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Few things disturb us like the sexual abuse of a child. But what if it's not true?
By MICHAEL KRUSE Times Staff Writer
Published February 3, 2008
[Maurice Rivenbark | Times]
On the evening of Aug. 22, 2005, a camcorder clicked on in a gated community called Pristine Place.
Natalie Shelton, bleached blond and 25 at the time, sat on a couch wearing a tight white tank top and a blue denim miniskirt.
To her left was her daughter. The 6-year-old girl with brown, shoulder-length hair slouched on the couch with her arms crossed and looked at her mother.
"Okay," Natalie's neighbor friend Patti said from behind the camera.¶ "Okay," Natalie said."Will you tell me," Natalie said to her daughter, "what you said after our Chinese food about your dad? Can you tell me?"
"He cut my hair," the little girl said.
"Could you tell me," Natalie said, "what else you told me?"
"Well," the little girl started. She brushed her hair behind both her ears. "He touches -- sometimes he touches my tu-tu, and my private parts, even my butt."
"Is your tu-tu your private part?"
"Um-hum. And then he sticks his finger in my butt and tu-tu."
"So he sticks his fingers in your bottom and in your tu-tu?"
The little girl nodded yes.
The tape lasted just a few minutes. At the end, Natalie looked at the camera, held the look, then looked back at her daughter.
"Okay," Natalie said to the little girl. "You did really well. I'm so proud of you.
"Give me five," she said.
The little girl reached out to her mother and gave her a soft, low five.
"Okay, Patti," Natalie said. "That's it."
* * *
Thirty years ago in this country, there were 6,000 confirmed cases of child sexual abuse -- by 2000, that number was 300,000.
That doesn't necessarily mean that many more children are being abused. It just means that many more are saying something. Statistics vary -- many cases are never reported because of shame and guilt, and those that are reported sometimes get reduced to lesser, nonsexual charges -- but estimates put the number of girls who are sexually abused somewhere between one in three and one in five. Most are abused by someone they know and trust.
Over time, the state has developed a system to handle the mass of these cases that come through the courts. The system involves law enforcement, the state attorney's office and child welfare services. The system moves in a regimented way, and with a two-tiered goal -- to prosecute the offender, and to protect the victim.
But not all cases are the same.
This is just one case, and yet there are good reasons it has been talked about around the Hernando County Courthouse for more than two years. Attorneys have called it "nuts," "lunacy" and "scary." It has challenged, at the very least, the ability of the system to adjust to the unexpected and the extraordinary.
Systems don't have common sense. They are not nimble and they don't adapt. People do.
But what if the people don't?
What happens then?
* * *
This case started the way these cases almost always start -- with an allegation, and fast.
No one saw the home video in the beginning. But Natalie called the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, and the Sheriff's Office called the state Department of Children and Families, and by the next afternoon the little girl was being interviewed by a woman from the state Child Protection Team. The little girl wore a pink shirt. The room was filled with toys.
"Okay," the little girl said, "this is going to be fun."
She said she was in the first grade at Hernando Christian Academy.
She was asked if it's good or bad to tell lies.
"Bad," the little girl said.
"All right. So why did you have to come here and see me ... ?"
"Well, it's because my dad, he touched me in the private parts."
The little girl described his penis, his pubic hair and a white "wax." She talked about how he "played barbershop" and cut her hair, and said the sexual abuse happened once, at his house, with his fingers, knuckles and hands.
"Actually," the little girl said, "it happened two times."
"When was the other time?" the interviewer asked.
"I think it was Tuesday."
"Well, no, last week was Wednesday. I think probably he touched me on that day."
"It was," the little girl finally said. "I asked my mom. She said it was Wednesday. So I believed her."
This interview lasted 42 minutes. The interviewer wrote in her report that the child had given "clear disclosure of sex acts." The little girl, she wrote, should be kept away from her father.
* * *
Later that evening, her father sat across from sheriff's Detective Shawn Terry in a small, gray-walled room in the Sheriff's Office.
The detective told Ron Shelton what the little girl had said.
"That is a lie," Ron said, "a total, whole, whole lie."
