by Jeremy Rogalski / 11 News Defenders
HOUSTON—If a bank robber had an epiphany and called police to confess he just robbed a bank, it stands to reason there would be a quick arrest.
But in the case of a Houston man who confessed to sexually molesting two girls, including his own daughter, there was no speedy arrest. There was only anger and confusion from the victims’ relatives.
There was also outrage from child advocates, who called the case the tip of a troubling iceberg. They believe the justice system treats sexual assaults of children far less seriously than other “equal” crimes on Texas law books—crimes like aggravated robbery, kidnapping and even murder.
But even more troubling to those advocates is how slow police processing leaves possible pedophiles on the street, awaiting arrest and possibly offending again.
For example, last June, a woman went on her husband’s computer and saw child pornography being downloaded.
(Note: 11 News has chosen not to reveal the identities of the parents or the suspect, as that may reveal the abuse victims’ identities by association.)
“My world turned upside down,” said the woman.
But it was about to get worse, because she said she asked her husband if he had done anything more.
“And he said yes, he said that he had touched our daughter,” she said. But she said he also claimed it had been a fully clothed molestation.
Scared and confused, the mother took her kids and left him, uncertain if she should tell anyone. Then, a few months later, Christmas came around. The estranged husband was staying at the home of long-time family friends. They, too, had a 9-year-old daughter.
“She said, ‘Mom I’ve got to tell you something,’” the girl’s mother said. “Something happened in the middle of the night.”
Their daughter remembered the man crawling into her bed and taking off his pants.
“I was shocked and hurt,” said the mother.
“I did not know how to react. I started shaking,” said the father. “I wanted to attack the guy. I wanted to kill him.”
And then something surprising happened. The suspect confessed—right away—to family and friends, and also to police. In fact, a Harris County Sheriff’s Department incident report states “the suspect reported he sexually molested two girls.”
But what happened next has troubling implications about how police are handling child molestation cases, and if, in the process, they are endangering other children.
Even after his confession, police let the suspect go.
“I was livid,” the suspect’s estranged wife said. “Are you kidding me? This makes no sense.”
Even worse, her daughter then began to open up.
“Finally she broke down and she told me everything, and it was horrific,” she said.
According to her daughter, it was more than just touching, but unclothed acts that even included attempted intercourse.
When police interviewed the girl, the mother said they promised an arrest in a few days, but it didn’t happen.
“A week goes by, a week and a half goes by, two weeks,” the mother said.
She said investigators made promise after promise, but the suspect remained free.
In fact, she said the lead investigator on the case told her “it can take up to nine weeks to get someone arrested.”
The mother was outraged, and so the next time she called him, she recorded the conversation.
First, Harris County Sheriff’s Sergeant James Fitzgerald blamed his caseload.
“I’ve got a hundred of these things that I’m actually working on literally, and there’s no way you can work ‘em with any kind of consistency and keep up,” Fitzgerald said.
But what about the fact the suspect actually confessed?
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “You can’t turn yourself in for a crime that hasn’t been charged yet.”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “Unless it’s a homicide or something.”
Mother: “You can’t go to police and confess that you committed a crime?”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “Not this type.”
Confused? Randy Burton sure is, and he’s a former Chief Prosecutor for the Family Offenses Division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
“I cannot for the life of me understand it. It’s inexcusable,” Burton said. “There’s no difficulty here. We’ve got a child’s statement, and we’ve got the confession, it’s a slam-dunk case.”
Burton, who founded the child advocacy group Justice for Children, said if police are letting suspects walk free for as much as nine weeks, it poses a real danger to the public.
“People who sexually assault children can’t help themselves from assaulting other children,” Burton said.
That risk was apparent when 11 News visited the suspect in this case, who was staying at a home in northwest Houston with children living nearby.
So what did the lead investigator have to say?
11 News: “What took so long to make an arrest in this case?”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “This is one of the many cases we’ve got and, we have to prioritize them.”
11 News: “So even with a confession that didn’t prioritize it?”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “That actually would make it slightly lower because he’s not a risk to anybody.”
11 News: “How can you be so sure he’s not a risk?”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “Well, everything is an estimation.”
“I’m appalled,” Burton said. “I think anybody who hears this story should be appalled.”
The former prosecutor said he doubts this is the only case police have handled this way.
“I worry about how deep it goes,” Burton said.
In the end, the suspect was finally arrested, six weeks after he confessed. But so far, he’s only been charged with sexually abusing his own daughter and not the second victim. Harris County Assistant District Attorney Denise Oncken said it was because the girl didn’t disclose what happened during a videotaped interview with investigators.
But Burton said the law is clear—she doesn’t need to. As long as she made an outcry to an adult, (which her parents said she did), the adult can testify in court.
“That is sufficient to make a case,” Burton said. “There’s no reason, with the evidence that they had, that they couldn’t have gone forward.”
