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Hear no evil

Little Dawn Harper told her story, how her childhood had been stolen, but no one listened, no one believed. Thirty years later, vindication finally came.

By CHRIS TISCH
Published October 30, 2005


  photo
Dawn Harper stares out from the cover of a greeting card sold at Sunken Gardens in the early 1970s. The picture was taken by her stepfather, Howard Duncan, who was molesting her. Around that time, he also published a book of his writings, including the poem Young Girl, below.
Young girl full of tenderness,
Laughter and pride;
Please don’t run away,
Come sit by my side.
Could you pause a moment,
From your world of bliss;
Could you spare your daddy,
Just one good-night kiss?

Dawn Harper, 39, at home in April.  
[Times photos: Cherie Diez]

Howard Duncan in court in February.  

ST. PETERSBURG - The detective promised Dawn Harper that a guard would be right around the corner, that her stepfather could not get to her.

"Get him to talk about it," the detective told her.

The visitation room at the Pinellas County Jail was a fitting place for Dawn to finally confront Howard Duncan about what had happened more than 30 years earlier.

Dawn had been booked into this place more than a dozen times as a thief, a fraud, a junkie. This time, she entered the jail on the other side of the law.

Over the years, Dawn had told family members what Duncan had done to her when she was a child. They hadn't believed her. She's an addict, they had said.

That was true. Dawn had inhaled up to $2,500 of crack per day. To pay for it, she stole and she lied.

She was good at it. She had learned from the best. In her shower. In her bed.

"Don't tell your mom," Duncan whispered to her all those years ago. "Or she won't love you anymore."

Now here she was at the jail, about to face him. The police were listening in. Dawn just had to get him to confess.

To trap him, Dawn would need all her smarts, all her wiles, everything Duncan had taught her.

He was summoned from his cell.

Then student faced off with the teacher.

---

Dawn, 39, says she was about 5 when she first heard Howard Duncan stomping up the stairs of her mother's apartment. He had a brown mustache, smelled of cheap cologne and chewed on peppermint patties.

It was 1971. Dawn and her older brother lived with their mother, Elaine, near Mirror Lake in downtown St. Petersburg. Elaine was hooked on painkillers after a car accident. Dawn's father had long since abandonedthem.

Duncan worked at Sunken Gardens, not far from where Dawn lived. Dawn spent days there watching birds. Duncan doted on her and became a father figure. Soon Elaine and Duncan were married.

Elaine's addictions deepened. She nodded off in the evenings.

Duncan slipped into Dawn's shower. She was a bed-wetter. Duncan was eager to change her.

He cupped his hand over her mouth or covered her face with a pillow to silence her whimpers.

"Shhhhhhhh," he said. "This might hurt."

For four years, Duncan abused Dawn several times each week, hundreds of times in all.

When she heard his blue station wagon coming down the street every afternoon, its engine growling like a boat motor, Dawn headed for the linen closet. She closed the door and hid under the towels.

She ate less, hoping knobby elbows and thin legs would make her less attractive to him.

At 6, she dreamed of untying a string from the clothesline, lassoing it around a street light in front of the apartment and hanging herself. She imagined Duncan finding her.

While Duncan manipulated Dawn with threats, he deceived her mother with dreams. An avid photographer, he snapped pictures of Dawn and told Elaine he could make the girl a movie star. Elaine melted.

Duncan also was an amateur poet, and he published a book of his writings that included photos of Dawn. One poem was called Young Girl.

Young girl full of tenderness,

Laughter and pride;

Please don't run away,

Come sit by my side.

Could you pause a moment,

From your world of bliss;

Could you spare your daddy,

Just one good-night kiss?

---

Elaine caught Duncan in her daughter's bed one night. Soon after, Elaine got pneumonia, took a heavy dose of drugs and died. Dawn thinks it was suicide.

Dawn and her brother were taken in by their grandparents.

Dawn used Barbie and Ken to show her grandfather what Duncan had done to her. She grabbed his crotch and asked if he loved her like her stepfather had. Dawn isn't sure her grandfather believed her.

