‘No Physical Evidence,’ but AZ Dad Jailed Two Years on Child Abuse Charges

Here we go again.  Sean Lanigan has just been acquitted of sexual abuse charges that the accuser admitted in tweets that she’d made up just to get the teacher in trouble and that she then regretted.  And Vladek Filler is going back to trial for a “crime” that almost certainly didn’t occur. Filler is the Maine father whose wife Ligia accused him of raping her.  But there’s never been any objective evidence of a crime, her allegations came in the middle of a custody case and she’s made false allegations before.  Their son says that it’s Ligia who is violent, not his dad. 
Add to that the fact that Vladek was released from prison and given full custody of the children after his conviction.  So there’s one family court judge who knows who the bad actor is in the Filler family. The District Attorney’s Office can’t figure it out though.  It’s going back to trial with no evidence of a crime.  The jury’s been selected and trial is scheduled to start Tuesday. But as I said, here we go again.  This case is unfolding in Arizona and here’s a balanced article about it (Arizona Republic 5/14/11). The facts are pretty much what we’ve come to expect with a few noteworthy exceptions.  The couple is not named in the article in order to protect the identities of their children.  For years they were high-flying models.  They met on a photo shoot in Japan, fell in love, got married and had three kids. But 14 years later, the marriage fell apart, divorce was sought and the custody battle joined.  That soon produced allegations of child sexual abuse by the mother against the father and the involvement of a counsellor who seems to have initiated the claims. The father has now been in jail for over 850 days charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse.  His bail has been set at $75 million.  Yep, you read that right – $75 million.  Experienced criminal lawyers say they’ve never heard of such a high amount.  It may be an all-time record. If that’s odd by itself, it’s made more so by the fact that there is no physical evidence of sexual abuse and the father has no criminal record and no record of abuse of children.

The father has pleaded not guilty and adamantly insists he has never harmed his children. Friends have gathered more than 110 signatures on a petition calling for his release from jail. In letters to the court, they said he is a loving father while the accuser is a scorned woman out to fulfill threats of revenge.

But the mother claims he abused them and at least one of the children says so too.  But that turns out to be fishy.  It seems the mom took the kids to a therapist, but not just any therapist.  She sent them to licensed professional counsellor, Linda Bennardo who soon said she saw signs of sexual abuse.

But prosecutors now have a problem with their key witness: Bennardo, the therapist who initiated abuse allegations against the father, surrendered her license last year to end an investigation of misconduct in similar cases. According to the state Board of Behavioral Health Examiners, Bennardo in 2006 wrote a letter seeking to block another divorced dad from visiting his son based almost exclusively on claims made by a wife. It placed Bennardo on probation for numerous ethical violations. Two years later, the counselor treated a 3-year-old girl for issues related to custodial visits. The board found that Bennardo accepted a mother’s allegations of domestic violence without contacting the father. After just three play sessions with the child, investigators said, Bennardo testified in a hearing that the little girl suffered from trauma caused by the father. The board ruled that Bennardo “failed to meet minimum practice standards.” In an interview, she disputed those findings but said she gave up her license rather than fight the charges.

As far as I can tell, that leaves the prosecution two witnesses – the mother and the child who would be about eight years old now.  But the mother would seem to have problems too.

Sedona police Detective Christopher Stevens, the lead investigator, testified that the woman identified witnesses who would confirm that her ex-husband is “a bad and abusive guy,” but their statements “bore out just to the contrary. . . . They said (the defendant) was the person that had primarily taken care of the children.” Numerous friends submitted letters to the court on behalf of the father. Carolyn Huggins, a board member with the Sedona-Oak Creek Unified School District, described the man as a wonderful parent and coach. So did Dan Surber, a past Sedona City Council member and president of the youth soccer league. James Bruch wrote that he had been involved with the defendant’s ex-wife years before her marriage and that she assaulted him in anger after he broke off the relationship. He said he warned the defendant that the woman was capable of making false criminal accusations. “This whole saga has become a tragedy at the cost of what (the father) and these children have suffered,” Bruch wrote, “all because of the spite and scorn of (the woman).”

And these are the people she believes to be on her side. That leaves the child who, I’d be willing to bet has been strong-armed by Bennardo and the mother into making allegations against his dad.

During a recent hearing, Detective Stevens admitted to being troubled because Bennardo asked leading questions of the Sedona children, who responded using adult terms. He also said the children’s memories evolved, becoming more detailed over time. One child repeatedly denied a recollection of abuse before telling investigators, “My mom’s friend, . . . who is a psychic, will remember.”

So here’s what it looks like to me.  We’ve got an unlicensed therapist who’s another true believer, just like Assistant DA Mary Kellett in the Filler case and just like investigator Nicole Christian in the Lanigan case.  She’s happy to see child abuse by fathers where there is none because a mother’s “right” to child custody is threatened.  (You noticed that the people interviewed by the police said the dad “primarily took care of the children.”  That would suggest that he had a leg up in the custody proceedings.) So Bennardo manipulates the children to make false allegations.  The evidence of manipulations includes her leading questions and the adult language used by children who were then six years old.  The mother eagerly accepts the idea and uses it to get the father arrested and conveniently out of the kids’ lives.  He’s been in jail for over two years.  By now his kids (except for the oldest who’s now 15) barely remember him. So I’d say his chances of acquittal on all charges are pretty good.  There’s just not much there with which to convict him. But what will happen with the custody matter?  What should happen is this: the mother should receive at best supervised visitation due to her false allegations; the dad should get primary custody because he has been a full-time dad and seems to be the only stable one in the couple.  My guess is that the opposite will happen.  My guess is that the family court will give the dad supervised visitation because of the allegations and because they kids haven’t seen him in two + years.  After all, wasn’t that what the allegations were about in the first place? We’ll see how this one plays out. Thanks to Jerry for the heads-up.

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