"Okay," the detective said. "So the child is lying?"
"I don't know except her mother is brainwashing her," Ron said.
Ron met Natalie in the fall of 1997. He's 61, a trim, tough, emotional man. He grew up in Columbus, Ohio, as a self-described "hell raiser," was addicted to painkillers and Valium for 20 years, and ran bars, nightclubs, convenience and liquor stores. He also did accounting work for many of the city's strip clubs. One of them was the Fantasy Club. Natalie danced there, and she needed a place to stay. Just two nights, Ron said. He says the manager said she was 19. She was 17, it turned out, and a runaway, which made Ron anxious.
"Now," Ron told the Hernando detective, "I've got a huge problem."
The solution: On Oct. 20, 1997, they got married. Ron likes women in their early 20s, and says so, and had been married six times before. He married Natalie, he insists, to rid himself of potential legal trouble for harboring an underage runaway, and Natalie married Ron to feel like an adult.
The little girl was born Sept. 12, 1998. Ron and Natalie got divorced in 2002. At one point, according to records, Ron had sole custody because Natalie's own mother and sister told a judge that she wasn't living an appropriate lifestyle. Later that year, Ron and Natalie moved to Florida, lived separately and split custody -- Ron had her during the school year and Natalie took her in the summer. Ron kept some accounting clients, and Natalie worked at Mons Venus, Tampa's best-known strip club.
"Tell me," the detective said, "what the motivation is for Natalie to program your daughter and say that you touched her or molested her."
"Because Natalie kept throwing up to me, okay, 'I got nothing out of the divorce.'"
"So she wants money from you?"
"That's the whole thing," Ron said. "She wants support."
Ron has two grown children from a previous marriage whom he doesn't see anymore. He has been in trouble in the past for not paying child support. But his friends from Columbus say something in him changed when the little girl was born. Ron says her birth brought him "peace."
"If I was raping a 6-year-old," he told the detective, "... take me someplace and kill my f------ a--, okay?"
Then he took a Computer Voice Stress Analyzer test.
Ron was asked if he did what his daughter said he did.
He said no.
The machine said he failed.
* * *
Ron was arrested Aug. 24, 2005, at 10 a.m.
That day, the detective's cell phone called Natalie's cell phone at 3:17 p.m., 3:18, 6:55, 7:00, 8:44, 8:45, 8:46, 10:18, 10:19, 10:25, 10:25 again, 10:32, 11:16 and 11:29. Natalie answered five of those calls. The conversations were short.
* * *
Two days later, prosecutor Marlene Wells made the state's case against Ron in his first bail hearing. Ron appeared on a TV screen via video from the county jail.
The detective told the judge that the little girl had been examined the day before by a doctor from the Child Protection Team.
"The report," he testified, "advised that the child was positive for sexual abuse history."
Those words come up a lot in these cases.
Here's what they mean: The child said what the child said.
In this case, the exam was "normal," the doctor wrote in her report. No physical signs of abuse. That's true in approximately 85 to 95 percent of these cases, according to the doctor, because those areas of the body heal quickly, like the inside of the mouth. But what the little girl said during the exam was what she already had said, and now also that her daddy's penis had gone inside her, and also that he had made her watch pornographic movies, and also that he had taken pictures of them together in the shower.
Bob Morris was Ron's first attorney.
"The only case that exists against my client," he told longtime Circuit Judge Jack Springstead, "are the allegations of a 6-year-old girl ... "
"The child's testimony is remarkable," Springstead said in his decision, "in that it describes with particularity and detail acts that a child of that age and the tender years she is would not be aware of unless she had physically experienced or observed these matters.
"The bond motion," he said, "is denied."
The charge: sexual battery of a child under 12. The punishment: life in prison.
* * *
That same day, the detective's cell phone called Natalie's cell phone at 7 a.m., 7:01, 9:13, 11:12, 11:18, 1:17 p.m., 12:52, 1:36, 1:38, 1:41, 7:20, 9:13, 10:59 and 11. Natalie answered five times -- again. The conversations were short -- again. Over the next month, he called her 30 more times, and text messaged her seven times, and late one night someone saw his unmarked car parked in the driveway of Natalie's house.
