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Is Trial of Church Volunteer Accused of Abusing Children a Witch Hunt? : Courts: Deformed man is charged with molesting boys and girls while a baby-sitter. His defenders say his looks are causing the outcry. Reliability of child witnesses is also questioned.

June 28, 1993|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — For two years Dale Akiki has languished in San Diego County Jail, unjustly accused, say his scores of supporters, because of his odd appearance and a witch hunt by the district attorney.

Deformed since birth and with limited intelligence, Akiki faces 43 counts of child abuse and two counts of kidnaping. The alleged crimes, involving boys and girls ages 3 to 5, occurred while Akiki was a volunteer baby-sitter at a charismatic church in nearby Spring Valley.

The case--one of the most controversial prosecutions here in recent history and a hot topic on radio talk shows--rests largely on the oral accounts of preschool children. It has raised new questions about the reliability of young witnesses and the role of therapists, parents and investigators in shaping their stories.

Akiki, 35, suffers from a rare genetic disorder that has left him with droopy eyelids, a clubfoot, limited use of his elbows and a head grotesquely enlarged by the buildup of fluid. But the case is not about appearances, prosecutors say.

They contend that Akiki terrorized children by dunking their heads in toilets, holding them under showers and killing animals. They depict him as an abusive monster who thought nothing of torturing and traumatizing his charges.

"This is a case of physical abuse, sexual abuse and emotional abuse," Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Avery said during opening arguments in Akiki's trial, which began in March and might last through summer. Akiki, who is being held without bail, could be sentenced to 200 years in prison if convicted.

Avery said Akiki tied up the children or put nooses around their necks, took nude photos, kidnaped them by transporting them to a nearby house, and repeatedly threatened them with death for telling anyone what he made them do.

On one wall of Department 6 in San Diego County Superior Court, a poster chronicles the grim accusations. Photographs show smiling children now and at the time of the alleged incidents between June, 1988, and September, 1989.

Across the courtroom sits Akiki, who for most of the trial has sat impassively, occasionally joking or munching on peanuts.

Akiki's court-appointed lawyers describe him as a kind and gentle man incapable of harming anyone. They concede that children were often frightened by his appearance, giving him a kind of "Elephant Man" persona that fueled fear and suspicion.

"We have evidence that, from the moment Dale began working as a volunteer (at Faith Chapel in Spring Valley), mothers believed he was an inappropriate choice to teach preschool children--simply because of the way he looked," said public defender Kathleen Coyne.

Akiki first came to the attention of authorities after a girl at the church told her mother that he "showed me him's penis." The San Diego County Sheriff's Department investigated and turned the case over to prosecutors, who considered it for more than six months.

Coyne said that the intervention of a prominent San Diego businessman who is chairman of the local Child Abuse Prevention Foundation prompted the district attorney to reassign the case to a senior prosecutor who founded the anti-abuse organization. The San Diego County Grand Jury indicted Akiki in 1991.

Coyne said her client has passed a sodium brevitol (truth serum) exam and that numerous witnesses who knew or worked with Akiki "never saw, heard or smelled anything unusual going on his classroom" during the periods of 1988 and 1989 in which he worked as a volunteer.

"Not a shred" of physical evidence has surfaced that points to Akiki being guilty, Coyne said.

Prosecutors concede that their case relies almost entirely on the children's testimony, but they said a disputed medical exam of one girl found vaginal scarring they said was evidence of sexual abuse. They also cite medical evidence of abuse on a second girl whose name has not been raised in the trial.

Defense attorneys have called both findings "highly ambiguous." Further allegations of brutal sexual abuse and torture, including charges that Akiki bludgeoned animals in the nursery, emerged only after alleged victims were repeatedly interrogated by parents, therapists and San Diego County sheriff's deputies, Coyne said.

Of the five children to testify so far, the most intriguing was an 8-year-old girl who was on the witness stand this month.

Under questioning by the prosecutor, the girl described "Mr. Dale" as "a bad teacher" who was "mean," saying he showed her and other children "bad videos" and told her "he would kill my mom and my dad and my brother" if she told anyone what was happening.

But under cross-examination by defense attorney Susan P. Clemens, the girl offered new information.

"Did anybody ever tell you Dale did bad things to children?" Clemens asked.

"Yes," the girl replied.

"Who told you that?"

"My mom."

"Did anybody else besides your mom tell you that?" Clemens asked.

"Ellen," the girl said, referring to her therapist.

"Is that when you found out Dale did bad things to children?"

"Yes."

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