A Time for Healing
For the past three years, fear and anguish were nearly all Alicia and her family knew. In 1989 she was abducted from her bedroom one night and raped. After that horror, the entire Wade family was further traumatized by the San Diego child-welfare bureaucracy, whose handling of the case points up the extreme difficulty authorities often face getting at the truth when a child is a victim of sexual abuse. Jim was falsely accused of raping his daughter. His wife, Denise, was so distraught she attempted suicide. Alicia was placed in foster care and put up for adoption. "Alicia was kidnapped, raped and sodomized by a vicious man," laments Jim, 38. "Then a system that was put in place to help did more harm than the animal who hurt her."
The family's ordeal began at dawn on May 9, 1989 when Jim and Denise awoke in their Navy family-housing apartment outside San Diego. Alicia, then 8, was asleep, but Denise was surprised to see that a window close to her daughter's bed was wide open. Alicia got up at 6:45 A.M. "I don't feel good," she complained. "It hurts to go to the bathroom."
Later that morning, Jim—a chief petty officer assigned to the San Diego-based aircraft carrier USS Independence—took Denise and Alicia to a Navy health clinic-for what they assumed was a recurrence of a minor urinary-tract infection. "I didn't check her before we left," says Denise. As Alicia took off her clothes in an examining room, Denise and Jim were horrified to discover that her genital area was severely lacerated. When asked what had happened, Alicia responded with a wan smile and said, "I don't remember."
"There's something wrong here," said Ronald Hawkins, the examining doctor. "I'll have to report this."
"You're damn right," said Jim, breaking down in tears. "Someone hurt my little girl."
After being rushed to a hospital, Alicia told a doctor that a stranger had come in through a window of her family's ground-floor apartment during the night and had taken her out and hurt her. To a policewoman, Alicia later described the stranger as a white male with brown hair and freckles. After attacking her, Alicia said, the stranger put her back in her bed. "I got up and walked into my mommy's room," she told the policewoman. "I got my kitty and went to bed."
From the outset, authorities felt Alicia's story just didn't add up. How could a stranger enter the Wades' apartment and leave undetected with Alicia? Why didn't she scream? Why didn't she wake her parents after she was returned?
While doctors treated Alicia, police played devil's advocate with Jim, accusing him of the assault. "Why don't you just be a man and admit it," Jim recalls one officer saying repeatedly. After several hours of aggressive questioning, Jim says, he felt beaten down and made a remark he later came to regret. "I said, 'If you're the experts, I must be nuts, because I don't remember doing it.' "
Denise added to the suspicions of police and social-welfare investigators when she told them that Jim was a recovering alcoholic who had sometimes experienced blackouts before he quit drinking just five months earlier. Denise also revealed that she had been sexually abused as a child. She had blocked out the memories until Jim was undergoing treatment for alcoholism and she joined a codependency therapy group.
"There were problems in that family," says Linda Miller, a spokesperson for the San Diego County District Attorney. "Bells went off." Jim was ordered to have no contact with his daughter. Denise, who investigators suspected was protecting her husband, was told she could be in the room with Alicia only if someone else was present. Roth were warned that any violation of the orders would mean they could lose custody of their son, Joshua, then 6.
Though police did not turn up any physical evidence implicating Jim, he and Denise were charged with child neglect for permitting the molestation to occur. Advised by one of their court-appointed attorneys that if the case went to trial, they might be separated from Alicia for a full year, the Wades pleaded no contest in a desperate attempt to get her back more quickly. They agreed to undergo complete psychological evaluations and hire a live-in caretaker to be on duty 24 hours. "Our attorneys said we'd have Alicia home within a week," says Jim. In fact, the Wades contend, the neglect plea was treated like; an admission of guilt by the San Diego Department of Social Services.
In the weeks that followed, social services personnel, as well as a private counselor hired by the county to conduct twice-weekly therapy sessions with Alicia, put numerous obstacles in the way of a family reunion. The Wades contend that the advisers delayed the scheduling of psychological evaluations and rejected the live-in caretakers that the Wades suggested—including Jim's mother, Shirley—because the caretakers believed Jim was innocent.
In January 1990 sympathetic Navy intelligence officers who had been conducting a separate investigation gave Jim files they had gathered on Albert Carder Jr., 26, a pedophile with brown hair and freckles who had been arrested a month after the attack on Alicia and received a 17-year sentence for molesting four girls, all of whom lived within a few miles of the Wades' home. Unbeknownst to the Wades, Carder had been a suspect in Alicia's case early on but had been dropped after she failed to pick him out of a photo lineup two months after the attack.
In April 1990, Carder was charged with another similar crime. He had eight years tacked on to his sentence after he was found guilty of attempted rape of another girl from Alicia's neighborhood who had been taken out of a window at night while her mother slept in the same room. Despite the similarities to Alicia's case, the Wades contend, authorities did not follow up because they were so convinced of Jim's guilt. Then in June, after 13 months of separation from her parents. Alicia finally fell victim to the power of suggestion and in a therapy session identified her father as the rapist. In a later court appearance, Alicia said she "just got sick of hearing" the therapist insist it was her father who raped her. "She said it every time I went there," Alicia said.
In November, Denise began an eight-week stay in a Navy psychiatric hospital after downing a bottle of sleeping pills. "I wanted the hurting to stop," she says. "I gave Jim the empty bottle and said, 'Bye.' " A month later. Jim was charged with two counts of felony child abuse and released on $25,000 bail.
While Wade was awaiting trial, his new attorney, Michael McGlinn, requested that Alicia's clothing, which police had previously said carried no trace of semen, be re-examined. An independent laboratory found high levels of sperm on both the child's nightgown and her underwear. Meanwhile authorities were pressing ahead with plans to allow Alicia's adoption by her county-appointed foster parents—a weapons-systems consultant and a schoolteacher with whom she had been living since the summer of 1989. Finally, in October 1991, results of DNA tests on the sperm samples proved that Wade was not the rapist, and charges against him were dropped. Subsequent lab exams indicated that Albert Carder is among the 5 percent of the population whose DNA characteristics could match those found in the semen stains. Nearly a year later, authorities are still awaiting the results of more-refined tests that could reveal whether there is a precise match. The ease is still under investigation but no one will comment further.
Jim was finally allowed to see Alicia last Oct. 31 at a social workers office. "She just ran up to me and jumped into my lap," Jim says. "I started crying." Alicia came home to stay three weeks later. "Oh, this bed feels so soft," she told her mother. "And it's all mine."
In a report released last June, a special grand jury severely chastised local authorities for their "tragic" mishandling of the ease. The Wades are suing various government agencies involved in the case, claiming violation of their civil rights. They also have a damage suit pending against several individuals, including Alicia's therapist and their former attorneys.
The Wades moved to Cabool, Jim's hometown, following his retirement from the Navy on May 31 and have been living on his military pension. On the drive east, Wade put down the top on his 1984 Dodge convertible and played Billy Joel's "Innocent Man" repeatedly on the tape deck. "The kids had the words memorized by the time we reached home," he says.
LORENZO BENET in San Diego and Cabool