Over time, the abuse took a toll. Dawn smoked pot at age 8. Her first of three suicide attempts was at 13. She snorted cocaine before she could drive. She dropped out of high school.

Then she found crack, the best chaser of bad memories.

To get it, she stole from every family member and friend. She tricked relatives - even her grandparents - into giving her cash, saying she needed the money for medicine.

Over 20 years, Dawn was convicted of 37 felonies. Most were for theft, fraud or drugs.

Dawn was pretty, with blond hair and brown eyes, but the drugs tugged at her body. Her eyes sank, her skin tightened, her limbs and neck thinned. She withered to less than 100 pounds and wore child-size clothes.

Along the way, she had abusive relationships and a failed marriage. She had three children, two of whom she hasn't seen in 15 years. The other was sent to foster care.

Dawn was such a mess that at one time she lived with Duncan - with her children. Dawn claims she never left them in his care, but relatives say otherwise.

Dawn talked about Duncan's abuse only when she was high, sometimes when family members or friends were dragging her out of crack houses. But no one believed her.

Not until years later, when Howard Duncan found himself in a pinch with the law, did the truth emerge.

It hadn't stopped with Dawn.

---

On Feb. 7, 1998, a St. Petersburg woman asked an older relative to watch her two daughters, both under the age of 10, while she went to the grocery store.

The relative was Howard Duncan. He seemed to love hanging around children and had babysat the kids before.

As the woman left for the store, one of the girls cried and tugged at her mother. Don't leave us with him, she said. Thinking the girl was just being bratty, the woman left.

One of the girls darted out the back door and told a neighbor boy that Duncan had touched her. The boy told his father, who called the Sheriff's Office.

Duncan admitted to a deputy that he had once used a plastic spoon to check the girls' private areas for pinworms. But Duncan was not authorized to do that, and the girls said he touched them other times as well. Duncan was charged with child sex abuse.

With support from his family, Duncan was allowed to take a deal. Two charges of capital sexual battery, which could have sent him to prison for life, were reduced to lewd behavior.

Duncan was sentenced to two years in prison and 15 years of probation, during which he couldn't have contact with any children, even kids in his family.

He also was ordered to enter sex offender counseling. His doctor required him to take an occasional lie detector test to see whether he had had any sexual contact with children.

In January 2003, Duncan flunked a test. Probation officer Dennis Magee summoned Duncan to his office and asked him to explain why.

Duncan couldn't.

Magee started to fish. Had there been times in the past when he had abused other children? Might those memories have stirred in his mind as he took the test?

Duncan admitted that he abused his stepdaughter years before. He even named her: Dawn Harper.

Magee allowed Duncan to go home, but he prepared paperwork to show Duncan had violated his probation. He also called the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Detective Lorry Dunn, who had worked for three years in the department's crimes against children division, took on the case. Both Dunn and Magee began looking for Dawn.

Dunn called family members, who were quick to remind her that Dawn was a crack addict and a liar. No one knew where she was.

But some female relatives had more to say. They told Dunn that Duncan had abused them or others.

One woman said Duncan sexually abused her for more than two years when she was a child. Another said she caught him messing around with her sister.

Dunn learned that Duncan had built a life around children. He drove an ice cream truck. He sponsored children in Mexico through a Christian charity and traveled to visit them. He babysat.

Pinellas deputies booked him into the jail with no bail for violation of probation.

Eventually Magee found a Clearwater phone number for Dawn. He left a message saying Duncan had admitted abusing her.

She called Magee back and told him it was all true. But it took a month for Dawn to work up the courage to meet with Detective Dunn.

When she did, Dunn took her into a "soft room" at the police station, which is usually reserved for child victims. It's filled with stuffed animals, toy cars and Barbies.

Dawn began telling her story. She cried and pulled at a tissue box. She wrung her thin hands and chewed her nails.

The interview lasted about two hours. Dunn believed Dawn's story. The details she told were vivid - not the kind people invent.

