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But by the time Detective Robert Perez completed his investigation, 24 people in Wenatchee had been accused in sex-abuse scandal. In Cherie Town's book, it was wrong for her husband to be messing around with other women. So when he started bragging, she picked up the phone and called the Rape Crisis Center. She told a counselor that her husband, Meredith "Gene" Town, had for years been molesting their two young sons. But she didn't say that she, too, had been abusing their children, and that she and her husband often passed the boys on to friends.

Later, Cherie Town would reportedly admit to her own perverse and seemingly insatiable sexual appetite. But at that moment she was not making a confession; she was getting back at an unfaithful husband. That secret allegedly was shared by at least two dozen adults and some 50 children said to be members of "The Circle. They were families, police say, in which adults treated children as commodities, "trading them like party favors" - not for financial gain, but for sexual gratification and illusions of power and control.

This is a story of violence against innocents, the betrayal of trust, of ignorance and isolation - of a reportedly abusive subculture overlooked by mainstream Wenatchee for nearly a decade. It is about police and prosecutors and the public debate over proof beyond a shadow of a doubt. Of the 13 women and 11 men charged with sexually exploiting children - one remains at large - one saw his case dismissed, nine have pleaded or been pronounced guilty and 13 have pleaded not guilty - their cases to be tried separately beginning next month.

The idea that the same 50 children could be routinely sodomized by the same two dozen adults year after year is so horrific it gives rise to disbelief. Seeking out and punishing sexual abusers of children has become a national obsession, sometimes with tragic . Adults, wrongly accused, have lost their jobs, homes, families and all hope of ever leading normal lives. Children, not knowing whether their memories are real, grow up unsure and unhappy - damaged no matter what happened.

Still, the fact remains that more than , reports of verifiable child abuse are filed nationwide with authorities each year. Some children were abused in Wenatchee, that much is certain. There is medical evidence to support some charges of sexual molestation. Whether those children were routinely gang-raped, as police and prosecutors say, is another matter. A kid-swapping, adult-led sex ring such as that alleged in Wenatchee would be "rare indeed," said Dr. Reams of legal papers are bound in bright red files, dog-eared and smudged now, from handling by members of the news media.

A second set of files is kept by Chelan County Prosecutor Gary Riesen, whose office is down the hall, just past the Superior Court chambers where the fates of the accused are to be decided. Four stories below Riesen's office is the Chelan County Jail where the accused - stripped of their shoes, street clothes and freedom - wait for a chance to tell their stories. From there it's three blocks to the Wenatchee police station, a cramped stone building constructed in the early s. There is no interrogation room, so officers question suspects at their desks, which are arranged in two short rows in a drab gray room.

The room's only memorable feature is an oversized Pink Panther that lounges at the desk of Detective Robert Perez, sex-crimes investigator. Cherie and Meredith Town's former residence, Mission St. The house - a hulking, beige two stories crouched near the curb - is a wreck. Top-floor windows are busted out, the rest covered with plywood.

The front walk is overgrown; there's litter where there should be lawn. Before he arrested Meredith Town, he wanted corroborating statements from the boys, then ages 14 and Perez knew time was short. The detective had completed 64 hours of special training in sex-crimes investigation; both he and his superiors were confident of his ability to handle just about any case. They had no idea, of course, of the difficulties that lay ahead; no hint of conspiracy; no clue that an incestuous ring of pedophiles, the likes of which has never been proved in this country, might be operating in Wenatchee.

Perez found the older boy, who is mentally disabled, eager to please but very afraid of what might happen if his father found out "he told. The younger boy, located at school, gave a similar . Police records say the youngster was forthcoming, confirming that his father raped him and forced him to perform oral sex. The only break had come when his father, a convicted burglar, got drunk and started shooting up the house with a. The youngster's teacher said he told her the same story, according to the police report.

That was all Perez needed to hear; he put out a bulletin on Meredith Town. At 37, unemployed, with a felony record, Meredith Town didn't have a lot - just enough to fill a trailer. Attempting to leave Wenatchee quietly, he stopped by the Douglas County sheriff's office to purchase a trip permit for his rig.

There was no point risking getting pulled over on a traffic violation. He wasn't halfway through the forms when a sheriff's deputy announced he was under arrest. Waiving his right to have an attorney present during questioning, Meredith Town admitted to 62 counts of child rape and four counts of indecent liberties. By the time he stopped talking, police were pretty sure Cherie Town knew more than she had let on.