Is the Harris County District Attorney punishing a mother for speaking to Channel 11?
by Alex Sanz / 11 News
Posted on August 4, 2010 at 2:25 PM
Updated today at 12:16 PM
•11 News “Delayed Arrest” investigation – February 2010
•11 News “Delayed Arrest” investigation, part 2 – May 2010
HOUSTON – She’s a Houston housewife and mother who criticized the Harris County legal system on TV. The reason? Her young daughter had been sexually assaulted, but it seemed to this mother that little was being done about arresting the culprit.
Now the prosecutor’s office that handled her daughter’s case is charging the mother with a crime: failure to report child abuse. But her family and child abuse experts say it appears to be nothing but retaliation by a vindictive DA for “the real crime” of speaking out.
(Note: KHOU is withholding the names of the housewife and any family members in order to protect the identity of the sex crime victim in this story.)
“This makes no sense,” the woman’s stepfather said. “That’s wrong. It’s inappropriate. It’s re-victimizing her. And they’re attempting to ruin her life, in my opinion.”
It started in January of this year, when KHOU received a phone call from the mother.
She said that the Children’s Assessment Center, a Houston-run facility that specializes in assessing children who may have been abused, confirmed that her daughter had been molested and sexually assaulted by her husband. On top of it, her husband had voluntarily confessed to police that he had, indeed, molested children.
But weeks had since passed and her now-estranged husband had still not been arrested.
In a television interview with the 11 News Defenders, the mother described how the police officer handling her case had repeatedly promised an arrest on a particular date. But she claimed that date would come and go with no arrest.
Frustrated, she said she called the officer and was told that it wasn’t unusual in “these types of cases” for an arrest not to occur until nine weeks had passed.
Eventually, the mother decided to tape her next conversation with that officer, which was later broadcast on KHOU.
In the taped exchange, he explained the delay:
” I’ve got 100 of these that I’m actually working on literally…and there’s no way you can work ‘em with any kind of consistency and keep up.”
Then, the 11 News Defenders started placing phone calls and asking for comment and posing questions to the Harris County District Attorney’s office, the Children’s Assessment Center, and even the police case officer himself. Six weeks after her husband’s confession and just as KHOU aired its story on the situation, he was finally arrested. The husband is now serving a 20-year prison sentence for aggravated sexual assault.
In addition, KHOU went on to discover and report on hundreds of similar cases where the arrest of pedophiles had been delayed by at least a month, and sometimes much longer.
And now, months after our final report, the Harris County District Attorney wants to arrest someone else – the mother.
The arrest warrant accuses her of knowing her husband was a danger to her daughter in June of 2009 and that she endangered her daughter by not immediately reporting the possible crime.
In a previous interview with KHOU, the mother said that she indeed had discovered her husband downloading child pornography on his computer. The mother told reporter Jeremy Rogalski that she was in shock and even frightened, but that she followed her first impulse to take her kids and leave her husband. The mother said that from that point on they lived apart. The husband, whom she described as the only source of income for the family, continued to support them, although she said he was not allowed to see the children.
But in December of 2009, the husband reoffended again with the child of a family friend. Then, that crime and the assault of the daughter were reported to the authorities.
Now, the mother could face jail time.
However, child abuse experts say the mother’s reaction to the discovery her mate was a sex criminal wasn’t unusual and was almost typical. They also say that fact is something the DA should know, and that charging the mother in these sorts of circumstances is very surprising.
“This is a case of systemic failure at the most destructive, it’s most counter-productive, for the community and, more importantly, for the child,” Steven Lightfoot, president of Justice for Children, a Houston-based child advocacy group.
In addition, the organization’s chairman Randy Burton, an attorney and former Harris County Chief Prosecutor, said what’s happening does not seem like justice.
“We have seen repeated examples” he says, where officials “have neglected their duty to aggressively and competently investigate child abuse cases and take offenders off the street.”
And for Burton, that makes the present situation even worse.
“When a protective mother who is not trained in the law…tries to get criminal charges filed against a child molester and speaks out when the system fails her child, she is prosecuted,” Burton said, adding that “prosecuting her for failure to timely report after the mother spoke to the media about the Sheriff’s Office and the Children’s Assessment Center’s failure to act smacks of selective prosecution by the Child Abuse Unit at the DA’s office.”
Which is exactly what the family thinks.
“Denise Oncken, the district attorney prosecuting the case, warned my daughter, my stepdaughter, on numerous occasions, in front of witnesses, not to talk to the press, or there would be consequences,” the mother’s stepfather said. He added that there were also numerous witnesses to the alleged statements.
In fact, the mother’s family was so angry that Tuesday it went to Houston City Council to plead for help.
And what did the Harris County DA have to say about the controversy?
Late Tuesday, Donna Hawkins of the DA’s office sent KHOU a written statement. In its entirety it reads:
“Our duty as prosecutors is to see that justice is done. In that regard, criminal cases are filed based on the facts and the evidence presented to us by law enforcement. An independent magistrate made a finding of probable cause in this case on July 30th.”