A HOUSE DIVIDED

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

Later the following month, after Bruce Hogue stopped by her house, Suzanne again compared her coach with her father. "I wonder how my dad feels about me `adopting' Mr. Hogue?" she wrote.

In the fall of 1992, Sharon Wahrle became friends with Enid Ross, the mother of one of Suzanne's science buddies. While their daughters busied themselves at the museum, the two mothers chatted about their kids. Soon after they'd met, Sharon began confiding in Ross about her marital problems and her difficulties with Steven. As it turned out, she and Ross both had teenage sons, both named Steven and both of whom had attention deficit disorder. And Ross, who is a Christian-based mental-health therapist with the Center of Faith Foundation in south Denver, proved a good listener. (Enid Ross declined to be interviewed for this story.)

On December 11, 1992, Sharon, Ross and their two daughters stopped at a Healthy Habits restaurant after one of the girls' many science meetings. During dinner, Ross said in a deposition, "Sharon was telling me how abusive Bob was as a husband, that she couldn't take it anymore." When Sharon left the table, Ross said, Suzanne confided that "my brother's mean to me, too. In fact, he's a lot like my father."

From that comment and subsequent conversations, Ross said, she understood that Bob's abuse was verbal in nature, though she suspected that he might get physical at times. She thought Steven's problems might be related to his refusal to take his ADD medication.

Ross's impression of the Wahrles took a drastic change for the worse on the night of January 7, 1993, when her son, Steve Ross, rushed into her darkened bedroom screaming that "Steven [Wahrle] is strangling Suzanne! Do something! Help her! He's killing her!"

Steve Ross, who'd met Suzanne during one of her sleep-over visits with his sister, had been talking with Suzanne on the telephone when Steven Wahrle began fighting with her. From his end of the line, Steve Ross could hear a struggle, followed by what sounded like Suzanne gagging for breath. After that, silence.

Steve Ross begged his mother to call 911 and summon police to the Wahrle home. Ross did that and more. She told the Lakewood police that Steven Wahrle had ADD and could be psychotic at times. She also said she suspected that Sharon Wahrle might suffer from battered woman's syndrome and that Bob Wahrle tended be abusive. And she told the police that she'd heard Steven Wahrle had a crematorium in the backyard and that he performed animal experiments in the basement. Then she hung up the phone.

"All we can do now," she told her son, "is pray for her." While they prayed, the phone rang. It was Suzanne. She was in her upstairs bedroom, she told Enid Ross, and she'd barricaded the door. She said her brother had wanted her off the phone and that he'd begun teasing the dog. When she'd tried to protect the animal, Steven had turned on her and began strangling her. But that, she told Ross, "was nothing new."

When Ross explained that the police were on the way, Suzanne said she was afraid to go to the front door, lest Steven attack her again. Ross then promised to stay on the line until she knew Suzanne was safe.

Bob and Sharon Wahrle were awakened about 12:15 a.m. by the doorbell and the dog's barking. When Sharon looked out the window, she saw three police cars parked out front. She dressed hurriedly and went downstairs, where three Lakewood police officers were waiting. At first, she testified at Bob's trial, the officers seemed inclined to let the elder Wahrles handle the situation. Suzanne, after all, did not appear to be injured. But then, Sharon testified, Suzanne gave the officers a tour of Steven's basement laboratory, where, she told them, he experimented on animals.

Ross, who'd continued to hang on the line while the police questioned the Wahrles, then insisted on speaking with the officers. She told them she was concerned for Suzanne's safety. It was only after that, Sharon claims, that the officers decided to charge Steven with misdemeanor harassment and issue him a court summons.

The police were merely the first of the Wahrles' visitors that night. Ross and her son arrived--uninvited--at the Wahrle home after 1 a.m. for what would be a three-hour visit.

Enid Ross had decided that as a friend and a professional, she needed to get to the bottom of things and determine for herself that Suzanne was safe. She was particularly worried about Steven Wahrle and his mental state. (Suzanne herself, however, seemed less concerned. As her brother and the adults talked into the night, Suzanne went out to the Rosses' car, where she and Steve Ross passed the time making out.)

Ross testified that the discussion left her feeling that Suzanne was being made the scapegoat for everything that had gone wrong that night. And when Sharon said, "We'll take care of Suzanne" in what Ross believed to be an "angry, ominous, sometimes threatening tone of voice," Ross gave the Wahrles an ultimatum: She refused to leave unless Suzanne went with her or unless Sharon took Suzanne somewhere else for the remainder of the night. "My idea was that I wasn't going to leave Suzanne in the situation, because I didn't feel she was safe at all," Ross said.

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