Retired detective claims police fail on child crimes
FARMINGTON — Frank Dart, a former Farmington police detective, claims the city's police department has failed to adequately investigate child abuse claims, despite a 2012 lawsuit he filed against the department over the issue. And he would like the community to support the funding needed to make those cases a higher priority, bringing the problem out of the shadows of family dysfunction.
Dart, an investigator who received positive performance reviews throughout his time with the department, retired in 2013 amidst acrimonious claims of retaliation by police officials. Dart told The Daily Times in an interview the department has been slow to implement clear policies that would be most protective of the young victims.
He said the department had also failed to assign an adequate number of detectives to investigate child abuse cases, which represent some of the department’s most complex criminal investigations.
“If you don’t cross your 'T's and dot your 'I's, when that child goes to court, there is a high probability that you are not going to win, and that child is not going to get justice,” Dart said.
Farmington police Chief Steve Hebbe, who joined the department in spring 2014, defended the detective division, and pointed to the assets dedicated to the issue — two full-time victims' advocates, who assist victims in the criminal justice system, and seven school resource officers, who are attached to the department's detective division and interact with children at the schools.
Hebbe said he has not received any negative feedback from the San Juan County District Attorney’s Office about the quality of the cases the department refers for prosecution, or from the state’s social services program.
“I have not had one meeting from CYFD where they say, ‘You don’t have enough resources. We can’t get a response from your agency,’” Hebbe said. “If we were getting those kinds of responses, that would be sort of trip wires, right? We’d know we need to look at those things.”
But, for a time earlier this year, the Farmington Police Department was without a trained detective dedicated to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, which was created by the New Mexico Attorney General's Office to combat child pornography and online child enticement.
San Juan County Sheriff's Office detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln said the task force provides investigators an edge when working cases involving child sexual abuse and rooting out child enticers and pornographers who otherwise might not show up on the department’s radar until a victim discloses abuse.
About two weeks ago, as this story was being reported, the Farmington Police Department assigned two primary investigators to sexual assault and child abuse crimes. The department also has another detective who reviews cases referred by the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, said Farmington police detective Lt. Joshua Laino. The detective assigned to the internet task force receives ongoing training in cyber investigations, he said.
Until the recent changes, department statistics showed that the detective who specialized in child and adult sexual assaults, Paul Gonzales, carried a caseload significantly higher than the department average. Gonzales has since been assigned different duties, which is standard procedure to avoid burn out and cross train the officers, Laino said.
Before those changes, Gonzales had 104 pending cases to investigate, compared to an average caseload of 62 in the division.
Dart said in an interview he felt overwhelmed in 2012 with an average range of 40 to 60 cases to investigate.
“It’s impossible,” Dart said. “At those numbers, you cannot effectively investigate crimes against children.”
Laino said Gonzales was assigned fewer cases on average per month than other detectives; Gonzales had an average of six cases a month assigned to him, as opposed to nine cases on average for other detectives. Records provided by the city of Farmington show that Gonzales had worked less paid overtime than most case detectives in the division.
Any investigator can be assigned a child sex abuse case, however, depending on how the case is initiated and how it develops.
Laino said Gonzales had a higher caseload than other detectives because sex crimes often produce forensic evidence that needs to be tested at the state crime lab, which can take anywhere from six months to a year and a half.
That means cases are in a pending status longer than most other cases, according to Laino.
Dart said that was “nonsense.”
“On child sex abuse cases, there is some evidence, but typically before the evidence comes back, there is probable cause for arrest,” he said.
Protecting 'the most vulnerable'
Dart grew up in the San Ysidro district of San Diego, located across the Mexican border from Tijuana. After graduating from Southwest Senior High School in 1986, he began working as a youth advocate at a residential facility for abused children.
He said he supervised the children, cooked meals for them and made sure they got to school. He was there when the children attempted to reconnect with their parents, and when the parents didn’t show up.
He said the experience of working with abused children, and watching as they struggled to become functional adults, had a profound impact on him.
“I saw the after effects of abuse,” he said. “I didn’t think there was anything more (important) that I could do as a detective than protect children.”
Dart joined the Farmington Police Department in 1995, after four years of service in the Marine Corps. He spent eight years in the patrol division before joining the detective division in 2002.
