Story Time

How the bizarre child-abuse investigation of a school counselor became a crusade against troublesome parents -- courtesy of the Colorado Education Association.

Others, though, were simply bewildered. "I was still very confused," recalls Susan Hellner. "I didn't have enough information at that point. I knew there was more than I was hearing."

That fall, attorney Dale Parrish notified the school district that several parents were considering a lawsuit against the school and Jack Shepard. CEA attorney Cathy Cooper responded on Shepard's behalf, arguing that any such suit would be frivolous, since "the police and Social Services thoroughly investigated these charges and found no evidence whatsoever of criminal conduct." But the parents' attorneys don't see it that way.

"It's not fair to say there was no evidence," says Lynch. "There was a lot of evidence. It just wasn't conclusive enough to persuade the district attorney. What they told the parents was not that this didn't happen or that they didn't believe them, but that they didn't think they could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. They didn't say that Jack Shepard should be given the Croix de Guerre and canonized."

If nothing else, Lynch adds, "there was substantial evidence that he was abusing the kids' minds with this bizarre ideation he was going through--trips to Copper Mountain and alligators eating children and that kind of crap."

Unfortunately, the bitter feelings over the case weren't confined to threats of litigation. In October police officers were once again talking to Jack Shepard--this time as the potential victim in an alleged murder-for-hire plot.

According to police reports, two servicemen on leave, a Navy diver and a Marine, happened to share a table in a downtown Fort Collins bar with an older couple one evening. The couple seemed quite drunk, they reported, and were soon talking a "mile a minute" about the New World Order and a school counselor named Jack Shepard, who they believed had molested their daughter but had been protected by powerful forces, including the KKK and the Masons.

The servicemen said the couple talked about wanting to torture Shepard, pull his fingernails off, "shove glass up his penis" and stick pins in him. At one point, they said, the woman, who did most of the talking, asked something like, "How much would it cost for us to pay you to kill him?"

The suspects were soon identified as Del Rae Perkins and her husband, Greg. However, the servicemen weren't sure if the Perkinses were joking or not, and the police soon decided that the conversation was too fantastic--and, perhaps, too intoxicated--to warrant the filing of any charges.

Parrish says his clients did meet the servicemen, but he denies they had any serious intent to engage in criminal activity. "The real issue is what was said that evening and how it was meant," he says. "This was just people talking in a bar."

Jack Shepard, though, had heard enough idle talk. Since his return to work at Cache La Poudre in August, he had received numerous harassing phone calls, including some he considered to be death threats, from angry parents. Now here were the police telling him that the Perkinses were talking to total strangers about putting a price on his head.

With the backing of the Colorado Education Association, he went to court and sued his accusers.

The CEA is one of 53 state affiliates of the National Education Association, the nation's largest professional union. It's also one of the most powerful political forces in Colorado--and one of the least publicly accountable.

As a professional organization of public employees, the CEA doesn't have to make the kind of financial disclosures required of labor unions and other trade groups. But its lobbying and campaign contributions--$554,000 spent to influence 1992 Colorado elections, for example, and another half-million on a TV campaign last year to improve the image of public education--have been formidable.

The group's staff attorneys routinely defend teachers in a variety of disputes with school boards over employment issues. The Shepard case, however, is hardly routine. The parents' attorneys say it's unusual, if not unique, for an NEA affiliate to be so directly involved in suing parents on behalf of a teacher who's been accused of child abuse.

"I have never heard, nor has any lawyer I've talked to, of any case where the CEA has represented teachers as plaintiffs suing parents for money," says Lynch. "I don't know why they would."

In court documents, Dick Waltz, attorney for the Sandersons, points out that the CEA's own bylaws state that the group shall not act for the "pecuniary gain or profit" of any individual member. That raises several questions about how Shepard's suit has been funded and who stands to benefit from the reported $50,000 in settlements that have already been paid or any future damages he might collect. But so far the CEA has been tight-lipped about the nature of its arrangement with Shepard; in fact, the group's attorneys have only grudgingly fessed up to any official role in the case.

Two years ago Waltz wrote to attorney Jeffrey Sandman, whose firm had been retained to represent the CEA board in the matter, to inquire whether the board was fully informed about the Shepard lawsuit and the actions of Shepard's lead attorney, CEA employee Cathy Cooper. "It is somewhat disconcerting that an organization committed to the rights of teachers," Waltz wrote, "and certainly the well-being of students, might be embroiled in tort litigation where there is significant evidence that its client might well have engaged in completely unacceptable conduct with his students."

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