ADMITTEDLY, DALE AKIKI HAS AN ODD appearance. He limps because he was born with a clubfoot; his eyelids droop from Noonan's syndrome, a rare genetic disorder. And his head is unnaturally large due to hydrocephalus, commonly known as water on the brain. "He looks different, and some people can't handle that," says Troy Odle, 37, Akiki's best friend since their student days at Bonita Vista High School, near San Diego. "People teased him, but everyone who knows him knows what a wonderful person he is. He doesn't judge people."
Unfortunately, others judge him—sometimes unfairly. In 1991, Akiki, then 33, was arrested on charges that he had sexually abused nearly a dozen children under his care at a church nursery. He was held without bail for 2½ years, including the seven months of his trial, the longest in San Diego history. To his accusers, among them some of the city's most prominent citizens, Akiki was a monster who terrorized 3-and 4-year-olds. But to his supporters—and ultimately to jurors—he was a victim, falsely accused by children who had been frightened by his appearance and coached by parents and therapists to remember events that never took place. On Nov. 19, a 12-member jury acquitted him of 35 counts of child abuse and kidnapping. "It seemed like a witch-hunt to me," said juror David Fava. "The therapists terrorized these kids. Someone ought to look into what they're doing."
Until Akiki was arrested in May 1991, he and his wife, Sharon, 30, lived quietly in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa. After attending Southwestern College in San Diego County, Akiki worked as a clerk at a naval supply store and was an active member of the Faith Chapel fundamentalist church in Spring Valley. That is where he met Sharon, an ice-cream store employee, in 1987. They were both volunteers in the church's nursery, watching over children while their parents attended Sunday night services. "I loved those kids as if they were my own," he says.
Then, in March 1989, church member Mary Goodall, whose husband, Jack, is CEO of Foodmaker Inc., which owns the Jack-in-the-Box fast-food chain, delivered a widely discussed talk on satanic ritual abuse in preschool nurseries, claiming it was "much more prevalent" than people thought. In April, Akiki says, a church pastor asked him to stop working in the nursery because three mothers said his appearance was frightening the children.
Four months after Akiki stopped volunteering, the accusations of abuse began to fly. First, a child told her mother after repeated questioning that Akiki "showed me him's penis." Then, according to Deputy District Attorney Mary Avery, several parents told the pastor that their children had been displaying "unusual and regressive" behavior, including bed-wetting and nightmares. A meeting of concerned parents was called at the church, and some children were encouraged by the pastor to seek therapy.
Initially, the children denied there had been any abuse. But during months of intensive, twice-weekly therapy, gruesome tales began to emerge. The children claimed that they had been forced to eat feces, that animals—including, improbably, elephants and giraffes—had been slaughtered in the classroom, and that animal blood had been consumed. One child said Akiki had taken him to a strange house and hung him from a chandelier by his ankles. The sexual abuse allegedly included anal insertion of pins, pencils and other objects.
Akiki, who had no criminal record, denied all charges, and in December 1989 took and passed a lie detector test. But 18 months later he was arrested. During the subsequent trial, the original investigative team—prosecutor Sally Penso and Sheriff's Deputy Kathy Dobbins, the child-abuse investigator—expressed doubts about the children's claims. Dobbins described the case as "very unusual." And Penso testified she had "a lot of concerns" about filing charges against Akiki.
Both Dobbins and Penso were replaced, and the case went forward. The defense argued that San Diego district attorney Ed Miller kept the investigation going under pressure from Jack and Mary Goodall, who were actively involved with several child-abuse-prevention charities and whose three grandchildren had been under Akiki's care at Faith Chapel. The Goodalls and Miller deny these charges.
In the end, however, it was the confused and inconsistent testimony of the children and the perceived pressure put on them by some of the therapists that convinced the jury of Akiki's innocence. One child's therapist, for example, told the court that the boy was so traumatized by Akiki that he came to therapy sessions armed with toy swords and other weapons. Yet under cross-examination by defense attorney Sue Clemens, the boy smiled and laughed as he described his love of Captain Hook, the Ninja Turtles and playing with guns and swords. No physical evidence that crimes had been committed was offered by the prosecution.
Still, Akiki's acquittal infuriated many of the parents involved in the case. "I can't believe he is going to be on the streets with our child again," said one mother, in tears. "I cannot believe he is going to be allowed to hurl children, to take away their innocence." But Akiki's supporters, who have grown into the hundreds, were jubilant. "Dale Akiki is a man of great integrity and goodness," says Rose Marie Royster, 45, a businesswoman who attended every day of the trial. "It is very, very sad, but child abuse has become an industry in this country."
Two days after the verdict, Dale and Sharon Akiki renewed their wedding vows. Akiki says he hopes to go back to his job at the Naval Supply Center, where he worked for 10 years, but mainly he wants to spend time with Sharon. "We're going to Disneyland," he says, smiling, "where we celebrated our honeymoon." Surprisingly, he harbors little bitterness toward his adult accusers. "It's going to take some time to forgive and forget," he says, "but I'm just happy to be with my family again. And I have nothing against the kids, because, gosh, they're little kids."
JAMIE RENO in San Diego
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