* * *
Human instinct is to want to protect children, and to believe them. But experts estimate that between 1 and 4 percent of allegations of child sexual abuse turn out to be lies. Out of 300,000, that's either not a lot, or a heck of a lot.
The little girl started therapy in early September.
She was angry, fearful and having nightmares, according to her therapist's notes. She was locking doors at home and hitting and kicking at school. She told her therapist she didn't trust anyone anymore.
She drew a picture of daddy stabbing mommy. She drew a picture of daddy's house on fire.
"I hate myself," she said.
The allegations kept coming.
She said daddy put her in boxes and trash cans.
She said daddy would dress like a woman.
She said daddy put his penis in her "four times."
She said daddy's girlfriend put her mouth on her vagina.
She said daddy dug a hole in the yard and told her he'd put her in there if she wasn't good.
DCF opened a case to try to terminate Ron's parental rights.
The Sheriff's Office, the State Attorney's Office, the courts -- they're supposed to protect, and they're supposed to prosecute. There is a presumption that the truth will emerge from this process.
Just what people were doing to try to find it wasn't always clear.
The detective called the child protective investigator and told her that the little girl was just looking for attention with the allegations about the other woman. The detective said the little girl gets more attention the more stories she tells. Natalie called and said the same things.
The child protective investigator wrote in her notes that the detective "determined that there was enough evidence to keep perpetrator incarcerated." A different caseworker said the detective had told her that the other allegations would "muddy the water."
The little girl's allegations didn't stop.
She said daddy held her under water in the bath.
She said daddy ate her poop.
Thomas Dikel, a child clinical psychologist from Gainesville, interviewed the little girl, who told him that all this abuse had started when she was 2 or 3 years old. "Her story is reliable," Dikel concluded in his report.
Ron hired attorneys Jack Maro and Mark Rodriguez. Maro had Ron take a polygraph test.
Same questions. Same answers.
Different result. This one said Ron was telling the truth.
On Jan. 23, 2006, there was another bail hearing in front of Stephen Rushing, the new circuit judge in Hernando. Motion denied. Still no bail.
After the hearing, though, Natalie and her neighbor friend, Patti, went upstairs to the State Attorney's Office and gave Wells, the prosecutor, the videotape they had made before calling the Sheriff's Office five months earlier at Pristine Place.
Natalie thought it would help the prosecution.
"What we have here," attorney Mark Rodriguez said in a bail hearing in February in front of Judge Rushing, "is an allegation of sexual battery by a child. The statements of the child is the evidence. That is it. That is the evidence."
Rodriguez also told the judge about what the detective had taken from Ron's home: four computers, nine cameras, 13 rolls of film, a camcorder and 18 floppy disks. Nothing sexually inappropriate.
"I'm going to find," Rushing said, "that since the criminal offense is punishable by life in prison as a capital sexual battery that no bond is still appropriate."
Jail's not a nice place -- especially not for guys with Ron's charges. Ron says he did what he had to do to protect himself. At some point, one of Hernando's most notorious lawbreakers, a career criminal who is now in state prison until 2037, came to him, saying he'd heard about his case from people on the outside.
People were saying Ron hadn't done what he was said to have done. The career criminal "let people know," Ron said later. No more problems in jail.
The little girl, meanwhile, kept coming with new allegations.
She said daddy would pop the heads off her dolls.
She said daddy would blow his nose and rub it on her tu-tu.
She was asked how many times daddy had touched her.
"About 64 times."
She started with a different therapist in Tampa. She buried dolls in the sandbox and said she wanted everybody to die. She ripped the pants off the woman doll and made the man doll "have sex" with her.
The little girl was 7-1/2.
Court cases move slowly. That's normal. But usually with that time comes greater clarity. This case was eight months old and getting only more muddled.
One of the workers from DCF visited Natalie's home. The little girl showed the caseworker pictures of men printed off the county jail Web site and said they also had molested her. Natalie told the worker she and the neighbor friend, Patti, had been printing them out. The DCF worker's notes from the meeting described Natalie as "rambling" and "incoherent."
