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Story Time

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

The town of Laporte sits on the edge of the Roosevelt National Forest, its back turned to the interstate a few miles away, and that's how it should be. Fewer than ten miles from the heart of Fort Collins, Laporte is the kind of nostalgic refuge from the big city that has all but vanished from Colorado's Front Range. Horses and sheep graze in front yards; children pedal fat-tired bicycles along the main road, oblivious to the traffic that creeps along at twenty miles an hour past the tidy red-brick schoolhouse.

Nothing bad, it seems, could happen here. It's not unusual to find locals who've lived in Laporte all their lives, venturing into booming Fort Collins as little as possible. The insular, small-town feel has also lured a wide range of urban refugees, from survivalist types (Pastor Pete Peters's notorious "Christian Identity" church calls Laporte home) to rush-hour-weary commuters looking for a safe, clean place to raise their kids.

John and Susan Hellner fall into the latter category. The Hellners moved to Laporte in the late 1980s, primarily for the sake of their two young daughters. John was a train conductor with some flexibility in his work schedule, and Susan had given up a job with an oil company to become a full-time homemaker.

"We're very conservative people," John Hellner explains. "This may sound corny, but we made an agreement that she would stay home and help the children be the best they could be at everything."

For several years the arrangement worked well. The Hellner children went to the tidy red-brick school, Cache La Poudre Elementary; Susan supervised their homework, volunteered at the school and served as assistant leader of a Brownie troop. But in the spring of 1992 it all fell apart. Safe, quiet Laporte suddenly erupted in accusations of child abuse, and the Hellners' lives have never been the same.

In May of that year a handful of children at Cache La Poudre began to tell strange stories about Jack Shepard, the school counselor. They talked about meetings of small groups of kids in Shepard's office that many parents hadn't known about, much less approved. They talked about "trips" they had gone on with Shepard, during which they'd been attacked by alligators or faced other dangers. They talked about things Shepard supposedly said about having "the power" or being a god. And they talked about games they'd played with Shepard, games that seemed to involve inappropriate touching.

Under frantic questioning by parents, the descriptions of the games became more elaborate, increasingly charged with sexual overtones--leading the parents to believe that the counselor was physically or sexually abusing their children.

The stories came out in pieces, but they kept coming--and expanding. The Hellners' youngest child, then six, said she had seen Shepard play the "trust game" with two other children, which seemed to involve placing a hand on their private parts over their clothing. Months later the girl would claim that she, too, had been touched between her legs; that Shepard had taken a photograph of her surrounded by dolls and holding a baby's rattle; and that Shepard talked a lot about the devil. Her older sister also described weird games and said that kids in her first-grade class used to get sick to their stomach or fall asleep when Shepard visited the classroom.

Within days of hearing the first rumors about Shepard, the Hellners and more than a dozen other parents took their children out of school. The Larimer County Sheriff's office launched an investigation, and Shepard, who was never charged, was placed on administrative leave with pay. Before long the alleged victims were being probed and questioned by a gauntlet of sheriff's officers, social-service caseworkers and private doctors and therapists.

Shepard, a respected educator who had taught in Poudre School District R-1 for more than twenty years, including eight years at CLPE, denied that he had done anything wrong. That summer he passed a polygraph test. Faced with conflicting stories and no clear physical evidence of abuse, the district attorney's office declined to file charges in the matter.

Much of what the children had to say--which grew, in short order, from accounts of "scary" games to accusations of molestation and even intercourse--was beyond belief. But what happened next was almost as incredible. Reinstated at his job, Shepard went to court to seal the records of the abuse investigation. He then filed a lawsuit against seventeen parents, seeking damages for, among other things, malicious prosecution, defamation and interference with his contract. The suit claimed that the parents had conspired to spread vicious lies about Shepard and had "coached" children into telling wild stories in an effort to get him fired and to change the curriculum at CLPE. When the official investigation failed to result in charges, he claimed, the parents had continued to harass him and had even plotted to kill him.

The lawsuit stunned the parents. Most of them had never been involved in any curriculum disputes at Cache La Poudre and had barely heard of Jack Shepard before the case exploded in the spring of 1992. Some, like the Hellners, say they are guilty of nothing more than taking their concerns about their children to the proper authorities. "I thought [the lawsuit] was a real joke," John Hellner recalls. "When you don't do anything but ask for your legal rights, you don't expect to be sued for that."

