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Grandfather Denies Torturing Girl

Crime: Norco man says the chain protected her from herself. He is free on bail but girl's mother remains in jail.

October 02, 1999|SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIVERSIDE COUNTY — Loren Bess bristled at the notion that he would torture, let alone starve, his only grandchild, a girl named for his late wife.

The metal chain and collar used to tether 6-year-old Bettye Topper's waist to the bed in a filthy room was meant to keep her from hurting herself and from damaging furniture and drapes, he said Friday in an interview.

"I know what children should be doing, but I never had seen a child that was so, well, active," said the 75-year-old Norco man. He and his adult daughter, Cynthia Sue Topper--the girl's mother--have been charged with felony torture, child endangerment and imprisonment.

A little more than a week after his release from the Robert Presley Detention Center, Bess strained to remember dates and events as he recounted the years leading up to his arrest Sept. 7. Riverside County sheriff's deputies, acting on a tip, rescued the girl from the room, which was filled with litter and feces.

Bess is stoic about the tragedies that have marked his life: a murdered son, the brutal maiming of his daughter and the death of his wife of 48 years. He is adamant about the charges against him.

"I didn't do anything wrong," he said.

His attorney echoed that sentiment. "The conduct seems morally reprehensible, inconsistent with humanity and disgusting," Darryl Exum said. "But when you look at who is actually responsible for what happened to Bettye Jean, it will become clear that Loren Bess never intended to harm, injure or abuse the child in any way."

Instead, Exum pointed the finger at Cynthia Topper, 39, who lived with the child in her father's home. Topper, he said, was ultimately responsible for her child's welfare. Topper remained in jail Friday, and her attorney could not be reached for comment.

A World War II veteran, Bess was 20 when he married his sweetheart, Bettye. They met at church, he said.

He first worked as a welder's helper, then ran his own radio shop before becoming chief electrical engineer at a small company. The couple lived in Glendale, where Bess was born, and eventually settled in Manhattan Beach. They had two children, Bradley, born in 1958, followed two years later by Cynthia Sue, whom he nicknamed "Suzie Q."

The family moved to Norco in 1970 and, nine years later, Bradley was killed while hiking, Bess said. His son's wallet and shoes were missing, he said, and no one was ever charged in the death.

He hoped for grandchildren from his daughter. "I'm the end of the Bess family," he said. Cynthia married Robert Topper, a medical instruments company worker. The couple also had met at church.

In December 1983, the Toppers were attacked at their Santa Ana home by her former boyfriend, a convicted murderer who shot Robert to death and struck Cynthia in the head with a claw hammer.

When Bess got to the hospital, he said, "I remember her mass of matted hair and blood." Cynthia Topper underwent brain surgery and doctors told Bess that she would never be the same. There would also never be children, they told him, because of her injuries.

Loren and Bettye Bess took Cynthia home to live with them, where he became her executor, handling money matters.

Three years later, against the Besses' wishes, a judge ruled her competent and she was given control of her assets. "She wanted to go out and spend money, something doctors told us would possibly be a problem," Bess said. Still, they stayed close, he said.

Topper moved out and, after dating several men, ended up living with Melvin Rochlin, a gun shop owner. "He was not marriageable material," Bess said, refusing to elaborate.

Not long after his wife died of heart failure in July 1992, Bess learned his daughter was pregnant.

She and her baby--named after his wife and Rochlin's mother, Jean--moved back to Norco when the baby was 2 months old, in February 1993. Bettye Jean was a happy, normal baby at first, Bess said, and he welcomed her into his home.

But within a year, he said, it was apparent something was wrong. She eventually learned to walk, but never learned to speak. She destroyed things, he said, including two cribs, her mother's $1,200 brass bed and the roof lining of her grandfather's car.

Bess said he was told Bettye Jean was possibly autistic, and he wanted to take her to a school specializing in the disorder. "But I didn't have that kind of [money]," he said.

Bess lives on his pension, Exum said. The $25,000 in cash needed to meet Bess' bail--which had been set at $250,000--is borrowed. The accused man has hired a bodyguard and is working to fix up his condemned home, Exum said.

Bess was surprised to hear that Riverside County Child Protective Services is considering alternative parents for Bettye Jean. He wants to adopt her. "She's my granddaughter . . . I love her," he said.

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