- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2001

Six years after a police child-sex-ring investigation spread terror through the rural apple-picking community of Wenatchee, Wash., those wrongly accused of holding satanic rituals involving rape and molestation are finally starting to see the money.
On Tuesday, a Spokane County jury awarded $3 million to a Wenatchee couple, Honnah and Jonathan Sims, caught up in the now-discredited sex-ring allegations. The award is the largest to date in a case that has been compared to the Salem witch trials of the 17th century.
"There is no doubt that child sex abuse happens, and it is tragic," said John Stocks, an attorney who represented the Simses and three other defendants during the trial. "It is also tragic that people can be falsely accused of crimes and to go that far in the system without the checks and balances ferreting them out."
The latest award brings to about $6 million court-ordered damages stemming from lawsuits brought so far by dozens of plaintiffs seeking to clear their names and pin the blame on the Wenatchee police department, the Douglas County Sheriff's Office and the state Child Protective Services.
The Wenatchee case is considered the largest of several child-sex-abuse investigations since 1980 that have since been found to be based on coerced testimony from children. The jury foreman in one Wenatchee trial called the probe a "witch hunt," and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described it as a "thoroughly discredited investigation."
Still, winning monetary damages hasn't been easy, even for those who spent years in prison on false charges and saw their children placed in foster care. Before the Simses could win the award, they first had to change state law.
In 1998, a Seattle judge dismissed the Wenatchee plaintiffs' claims against law-enforcement authorities, saying state law prohibited them from being charged with negligence. Later, the state Supreme Court declined to review a court of appeals ruling that such agencies could be held liable for financial damages resulting from their child-abuse investigations. That ruling cleared the way for Tuesday's decision, which found county and city law enforcement agencies negligent on 14 counts.
In a mixed verdict, however, the jury decided against awarding damages to three of the plaintiffs: Pentecostal Minister Robert "Roby" Roberson; his wife, Connie; and Donna Rodriguez. The plaintiffs had been seeking between $12 million and $20 million.
Chris Hrycenko, the presiding juror, said the jury decided that while law enforcement had been to blame for the harm in the Sims' case, it wasn't the "proximate cause" for negligence for the other plaintiffs.
The difference was that Mrs. Sims, a Sunday school teacher at the Pentecostal Church in East Wenatchee, had to endure months of hearings that she was a suspect in the child-abuse investigation. Fearful of having her son taken away from her, she sent him to stay with relatives in Kansas. Once arrested, she was strip-searched and spent eight days in jail.
"She [Honnah Sims] was scared. She didn't know when she was going to be arrested, and people all around here were being arrested," said Mrs. Hrycenko. "She shipped her child to live in Kansas so the Child Protective Services wouldn't take him. Then she went to jail and was strip-searched, and we didn't feel that was appropriate."
The investigation was spearheaded by Detective Robert Perez, whose foster daughter and her sister were the source of much of the testimony against adults at the Pentecostal Church in East Wenatchee. In all, 43 persons were arrested on child-molestation charges in connection with the probe.
Mr. Perez has since left the Wenatchee police department and has said that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the investigation, sources said. He has been named in several civil suits, although he has never been convicted of a crime.
Most of the accused were women. Many were poor and uneducated, and a few were considered mentally handicapped. Many saw their children placed in foster care or sent them out of the state to avoid having them taken away by authorities. All of the accused have since been freed from jail, either because they were acquitted by juries or because they agreed to plead to lesser, unrelated charges in order to win release quickly.
The urgency of the case led to the creation of Innocence Project Northwest, a pro bono, legal-aid organization begun by lawyers and students at the University of Washington Law School. Lawyers affiliated with the project were instrumental in winning the release of many Wenatchee clients.
Representatives for the city and county could not be reached for comment.

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