James Hydrick is a man of contradictions. Some people see him as an innocent childlike victim of an abusive environment who never had a chance in life; others say he is a manipulative con man, a menace to society, adept at portraying himself in the media as a heroic figure.
Despite the differing impressions and conflicting points of view as to his martial arts abilities, his success in escaping from prison, and his alleged supernatural abilities, one thing was certain Friday: Hydrick is back in Orange County in jail.
Hydrick, 29, is being held in lieu of $250,000 bail on suspicion of 11 molestations, two cases of child endangerment and failing to register as a sex offender.
He is suspected of molesting three boys from 10 to 15 years old between June and September of 1988, said Huntington Beach Police Sgt. Bill Peterson. Police would only say that the alleged acts occurred in the downtown area of the city.
Uses Past as Advantage
Hydrick, in a telephone interview from jail, denied the charges and said the youths making the accusations are "retaliating against me because of my efforts to get them out of trouble."
"I don't even know if they realize what they have done," he said. "I know their parents; they trusted me. I went out of my way to help these kids."
Hydrick acknowledged that he enjoys the company of children. He said he was abused as a child and feels more comfortable with youngsters than with adults. He says he is still something of a child himself.
"I use my past as an advantage to work with young people, but kids look up to me because of my skills," he said.
Hydrick is in protective custody because he is considered an escape risk, authorities said. He reportedly has escaped from prisons in at least three states and has a reputation as a spectacular escape artist, although one Huntington Beach police official said he has only "walked away from minimum security facilities and some pretty rickety jails."
Peterson said that additional charges are likely to be filed next week and that he worries that the attention Hydrick has received in the press will frighten potential witnesses.
"With all of the publicity he has received we run a real risk of making this guy larger than life and turning him into something that he's not," Peterson said. "There is the risk that some kids will read about his alleged abilities and exploits and will be scared to come forward. He's not a hero; he's just very manipulative."
Hydrick says he came to California last summer to attend an international karate tournament in Long Beach.
He stayed in the area and soon ended up in Huntington Beach, where he lived with friends and participated in martial arts demonstrations near the Huntington Beach Pier. Hydrick says he never "hung out" at the beach and never tried to provoke anyone.
Befriended by Businessman
Ed Parker, a Pasadena businessman who sponsored the karate tournament, confirmed Hydrick's account and said Hydrick is considered an expert in karate. He said he had known Hydrick for several years and that Hydrick had told him of his past brushes with the law. But Parker said he does not believe Hydrick capable of committing the alleged acts of molestation.
"I am not that easy to manipulate," he said. "I think he has had a disruptive home life. He looked to me as a father figure, and I tried to make him feel wanted. My impression was that he was in dire need of wanting to do something good for his family."
Hydrick said he became interested in karate when he was 6 years old after seeing a younger brother beaten to death. He and his brothers and sisters had been abandoned by their parents and grew up in a succession of public institutions and foster homes, where they were all brutalized, he said. "I determined then that I had to learn to defend myself and the rest of my brother and sisters."
Debra Olmstead, 28, a sister who still lives in the family's hometown of New Ellington, S.C., confirms Hydrick's account of their childhood and said her brother suffers from the abuse and has a "grudge against the world." She said she did not believe that Hydrick could molest children.
'Close to Children'
"He is super close to children, and I think that is because he doesn't trust grown-ups," Olmstead said. "We were all raised in an abusive environment, but he, especially, wants so much to be recognized as somebody. He is a manipulator, but never in a way to harm anyone."
Eddie King, who is sheriff of Johnson County, Ark., where Hydrick was living when the warrant for his arrest was issued last month, said Hydrick stayed for a time at King's home, celebrated Christmas there and played with his two children.
"The entire time he was with us he was a perfect gentleman," King said. "He did everything we asked him to. He strikes me as a big kid. He's somebody who never had a chance to see what a real family is like, and we showed him a love that he probably had never had. I can't dream that he would do something like that."