The city noted in documents related to Dart’s lawsuit that he received positive performance evaluations throughout his time there, in particular for his work investigating crimes against children.
Former Farmington police Sgt. Robert Perez wrote in Dart’s March 2011 evaluation: “Frank is not only highly motivated when it comes to the pursuit of child predators but he is a great investigator overall. Frank is a visionary and he has grand ideas for the future of the division as it relates to the investigation of Internet Crimes Against Children.”
Court documents indicate a second detective, Jimmy Dearing, was assigned to investigate crimes against children in 2004, but Dearing, who is now a detective with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, said in an interview he did not begin investigating those types of crimes until late 2005 or early 2006.
Dearing said he was motivated to investigate child abuse crimes for the same reasons as Dart.
“I felt like children were the most vulnerable in our society,” Dearing said.
Dart said Dearing was a “godsend,” a dedicated investigator who understood the horrific nature of child abuse. The detectives could commiserate over their experiences, which helped emotionally, according to Dart.
Dart said Dearing began to specialize in computer forensics, which included investigating internet crimes against children, but that also meant he spent time assisting other detectives who needed to obtain evidence stored on computers and cell phones.
“It was good that we were going to have Jimmy doing that, but personally what it did was take Jimmy away from investigations, and it meant I was back to working by myself,” Dart said.
Dart said he had complained to supervisors about not having the time or resources to properly investigate cases referred to the department by Children, Youth and Families Division.
“I told them that CYFD cases were not being fully investigated,” Dart said. “I told them on my own I couldn’t keep up. At the same time, I had been doing a lot of high-profile child sex exploitation cases. We were very successful in doing that, but the case load was getting extraordinary.”
Former Farmington police Chief Kyle Westall said in a June 2014 deposition that he had a conversation with Dart about the detective’s caseload when Westall was the detective lieutenant.
As a lieutenant, he said he attempted to get two detectives added to the division, but those detectives would not exclusively investigate crimes against children.
He said that when he became chief, the country was in the midst of a recession, and the city did not have the resources to add new detectives.
In June 2010, the Farmington Police Department entered into an agreement with the FBI to create an FBI Cybercrimes Task Force, which would be responsible for investigating criminal cases and national security threats involving computers and other “high technologies.”
Dart was assigned to the task force, according to court records, which would require him to work at least three days a week on cybercrimes, but a conflict developed.
Dart said in the interview he believed that if he accepted the role on the task force, other detectives would be assigned to investigate cases referred by Children, Youth and Families Division.
That was not the case, which he learned in March 2011 when he was handed five new CYFD reports to review.
Dart refused, and he wrote a memo to his supervisor expressing his frustration with the department.
He said the department had ignored his complaints about his caseload for years, and he claimed the order that he investigate the CYFD reports violated the department’s contract with the FBI, because he could not fulfill his duties to both agencies.
Dart was removed on March 15, 2011, from the federal task force, which he believed was retaliation for the memos.
Dart then moved back to the patrol division. In February 2012, he filed his lawsuit, which included claims of retaliation and violation of the state’s Whistleblower Protection Act.
“I didn’t want to fight the city of Farmington,” Dart said. “But this wasn’t an issue that came up all of a sudden; it was an issue that had been going on forever, and the city’s leaders didn’t want to address it.”
Dart’s lawsuit was eventually winnowed down to a single claim that the department violated the state’s whistleblower protection law. A civil jury trial heard evidence in the case in August 2014.
A majority of the jurors found in Dart’s favor and awarded him damages: $4,000 for economic harm and $200,000 for emotional pain and suffering, according to court records.
The city has appealed the jury’s decision, and the New Mexico Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in September.
Lack of resources
Dart said he believed the department would address the issues he raised in the lawsuit after he won, but he fears that not enough has been done.
Dearing declined to discuss Dart’s claims about the Farmington Police Department, but he left the department for the sheriff’s office in 2013, and he brought the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force with him.
Dearing’s detective lieutenant, Kyle Lincoln, said the sheriff’s office has three detectives assigned to the task force.
Lincoln said none of the office’s nine detectives specialize in child sexual abuse, but some detectives, like Dearing, are more experienced in such investigations, and assist others with cases.