The little girl said there were "lots" of people who abused her.
She said she wanted to go to court to tell the judge that no one was going to take her from her mother and that her father was an "a--h---." The worker asked the little girl where she had learned that word. From her mother, she said.
And she said her uncle back in Ohio -- the husband of Natalie's sister -- also "had sex" with her on a visit up there the previous November.
This was the middle of April 2006. The caseworkers and their supervisor had Natalie in for a meeting. The supervisor said all these new allegations needed to be investigated by the detective.
Natalie told them she'd call him.
"He always answers my calls," she said.
The detective came in and told the supervisor that all this new information could damage the criminal trial. Natalie was "distraught" and "agitated," according to department notes from the meeting. The supervisor made her take a drug test. She tested positive for marijuana and Valium.
Natalie talked on the phone the next day to one of the caseworkers. The caseworker told Natalie that some of the other workers in the office had noticed how strange she had been acting around the detective.
"Do you think they know I slept with him?" Natalie said.
The supervisor called the Sheriff's Office. The Sheriff's Office started an internal affairs investigation on the detective.
* * *
May 11, 2006. Another bail hearing.
"Every place this child goes," attorney Jack Maro said, "she gets molested by somebody."
"She's never recanted," said Wells, the prosecutor.
Rushing said in his decision that he was "concerned" about the litany of allegations. The video from Pristine Place was no longer a secret. Wells had sent Ron's attorneys a letter about it two weeks after getting it. But the judge said the little girl hadn't backed off her initial allegation. And he acknowledged the lack of physical evidence, but said that didn't necessarily mean "things didn't happen."
Still no bail.
The next day the psychologist and the Child Protection Team interviewer met with Natalie. Now their questions were for her. They needed to know about her showing the little girl the inmate pictures off the Internet, and asking if she had been molested by these people, too. They concluded the little girl had not been molested by the people from the Internet, but they did learn more about Natalie:
She had a history of using marijuana, according to their report.
She had "limited parenting education."
She had had just one job -- "exotic dancer" -- and was an unemployed high school dropout. She was being financially supported by a married dentist in Pennsylvania.
Also: "Natalie states that she has a history of 'using' men. She states that she has had relationships with men to obtain things. She states whether it be gifts, cars, financial support, that she knows how to 'hustle' people."
Meanwhile, in the developing internal affairs investigation, one of the DCF workers told the investigating sergeant that Natalie's "reality and fantasy blend."
The Child Protection Team interviewer said she had heard the detective, who was married, call Natalie "hot" and "almost perfect."
Natalie told the sergeant that the detective was "hitting on her" from the start and that they had had consensual sex once and "made out" more than that in the first couple of weeks of the investigation. She said she thought it would get her better service.
* * *
There were two separate allegations made against the uncle in Ohio. Both came from Natalie. The first was in April: The little girl said the uncle had molested her. The second was in May: The little girl said the uncle's daughters told her that he had molested them, too.
In mid May, the Ohio investigation was over.
The detective in Ohio had allegations similar to the allegations in Florida -- but made the opposite decision. He closed the case on the first allegation with "no further action" because there was no physical evidence, he said. He dismissed the second allegation as "unfounded" because the uncle's daughters said that what Natalie had said just wasn't true.
In mid June, after Ron had spent almost 10 months in jail with no bail, Wells, the prosecutor, floated a plea deal. In exchange for guilty pleas on two counts of lewd and lascivious battery on a child, Wells offered 10 years of probation and a $10,000 fine.
The case was getting shakier overall, and this was an unexpected opportunity for Ron's attorneys: Now they could make the argument that even the prosecutor no longer thought Ron was dangerous enough to be held in jail with no bail.
Rodriguez filed an immediate motion for another bail hearing.
Almost as quickly as she had offered it, Wells pulled the deal.
It didn't matter.
"He ain't taking anything," Rodriguez said.
At the scheduled hearing the same arguments were made. One side: The only evidence is the allegation. The other: The girl has never recanted.
