A Child's Cruel Death Spurs Her Grandmother to War Against Child Molesters
12/06/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
March 14, 1978 was a mild spring morning in the rural Southern California community of Camarillo, where 2½-year-old Amy Sue Seitz was playing alone in the backyard of her aunt's house. The aunt, Delfina, often looked after Amy Sue during the day while her mother, a single parent, worked as an electronics assembler. In this quiet neighborhood, Delfina felt safe leaving her niece unattended for a few minutes while she went inside to change clothes.
It was a mistake with horrible consequences. When Delfina looked outside, Amy Sue had vanished without a trace. For two days her relatives joined with neighbors and police in a futile search. Then, on the third day, a toddler's mutilated body was found in a nearby canyon. Of course, it was Amy Sue.
Ten months later police charged a man named Theodore Frank with the loathsome crime. Just the day before, he had been sentenced for the kidnapping and molestation of two preteen girls. Frank, 43, an unemployed laborer, has admitted to molesting as many as 150 children over a 23-year period. Until he was convicted of Amy Sue's murder in December 1979 and sentenced to die in San Quentin's gas chamber, he had served less than two years in prison and almost nine years in state hospitals for his sex crimes. Even as he committed Frank to Death Row, Judge Byron K. McMillan stated that he considered the sentencing an empty exercise: "I think he'll die of old age—on the streets in about 15 years. I'd bet on it."
That prediction may prove true: Frank is appealing his death sentence, claiming that the crime was not premeditated and that the state used inadmissible evidence. Lawyers for both sides agree that a final resolution of the case may take years. Judge McMillan's baleful view of the judicial process produced at least one positive effect—it motivated Amy Sue's grandmother, Patti Linebaugh, to try to make sure that future Theodore Franks would not be dealt with lightly. "I couldn't believe that the judge who put him away, even in this state, even though we had capital punishment, was saying that Theodore Frank would be out on the streets in 15 years," says Linebaugh, 47. "I felt that the families of Frank's prior victims had a responsibility. If they had only fought to create some pressure on law enforcement, this man wouldn't have been free. Maybe Amy Sue would still be alive."
Along with Irv Praeger, who prosecuted the Frank case, and another friend, Linebaugh founded SLAM—Society's League Against Molestation. "What began as a murder investigation became an investigation of our system of dealing with child molesters," says Praeger. Statistics show that when a molester is arrested, he has probably attacked some 19 other children. "Only about 5 percent of the attacks are reported," according to Praeger, "and, of the molesters convicted, less than 10 percent went to prison."
Shaken by her grief and those figures, Linebaugh began a petition drive that garnered 140,000 signatures and pressured California legislators into adopting tough new anti-molester laws, which took effect last January. Among the provisions: mandatory long-term prison sentences without hope of probation for virtually all serious or repeat offenders; an extension of the statute of limitations to six years in molestation cases, since victims are often unable to discuss the assault for years afterward; and minimum terms of three years for each count, plus five additional years for each previous conviction of child molestation and 20 years to life for a third offense. "Who's responsible for the death of Amy Sue—Frank?" Linebaugh asks. "Our judicial system. I came to realize that laws could be passed to prevent men like Theodore Frank from getting out on the streets again."
Indeed, Theodore Frank is an example of modern penology and jurisprudence gone gravely awry. Described by one of his former doctors as "a chronic, habitual child molester," Frank was first arrested in 1958. He subsequently served several terms in prisons and hospitals, emerging each time to commit new assaults, and treating his victims with escalating violence and cruelty. Just six weeks before he killed Amy Sue, Frank had been released from the Atascadero State Hospital, a mental hospital for criminals, after serving more than three years of a four-year sentence for kidnapping and molesting a 4-year-old Bakersfield girl. Frank, who, according to Praeger, took a correspondence course in psychology while in prison, won his release from Atascadero by masquerading as a reformed man. He hoodwinked the hospital psychiatrists so thoroughly that they petitioned Illinois authorities to drop child-molesting charges pending against him there. Frank admitted the deception before being sentenced for assaulting the two preteen girls. "When convenient," he wrote, "I have used my extensive knowledge of psychotherapy as an ongoing game of manipulation."
One of the country's leading authorities on child molestation believes that pedophiles like Frank are not treatable. "There's no percentage for the molester to give it up," explains Dr. Roland Summit, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles. "He doesn't want to stop or come to the surface or be identified. He doesn't want to close off his option." While researchers have not found a single cause of pedophilia, says Summit, studies indicate that the childhood victim of molestation may become a molester in adult life.
Amy Sue's relatives are trying to put themselves back together. Her mother, Sherry, has married a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, a man whose strength brought her through the trauma; they now live in an Eastern city where Sherry recently gave birth to twins. Patti Linebaugh likewise perseveres. "Every time I start to back off," she says, "I realize I can't live with myself if I don't create an awareness—make other people understand what must be done."
There are now 44 chapters of SLAM in California alone, and 12 in nine other states. Linebaugh is frequently asked to address interested groups across the country. "I've never done anything like this," she says of herself. "I've just been a mom and a wife and that was it. Yet from somewhere I've had the strength to fulfill a promise to a little baby."