He showed a disdain for convention early on. As soon as he learned to walk, he ran instead. "He never stopped running," his mother said. "He did everything in high speed."
At 24, Steven Bingley had parlayed savings from a childhood newspaper route into a $300,000-a-year business buying and refurbishing rundown homes and apartments in Pasadena and selling the properties for tidy profits. Then, just as suddenly, he decided to semi-retire at 32.
But his success--and its attendant big cars, fine antiques and frequent vacations to Mexico--never seemed enough for him. He had an insatiable craving for attention, family and friends said, and he tried to satisfy this need by shocking people with obscene language and behavior. His hero was Lenny Bruce, and like the late comedian whose vulgar irreverence appalled a 1950s America, Steven Bingley knew few of the limitations of good taste.
It was a side of him that even his common-law wife, Dana, she had never begun to explore until an afternoon last December when her husband was arrested and charged with five felony counts of molesting their three children, charges that grew out of complaints by relatives over his foul language and lewd behavior.
That day, the children were removed from their Altadena home by county authorities and placed in protective custody. In the four-months that followed, Bingley, 34, suffered an emotional breakdown as he defended himself against the accusations, first in criminal court and then in juvenile court, his wife said.
On April 11, the last of the five felony counts was dropped in criminal court because of insufficient evidence and Bingley was found guilty of only a misdemeanor charge of lewd conduct. But the dropping of the felony charges would not hasten the return of his children, because the juvenile court in an independent finding ruled that the children needed several months of counseling before they could return home.
One week later, Steven Bingley was dead, the victim of what police suspect was an overdose of prescription pills.
"My husband emotionally died Dec. 5, the day the children were taken from us," Dana Bingley said. "His soul left his body. He used to cry at night and tell me, 'Dana, I don't think my soul can ever get back into my body. I don't think I can ever walk like a man again.'
"He wasn't a strong man. He needed people to like him. That was the reason for all the dirty jokes," she said. "When he was cleared of those horrendous charges, the stigma stuck. I don't think he killed himself intentionally, but the last four months were a nightmare. The system broke down. I blame the system for Steven's death."
Dana Bingley has filed a $15-million claim against the county alleging that it wrongfully prosecuted her husband, wrongfully seized her children and continues to prevent her from exercising parental control. The Office of County Counsel has denied the claim, saying it fails to establish liability on the part of the county.
Dana Bingley now has six months in which to file a suit. Despite Steven Bingley's death, the children remain in protective custody.
The Bingley case, and the public fight of a mother for the return of her children, raises questions beyond the complexities and paradoxes of one man, Bingley's attorney said.
Terrence Bennett, the lawyer, says the case reveals an overzealousness on the part of county authorities in investigating and prosecuting allegations of child sexual abuse.
He said allegations that Bingley molested his two daughters and son--ages 7, 6, and 5, respectivley--created a dynamic of their own in which police and social workers conducted an investigation that ignored contradictory evidence.
But a sheriff's detective who investigated the case and a deputy district attorney who prosecuted Bingley said the investigation was thorough and that the decision to charge Bingley was made only after the 6-year-old consistently related stories of sodomy, oral copulation and intercourse with her father. They remain convinced that Bingley molested his two daughters.
"I don't think you could plant all that in a child's head if you wanted to," Deputy Dist. Atty. Jane Blissert said, referring to details of the girl's account.
Court records show that Bingley was arrested eight days after a medical examination of the children revealed no sign of molestation. In addition, the county's Department of Children's Services apparently ignored its guidelines when it failed to interview Steven and Dana Bingley throughout the course of its investigation. Bingley's attorney said that had investigators talked to the Bingleys before the children were removed from the home, they would have learned that the allegations by Bingley's relatives stemmed from a longstanding family feud.