But the balance had tipped. Judge Rushing changed his mind. He cited the other unfounded allegations. He mentioned the plea offer and the possibility of probation. He set bail at $75,000 per count.
Ron's friends from Ohio came up with the money -- 10 percent of the bail amount -- and Ron went home. A week later he sat at his kitchen table.
"They know they have no case," he said.
"I'm not guilty. I'll die and go to hell before I admit to that."
In the ongoing internal affairs investigation, Natalie took a polygraph test, and failed it.
The detective denied everything.
He said all those calls were for work. He said he didn't remember calling her "hot" and "almost perfect" but once did call her "Little Miss Hot to Trot Stripper." He quit before the end of the investigation and went to work for the Brooksville Police Department.
A month later, the Sheriff's Office finished its internal affairs investigation, and the conclusion was that Detective Shawn Terry had not had an affair with Natalie Shelton. "Unfounded."
Then, a month after that, Bill Gladson, the new supervisor at the State Attorney's Office in Brooksville, who had been there only for a few months, took a long look at the case.
On Sept. 14, 2006, he signed a short, one-page document.
It ended like this: "INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE TO SUSTAIN A CONVICTION."
The prosecution was stopped.
Wells didn't like the decision. She wanted to take it to trial. Gladson told her no.
He also wrote a memo. The memo focused on the video made that first evening when Natalie gave her daughter the low five in Pristine Place.
"Watching this tape," Gladson wrote, "gives the viewer the impression that the mother was possibly coaching the child. The investigators with CPT were not aware of the existence of this tape at the time of their interview of the child.
"This video tape," he continued, "caused irreparable damage to the credibility of the child."
Almost 13 months after the initial allegation, the criminal case was over.
* * *
Nov. 16, 2006.
"Can a child be convinced to believe in something that is not true?" Rodriguez asked Dikel, the psychologist, in one of his depositions.
"Santa Claus," Dikel said.
"Okay. So you're saying yes?"
"Okay. So children can be convinced that certain things are true that are in actuality not true?"
"Children," the psychologist said, "as well as adults."
* * *
The criminal case is over. In December, DCF dropped the case to terminate Ron's parental rights, but the custody battle is still going.
The little girl is 9 now. She lives with Natalie in Ohio. DCF caseworkers, DCF attorneys, the girl's guardian ad litem from Florida, the girl's therapist in Ohio -- they all have said over the last year-plus that they think that's the best situation for the child.
"DCF works from a perspective," Rodriguez said. "Their job is to protect the child. Their job isn't to find the truth. They're not in the business of finding the truth. ... That's up to the State Attorney's Office."
Wells, the prosecutor, left Brooksville after the case, and has been with the State Attorney's Office in Orlando since March. She said in the internal affairs investigation that she didn't think the video showed coaching. She said in an interview last fall that she still believes the little girl.
Here is what the detective said about Natalie in one of his depositions:
"Sometimes you have probable cause, and probable cause can come and it can go. It can dissipate. And I felt like my probable cause was quickly dissipating on the case and I was starting to get a little anxious about it from Natalie's behavior. ...
"I felt," he said, "like everyone had been duped."
Ron has filed notices to sue just about everybody who had anything to do with the case against him: the Sheriff's Office, the State Attorney's Office, DCF, the doctor, the psychologist, Natalie. The list goes on.
"I could disappear into the clouds, go back to Columbus, live out the rest of my life," he said last fall.
"But I don't want that.
"I want my daughter."
Natalie, for the last nine months, has not been getting support from the dentist in Pennsylvania -- who met Natalie at Mons Venus, and who in his almost three years with her bought her a used BMW, a vacation to Puerto Rico and the three-bedroom house in Pristine Place.
"Natalie's just, you know, I don't have concerns for her taking care of the child," the DCF caseworker said in a deposition. "Sometimes she gets a little upset and a little hysterical. But that's just Natalie's personality."
Will the little girl still live with Natalie?
With Ron again at some point?
With relatives? A foster family? In a therapeutic residential group home?
