Divided by Multiple Charges of Child Abuse, a Minnesota Town Seethes with Anger
Jordan, Minnesota is a town with three streets, four churches, a championship high school football team—and an atmosphere heavy with fear. It is a town where people shun old friends, where mothers forbid their children to enter the homes of neighbors, where parents have stopped taking their kids to baby-sitters, because they don’t know whom to trust. Jordan is a town that buzzes with a cacophony of charges and countercharges, talk of sex rings and witch-hunts, and rumors of acts so dark, so vile, that they are merely hinted at. It is a place where the fear is so pervasive and so deep that some parents admit sadly that they are afraid to show affection for their own children lest they themselves come under suspicion of unspeakable acts.
Jordan was not always like this. Until a year ago, it was, so far as anyone knew, a typical Midwestern village, a “good Christian community” of 2,900 people. Founded by German immigrants in the 1850s as a farming town, it evolved into a bedroom community of Minneapolis, which lies 35 miles away; yet it still seemed rural, a safe haven from the crime and the social upheaval of urban America. But then, on Sept. 26, 1983, Christine Brown, 25, complained to the Jordan police that a neighbor had molested her teenage daughter. During police questioning, the daughter named other children who had allegedly been molested, and those children named other adults as their abusers. Arrest followed arrest as the scandal spread. By June, 24 grownups and one juvenile in the Jordan area had been charged with sexually abusing more than 30 local children who ranged from two months to 17 years of age. Among those arrested were a local policeman, a deputy sheriff and, ironically, Christine Brown, the mother whose complaint had sparked the investigation. “I was dumbfounded,” said Alvin Erickson, Jordan’s police chief since 1966. “The thing just kept growing and growing. We never anticipated having anything like this on our hands.”
The arrests were shocking enough, but the stories behind them were ghastly. According to the alleged victims (and one of the accused who agreed to testify after many of the charges against him were dropped in plea bargaining), the village harbored rings of adult sex abusers who incestuously victimized their own children and other children during ritualistic sex parties involving sadism and bestiality. Some of the children described a bizarre sexual variation of hide-and-seek in which children who were “found” were taken to a bedroom and abused.
The accusations were so grave that reaction in Jordan went from revulsion to disbelief and then—at least among a sizable minority of townspeople—to charges that overzealous prosecutors were using the children to engage in a witch-hunt. “It’s like Nazi Germany,” claims Gail Andersen, a former mayor of Jordan who was prosecuted by Morris’ office for unrelated misconduct. “Good law is being misused.” The focus of these attacks is the chief prosecutor, Scott County Attorney Kathleen Morris, 39. “The County Attorney,” says local realtor Anna Sandey, “is a vindictive, power-hungry lady who has a grudge against Jordan.”
A former teacher who graduated from the Hamline Law School in Minneapolis, Morris is known as an aggressive prosecutor with a special interest in seeking the conviction of child molesters. Morris suggests that the Jordan residents accusing her of a vendetta are deluding themselves about the realities of child abuse. “The public doesn’t want to believe that there are people out there who get together and sexually abuse kids,” she says. “It makes people comfortable to say it’s a witch-hunt so they can pretend that it doesn’t happen.”
Finally, on August 20, after months of rumors and accusations had divided the town, the first of the child-abuse cases came to trial. But if the people of Jordan expected that the trial would end the controversy, they were disappointed. The case against Robert Bentz, 37, and his wife, Lois, 34, raised more distressing questions than it answered.
When the trial began the prosecution charged the Bentz couple with sexually abusing six children, including their own three sons. Among the children who testified against the couple was their 6-year-old boy, Tony, who told the court that his father had sodomized him and his brothers. Although the boy was confused over the meaning of the sexual terms, when a defense attorney asked if he feared that his father would abuse him again, the boy looked across the courtroom at Bentz and replied, “You won’t do that no more, right?”
