A HOUSE DIVIDED

A DAUGHTER'S ACCUSATIONS RIPPED THIS FAMILY APART.FAMILY PLOTS WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WAHRLES ISN'T A PRETTY PICTURE.

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Bob Wahrle rose early. He wasn't one to dawdle in bed--efficiency and precision were close to his heart, befitting a man who'd spent the past twenty-four years working in quality control. He donned a white dress shirt and dark slacks and carefully knotted his tie. His wife, Sharon, was running late that morning, and so the job of shuttling eighteen-year-old Steven to his classes at Green Mountain High School fell to Bob.

No one has ever described Bob Wahrle as a sentimental man, nor as a particularly loving one. But before Steven hopped out of the car that day, Bob told his son that he loved him.

Bob arrived back home shortly before 8 a.m. As Sharon continued putting on her makeup upstairs, he methodically went about his morning's work. He tucked a neatly folded note in the left pocket of his shirt and retrieved an extension ladder from the side of the house. His hands were full as he climbed upward. From the roof, he had a panoramic view of the mountains to the west and the plains to the east; he'd even climbed up there once or twice to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July.

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Bob walked to the apex of the trilevel house. Then, clutching a .22 rifle, he put the barrel in his mouth and fired. The retort of the gun and the thud as his body crashed to the concrete patio below set off the agitated barking of the family's dogs. It was their frightened yelping that alerted Sharon to what had happened.

Police and paramedics arrived within minutes of her frantic call for help. Some of the Lakewood cops knew Bob, or knew of him, which prompted a flurry of phone calls to headquarters, to the Jefferson County District Court and to prosecutor Dana Easter.

Easter accepted the news and passed it on, her face white, her voice shaky: "The defendant," she said, "killed himself."

For almost a year, Bob Wahrle had been at the center of a vicious vortex, accused--along with his son, Steven--of sexually assaulting his teenage daughter, Suzanne. On May 20, 1994, the day he killed himself, Bob was waiting for a jury that had just sat through a two-week trial to decide his fate.

The jurors' verdict was never delivered; their deliberations were cut off after Bob's death.

But last month, after another two-week trial, a separate jury acquitted Steven of all charges.

Bob, Steven and Sharon Wahrle always claimed that Suzanne's charges of sexual torture were false, stories from the mouth of an indisputably brilliant and arguably vindictive child. They said, too, that the police conducted a sloppy investigation and that the prosecutors were hell-bent for conviction no matter what the cost.

Police and prosecutors, on the other hand, see a family in which a child was treated horrifically and then emotionally abandoned after her allegations came to light. They consider Steven Wahrle's acquittal a failure and Bob Wahrle's suicide a confirmation of his guilt.

While it's true that Bob Wahrle's death cheated justice, justice for whom may never be known.

Bob and Sharon met in 1971, through mutual friends, and married the next year. It was "no great romance," Bob admitted to a psychologist years later. But they fell into a comfortable relationship, and he proposed because Sharon was the only person "who would put up with my crap."

To Sharon, then 22, Bob represented a measure of security that she found attractive. He was already working at Gates Rubber Company (where he would continue working until his death), he owned a house, and at five years her senior, he seemed more mature than most of the men she knew. Those qualities were important to Sharon; she knew that, contrary to the dictates of the rising tide of feminism, she would want to quit her teaching job and stay home with her babies when they came along.

The Wahrle's first child, Steven, was born September 5, 1975. Though parenthood can bind a couple, that was not the case with Bob and Sharon, who said their marriage began deteriorating shortly after Steven's birth. Bob was impatient about the time and attention Sharon devoted to their son, and it didn't help when Steven failed to develop as fast as they thought he should.

When Sharon became pregnant again, less than a year after giving birth to Steven, Bob hoped for a girl. He imagined Steven "look[ing] after his sister, best of friends through school and life." Suzanne was born in May 1977, but the relationship between the children would make a cruel and twisted mockery of Bob's hopes.

Suzanne's arrival seemed to focus a glaring light on Steven's flaws. When she was only a few months old, Bob said, he began to realize his son "wasn't normal." And at seventeen months, Steven suffered a severe ear infection, which led to deterioration of his speech. After that, Sharon embarked on a quest to find help for her son that would consume much of the next decade.

Steven was sent to a special preschool. Sharon lugged him to Children's Hospital twice a week for speech therapy. He had allergies and required surgery for sinus problems. His early childhood consisted of "one doctor after another after another," Sharon says.

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