Shepard's suit has dragged through Larimer County District Court for more than four years now; a trial date is set for September. Nearly half the parents have been dropped from the suit or have settled out of court for four- or five-figure sums paid by their homeowners' insurance. For the rest--including the Hellners, who are paying for their defense out of their own pockets--it's been a financially and emotionally draining nightmare. None of the children involved still attend Cache La Poudre, but the ongoing litigation has dogged their lives, too.

Throughout it all, Shepard has been represented by attorneys from the Colorado Education Association, the powerful teachers' organization that claims 30,000 members statewide. The parents' lawyers claim that the CEA is funding the litigation and that the group has a broader agenda in the case beyond clearing Shepard's name--an agenda that has to do with intimidating and silencing parents perceived to be critics of the public-school system.

"I believe this lawsuit is pretextual," says Dale Parrish, a Denver attorney who represents four parents named in Shepard's suit. "The references to curriculum in the complaint are a good indicator of the CEA having a completely different ax to grind."

"O.J. Simpson's had two trials in the time it's taken us to get a trial date," adds John Hellner. "It's obvious that they don't want us to go to trial."

Jack Shepard did not respond to Westword's requests for comment about the case. CEA staff attorneys and boardmembers declined to comment as well because of what spokeswoman Deborah Fallin calls the "complicated" pending litigation. And there's a lot of litigating to be mum about.

In addition to Shepard's suit in Fort Collins, seven parents have recently filed countersuits in Denver against Shepard, the CEA, and various school and county officials, claiming the CEA has persisted in trying to punish parents with Shepard's libel suit long after it became clear that the suit is essentially groundless. One of the countersuits cites a 1997 deposition of the lead police investigator in the abuse case, Sergeant Tim Palmer, which states that he believed there was enough evidence five years ago to recommend charging Shepard with sexual assault on a child.

These are issues that the CEA, which has apparently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing Shepard's case, simply won't talk about--not outside of a courtroom, anyway. "We're not commenting on the allegations in their complaints at this point in time," says Jeffrey Sandman, an attorney representing CEA in the countersuits. "We're prepared to vigorously defend against those allegations, and the case will be tried in court."

Nothing would please the parents more. Despite the credibility problems of their children's stories, most of them are still convinced that something went seriously wrong in Cache La Poudre's counseling office five years ago, something school officials have never acknowledged. They have questions about the way the investigation was conducted and the CEA's role in the affair that no one has answered.

"I believe, not just for our sakes but for our children's sakes and the community, it needs to be in trial in an open courtroom up here so people will know that the children did say this," says Ginger Lawrence --who, unlike most of the parents, still lives in Laporte. "It wasn't put in their heads or made up by parents. It wasn't an attempt to change the Poudre R-1 curriculum. People have a right to know that was all false."

A few weeks ago Shepard's attorneys offered to drop the Lawrences and the Hellners from the libel suit for a token payment of a dollar each. The settlement fell apart over concerns that it would involve an entry of judgment against the parents, none of whom want to give up their right to countersue.

"I could walk out of this anytime I wanted without paying anything," John Hellner says, "but I would have to admit I did something wrong, which I didn't do. This is my country, this is my Constitution, these are my First Amendment rights--and these are my children. It's not their children, to take into a school and do whatever they want with them."

All he wants, Hellner says, is to know what happened. "If we could expose the truth," he says, "what was going on and why--if it could be admitted, we would walk away satisfied."

According to the mission statement of the Poudre School District R-1, "a healthy self-concept is important to overall achievement." Building that concept from an early age is the whole rationale for having full-time counselors in elementary schools--a trend that began as an experiment in the 1960s and has become standard procedure in many school districts in the 1990s.

At the elementary level, counselors don't spend much time on career guidance; nor are they long-term therapists. In Poudre R-1, most of their work consists of consulting with teachers and parents, visiting classrooms to encourage proper school behavior and conducting individual or small-group sessions to work on particular issues--divorce or other turmoil at home, for example, or the grief and anxieties stirred by the death of a relative or fellow classmate.

Critics of elementary counseling claim that all this attention to childhood feelings and perceptions--also known as "affective education"--robs students of precious time that could be spent learning basic skills. Teach the kid to read and write, the argument goes, and self-esteem will follow. But counselors say it isn't that simple.

