he vacated their convictions, ruling that there had been insufficient evidence to convict Smith and Allen.

The state appealed the ruling, arguing that Judge Burge had exceeded his authority. On January 27, 2011, the Ohio Supreme Court restored the convictions and said Judge Burge’s sole jurisdiction in the cases was to correct the sentences for Smith and Allen.

Despite the court’s ruling and the reinstatement of the convictions, Smith and Allen did not immediately return to prison, and the resentencing hearings for Smith and Allen were delayed for two years.

On June 4, 2013, Smith was resentenced to 12 years in prison. She had already served more than 14 years in prison and didn’t have to return. In addition, Smith was not required to register as a sex offender. “I’m just thankful to God every day,” Smith said. “I’m blessed to be home with my children and grandchildren. That’s all I want is my freedom and being with my family.”

During her time in prison, Smith had been turned down for parole, in part because she would not say she was guilty, which parole board members said showed she was in denial.

Allen was resentenced on October 1, 2013, returning to prison with a new sentence of 10 to 25 years.

As part of their re-sentencing agreements, Smith and Allen agreed to not challenge their convictions without the approval of the local prosecutor.

On October 21, 2021, Lorain County Prosecutor J.D. Tomlinson sent seven letters to victims and others in the original criminal case. “I am writing to inform you that I am giving consideration to presenting a motion to the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas requiring that the convictions of the above defendants be vacated and that the charges be dropped.”

Burge, the former judge, was now Tomlinson’s chief of staff, although Burge said he would not play a part in the review.

At the time of Tomlinson’s letter, Mark Godsey of the Ohio Innocence Project represented Smith and was preparing a motion for a new trial. Allen’s attorney was Richard Parsons. The attorneys filed the motion for Smith and Allen on December 14, 2021.

The motion contained an affidavit from Cantu, describing his involvement in the case and his determination that the charges against Smith and Allen were unfounded. He said he believed the children had been coached. Cantu said he was pulled off the investigation after rumors surfaced that he had a romantic relationship with Smith. He believed the prosecutor on the case spread these rumors. He said he barely knew Smith, and he knew her mother and aunt only from the bingo hall where he worked security as a side job.

The motion also contained affidavits from Dino Grondin Sr. and Dino Grondin Jr., Margaret Grondin’s ex-husband and son.

Grondin Sr. said: “I witnessed Margie coaching her daughter on what to say in order to make the allegations of sexual abuse in the Head Start case. I asked Margie what had happened. Her daughter, one of the child ‘victims’ in the Head Start case was present during these conversations. Margie would state a narrative and would ask her daughter, ‘Isn't that how it happened? Tell him that's how it happened. Isn't that right?’ Margie would try to get her daughter to repeat what she was saying or to agree with the story she was telling. Over time, this story would change and grow. Margie was persistent in trying to get her daughter to agree with what she said happened. This was something Margie wanted her to practice.”

Grondin Jr. said his mother had more recently tried to gain custody of his daughter by making unfounded allegations against Grondin’s wife. He was concerned that his mother was trying to put his daughter in a situation where Margaret Grondin could claim abuse had occurred and “sue someone with deep pockets for money.”

Grondin Jr. said he had these suspicions because he had seen his mother do this with N.Z. in the Head Start case. “I saw it with my own eyes and was old enough to understand what was going on,” he said. “She told my sister what to say and practiced with her, telling her that if she got it right we would get enough money to go to Disneyworld.”

He said his mother had a friend put black paint on his face and pretend to be “Joseph” to prepare his sister for trial. The mother also placed photos of Allen in the basement, and N.Z. had to point him out.

“My mom on some occasions had the other kids from the Head Start case down in the basement, and coached them the same way. The allegations I read in the court documents online were the things my mom was coaching them to say, and a lot [of] it was sexual abuse that had gone on in my own family. My mom played ‘school’ with the kids in the basement, and actually set the basement up like a little school with tables or desks, and created educational games. My mom was the ‘teacher.’ The tables and desks are still in storage at my grandmother's house. The kids had to say the allegations of sexual abuse the way she wanted them to say it in order to advance in the game.”