“We used to have one guy, but it’s ineffective,” Lincoln said. “You can’t have one person carrying that big of a caseload on a violent, personal crime.”
Hebbe said the department’s sex assault investigators also don’t handle every child abuse case.
Police officials said several improvements have been made at the department’s detective division over the past few years that benefit child abuse investigations, including having two primary investigators for sexual assault and child abuse cases and another who reviews CYFD cases.
Hebbe said he would like to add more detectives in the future, but he is limited by the department’s resources and the community’s many needs.
“It’s a tough one,” Hebbe said. “I’m not going to make excuses with you, but I am in a tough position of deciding where to allocate bodies, and that is difficult.”
He pointed out that the department has two full-time victim’s advocates, who sit with victims in the courtroom and assist them in filing paperwork.
“A lot (of) agencies rely on volunteers to fill those roles,” Laino said. “Therefore, they are not at their disposal, like ours are, being full-time, on-staff and working with our personnel.”
The department also has the school resource officers, who investigate crimes involving children, including child abuse.
The chief said those officers can identify students at the city’s schools who show symptoms of abuse. They also work to educate children about inappropriate behavior.
Laino said the department’s relationship with Children, Youth and Families Division has improved significantly in the past few years, and the department receives child abuse reports much quicker than before.
He said the department now receives non-emergency child abuse case reports from CYFD by email, rather than mail, which means the department no longer has to wait several weeks to begin investigations.
He said the department gets an average of 20 to 25 CYFD referrals a month with about four of those cases requiring further investigation by detectives.
And many of the referrals are duplicate reports, Laino said.
He said Detective Jason Solomon "reads every CYFD case" and enters them into the police department’s information system, which allows patrol officers access to that information.
In 2015, the department received 87 reports of child abuse and neglect, and 60 of them, or 52 percent, were cleared by arrest, according to statistics provided by the department.
That same year the department investigated 49 reports of criminal sexual contact of a child, about 14 of which, or 28 percent, were closed by arrest. Fifty-three percent of those cases remain unsolved, and 19 percent were determined to be unfounded.
The department investigated 36 cases of criminal sexual penetration of a child in 2015. Thirty-four percent of those cases were cleared by arrest, 62 percent remain unsolved and 3 percent were unfounded.
Officials agreed that child sexual abuse cases were some of the most difficult to investigate, due in part to the youth of the victim and the fact that the abuse may not be reported until days, weeks, months or years after it occurred.
If the crime is reported immediately, sexual assault examiners may be able to recover DNA evidence, or find signs of sexual abuse — swelling, bruising and torn skin — but backlogs at the state crime lab create delays.
“When there is no physical evidence, and more important, nothing to corroborate the child’s statement, then it becomes extremely difficult,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O’Brien said. “Because then it’s the victim’s word versus the word of an adult.”
O’Brien said the details of a child’s statement are critical to prosecution.
In one recent case, an 11-year-old rape victim told police her father’s breath smelled like “strawberry swirl ice cream” during one incident of alleged abuse. Another 13-year-old girl told investigators she walked with her sister to the Farmington library the afternoon before she was allegedly raped by a relative.
Those details, if they can be corroborated by the testimony of others, can help bolster the claims of a child victim, according to O’Brien.
“You are looking for whether (the statement is) consistent, whether they can verbalize the conduct, and whether they can verbalize the timeline,” O’Brien said.
The Daily Times obtained about 40 Farmington police reports detailing child sexual and physical abuse through a New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act request.
The reports obtained were chosen based on a variety of factors, including the time between the reported incident and the date it was assigned to a detective.
Of the 40 cases, the newspaper found six cases where it appeared the investigations were incomplete. The cases were provided to the Farmington Police Department for review.
In two cases — a 2014 child sexual abuse case and a 2013 child neglect case — Laino said the police reports were simply incomplete. Detectives forgot to add supplemental reports that detailed their investigative efforts, he said.
In the other four cases, Laino said he was not certain what happened or detectives erred.
In one case, a grandmother contacted police in August 2012 to report that her daughter had a black eye and bruising on her nose after she returned from her father’s house.
The grandmother said when she changed the child’s diaper, she noticed the child’s genital area was red and swollen.
The patrol officer took the grandmother’s report and a detective scheduled a sexual assault examination, but the patrolman noted in the report that “due to the call load and the amount of personnel working,” he did not have time to follow up on the appointment with the sexual assault nurse.