"There are questions about this case that we're never going to be able to answer," said Elliott Ambrose, Natalie's attorney in Brooksville. "That doesn't mean some of the allegations weren't true."
June 11, 2007. Columbus, Ohio. The little girl sat for 2 1/2 hours with a new child psychologist for a court-ordered evaluation.
"I get confused all the time," the little girl told the psychologist. "It's my specialty. My memory isn't good at all. It's a problem.
"I try to stop doing something. I try to stop saying things that aren't true. ... But it's just my memory and I can't help it."
"What's weird about me," she continued at another point in the evaluation, according to the psychologist's report, "is that I have visions.
"I get a vision in my eyes.
"Do you guys have anything to stop the visions?
"Do you have medicines to stop it? I need it now.
"I can't take it anymore," the little girl said.
She has no friends, she told the psychologist. She's lonely. She's not very smart, she said. She doesn't make good grades, but she still likes her teacher, she said, because "I can get what I want from her.
"It's easy to trick people," the little girl said.
Her mother, she said, is "smart as heck."
She said several times that she wanted to get pregnant by the time she was 16.
But she also talked about the allegations against her father.
"If I have to see my father, I will fake vomit," she said. "I'll fake hanging myself." She began to suck on a puppet in the psychologist's office. "I would do anything not to see my dad. I'd put a tack in my foot. I'd cut off my leg. ... I'd cut out my eyeballs. I'd donate my kidneys. I'd make my body into shreds." She showed the psychologist her bellybutton and began to laugh. "Ron never loved me," she said. "He did bad things to me." She rolled around on the couch in the office and started to talk baby talk.
"I'm tired," the little girl said.
* * *
Natalie is 27 now. She lives with her fiance and the little girl in a suburb of Columbus in a small but nice house in an orderly community with square lawns and white fences.
Her doorbell rang one recent afternoon. She came to the door.
She's petite. She had on black pants, a black shirt, a pink scarf, was barefoot and had a bulging pregnant belly.
"You came all the way from Florida to talk to me?"
The little girl was in the breezeway. She's in the third grade now and still has shoulder-length brown hair. She said she liked reading and that she read 20 minutes a day. Then she left for the grocery store with the fiancee.
Natalie went into a large, clean living room with high ceilings and a big-screen TV set on the floor and sat on a leather, cream-colored couch.
She said the videotape wasn't the reason the criminal case was dropped.
"Wherever there's humans involved," she said, "there's room for error."
She said she's off drugs. She said her fiance is working and is the father of the baby on the way. She said she works three mornings a week at the desk of a local athletic club and that she's "in line" to give facials and body treatments when she passes her final certification test.
She said she stands by her allegations against the detective.
"He had a job to do," she said, "and he didn't do it."
The fiance and the little girl got back from the grocery store. The fiance went into another room. The little girl went down to the basement.
"She doesn't suck her thumb anymore," Natalie said. "Sometimes I'll catch her. She said it makes her feel safe. But she doesn't say that she's scared that daddy's coming back anymore."
Natalie was asked if she ever questioned any of her daughter's allegations.
"There isn't a doubt in my mind it happened," she said, "with how descriptive she was, how consistent she was. With all of it, all of it, but especially Ron, of course.
"The only thing I question is: How is she functioning if all that happened? Then I hear from therapists that kids are really resilient.
"I think the human mind is so powerful," Natalie said, "that you can block out certain things."
It was quiet. The door to the basement was open. The little girl could be heard down there playing.
Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4617.
About this story
This story is based on thousands of pages of court records from Florida and Ohio, 22 depositions, interviews with 24 people with knowledge of the case, a Hernando County sheriff's internal affairs investigation, personnel files from the Hernando Sheriff's Office and the State Attorney's Office in the 5th Judicial Circuit, medical records, and staff notes and reports from the state Department of Children and Families and other therapists and psychologists who have worked with the little girl. Additional information came from Understanding Child Sexual Abuse, A Sourcebook on Child Sexual Abuse, advocatesforyouth.org, stopitnow.org, darkness2light.org and allaboutcounseling.com.
[Last modified February 4, 2008, 11:51:14]