Dawn volunteered to visit Duncan in jail and try to pry a confession from him.

---

Four days later, in March 2003, Dunn drove Dawn to the Pinellas County Jail.

People who visit the jail do not meet face to face with inmates. They aren't even in the same room. Visitors talk over the phone through a two-way television monitor. The conversations are taped and can be used in court.

Dawn hadn't slept the night before. She feared Duncan would try to manipulate her, that he would try to convince her nothing had happened. She told herself to be clever. To best him at his own game.

But she also sought some understanding that might help steady her life. She had a simple question: Why did you do this to me?

Finally, looking into a monitor, she saw the face of her tormentor. Over the years, his mustache had turned from brown to white. His hands shook. His face flushed red, like windburn.

"I needed to come see you because of the things that happened to me when I was a child," Dawn said, according to a transcript and videotape of the visit. "I want closure in my life. The only way I can get that is to understand why it happened to me."

Then she set the hook.

"I don't know if you are sick or what went through your mind or what attracted you to me."

Duncan took the bait. He spoke slowly, carefully.

"I think mainly because I was quite immature. There were a lot of things I could not understand myself.

"These things have faded away," he said. "I am not that way anymore."

Dawn said: "I always told you I forgave you for having sex with me."

Duncan replied: "I didn't have sex with you, anyway . . ."

Dawn: "What do you mean?"

Duncan: "It was just contact, more or less . . ."

Then he said: "Go ahead, I know what you were talking about. I know you have forgiven me.

"I have grown up considerably, emotionally, since then," Duncan added. "It bugs me why things happened in the past."

By this time, Dawn had ensnared Duncan in a partial confession. But she kept going after him.

The abuse, she said, caused her great troubles.

"I know," Duncan responded. "I am keeping you in my prayers."

He acknowledged that he and Dawn's mother didn't have a good relationship.

"Is that why you turned to me?" Dawn asked.

"I don't know, it may be," Duncan responded. "It is very hard to explain. I really apologize."

Suddenly, Duncan seemed to realize what was happening. He tried to backpedal. He said Magee, the probation officer, had tricked him into an admission. "I said things I shouldn't have said. I am sure of it."

But it was too late. Though Duncan hadn't made a full confession, he had said enough. The videotape of the visit helped to seal the case.

Before she left the jail, Dawn leveled her eyes on Duncan and said: "God knows."

"Yes," Duncan responded. "Oh yes."

As soon as she got home, Dawn went for the phone. Minutes later, a crack dealer was at her door.

---

At trial in February, Duncan was charged with sexually abusing Dawn more than 30 years ago. Charges for crimes committed so long ago are rare.

Dawn was frightened because all six jurors were men. So was the alternate juror. So was the prosecutor. So was the defense attorney. So were the bailiffs. So was the judge.

Still, Dawn stayed calm during her two hours on the stand. She focused on Scott Rosenwasser, the prosecutor, whom she found kind and soothing. She told a graphic, personal story of abuse. She cried a few times.

Dawn's history of theft and deceit made her vulnerable to attack from Duncan's attorney. But Rosenwasser believed Dawn's record would show just how Duncan's abuse had affected her life. He introduced it to the jury before the defense attorney could.

"It was explainable and understandable," he said.

Then Rosenwasser played the tape from the jail visit.

Duncan took the stand next. He admitted only to touching Dawn when she complained of an itch.

Dawn didn't stay for closing arguments, nor did she return for the verdict.

The jury took just an hour: guilty on one count of child sex abuse.

Judge Tim Peters set sentencing for the next week. Dawn also missed that hearing.

Duncan, 65, dressed in a blue jail suit, told the judge he was innocent.

Peters sentenced him to life in prison. Duncan will be eligible for parole in 25 years. He will be 90.

---

Melvalena Brock wants Howard Duncan free.

Brock is Duncan's sister. She is the matriarch of his large family. She is a grandmother to 19 and a great-grandmother to six.

Even today, she would allow Duncan to have contact with those children.

