SIERRA VISTA — The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office is again looking into a 2016 case regarding claims by parents that their two toddlers were sexually abused and tortured by neighbors who babysat the children.
While the case was investigated at least twice by the Sheriff’s Office and turned down twice for prosecution by the Cochise County Attorney’s Office, Sheriff Mark Dannels in February assigned a new detective to look into the parents’ allegations that their children were sexually abused by their neighbors in Hereford four years ago.
The case is still under investigation as Detective Joseph Gilbert looks over new information sent by the family in late 2019. Sheriff’s Commander Tom Alinen sent the parents an email in January telling them that, “It is our intent to bring this new information to the Cochise County Attorney’s Office.”
On Tuesday in an email, County Attorney Brian McIntyre also told the Herald/Review that he would review the case if new details emerged.
“As to additional evidence, yes we would, of course review the matter again if we receive a new investigation packet,” McIntyre said.
The parents — the father is a federal agent and the parents are not being named by the Herald/Review so that the children are not identified — say their son and daughter were repeatedly assaulted by neighbors in Hereford in 2016. The family no longer lives in Arizona.
The parents based their claims on the children’s behavior and what the youth told them. The parents also said there were physical signs and behavioral issues, as well as fear by the children when they were told they would be going to the neighbor’s house, emails and documents supplied by the parents show.
Regardless, after two Sheriff’s investigation in 2016 and two reviews by the County Attorney’s Office, prosecution was declined because there was “insufficient evidence to ensure a reasonable likelihood of conviction.”
The parents have been critical of the investigations that have been done, saying the children were never interviewed by a Phoenix forensic expert who insinuated that the parents had coached the youngsters through their answers to investigators.
The parents also say that Sheriff’s detectives did not do a thorough search of the neighbor’s house because they failed to take some items that may have revealed child poronography and other evidence. The parents also said forensics examiners at a child advocacy center lacked experience with very young children.
When the parents reached out to the County Attorney’s Office again in January 2019 with new information via a well-known Phoenix attorney, they were met with yet another rejection from the County Attorney’s Office. they said.
Attorney Mel McDonald asked Assistant County Attorney Michael Powell to re-open the case because there was new information. Powell responded in March 2019, saying he had reviewed the new details, but still could not prosecute.
Powell told McDonald that based on the opinion of forensic examiner Wendy Dutton of Phoenix, who had been sent the entire case file, the children’s mother had undermined the veracity of their comments because of the way she had questioned them. Dutton insinuated that the children may have been coached and that she herself would not interview them.
But Powell also said, “I am not disputing that potential abuse occurred. It may have. But the circumstances surrounding the case obligate me to follow my ethical duties as a prosecutor and not proceed with this case.”
Powell added that “there may be civil remedies available to the family. But I cannot in good conscience proceed criminally,” he said.
The children’s father refuted those claims, saying Dutton had never even met the children, who are now 6 and 8 years old.
“The expert the CAO speaks of, has never met or interviewed our children and is therefore disqualified as a material witness,” the father said. “Because CCSO showed her the case files in 2016, she is also disqualified as an expert witness per AZ Supreme Court ruling regarding use of expert witnesses.”
“This expert also has numerous background and education issues that would make her easily impeachable, if not already disqualified, if the CAO would investigate and confirm the information I provided to them via email to Michael Powell and Sheriff Dannels,” he added.
The parents then contacted Dannels in December 2019 and the sheriff told them to send the new information and he would forward it to his major investigations team. That’s when Sheriff’s Commander Alinen sent the parents an email in January and Detective Gilbert was assigned to the case in February.
Despite the latest ongoing investigation, the parents sent out a press release in May attacking the Sheriff’s Office. They also released a copy of a documentary the mother of the children put together titled, “BROKEN Lost Innocence.” The family also launched a GoFundMe page aimed at raising $60,000 to help pay for production of the documentary.
In the press release the children’s father said: “We never expected special treatment; just for them to thoroughly investigate the case and interview the witnesses. They haven’t even interviewed our children’s nurse practitioner, whom the children disclosed horrific details to, back in 2016.”
“You have to conduct interviews and collect evidence to solve cases. We at least know the system and who to contact, but how do regular citizens obtain justice?”
Dannels has said his department has done everything possible to investigate the claims, even to the point of a third investigation now underway by Detective Gilbert.
“As a parent myself, I respect that these parents want to protect their children and bring closure to what they are reporting to have occurred,” Dannels said. “I also respect the criminal justice system and I know that we cannot proceed on opinions or beliefs, but rather we must depend on facts to sustain the rule of law.”
“We must protect all of our vulnerable population which includes children who are silent witnesses and who must be protected throughout the judicial system,” he said.