"Most of our lifelong behaviors are formed by age ten," says Nancy Perry, executive director of the American School Counselors Association. "We need to deal with emotional problems before cognitive learning can take place, and if we're going to have a positive influence, we really need to reach them at early ages and reinforce what we hope is being taught in the home."

In recent years, much of the uproar over elementary counseling has been directed at a couple of tiresomely cute hand puppets known as Pumsy the Dragon and Duso the Dolphin. Pumsy is used in a storybook program designed to teach children about different ways of evaluating a situation--using, in Pumsy lingo, the mud mind, clear mind or sparkler mind--and how to make good decisions. DUSO (Developing Understanding of Self and Others) uses puppets and a variety of relaxation and role-playing exercises, also known as "guided imagery," to help children develop a positive self-image and gain better communication with their peers.

Perry says that both programs are "valuable tools" for counselors that are "very widely used and very well-researched." But they have also drawn complaints, usually from fervent Christian parents, in school districts in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Indiana and several other states. To the religious right, Pumsy's emphasis on different states of mind and self-reliance ("I am me, and I am enough," says one Pumsy poster) smacks of godlessness and relativism; protesters also claim that DUSO promotes meditation and the conjuring of new-age "spirit guides."

One of the most strident opponents of the feel-good puppetry has been Christian educator Robert Simonds, founder of the California-based Citizens for Excellence in Education, a national advocacy group for conservative parents. Simonds says DUSO has been revised repeatedly over the past two decades and "still has a lot of problems."

"There's some good things in it, too," he says. "But they get into spiritism. It depends on the teacher. We've had teachers go off the deep end and actually hypnotize the kids."

Defenders of the programs, though, say that Simonds's claims are ridiculous. Perry compares the guided imagery of DUSO to the way athletes prepare for a race by visualizing it first. One DUSO kit even offers ways to prevent childhood sexual abuse. "It's a very effective way of helping students face situations in a non-threatening way, to be able to expand their thinking," she says.

"I don't know of any doctor who would say that relaxation isn't a good thing," says Tim Reeder, who coordinates elementary-school counseling for Poudre R-1. Reeder says he's incorporated aspects of DUSO and Pumsy in his counseling and has fielded only a handful of complaints in ten years.

But Reeder adds that he hasn't used either program in recent years, and he doubts that other counselors in the district use them, either--largely because of past controversies. "DUSO is pretty much gone now," he says. "We never said, 'You may not do it.' We said, 'There's a lot of concern about it. A lot of risk about it.'"

How much of that concern may have arisen from the Shepard case isn't clear. In court documents, Shepard admits to having used some elements of DUSO, which he refers to as "a nationally recognized counseling program." But he denies having used guided imagery--despite similar accounts by several students of having gone with him on fantasy trips to Copper Mountain during which children were menaced by alligators or fell into hot lava.

"Five, ten years ago, I guess there was a possibility that there were counselors doing guided imagery, but it would be a very simple kind of thing," says Reeder. "From what I know from my conversations with Jack, he never really did that."

Reeder describes Shepard as "a man of high integrity. I've worked with kids he worked with who transferred over to our school," he says. "They remember him fondly. I can't perceive him doing anything that would be harmful to a kid. I just don't see that in him, and I've worked with the guy a lot."

Shepard's lawsuit gives the impression that the accusations of abuse leveled at him were fabricated by a small core of fanatical Christian parents who were unhappy with the school curriculum, including the use of DUSO. But that scenario has problems. For one thing, parents who weren't involved in the abuse investigation were raising questions about Shepard's counseling techniques months before the investigation began. And while it's true that a few of the parents he sued had been actively protesting the school's curriculum, their focus didn't shift to the counseling program until May 1992--right around the time children began telling stories about trips to Copper Mountain and other games they claimed to have played with Shepard.

According to a deposition given by the school's principal, Ron Maulsby, several parents had expressed concern about Shepard's activities in 1990 and 1991. One questioned Shepard's practice of having students come up with a "power name" for themselves, evidently as part of a self-esteem exercise. Deeming the practice confusing, Maulsby said he asked Shepard to stop using the exercise in the fall of 1990 but discovered the counselor was still using it a year later. (Maulsby declined Westword's request for an interview.)

