HUDSON—The trial of four people accused of multiple crimes involving child sexual abuse ended last week in County Court with all four found guilty.
Goliath Van Alphen of Claverack, Jeanine Wendover Van Alphen-Moot of Hillsdale, Eugene Shackleton of Copake and William Wendover III of Cairo were convicted of abusing four children all of whom were related to the defendants. The abuse took place on a range of dates beginning in 2009 and ending when the children were removed in February of 2011 by Child Protective Services.
Columbia County District Attorney Paul Czajka said in his opening statement July 29 that each of the victims was under 11 years of age when the crimes took place. The list of charges included aggravated sexual abuse and predatory sexual assault against a child.
In all there were 58 charges against the defendants, each of whom had his or her own attorney. Before the case went to the jury county Judge Richard Koweek dismissed several of the charges involving allegations that the children had been filmed by the defendants. No films were introduced as evidence. That left the outcome of the trial resting on the testimony of a handful of expert witnesses and the children identified as the victims.
Mr. Czajka told the jurors at the outset that the children would be unable to pinpoint dates and times, but in graphic terms he told the jury 11 women and 3 men, including 3 alternates, that the children were directed to have sex with each other for a film, Ms. Van Alphen-Moot forced two of the boys to have sex with her and that the children were abused sexually, sometimes with objects.
“No one was spared,” he said.
During their opening arguments, the defense attorneys for the four defendants stressed that members of the jury must not be so influenced by the horrendous nature of the charges that they could not fairly evaluate the evidence. Steven Patterson, Mr. Van Alphen’s attorney, told the jury that a lack of specific dates and times made it difficult for his client to establish alibis.
Jason Hernandez, attorney for Mr. Wendover, reminded jurors that the guilt or innocence of each defendant must be judged separately.
And each of the defense attorneys, all of whom were court appointed defenders, reminded jurors that the defendants did not have to prove their innocence and that the burden of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” lay with the prosecution.
The first prosecution first witness was Eileen Tracy, a psychologist and an expert in child-sex abuse, who said she had testified in over 500 trials in the 30 years she has worked in the field. As part of her testimony she said that children often respond to abuse in ways that might not seem logical to those who have never suffered abuse. Those behaviors can include secrecy, delayed or unconvincing disclosure and recanting accusations made against abusers, she said.
Asked by defense lawyers about children who recant charges of abuse, Dr. Tracy responded: “Fifteen to twenty percent of alleged child-abuse victims recant their claims.” She added that approximately 6% recant because there never was abuse. The rest, she said, were abused but recanted for other reasons.
Her testimony was challenged by defense lawyers who raised other theories about child psychology and how children should be interviewed when abuse is suspected.
Dr. Tracy said that she knew nothing about this trial and was not present to make any judgment on the case.
The district attorney called Katrina Keyser, who works for Child Protective Services, which is part of the Columbia County Department of Social Services (DSS).
Mr. Czajka asked if the children had visits with their parents after there was suspicion of abuse.
A volley of objections erupted from the defense lawyers as Ms. Keyser began to answer.
The District Attorney then called former DSS counsel Christopher Mueller, who testified that D.A.’s office had issued a grand jury subpoena requiring the DSS to hand over all of the victims’ records but that DSS sought to have the subpoena quashed. The agency then appealed a decision by county Judge Richard Koweek, who ruled that DA’s office could have the records.
The DA did eventually get the records and was able to bring charges against the defendants after a new DSS commissioner, Kary Jablonka, was appointed, and the a state Appellate Division court delivered a decision re-enforcing Mr. Czajka’s authority to issue the subpoena.
The reasons why DSS blocked the investigation for over a year remain unclear.
Ms. Keyser testified that she saw two of the children in a professional capacity after the children had been removed from the home of their biological parents. She said she asked one of the boys about the alleged abuse involving a female child and he produced a drawing of an object the boy said was involved. She said that another victim, also boy, when asked the same question, made a drawing of an object and described its operation.
Dr. Eileen Joyce, an obstetrician and gynecologist, testified that she had examined one victim–then a five-year-old girl–three times. The first interview was in November of 2011 just after the children had been removed from the home of their parents, then once in March of 2012 and again in May of 2012.
During the first session, the little girl, who had reported that Mr. Van Alphen had abused her with the handle of a knife, became distressed at the idea of an internal examination and the procedure was postponed for several months and was done under full anesthetic.
Dr. Joyce testified that the procedure showed scar tissue as well as physical manifestations not usually found in a five-year-old child. Based on this physical evidence, Dr. Joyce said that in her opinion, the child had been sexually abused.
Several times during the testimony from the health professionals, Judge Koweek reminded jurors that the reports of what the children told these professionals were not to be taken as hard evidence but to explain actions that were taken by the examiners.
Ms. Van Alphen-Moot’s attorney, Carmello Laquidara, reminded the jurors that Dr. Joyce had testified the child had never identified his client as causing her harm.
Kyle Kunkel, a mental health worker at Albany’s St Catherine’s Center for Children, where the girl was a resident, specializes in working with victims of sexual assault. Ms. Kunkel testified that the five-year-old girl had knowledge of sexuality beyond what was reasonable for her age.