"My grandkids love Howard," Brock said. "I know if he ever touched these kids, they would tell me. And I know he would never do it."

That, despite this:

Brock admits she heard talk of Duncan abusing a child in the family more than 30 years ago.

She also says Duncan confessed to her around 1980 that he had sexually abused another girl in the family. He apologized and said he would not do it again.

Brock admits she heard other allegations of Duncan having suspicious contacts with children in the family over the years.

In 1998, when the two girls accused Duncan of molesting them, Brock believed her brother's claims that he was simply checking them for pinworms.

When Duncan failed his polygraph in 2003, he called Brock and told her about it. She says he admitted to her that he had sexually abused about a dozen children over the years.

Duncan made the same admission to a doctor who was overseeing his therapy, according to probation records. Duncan said it started when he touched little girls in his late teens.

Duncan admitted in therapy that, indeed, his touching of the two girls in 1998 was more than just checking for pinworms.

Brock admits her brother is probably a pedophile. But even with all the evidence, she refuses to believe Dawn Harper.

"I don't think he really molested, molested her," she said. "I think he may have washed her."

Brock said she has heard that Dawn - angry that Duncan wouldn't give her money for drugs - threatened to set him up by accusing him of rape. Dawn denies it.

Brock wonders: If Duncan truly abused Dawn, why didn't she report it earlier? Why would she allow him to live in the same home as her own children?

And how could the justice system believe a person like Dawn, with her history of lies?

Experts on child sexual abuse say they are not surprised Dawn wound up a drug abuser, a liar and a thief.

"There is a high correlation between child sexual abuse and a number of acting-out behaviors later in life, including drug and alcohol abuse, including scrapes with the law and difficulties with authority," said M. Sue Crowley, an associate professor at Binghamton University in Vestal, N.Y., who has studied victims of child sex abuse.

About 75 percent of child sex abuse victims develop problems that stretch into adulthood, including depression and anxiety. Drug addiction is common.

Crowley said few people have endured abuse more severe than Dawn's. "She's among the worst of the worst," she said.

It's worse when the family sides with the abuser and ostracizes the victim, as Dawn's family did, Crowley said.

Brock doesn't buy it.

"Everyone in their life goes through something dramatic," she scoffed. "And they get over it."

She said the family has no contact with Dawn.

"If I saw her on the street," Brock said, "I wouldn't even speak to her."

---

For a while after Duncan's conviction, Dawn felt better. "I'm confident he won't hurt anyone else. So I feel fine," she said this spring.

She and her boyfriend then were living in a nice duplex in Dunedin. Dawn considered joining a victim support group.

But she was smoking marijuana - to stave off her cocaine cravings, she said - and got arrested twice for shoplifting. She said she couldn't work because she's disabled. She complained of seizures and insomnia.

Then this summer, her boyfriend lost his plumbing job and they were kicked out of their duplex. For almost three months, they lived in a brown 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass parked at a Sunshine Skyway rest area. They ate at a local soup kitchen.

Eventually, Dawn began to prostitute herself to get money for hotels. She started smoking crack again. The couple bounced from place to place along U.S. 19 in St. Petersburg.

Dawn missed a court date this month for one of her shoplifting charges. The next day, a deputy picked her up on U.S. 19. She was sentenced to 45 days in jail on Tuesday.

Two years ago, Dawn entered that same jail in search of answers and retribution.

Those who prosecuted Duncan note the courage Dawn showed in telling her story. How many victims did she speak for? How many others did she spare? Who would have thought that one of Duncan's earliest victims could get justice more than 30 years later?

"The end," noted Scott Rosenwasser, who prosecuted Duncan, "was the beginning."

And who could have guessed that it would have been Dawn - the crackhead, the thief, the liar - who would have the mettle to finally stop Duncan from harming children?

That is of some comfort and validation to Dawn.

But she also knows that though her abuser may die in prison,

Chris Tisch can be reached at 727 892-2359 or tisch@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 27, 2005, 13:34:03]


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