During the grueling cross-examinations, defense attorneys succeeded in shaking some of the young witnesses’ stories by hammering away at dates, places and word meanings. However, a 12-year-old girl steadfastly refused to waver from her testimony. When a defense attorney accused her of lying, she snapped: “You’re just helping Bob and Lois [Bentz] to get out of this stuff, this child-abusing stuff, I’m not lying, you guys are. It’s the truth, they hurt us.” Later she rushed tearfully into the arms of a social worker.
The defense attorneys contended that Kathleen Morris was vindictively prosecuting the Bentzes because they had publicly criticized the way she was handling a child-abuse case against their neighbors. The lawyers portrayed Morris as a “sick person” who brainwashed her young witnesses in order to “concoct” the Bentz case and then rewarded them with gifts when they cooperated. Later the Bentzes took the witness stand and denied all the charges against them. Although their 13-year-old son, Marlin, had earlier told authorities he had been molested, he testified during the trial that his parents had never molested him or either of his two brothers.
Finally, after four weeks of grim and frequently contradictory testimony, the case was delivered into the hands of the jury. For three days the eight men and four women deliberated. Then on September 19 they returned to court with a verdict: Robert and Lois Bentz were not guilty on all counts.
The Bentzes embraced and wept with joy when the verdict was announced. Kathleen Morris was angry. “This doesn’t mean they’re innocent,” she told reporters. “It means I didn’t prove they were guilty. This means we live in a society that does not believe children.” She was supported by psychologist Michael Shea, who treated some of the children. “Children are not able to fantasize in such graphic detail about sexual acts which are outside their experience,” Shea says. “And they certainly can’t be coerced, or bribed or brainwashed into making statements about their parents.”
Obviously the verdict did not end the controversy. “The acquittal has not erased doubt,” says local librarian Pat Mitton. “The courts are not going to solve that for us. As a community we are going to have to heal ourselves.”
The state is still planning to press its cases against the other 22 accused abusers—although Kathleen Morris will not serve as prosecutor in the next trial. Morris withdrew shortly after the Bentz verdict, citing the defense attorneys’ attacks on her. “When people trying to make me the issue is more important than protecting the children,” she declared, “then I should not be involved.”
Meanwhile the Bentzes are not finished with legal proceedings. They have gone to Scott County Family Court to seek custody of their children, who have spent nearly a year in foster homes. A hearing is set for November 14. “Our next battle is to get our kids back,” said Lois Bentz, a printing company employee, sitting at her kitchen table a few days after the verdict. “They have had the kids for months. The children are getting drilled in foster homes and they are questioned all the time.” Her husband, Robert, a machinist, smoked cigarettes, sipped coffee and spoke in an emotionless voice about his legal fight. “I wouldn’t believe it unless I had lived through it,” he said. “The atmosphere is total paranoia. You don’t know who’s next. They are brainwashing kids. Kathleen Morris wants numbers and she doesn’t care who they are.”
Across the street the 12-year-old girl who had testified against Robert and Lois Bentz gazed at their house with undisguised contempt. For several days the blond tomboy had been watching cars pull up to the Bentz home. She was certain that they were partying, celebrating the acquittal. “I’m mad,” she said, ” ’cause they’re guilty.” She walked away from the door, sat on a kitchen chair and whispered: “They hurt us and did bad things to us.”
The girl’s stepmother admits that she, too, is annoyed when she sees the Bentzes—and her next-door neighbors, who are also accused of molesting her daughter. “We thought the law would take care of it,” she says. “But this whole trial, everything was done in lies. That brainwashing is baloney. It’s untrue. I sat there the whole time my daughter was being questioned. When you sit there and hear your child say what happened, there is no question that you believe her. I was sick to my stomach.” She and her husband are considering moving away from the street that holds so many ugly memories. They are even pondering the possibility of leaving Jordan itself. But they have not made up their minds about that. “A lot depends on the next trial,” she says.
The “next trial”—the case against deputy sheriff Donald J. Buchan and his wife, Cindy—began on October 1. There will be many more courtroom battles before Jordan’s nightmare of fear is finally over.