Most of the curriculum complaints at the school, though, had to do with the district's thoroughly modern "whole language" approach to teaching reading and writing. The most vocal opponent was a woman named Del Rae Perkins, who met with Maulsby and Shepard several times in the course of the 1991-92 school year to demand a return to basics in her children's education. That spring, she and another parent, Sharon Coleman, signed a letter to the district superintendent objecting to "unproven and unsubstantiated curriculum...founded on Eastern religious practices, occult practices and the New Age religion." The letter didn't make any claims of improper behavior by Shepard, but both women would later figure prominently in the abuse allegations against him.

In fact, until May 1992, few parents knew much about the counseling program at Cache La Poudre. At orientation Susan Hellner was told that Shepard would be coming into classrooms "and reading them stories about behavior problems and that kind of thing," she recalls. But she was surprised to later learn that her youngest daughter had visited Shepard's office that year for four group sessions. No one had informed her in advance about the sessions, much less asked her permission. It was just something, she was told, that all kindergarten students were required to do.

"At that point, nothing more was said," Susan Hellner says. "I was a little upset that we hadn't known. The school was always very forthright with us about their programs."

Yet the district's policy regarding counseling procedures was (and still is) quite vague. The policy doesn't require parental consent before counseling a six-year-old, although it does state that if more than "a few sessions" are required, "a parent contact will be made." Nor is there a clear line between providing "guidance" and "counseling." Shepard would later insist that, despite his title, he wasn't counseling anyone in the therapeutic sense; he was teaching.

But what was he teaching? In a 1991 letter to two inquisitive parents, Shepard explained that the Poudre R-1 guidance services at the elementary level "have no specific curriculum at this time." Instead, he relied on "my 27 years experience as a classroom teacher and counselor along with commercial programs approved and used by Poudre R-1 teachers and counselors as the basis of my approach with students."

On May 15, 1992, Del Rae Perkins and another parent, Kimmy Sanderson, met with Shepard and, for the first time, asked pointed questions about his counseling methods. Shepard denied using Pumsy, meditation, hypnosis or guided imagery. No one said anything about the physical or sexual abuse of children.

The women's interest had apparently been triggered by stories told by Kimmy Sanderson's daughter about her sessions with other children in Jack Shepard's office. They were disturbing stories, which would become even more explicit in the weeks to come, about games like "The Baby and the Blanket," in which (the girl said) Shepard would lie on the floor and Sanderson's daughter would lie on top of him like a blanket. Whatever their suspicions at that point, Perkins and Sanderson didn't share them with Shepard or any other school official. Instead, they began to seek out other parents, including the parents of the other children the Sanderson girl had named.

Within days parents began to meet at various homes around Laporte to discuss Jack Shepard.

Within a week several parents had pulled their kids out of school, and Perkins, Sanderson and Sharon Coleman had gone to the sheriff's office to file a formal complaint.

Within two weeks Shepard was put on administrative leave, and Ron Maulsby sent a letter to every parent who had children at Cache La Poudre urging them to stay calm.

"I have debated with myself a great deal whether or not to write this letter," the principal wrote. "My greatest concern is that people will jump to inaccurate conclusions before all the facts surrounding these accusations are discovered."

From the start, the child-abuse investigation of Jack Shepard was plagued with difficulties. It wasn't that nobody was talking. Too many people were talking, and what they had to say didn't make sense.

Over the past fifteen years, a series of sensational, misguided abuse investigations at schools and daycare centers across the country have demonstrated how easily children can be led into making the most outrageous and improbable claims, particularly when the questioning is conducted by a hysterical parent or an overzealous investigator. Studies have shown that young children are often quick to adopt scenarios suggested by others and can recite vivid, detailed "memories" of events that never happened. The situation in Laporte called for extreme caution, but the parental rumor mill was already going full blast before investigators could begin to check out the children's stories.

To some extent, officials fanned the flames themselves by encouraging parents to exchange information about the case. Maulsby's letter invited people to come forward with any evidence that would "shed light" on the accusations. A sheriff's deputy named John Toppenberg met with a group of parents and encouraged them to talk among themselves and find out what happened. Talk among themselves they did, and the facts became more and more muddled.

