SAN FRANCISCO — The FBI is investigating allegations that 37 or more children were molested at a child-care center at the Presidio Army base here since mid-1985, authorities said Monday.
At least four children contracted chlamydia, a common, treatable venereal disease, Presidio spokesman Bob Mahoney said. Another child initially tested positive for exposure to the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus, but a more reliable test showed no infection.
"It is an extensive investigation regarding child molestation at the Presidio," FBI spokesman John Holford said. "The agents are still conducting interviews and collecting evidence."
"Because of the long period of time in which this case concerns itself, we simply don't know how many children are involved," said Col. Joseph V. Rafferty, commander of the base, which overlooks the Golden Gate.
Mahoney said the FBI has questioned more than 60 children who attended the day-care center between June, 1985, and November, 1986. Parents say they have been told by base authorities that at least 37 suspected victims have been identified.
Mahoney maintained that today, the child-care center, a pleasant wooden structure with a capacity of 300 children, "is a safe place to be."
Word of the continuing investigation was disturbing news at the campus-like fort, where there has never been a shot fired in hostility and which is a center for such pursuits as medical research and language studies. About 6,000 military personnel and civilians work at the base.
'The Rumors Escalate'
Attendance at the center has dropped to about 150. Although a summer attendance decline is common, some of this year's has been attributed to fearful parents pulling their children out. Some parents are holding weekly support-group meetings, and some circulated petitions last week calling for a town hall meeting to air the issue.
"It's got a lot of people asking a lot of questions. Out of questions come rumors, and the rumors escalate," said Maj. Dennis Runyon, a base dentist who believes that his two daughters were molested when they were in the center for six weeks last summer.
The allegations began last November, when Capt. Michael and Joyce Tobin's 3-year-old son complained about being molested by "Mr. Gary."
In an interview Monday, Joyce Tobin, a nurse, said she examined her son but could not find evidence of such an attack. After he complained a second time, she found marks and reported it to authorities.
Gary W. Hambright, 33, who worked as one of 40 adults at the day-care center from June, 1985, until November, 1986, was put under investigation. Hambright, described by his attorney as an ordained Baptist minister who now works as a handyman at a church here, was indicted in December.
U.S. District Judge William Schwarzer ruled that statements by Joyce Tobin, the boy's doctor and a nurse regarding the alleged molestation constituted hearsay evidence and could not be used in court. He also decided that the boy was not competent to testify, so prosecutors were forced to drop charges against Hambright.
The investigation into Hambright continues, however. The FBI obtained a search warrant to test the former teacher for chlamydia last month. The test showed that he was not carrying the disease, Hambright's attorney, Rommel Bondoc, said.
The condition is curable with antibiotics and leaves no trace.
"There are all of these rumors and accusations that seem to spread like a venereal disease," Bondoc said. "But it turns out they are all negative. He didn't do it."
Bondoc said Hambright has no criminal record.
At the Runyon's home on Monday, as children ran in and out or rode bikes outside, a group of parents discussed the emotional effects on their children, the difficulty in bringing the molester or molesters to justice and the need for parents who fear that their children were molested to speak up. Joyce Tobin said she believes that the wives of some enlisted men fear that their speaking up may damage their husbands' careers.
"We want the children who were molested taken care of, and you can't take care of them if you don't know who they are," Tobin said.
The Tobins, Runyons and three other other couples sent letters in April to other parents who had children in the center, saying that 37 youngsters have been "identified by authorities as suspected victims."
"It's the perfect crime," Runyon said. "You're dealing with young kids who do not make competent witnesses to testify. What they say to their parents can't be used in court. You don't want to taint these kids' testimony by discussing it, so it's difficult to spread the word."
For the military and civilian employees on the eucalyptus-forested base, word of the molestation has been a shock. Capt. Larry Adams-Thompson, a chaplain, said he put in for a transfer and will move to Hawaii because of the suspected molestation of his daughter.
"You get to the point where you just don't trust anyone to take care of your kid," the chaplain said.