Three months later, the grandmother called the sexual assault examiner’s office and reported that she read in the newspaper that a 15-year-old boy who was living with her when she reported her granddaughter’s abuse had been arrested for rape.
It’s not clear in the police report if detectives followed up on the lead. In August 2015, the original patrol officer, now a detective, contacted the grandmother and asked her if they wished to proceed with the investigation, but the grandmother said at that point she did not want her daughter’s life disrupted.
Laino said the detective contacted the family again because the case was discovered during an annual audit. He admitted the case “fell through the cracks,” but he said the detective tried to rectify it.
On Sept. 17, 2013, a detective with the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department contacted the Farmington Police Department’s detective sergeant to report that a child sexual abuse victim in Missouri had disclosed incidents of abuse that occurred in Farmington.
The suspect was arrested in Missouri, but it is possible for Farmington police to pursue additional charges for the crimes that were committed in New Mexico.
Local detectives reviewed the Missouri police department’s case file and learned the girl reported she was raped by her stepfather several times in 2010 or 2011 while the family lived in Farmington.
A detective contacted the San Juan County District Attorney's Office in March 2015 and was told prosecutors had no record of the case. The detective then had to request the Missouri police department send its case file again, and the detective referred the evidence to the district attorney’s office.
Laino said a detective referred the case to the district attorney’s office in 2013, and he did not know what happened to it. He said the suspect received probation in the Kansas City case, and he was not certain whether charges would be pursued in Farmington.
In another case a 14-year-old girl reported in January 2013 she was molested by her uncle, but the girl did not speak with a child investigator until three months later.
Laino could not explain the delay, but it did not appear to impact the case; the uncle was arrested that month.
And a school resource officer lost a child abuse report in March 2015. The detective had to create a new case report based on her recollections of the incident earlier this year.
Laino said a supervisor discovered the case was missing in an annual audit.
Hebbe said detectives sometimes make mistakes, but those few cases were not indicative of the general high quality of investigations.
The Daily Times also obtained data from the San Juan County District Attorney’s Office through a public records request that indicates the Farmington Police Department has referred the same number of child sexual abuse cases for prosecution over the past few years as the sheriff’s office, an agency of similar size.
Both the police department and the sheriff’s office referred 123 child sexual abuse cases to the district attorney’s office between 2012 and 2015, according to the data.
Both agencies' cases resulted in convictions 46 percent of the time.
The police department referred 584 child abuse and neglect cases for prosecution during that same period, compared to 396 cases referred by the sheriff’s office.
The sheriff’s office’s cases resulted in conviction 70 percent of the time, compared to a conviction rate of 74 percent for the police department.
O’Brien, who has been a prosecutor in San Juan County for 16 years, said he did not notice any substantial difference in the quality of the case referred by the two agencies.
Starting a discussion in the community
Dart said he had a another reason for filing the lawsuit. He said he hoped it would begin a discussion in the community about the need to make a higher priority of children’s welfare.
He said today’s abused children grow up to become tomorrow’s street inebriates, shoplifters, wife beaters and drug addicts.
“Many of these problems that we deal with now, that cost resources and time, could be prevented if we rescued more children from an abusive environment,” Dart said.
Dearing agreed. He said while some abused children grow up to molest others, many more of them become self-destructive.
“It always manifests itself in negative behavior,” Dearing said.
Law enforcement officials agreed that there was typically more pressure on police to address quality-of-life crimes, such as public intoxication and shoplifting, than there was to deal with child abuse, until there is a high-profile crime, such as the kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike in May.
Dearing said he receives more calls from citizens who want to know what police are doing about a burglary in their neighborhood than a child abused down the street.
And complicating matters is the fact that child abuse has been treated as a family secret. A shame that was put upon the child.
But Dearing said the culture is changing — that victims are becoming stronger, and more vocal.
“They aren’t being shamed,” he said. “They are going on social media and talking about it.”
Dart said if the issue was ever going to be fully addressed, police would need more resources, which means finding revenue sources to dedicate to the problem.
“We can’t go to sleep at night and forget that this is happening,” Dart said. “We can’t be too afraid to talk about what’s happening.”
Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.