Uruma, Okinawa–I often receive letters from deployed military fathers (and sometimes mothers) in Iraq, Afghanistan or other parts of the world who have been cut off from their children by their exes, sometimes permanently. What struck me about the heartbreaking story below is how similar it is to those in the letters I receive, though few end so tragically.
The case is yet another example of anti-father family court bias, the utter lack of respect with which the father-child bond is treated, and how some mothers are able to get away with whatever they want regarding kids and child custody. If the system were fairer, if the system cared about Damion Peterson’s loving bonds with his son, the boy would still be alive today.
The full story is below–thanks to Don Mathis for sending it. To write a Letter to the Editor of Stars & Stripes, click on email@example.com.
To learn more about the family law problems faced by military parents, see my co-authored column Laws Must Protect the Rights of Military Dads (Army Times, Marine Corps Times, 3/28/05).
Former airman shocked to learn his son has been dead for a year
By David Allen, Stars and Stripes
April 16, 2008
URUMA, Okinawa — It”s been a year since 8-year-old Jordan Peterson died from injuries allegedly inflicted in a beating by his stepfather at his off-base home in Uruma.
But it was just last week that Jordan”s real dad found out his son was gone.
“You can”t believe my shock,’ Damion Peterson said Monday in a telephone interview from his San Antonio home. “All in one day a friend said he had information that the military on Okinawa had investigated the possibility that Jordan was abused. And then I called my ex-mother-in-law to find out about the abuse and she tells me he”s been dead for a year.’
That was April 7. A Google search of his son”s name then brought home the horrible truth.
Peterson”s sister found a series of stories in Stars and Stripes that detailed Jordan”s death and the arrest — and later release — of the boy”s stepfather, Roberto Deleon, by Japanese police who alleged the child was beaten to death.
“My brother was devastated,’ Marlo Saenz said. “The divorce was horrible, but he had always hoped to see Jordan again. He was the sweetest little boy.’
Peterson, 32-year-old former airman now living in Texas, said he had been estranged from his ex-wife for four years and she refused to let him have contact with his son during most of that time. He said she left him while they were living in Germany and he lost the ability to have Jordan for the summer visitations spelled out in their divorce decree.
“I was single, living in the dorms,’ Peterson said. “I couldn”t keep him with me.’
He said he continued to have child support taken out of his paycheck, but had infrequent phone contact.
“She”d tell me Jordan did not want to talk to me,’ he said.
When Peterson transferred back to the States and was discharged, he remarried. He now has a son and a daughter, ages 2 and 1, and was hoping to work out visitation with Jordan when his ex-wife, Staff Sgt. Sabrina Deleon, returned from a three-year tour on Okinawa that began in 2004.
Peterson said the last time he saw his son was just before the boy”s mother left for Okinawa.
In the week that followed the discovery of his son”s death, Peterson and other family members have been busy seeking information about what had happened. He said he called his ex-wife in Maryland — she is now assigned to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware — but the calls turned into arguments and her phone has since been switched to an unlisted number.
Stripes was unable to contact Sabrina Deleon.
Peterson also said he spoke to Roberto Deleon before the number was changed, but he wasn”t sure who he was at first. Peterson had not known that his ex-wife, who had remarried a man named Brown after their divorce, had gotten another divorce and had remarried on Okinawa.
“He yelled and cussed me out,’ Peterson said of Roberto Deleon, 26.
‘Through the cracks”
Peterson said a friend who worked on child welfare cases at a base in Texas told him April 7 that he had seen files from the Air Force on Okinawa that showed “multiple abuse and neglect cases filed against [his ex-wife and Roberto Deleon] by the Family Advocacy Clinic on Okinawa.’
“But somehow the military allowed my son to fall through the cracks because they lived off base,’ Peterson said.
Citing privacy rules, the Air Force and Department of Defense Dependents Schools officials have repeatedly declined to comment on whether any reports of abuse were made to them prior to Jordan”s death.