At the meetings organized by Perkins and other parents, there was talk of how Shepard had supposedly been to Russia and had a poster of Big Sur on his office wall, leading some to believe that he must have some kind of sinister connection with the New World Order, California's hedonistic Esalen Institute and other bugaboos of the Christian right. There was talk of possible touching, fondling and messing with kids' minds. There was talk of trips to Copper Mountain and a persistent suggestion that Shepard was hypnotizing kids so they wouldn't remember what was done to them.

Excerpts of these remarks, taken from partial transcripts of meetings that were tape-recorded, were later introduced in Shepard's lawsuit as evidence of the defamation he had suffered. They include these statements:

"Jack Shepard is denying that he's seen our kids. He's telling our kids not to tell your parents you've seen me."

"And us three right here, sitting with three of the girls that were abused."
"He's using hypnosis or meditation to have his way, to do whatever he wants with the kids...I don't want anyone touching my kid."

"He told kids not to tell the secret, not to trust their parents."
"He told the kids he was God."
Shepard has maintained that such statements were made repeatedly and then passed on to investigators. He has also pointed out that some of the parents brought their children to the meetings; if they didn't have anything bad to say about their counselor before, they had plenty of opportunity to pick up ideas from others. And he has accused Del Rae Perkins of quizzing other people's children and "coaching" them on what to say, planting false allegations against him.

Perkins, whose family has since left the state, couldn't be reached for comment. But other parents say they took pains to do what the investigators asked: Don't interrogate your kids but simply listen, without showing any emotional reaction, and leave the questioning to the experts. In most cases, that meant hauling their children to Social Services and private therapists for weeks or months without being able to question what was said in those sessions.

"They couldn't talk in any detail of anything that made sense," says John Hellner. "But if you said anything to them, you could be accused of being a radical. We were told by an attorney that we could be charged with interference with an investigation. What can you do? What rights do you have?"

"It's a very gray area, telling people not to talk to their children," adds Susan Hellner. "You're supposed to sit there, and your child says whatever she says, and you're supposed to go, 'Uh-huh, yes, dear.' The whole thing has been so frustrating. Not being able to be a parent is the most frustrating thing of all."

Ken Lawrence says he was as surprised as anyone at the accusations against Shepard, whom he'd encountered around town for years and had thought of as "a decent guy." But like several other parents, he insists his daughter reacted strangely the first time he brought up Jack Shepard's name--presumably before anyone could have "influenced" her response. Lawrence began to suspect something must have happened, even though his daughter never made any claims of abuse.

"Nobody wanted to believe anything was going on," Lawrence says. "But when a parent asks [a child if she] knows Jack Shepard and the kid sits there doing things she's never done before, won't look you in the eye--you know there's something there."

Ginger Lawrence says her daughter from a previous marriage, Ken's stepdaughter, was also reluctant to admit knowing Shepard. When the girl later changed her story--saying she'd met with Shepard frequently and had been physically and sexually abused by him, all of which Shepard denied--that prompted investigators to suspect that she must have been coached. But that wasn't the case, her mother insists.

"At first she completely denied knowing who he was, what he was in the school," she says. "That same night she came in and said, 'I do know him. I remember talking to him one time in third grade.' The next day she started saying she was in with him in kindergarten and first grade and second grade...It just went on and on."

Ginger concedes that the children's age and their shifting stories about what happened in Shepard's office worked against them. "My daughter would talk about going on a boat and picking up seashells," she says. "You know and I know they didn't do that. But to her, they did that. This was fantasy, guided imagery, whatever it might have been. It made the kids seem incredible." (Shepard has denied using guided imagery.)

Both the Lawrences and the Hellners reject the notion that Del Rae Perkins was some kind of ringleader in a plot to ruin Shepard with tainted testimony. "Del Rae was very cautious on anything she ever said to me," says Susan Hellner. "She was very guarded. She told me that she could not talk to me. A few statements were made, but even those statements did not necessarily point to Jack Shepard."

Perkins attorney Dale Parrish refers to the coaching charge as "a may-have-been. There were a lot of children making a lot of statements that are extremely similar, if not identical," he says. "How do you explain that? Did they all talk to each other? Did they all talk to Del Rae? Did they check their stories to get them straight? We're not even in the realm of reality. They can prove my client had contact with a few of these children, but not all."

Yet Perkins's role in the case is hard to ignore. According to one parent's affidavit, she was "consumed with the DUSO program...She made it perfectly clear that her objectives were to change the curriculum at the school, and particularly to get the counseling programs and Mr. Shepard out of the school."

