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Families relate impact of crimes

Feb 10, 2006 |

It was a bittersweet reunion for a gathering of Pocatello families on Thursday.

Driven to the state Capitol by the power of their collective memories and a desire to toughen the state's laws on prosecuting sex offenders, the group bared their souls to members of a House committee.

Some, like Paul Steed, have become champions of the rights of molested victims. Others had never told their stories publicly before.

And for nearly three hours, they poured out.

“A lot of things I know now, I really didn't want to know,” said Hannah Bird, the wife of a Rexburg man who was allegedly raped by Dennis Empey, a former Boy Scout counselor. “We're here for the kids who's stories haven't happened yet.

“We're here for the little girl who just got hurt last night and isn't sure why it happened.”

After the House Judiciary and Rules Committee voted unanimously to approve the proposal to remove the statute of limitations on reporting sexual abuse, family members and victims embraced and seemed in little hurry to leave the committee room.

“This is a great day,” said Steed, whose two sons were repeatedly molested at an Eastern Idaho Boy Scout camp in 1997. “It's a wake-up call.”

Perhaps the day's most moving testimony came from Jeff and Joyce Underwood, the parents of Jeralee Underwood, an 11-year old who was murdered in Pocatello in 1993 by James Edward Wood.

“Some days I wish there aren't people out there (that molest minors),” said Joyce Underwood as she fought back tears. “But there are and we have to protect our children.”

A total of 19 different people gave testimony on the proposal, all in support.

R. David Moore, the Blackfoot chief of police, pledged the support of the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association and testified counseling helped him confront the events he himself went through some 20 years earlier.

The emotional testimony of Moore and others cast light on a deep, dark secret, the severity of which is only now becoming clear in Southeast Idaho.

One man, Richard Scarborough of Idaho Falls, said he had his dogs poisoned and his windows shot out after his 13-year old son went public with the sexual abuse he'd endured.

“It is a much bigger problem in Southeast Idaho,” Scarborough said, alluding to the region's well-defined religious and social hierarchies.

“They are there to harm our children.”

Although Idaho currently has no statute of limitations on rape and murder, sexual abuse cases must be reported within five years of an individual's 18th birthday.

Bear Lake County's mental health director said Fred Willie, 67, a Bear Lake County resident awaiting sentencing on three counts of lewd conducts with teenage boys, could have been arrested in 1979 if the statute of limitations hadn't been in effect.

Yet only 11 states currently have no statute of limitations on reporting sexual abuse and some lawmakers fear doing away with the time limit could open the door to frivolous lawsuits.

Sen. Denton Darrington, R-Declo, the chair of the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee opposes removing the statute of limitations and could run a much different hearing when the proposal advances to the other side of the statehouse.

But the overwhelming public sentiment Thursday contended it's time for the state to not only get tough on the perpetrators, but stand up for victims as well.

“Being told that nothing can be done to the perpetrators of such crimes only reinforces this sense of worthlessness (that many victims feel),” said Ross Ruchti of Pocatello, the father of at least two abuse victims.

“We can't support a law that's meant solely to protect the offenders,” added Steed's daughter, Christallyne.

Following the vote, Bannock County lawmakers gathered with the Steeds, Underwoods and others - who vowed to return once the bill reaches the Senate - on the fourth-floor rotunda.

Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, one of the measure's sponsors, said the legislation would send a message to the perpetrators of sex crimes.

“That abuser, that perpetrator, will fear for the rest of their life that one of their victims is going to come forward,” she said.

Other lawmakers expressed similar sentiments, with Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, expressing his displeasure with local officials in the Boy Scouts of America, who initially helped cover up the reported abuse.

“I'm not happy with them,” he said. “That's not right.”

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