According to police records, Cherie Town was advised of her rights but chose to "cooperate. Standing on the front porch, the year-old mother of two was asked if she'd ever abused her boys. She responded, "I only did it twice.. Down at the station, seated alongside the detective's desk, Cherie Town answered questions for a long time. She reportedly began to have sex with her younger son when he was 9. Some time later, she began "having fun" with her older, mentally disabled child. Their marriage on the rocks, Cherie and her husband were rarely intimate - although, on occasion they would have sex together with the boys.

Along with drinking, sex was the family's primary diversion. But never once, Cherie Town said, did she "keep the boys home from school to have sex. Defense attorneys for Cherie Town asked the court to quash the confession, arguing that she is of "substantially low IQ" and "believed that if she told Perez what he wanted to hear, she would not get in serious trouble. Eventually, both Cherie and Meredith Town bowed to punishment. They entered Alford pleas, the process by which defendants maintain innocence but acknowledge they would be found guilty at trial.

Meredith Town was sentenced to 18 years and 4 months in prison; Cherie was ordered to serve 10 years. They had moved from Oklahoma to Wenatchee in , settling into a squat, rust-colored rental house with a narrow porch overlooking a tidy patch of grass, four lanes of traffic and a sprawling junk store with a foot bull's-eye painted on an outside wall and the boast "2, GUNS.

There were neighborly exchanges between families. The adults got to know each other playing darts at a nearby tavern; the kids, on the walk to school. On a sticky-hot July afternoon, about three months after the Towns were arrested, Perez knocked on Laura Holt's door. Selid Holt, 35, was already in the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla for raping his daughter - turned in by his wife a year earlier. He had pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 14 years. The Holt children were in foster homes, removed by Child Protective Services following their father's arrest.

Initially placed together, state caseworkers separated the children to prevent them from "sexually acting out amongst themselves. Experts say children who have been sexually abused for years accept it as "normal," and often will repeat the behavior in situations other than the home. It was the Holt children's aggressive sexual behavior that made authorities wonder if there hadn't been more wrong in the Holt household than father-daughter incest and motherly neglect. That suspicion was heightened by medical evidence suggesting that at least one and possibly both of the boys had been abused.

Talking with the children made Perez believe Laura Holt - also known as Becky - had molested not only her children but countless others. The allegations strained credulity but not then, nor later, did Perez or his superiors consider the children might be embroidering the truth. A half-hour after she was arrested, Laura Holt stopped arguing her innocence and began to confess. Some things she said made Perez suspect there was a conspiracy, that kids were being passed among neighbors. It was appalling. He was determined to ferret out the rest of the abusers, to save the kids.

I didn't know he'd have such a sick mind. Even in plain clothes, Perez looks formidable. Striding down the hallway of the county courthouse - tall, fair, well-built, with a sidearm and handcuffs visible under his leather jacket - he is the image of righteous justice. People who know and like Perez say he is a dedicated officer, that he is often stern but can be a "teddy bear" of a man.

Those who know but do not like him say he is a "manipulative monster. Perez spent about an hour talking with Cherie Town. She reportedly confirmed that Michael Rose and Randall Reed, drinking buddies of her husband who bunked with the family for a time, had also sexually abused the boys. The first time it happened, Rose and Reed were supposed to be keeping the boys out of harm's way while she was downtown talking to her husband about a divorce.

The second time, she climbed into bed with them. Perez went back to the kids, accompanied by Protective Services investigator. The interviews took place at the children's schools or foster homes. None of the interviews, or the adults' confessions, was taped. National experts are split on whether the benefit of recording such statements outweighs potential problems. Kenneth Lanning, the FBI's child-abuse specialist, has advised against taping, saying it creates a "highly subjective piece of evidence.

Reed, 43 at the time, pleaded guilty to two counts of child molestation. In a ed statement to the court, he wrote: "Because of liver damage that has affected my brain and memory, I have no recollection of the crime. I want to make sure it doesn't happen again, and I believe the state could convict me at trial. Rose, then 26, maintained his innocence. Defense attorneys questioned the foundation of the charges, citing physician diagnoses that revealed "the alleged victims suffered from various forms of psychological problems including attention-deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychotic disorders and other impairments.

A jury deliberated only 3 hours and 15 minutes before returning a verdict of guilty on five counts of child rape and molestation. Rose was sentenced to 23 years. That month, in what seemed at first a wholly unrelated incident, Robert Devereaux lost his to operate a foster home after he became the subject of sexual-abuse allegations. When the Department of Social and Health Services initially granted the in , Devereaux was married.

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