Spokane -- A jury today found the city of Wenatchee and Douglas County negligent in their treatment of several people targeted in the mid-'90s Wenatchee child sex rings investigations. In the only monetary award, jurors ordered the county to pay $3 million to two of the six plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs had sought damages of $12 million to $20 million. After nearly two days of deliberations and three weeks of testimony, Spokane County Superior Court jurors awarded $2 million to Honnah Sims and $1 million to her husband Jonathan. Douglas County was found liable for all the award, with the city of Wenatchee cleared of any liability in the Sims' case.
The jury found both the city and county negligent in their investigations of pastor Roby Roberson and his wife Connie. But jurors found the negligence did not meet the standard required for a financial award. Plaintiff Donna Rodriguez, a parishioner in the Robersons' East Wenatchee Pentecostal church, also was found to have been the victim of negligence by the city, but jurors decided against monetary damages for her. Rodriguez did not sue the county.
No damages were awarded to the Sims' son, Daniel, also a plaintiff. Presiding juror Chris Hrycenko said the panel concluded Honnah Sims deserved compensation for the ordeal of enduring a nearly three-month wait from the time she learned she was a target of the investigation until her May 1995 arrest.
"That was the biggest part of it," Hrycenko said. "And of course, her being strip-searched at the jail didn't help." Hrycenko said she found the sex rings cases as a whole to be "crazy" and "devastating."
The investigations have since been largely discredited. But Hrycenko said jurors found that any failings on the part of Wenatchee police did not meet the standard required to make a financial award -- that is, they were not a "proximate cause" of the plaintiffs' damages. "The police had to do what they had to do," she said.
Jurors agreed with Wenatchee's lawyer, Patrick McMahon, that police merely performed an information-gathering role in the investigation and therefore were not liable for damages. It was the decision by Douglas County prosecutors to press charges that caused the damages, Hrycenko said. McMahon said afterward that he was "ecstatic for the City of Wenatchee."
Plaintiffs' lawyer John Stocks said he planned to appeal the verdict. "I'm disappointed for two families (the Roberson and Rodriguez families) but happy for one family (the Sims)," Stocks said. "It was a small victory that there was a finding of negligence."
Sims, a Sunday school teacher at the Robersons' church, was acquitted of molestation at trial in late 1995. She and her husband were not present for Tuesday's verdict. Roby Roberson declined to comment afterward.
He and his wife were jailed for 155 days in 1995 after being charged with 14 counts of child rape and molestation. They were acquitted later that year. Charges against Rodriguez were dismissed after several children recanted their statements.
Plaintiff lawyers contended authorities were negligent when they investigated allegations that church members sexually abused children. Lawyers for the city and county told jurors police had a duty to investigate child rape allegations and were not required to seek evidence that would have cleared the defendants.
In all, 43 people living in Wenatchee and East Wenatchee, which is in Douglas County, were arrested on child rape and abuse charges in 1994-1995. The 18 people who were convicted all have been released after their convictions were overturned, or they agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges.
The state Supreme Court ruled last year that law enforcement agencies can be held financially liable for conducting faulty child-abuse investigations. In a 1998 civil trial in King County, a jury rejected claims that authorities violated the civil rights of the Robersons, Sims or Rodriguez. The Robersons and Sims also sued the state after their acquittals. That case was settled for $850,000 in December 1999.