The district attorney also called to the stand Chastity Walsh, who cared for the children after they had left the home of their biological parents. Ms. Walsh is not a professional service provider and after she related some conversations she had with the children, John Leonardson, attorney for Mr. Shackleton, demanded a mistrial, arguing that the testimony had irrevocably tainted the jury. Mr. Laquidara, attorney for Ms. Wendover Van Alphen-Moot, agreed, saying the cross-examination of witnesses on statements they said the children made “completely handcuffed” the defense lawyers going forward. All four lawyers joined in the demand for a new trial. Their request was denied by Judge Koweek.
Three days into the trial the first of the alleged victims was called to the stand. Although close circuit video had been arranged for the child, the nine-year-old chose to testify in court. Responding to defense concerns about whether the child was competent to testify, the judge asked her a series of questions exploring the nature of truth, then gave her a modified oath.
She had not seen the defendants in over three years and had difficulty identifying her biological mother and father in court. During her testimony she said that Mr. Van Alphen and Ms. Van Alphen-Moot had sex with one of the alleged male victims, Mr. Van Alphen had sex with her and had also introduced a knife handle into her “private parts.”
Although she originally testified that Ms. Van Alphen-Moot had participated in the knife-handle incident, she modified this statement during cross-examination, saying that she often got the names confused.
The girl added that she had lived with the Van Alphens when she was “super little” and did not recall the dates and times of some of the incidents about which she was questioned. The child characterized the sex act as “inappropriate” and showed discomfort when discussing sexual matters, asking all the “boys in the courtroom to look down” during graphic testimony.
The prosecution also called the remaining three victims, aged 9 to 14. All chose to speak in open court rather than by video.
Their testimony was inconsistent: some of the witnesses contradicted the accounts of others, and some contradicted their own statements presented before grand juries in 2014 and 2015.
But all three said that Mr. Van Alphen had abused them, and the oldest boy said that Ms. Wendover Van Alphen-Moot had been involved in the abuse, while one of the 12-year-olds said Ms. Wendover Van Alphen-Moot had done nothing.
The last witness was a 14 year-old boy who testified that Mr. Van Alphen had sex with all the victims and that Mr. Wendover had made the children have sex with each other. He also said that all four of the defendants filmed sexual acts involving all of the alleged victims.
The boy was on the witness stand for more than two hours.
As the testimony phase of the trial wound toward conclusion Judge Koweek told the jury that the defendants did not have to testify and that as jurors they should not draw any conclusion if the defendants chose to take the stand.
William Wendover III was the only one of the defendants to testify. He denied all of the charges and said that he had not seen Mr. Van Alphen engaged in any of the conduct described.
DA Czajka attacked his credibility, citing a prior arrest for attempted burglary. Mr. Wendover insisted that he had been retrieving a dirt bike that belonged to him from an acquaintance. He pled guilty to the burglary charge and spent a year in Columbia County Jail.
Mr. Czajka then asked Mr. Wendover if he knew the consequences of a conviction in the present trial.
Yes, answered Mr. Wendover solemnly: “Prison.”
Mr. Laquidara, Ms. Wendover Van Alphen-Moot’s lawyer, made the first summation, calling the trial “littered with reasonable doubt.”
He said that two of the social workers had not mentioned his client as having been reported by the children as having taken part in the alleged abuse and also that the medical exam by Dr. Curran showed physical damage to the children after the date the children had been taken from the Van Alphen home.
Evidence had shown, he said, that Ms. Van Alphen-Moot had not been living at the Van Alphen home when the abuse was alleged to have happened.
Jason Hernandez, Mr. Wendover’s attorney, was next. He described Mr. Wendover as a man who worked six days a week to support his wife and children before his arrest.
Steven Patterson, Mr. Van Alphen’s lawyer, characterized the testimony of the alleged child victims as “heart-wrenching,” but so riddled with inconsistencies as to be unbelievable.
One episode seized upon by defense attorneys involved two stories some of the child witnesses had told. Those victims said that one of the defendants had killed the elderly lady next door (who sported a beard) and buried her in the cornfield and that the same defendant had killed a man who was left hanging in the barn until he rotted away.
Mr. Patterson and Mr. Shackleton’s attorney, John Leonardson, said that this testimony weakened the believability of their testimony.
Prosecutor Paul Czajka characterized the stories as tales told up by the defendant to keep the children from reporting the abuse.
In his closing, Mr. Czajka also said that the children had nothing to gain by inventing charges of sexual abuse and that their knowledge of sexual matters was vastly inappropriate for children their age.
He reminded that jurors that after the children were removed from their homes, the parents were able to have visits with the alleged victims.
After a day and a half of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict Wednesday, August 11, at 4:28 p.m., finding each defendant guilty of at least two counts of predatory sexual assault against a child, which carries a sentence of 10 to 25 years in prison. They were also found guilty on other charges.
All the defendants remain in custody to await sentencing October 18, 2016.
Asked what will now happen to the children, a source close to the court said that information could not be made public.