After her meeting with Shepard in May, Perkins borrowed the counselor's copy of a DUSO handbook and found what she considered to be a significant penciled notation in the margin: "d-god," short for "demigod." She brought the book to the attention of Social Services investigator Patti Dean, who would later testify that the word was "dyad"--a couple, a pair--and didn't appear to be any kind of reference to spiritual powers.

Shepard's lawsuit claims that Perkins insisted that sheriff's officers question her own daughter repeatedly, even though the girl had made no claims of abuse.

"Del Rae Perkins was asked not to speak to any more children, yet she had," Sergeant Tim Palmer of the Larimer County Sheriff's office testified in a court hearing in the Shepard libel suit last year. "It certainly confused the investigation. It gave less credibility to the witnesses."

By mid-summer of 1992 the district attorney's office had concluded that the children's accusations of abuse didn't hold up. Medical exams provided no evidence of physical or sexual abuse, and kids who supposedly witnessed or participated in games involving improper touching failed to confirm the accusers' stories. And those stories--particularly those told by the Sanderson children, who'd had considerable contact with Del Rae Perkins--were growing more preposterous as the weeks dragged on.

At the same time, many of the parents' concerns were echoed back to them by officials and therapists who had interviewed their children. A psychologist told Sergeant Palmer that, in his opinion, Shepard's methods were "harmful to the mental well-being of small children." After initial interviews with Kimmy Sanderson's son and daughter, Palmer told Sanderson that "something definitely has happened to your children." Patti Dean told her that "children don't make up these kind of stories" and that there may well have been some kind of abuse going on.

Ginger Lawrence was told by Palmer and Dean that her daughter's allegations "were the most direct that they'd had"--but that her evidence had been compromised because Dean had done exactly what she'd told parents not to do. "They said that in Patti Dean's pursuit of getting at the truth in a hurry, she asked a leading question that she shouldn't have asked," Lawrence says, "and therefore they were discrediting [my daughter] for answering that question."

There were also contradictory accounts about the conditions under which the children's meetings with Shepard took place. The counseling office at Cache La Poudre is located next to those of the principal and the special-education teacher, with a window in the door, but various witnesses claimed that the door was sometimes locked and the window covered with paper. (Shepard has denied this.) And Shepard was unable to produce any substantial records of his meetings with students--a lack of paperwork that's been particularly troubling to the parents' attorneys.

"Here's a guy who's a counselor, and he doesn't keep record one of who he has counseled," says Dan Lynch, attorney for the Hellners and Lawrences. "There's absolutely no record of any counseling of any kid at any time that was ever produced, although those were requested. They said they don't have them. I don't believe that. That isn't logical."

The official confusion about the case is reflected in one memo written by a member of the child-protection team of the Larimer County Department of Social Services, summarizing the agency's findings in the case. The memo notes that sixteen children "gave very explicit details about their involvement with J. Shepardson," and that while some of the stories were similar, most were not credible. Patti Dean had been unable to substantiate the charges, the author noted, but she did feel that "information given by the children cannot be discredited."

In later drafts of the memo, Shepard's name was corrected and the word "discredited" was changed to "disproved." Unable to make up its collective mind, the agency finally settled on an equivocation: "Patti feels that information given by the children cannot be disproved/proved."

In July a member of the district attorney's office met with parents to inform them that no charges would be filed. Several parents responded belligerently, accusing officials of botching the investigation and covering up for the school. Among the most emotional were Kimmy Sanderson and Del Rae Perkins.

Sanderson, Sergeant Palmer would later testify, was particularly "loud" and "demeaning." "She became very personal toward me, that I was covering things up, that I wasn't doing a good job," he said.

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."

Sandman replied that he didn't represent Cooper and that the CEA, even though it was paying Cooper's salary, wasn't representing Shepard: "Notwithstanding Ms. Cooper's employment by the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Education Association as an organization has no involvement with such representation, and Ms. Cooper acts independently as counsel to Mr. Shepard."

