ELIZA ROBERTS DIDN'T WANT TO BE RIGHT. SHE HAD BEEN IN Los Angeles visiting her two children, who were spending the summer with her ex-husband in the quiet hilltop community of Beverly Glen, when her 11-year-old daughter, Morgan, started talking about a middle-aged man who had befriended the neighborhood kids. He was paying them a generous $10 an hour to work at his house, promising to buy them motor scooters and phoning some of them every night. The more Eliza, who works as a casting director, heard about Ken Huskey, the more suspicious she got. "I have a feeling maybe he's interested in getting something he shouldn't be getting from children," Eliza said to her daughter, choosing her words with care. "You mean like sex?" Morgan replied.
After asking Morgan to stay away from Huskey until she could meet him, Eliza flew back East to join her new husband, actor Eric Roberts, at his farm in Rhinecliff, N.Y. She arrived to find a message on the answering machine from a frightened-sounding Morgan: "Mom, you were right about Ken. Call me."
Within minutes, Morgan, in tears, was passing along lurid details she had learned from her 10-year-old friend Edward (not his real name). The story was horrifying, particularly unexpected in a community as reassuringly prosperous as Beverly Glen, where house prices start at $400,000 and street names like Autumn Leaf Circle promise safe haven. Huskey, Edward said—and would later testify—had pulled down his pants. He had propositioned several boys and had had sex with one of them. Huskey was also giving marijuana and cigarettes to kids including John (also a pseudonym), the 12-year-old son of a prominent former child actor.
Eliza had heard enough. No way was her daughter—or her 14-year-old son, Keaton—going near this guy. But she hesitated about what other steps to take. Should she report Huskey to the police and contact other parents? Even though Eliza, 39, had been active in child abuse causes, she wavered. What if Edward was just trying to impress Morgan?
She turned to Eric for advice. "I told her to go for it," says Roberts, 36, the star of such films as The Pope of Greenwich Village and Runaway Train and elder brother of actress Julia Roberts
. Eric had become a member of the family when he married Eliza last Aug. 16. (The two had met on a flight to Los Angeles back in 1989 when the actor was living with Kelly Cunningham, the mother of his 2-year-old daughter, Emma.) "I told her the worst that could happen if she's wrong is that she'll just end up embarrassed. If she was right, the guy belonged in prison."
Although Eliza was planning to return in two days to Los Angeles, where she and Eric are moving into a new house, she immediately started working the phones with the intensity that had led her kids to nickname her "Mommy Mogul." She made a report to the Los Angeles police. She enlisted Morgan to ferret out names, addresses and phone numbers from the neighborhood kids without letting them know why she wanted them. Armed with that information, Eliza alerted Edward's and John's families. John's father was upset but not completely surprised; he had once confronted Huskey about the man's relationship with his son. He volunteered to call other parents.
"I initially thought Eliza was overreacting," confesses ex-husband Jim Simons, 39, a coproducer of the canceled CBS series Brooklyn Bridge, who shares custody of Morgan and Keaton. "She's the type of person who will confront a parent who's yelling at their kid in a supermarket, and there were times when it wasn't warranted. But she had good instincts about this."
As it turned out, Huskey, 46, who ran an auto-body shop and lived in a rented one-room guest house about two miles from the Simons home, was no stranger to allegations of child abuse. In 1979 he had been charged with six counts of lewd and lascivious behavior toward six boys. But by April 1982, when the Los Angeles district attorney was prepared to prosecute him on some of the charges, most of the children were no longer willing to testify or had moved out of the area. The case against Huskey—then in Idaho serving a 10-year sentence for embezzlement—was dismissed.
Less than a week after Eliza first learned about Huskey, LAPD detectives with a search warrant were knocking on his door. They discovered marijuana plants—as well as 12 albums containing photos of young boys in shorts and wet underwear. Huskey was arrested for cultivating marijuana and released on $5,000 bail.
"I felt heroic," says Morgan of her role in alerting police to Huskey's activities. Still, she and her brother were frightened when he was freed. "We got scared because we thought Ken was going to come and kill us," says Morgan, who had met him once. "And I still am a little scared."
Meanwhile, police and the district attorney's office began questioning the kids. Edward revealed that Huskey had had sex with him. But he told Morgan that Ken wasn't trying to hurt him, that he just wanted to be his friend. Last October, Huskey was charged with seven counts of child molestation against four boys, as well as two counts of furnishing marijuana to a minor. He wasn't able to post the $200,000 bail, and appears likely to remain in jail until his yet unscheduled trial. If convicted on all charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty, Huskey could be sentenced to as much as 42 years in prison.
At the first preliminary hearing in December, four boys testified against Huskey, who sat in the courtroom. Edward, a fifth grader, described how last June he had met Huskey through his schoolmate John. He began going to Huskey's house for motor-scooter rides and to work on cars. Then one afternoon, Huskey invited him to smoke marijuana. Afterward, Huskey began to fondle him and eventually had sex with him. Edward never told anyone, he said, because "I was embarrassed."
Edward, the son of a husband and wife television writing team, continued to see Huskey after his drug arrest, although his parents demanded he stay away and even secured a restraining order. "The only reason I was going down there was he said he was going to give me a motor scooter, and he was letting me drive his scooter," Edward testified.
Eliza believes Huskey used methods more sophisticated than mere bribery to manipulate the boys he allegedly molested. "Ken got down to their language," she says. "He told them he liked them, understood them and listened to them when their parents were mad at them. Both Edward's and John's parents told me that whenever they were angry with their kids, the kids went to Ken." She pauses. "I hate this guy," she says. "There's an innocence lost there."
Morgan recently told her sixth-grade class about her role in the Huskey case, and the Los Angeles private school she attends will hold a seminar on sexual abuse. Meanwhile, Morgan has some advice of her own for kids menaced by a creep. "Tell an adult," she says. "If you don't, it'll keep happening." She adds, "And if they don't tell, I will."
LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles