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Abuse investigators face tricky hurdles

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A.J. Perez

A.J. Perez previously worked at USA Today, AOL and CBSSports.com, covering beats ranging from performance-enhancing drugs to the NHL. He has also been a finalist for an Associated Press Sports Editors award for investigative reporting. Follow him on Twitter.

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As explosive as the claims against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and fired assistant Syracuse men’s basketball coach Bernie Fine are, such cases often lack physical evidence and rely almost solely on allegations by alleged victims.

Similar cases over the years have shown that all details reported — oftentimes due to missteps by law enforcement — can’t always be relied upon.

“Certainly, research has shown (that), under specific circumstances, even adolescents and adults can give false statements,” said Florida International University professor Nadja Schreiber Compo, a leading researcher in police interview techniques.

“It’s very important that law enforcement uses evidence-based ... interviewing guidelines with all witnesses, but especially with children and adolescents.”

There’s already been at least one instance in the ongoing investigation of Fine where that may not have been the case. Floyd “David” VanHooser, a 56-year-old serving a long prison term after multiple burglary convictions, admitted his accusations that Fine molested him as a youth were untrue — that he basically told police what they wanted to hear.

“They suggested things and I went along with it,” VanHooser told The (Syracuse) Post-Standard.

VanHooser’s claims aren’t dissimilar to what happened more than two decades ago in the McMartin preschool trial, a California case that was the impetus to change how victims of sexual abuse were interviewed by law enforcement.

Back then, police in Manhattan Beach circulated a letter to parents whose children attended the preschool run by Raymond Buckey and Peggy McMartin Buckey that sparked a panic. Other major missteps followed — including abrasive and leading questioning by police — before acquittals of Raymond Buckey and Peggy McMartin Buckey, but not after the most expensive ($15 million) and lengthy (30 months) US trial at the time of the 1990 decision.

In the McMartin case, 400 young children were interviewed, and the vast majority described some sort of sexual abuse — some going so far as describing satanic rituals, blood drinking and animal sacrifices. Glenn Stevens quit his job as prosecutor for the LA County District Attorney’s office during the McMartin proceedings and joined the defense after it became clear none of the accusations had any basis in reality.

Stevens told FOXSports.com there’s a chance law enforcement could make similar mistakes even as many practices have evolved over the last 20-plus years.

“I think that’s always going to be there,” Stevens said.

“They do recuse the officer from making a case. If he or she goes down a bunch of rabbit holes and finds information that could be helpful to the defense, they’re going to be a little disappointed. That’s part of the training. The whole idea now is to take the information and process it after. You don’t want to coax any information out of them.”

The new guidelines include determining if the interview subject knows the difference between a truth and a lie, building a rapport with the alleged victim, not introducing details of the investigation and asking open-ended questions.

“It (implementation of guidelines) varies widely across jurisdictions,” said Lindsay Malloy, who is also a professor at Florida International University.

“In some areas, you don’t have the best practices. Some police departments do it well, others don’t. It’s difficult to put any department in the same category as that from the McMartin case, given that the case was so long ago (and occurred) before we knew much at all about interviewing children.

"We are much better now, although there is still a broad variance in investigator training and adherence to guidelines.”

Even with the improved tactics, sexual assaults are some of the toughest crimes to prosecute. There was a 62 percent conviction rate, according to a 2006 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the most recent study conducted by federal officials. Only assault had a lower conviction rate and a higher dismissal rate for felonious crimes in the large urban areas studied.

Obviously VanHooser is more than 50 years older than the children in the McMartin case, although Malloy said an older birthdate doesn’t always lead to more accurate allegations.

“There is a huge shift after preschool-aged children,” said Malloy. “Those are the kids we would be most concerned about. But even as adults, there are studies that lead us to believe it still happens. Adolescents are also more susceptible than adults.”

Another obstacle — especially in the Sandusky case, where so many alleged victims already have come forward — is keeping the suspected victims and those close to them from talking to others involved in the case.

“There can be cross-germination of information,” Schreiber Compo said.

“The children talk to each other and/or different investigators. The parents talk to each other and/or different investigators. The parents talk to their children, which is understandable given the panic often involved in a mass-allegation case.

“Then if you add in poor investigative techniques, in some cases the alternative hypothesis is that maybe some of the allegations aren’t based on actual events, but on faulty interviewing. It should be pointed out, however, that this does not mean that parts of the allegations aren’t true.”

The two original Fine accusers worked as ball boys at the time of the alleged abuse and were well into adulthood when the claims against Fine became public in November.

Two other accusers — VanHooser and Zach Tomaselli — came forward after Bobby Davis, who is now 40, and his step brother, Mike Lang, came forward. Tomaselli’s allegations are the only ones that prosecutors can pursue, since the other alleged crimes fall outside the statute of limitations, but he admitted to doctoring e-mails and lying to journalists in an attempt to buttress his claims.

Tomaselli, who is facing charges of sexual abuse in Maine, dropped his civil suit against Fine, and his own lawyer, Jeff Anderson, withdrew from representing Tomaselli.

“In Tomaselli’s case, we had two witnesses who corroborated his story,” Anderson said. “Reports had been made in a timely manner before the first allegations against Fine were made public. We didn’t pull out because we thought the allegations against Fine were false.”

Anderson said he vets such allegations thoroughly before bringing legal action.

“You are always required to be particularly vigilant because of the gravity of the conduct and the risk of harm to other kids, but also the damage to somebody’s reputation,” Anderson said.

“In some circumstances, we’ll use psychiatrists and other experts to help us determine if a person has suffered trauma. Sometimes a report ... alone can stand on its own as credible. Oftentimes, however, you look for corroboration, which can be difficult. Sexual abuse is often a crime of secrecy, and there’s rarely any physical evidence.”

Sandusky’s accusers were as young as 10 years of age at the times of the reported incidents. Sandusky’s lawyer, Joe Amendola, told The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pa., this week that he was notified by the Centre County Department of Children and Youth Services that two allegations of sexual abuse were determined to be unfounded.

That still leaves at least 10 accusers, a voluminous case that former federal prosecutor Marc Mukasey said state prosecutors should be adept enough to handle properly.

“Prosecutors are going to show that this is not a TV show,” said Mukasey, a partner at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani. “This is not going to be wrapped up in 48 minutes with a red bow around the package. There isn’t going to be a weapon in every crime. There’s not always a smoking gun. Through testimony, they are going to have to prove this guy is serious, serial criminal.”

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