One abuse complaint was filed with Japanese authorities in November 2006, when an Okinawan woman found Jordan wandering barefoot and shirtless, dressed only in shorts, a few blocks from his Uruma home. She said the boy was bruised and told her he was running away from home. She took him to a store and bought him some clothes, but he refused to wear them, telling her that his stepfather would not allow him to wear anything new.
The woman, Hisa Uechi, now 23, called the Okinawa prefectural police, who questioned the boy. But he refused to speak and Jordan was handed over to his mother.
“It seemed neither the Okinawa or military authorities would do anything for him,’ Uechi said at the time.
A year later, Jordan”s death still affects her. On April 11, she left flowers outside the house where the boy once lived. Observing the first anniversary of a death is an important Buddhist-influenced Japanese tradition.
“I just wanted to let him know that he is still remembered,’ she said.
A new family occupies the house.
“There was no trace at all that Jordan once lived there,’ Uechi said. “It was like his existence was completely and quietly wiped away.’
She said she shed tears of joy when she learned that Jordan”s biological father and his family are seeking justice for the young boy.
After Jordan”s death, the director of the Okinawa Prefectural Department of Health and Welfare admitted her office failed to properly investigate the November 2006 abuse report.
“We should have gone to his home and checked up on him,’ the director told Japanese reporters last July. “It might have saved his life.’
Damion Peterson is working to ensure the case does not fall through the cracks again. He has contacted his congressman to look into the matter and has confirmed with the U.S. District Attorney”s office for the Eastern District of Maryland that Jordan”s death is being investigated.
Roberto Deleon remains the prime suspect.
Deleon was alone with the boy April 11, 2007, when he called his wife and said Jordan had stopped breathing. His wife rushed home with a military ambulance in tow and the child was taken to the U.S. Naval Hospital on Camp Lester, where he was pronounced dead about two hours later.
An autopsy showed he had a massive loss of blood from internal injuries, according to Okinawa police, who arrested Deleon on May 16 on suspicion of causing the injuries that resulted in the boy”s death.
But on June 6, Deleon was released with no charges filed. Hirokazu Urata, the deputy chief prosecutor for Okinawa, said there was not enough evidence to prove Deleon was responsible.
“The autopsy showed he died from the shock of excessive bleeding caused by recent damage to the liver,’ Urata said when Deleon was released. “A criminal act was highly probable, but there is insufficient evidence the suspect inflicted the fatal injury.’
The military had no jurisdiction over Deleon, a civilian, and Air Force investigators forwarded their case files to the U.S. Justice Department.
The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, passed in 2000, treats as a federal crime any acts committed outside the United States that would have been considered felonies if committed on federal lands in the U.S. The cases can be tried by any federal court.
In a message to Texas Rep. Nick Lampson, Peterson said the autopsy performed at USNH showed Jordan had a lacerated liver “and ruled the case a homicide with the stepfather as the only suspect.’
“I was not even notified of the murder,’ Peterson wrote to Lampson. “His mother hid it from me for a whole year…
“She changed her address several times over the years; she has retained at least three different last names in the past three years and refused to keep me updated about my son”s whereabouts, as she was ordered to do per our divorce decree.’
“I paid child support for Jordan until he disappeared into Japan,’ Peterson said Monday.
“We tried several times to get a current address. We even sought the help of the Veterans Administration, but we couldn”t locate her and she never called us — not even about the funeral. Finally, I just felt I”d have to wait until Jordan was older and could see me on his own and I could apologize for the lost years and tell him how much I loved him.’
Jordan”s obituary in the local newspaper made no mention of his father, who visited his son”s grave on the one-year anniversary of his death.
Peterson went there with several other family members, including his 2-year-old son, Israel.
“I stayed there for two hours,’ he said. “Israel looks so much like the engraving of Jordan on the headstone that I broke down. I didn”t want to leave.’