The motion also included an affidavit from Dr. Virginia Braden, a private investigator and criminology professor at the University of Louisville. She said that documents and interviews showed that Margaret Grondin waged a two-year campaign to gain custody of her granddaughter by alleging sexual abuse by the girl’s mother. Subsequent investigations by the police and social services failed to substantiate these claims. In one taped interview, the girl could be seen practicing how to cry. In another video, Margaret Grondin was telling the girl what to say.

The final affidavit in the motion was from Dr. Maggie Bruck, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on children and their testimony in abuse cases. She reviewed the case material and said, “The charges against Ms. Smith were brought only after the Lorain community became embroiled in a proverbial witch hunt for the alleged perpetrators of ritualistic-type abuse and only after the alleged child victims were repeatedly subjected to highly suggestive interview techniques.”

Bruck noted that the children initially told investigators that no abuse happened, but the adults dismissed these statements, instead believing that the children were simply afraid. She said research on sexual abuse of children shows that true victims rarely give false negatives in their initial interviews.

Bruck said the children’s statements and testimony were shaped by their desire to please the adults – “well-intentioned parents, police officers and social workers,” who were convinced that a crime had occurred.

“The interviewers’ bias – i.e. their belief in the allegations – was sometimes expressed as a refusal to accept alternative answers, other times it manifested as leading or suggestive questions, and sometimes as outright cajoling, bribing or intimidating," she wrote. "The scientific research demonstrated that these interview tactics can irreparably taint the children’s memories and render any subsequent statements completely unreliable.”

The motion said that Tomlinson’s staff had reviewed the evidence and found Smith and Allen to be innocent. “Indeed, a prosecution today, let alone a conviction, seems unimaginable,” the motion said.

At a hearing on December 21, 2021, Jonathan Rosenbaum, the original prosecutor in the case, appeared on behalf of two of the victims and moved to have Tomlinson disqualified from representing the state. He said that Tomlinson had violated his oath of office to “defend the public from crime.”

On December 22, 2021, Judge Chris Cook of the Lorain County Court of Common Pleas ordered Allen released from prison on a $100,000 unsecured bond and GPS monitoring. Tomlinson said in court that he supported the motion for a new trial, and if the motion was granted, he would dismiss the charges against Smith and Allen.

"I don't know why a white woman of some means went home and an indigent Black man went back to prison. I don't know why that happened. Maybe there's a legitimate reason for that," Cook said, referring to the resentencing. "But I know this: It doesn't look good, that that man went back to prison and Ms. Smith went home."

On February 25, 2022, Judge Cook vacated the convictions of Smith and Allen. He found the affidavits submitted on behalf of the defendants to be credible, and he presumed that prosecutors had failed to turn over Cantu’s exculpatory report to the defense, because otherwise it would be “nothing short of stunning legal malpractice” not to call him to testify.

“In 1993, the law was different; child interview techniques were in their infancy; and the nation was gripped by a virtual hysteria regarding lurid, rampant allegations of child sex abuse,” Cook wrote in his ruling.

He did not declare the defendants innocent, but said, “This court finds by a significant margin that the new evidence is substantial, credible, and without a reasonable doubt, would affect the outcome of a new trial such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to secure a conviction of either Smith or Allen at a new trial.”

On a motion from Tomlinson, Cook then dismissed the charges against Smith and Allen. Tomlinson said, “To Miss Smith and Mr. Allen, I want to say that I apologize to you, especially for what was done to your families as a result of this ill-conceived prosecution. On behalf of the state of Ohio, I wish nothing but the best for you and your loved ones.”

After Cook’s ruling, Smith thanked her attorneys and Burge for their advocacy. She had harsh words for Rosenbaum and for Margaret Grondin, “who orchestrated this horrible, alleged crime that never happened.”

Allen said: “It took me almost 30 years, for me to get justice here today. I hope those suffering in the same situation can get justice, too.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/18/2022
Last Updated: 3/18/2022
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Age at the date of reported crime:39
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No