The parents' attorneys found Sandman's explanation baffling. How could the CEA not be involved? A private investigator hired by the CEA had visited Laporte in the wake of the abuse investigation and interviewed witnesses. Sandman's firm had represented Shepard in his efforts to seal the records of the abuse investigation, a service that Waltz claims was paid for by the CEA. Within 24 hours of the records' being sealed, Cooper filed the lawsuit on Shepard's behalf, and he has continued to be represented by a team of CEA attorneys ever since. And when depositions were taken of parents who had relocated to Minnesota and Wisconsin, attorneys for the NEA affiliates in those states appeared on behalf of Shepard--adding to parents' fears that they were fighting not simply Jack Shepard but a huge, well-connected organization.

"Every pleading, including the original complaint, has the CEA's name on it," notes Arthur Kutzer, attorney for parents Tim and Chris Kannenberg. When Shepard was deposed, Kutzer adds, "he said he doesn't have any information as to who said what about him. He's relying completely on the CEA to tell him who to sue and for what. It was the CEA that gathered the information and told him, 'We believe you have a claim against these people.'"

Several parents and attorneys involved in the lawsuit argue that the CEA was eager to make examples of Shepard's accusers in order to discourage other uppity parents from raising a stink over teachers or curriculum they believed were harming their kids. Shepard's complaint devotes considerable attention to the curriculum objections raised by some of the defendants, even though those objections, extreme as they may have been, were perfectly legal. A later filing even accuses Del Rae Perkins of being "affiliated" with Robert Simonds's Christian parent advocacy group, Citizens for Excellence in Education, which Shepard's attorneys describe ominously as "a religious-based organization dedicated to attempting to pressure public schools into adoption of a particular religious educational philosophy."

Simonds says his group has no record that the Perkinses were ever members of CEE, but he adds that he's not surprised the CEA is taking the offensive against outspoken parents. He's heard of NEA affiliates filing suits in curriculum disputes elsewhere, he says. "That's the new thing now--threaten the parents, and that will have a chilling effect on parents across the country," he says. "Christians are literally being persecuted from every side."

But if protecting the school's curriculum from Christian conspirators was the real issue, then there's little logic in the list of people Shepard chose to sue. Many of them hadn't even known each other before the abuse investigation and hadn't raised any objections to their kids' education. Some, including the Hellners, say they didn't even attend the parent meetings where most of the rumor-mongering occurred. What they had in common was that most of them had been represented by Dale Parrish at the time he filed his "immunity notice" with the school district--a necessary step in preserving the parents' right to sue but not a formal lawsuit.

Over the past four years Shepard's libel case has taken a tortuous path through Judge William Dressel's Larimer County courtroom. Defense attorneys have complained bitterly that Shepard's attorneys were allowed access to sealed records and to county officials involved in the abuse investigation while a court order prohibited similar access for the parents. They have expressed outrage at an incident that occurred during one deposition, when Shepard was observed massaging attorney Cooper's neck and shoulders, to the dismay of parents already worked up over his alleged "touching" of children. At one point last year they even filed a petition with the Colorado Supreme Court to do something about the failure of Judge Dressel, who'd been ill for months, to rule on several crucial motions, but the petition was denied.

Kutzer says he has no idea why the case has been so bogged down in delays. "I've always found Judge Dressler to be a very good judge--very strict, moves cases along," he says. "This case is an anomaly. There's something seriously wrong."

The defense seemed to have scored an important victory early last year, though, when Shepard was required to present at a hearing evidence of "the manner, time, place and context" in which the allegedly defamatory statements were made. His side presented two live witnesses, sheriff's officer Tim Palmer and Social Services employee Patti Dean, as well as several affidavits and transcripts of meetings. But statements to official investigators are usually considered privileged--indeed, their attorneys argue that the parents had a duty to report any legitimate suspicions of child abuse to the authorities--and Dressler ruled that the overwhelming majority of the statements the parents supposedly made dealt with "matters of public interest" and were constitutionally protected.

In other words, Shepard would have to prove malice--that the parents knew their accusations were false when they made them or acted with "reckless disregard" for the truth. That's a tall order, defense attorneys say, in light of the explicit accusations of abuse several of the children made to Dean and Palmer.

In spite of that ruling, defense attorneys have found it difficult to extract their clients from the case. Court documents indicate that Shepard's attorneys wanted not only releases from the parents but guarantees that the defendants would indemnify Shepard against any future claims by their children, a proposition the parents refused to consider. Several parents did manage to buy their way out with cash settlements, but others have had little choice but to watch their legal bills mount as the case crawls slowly toward trial.

Kutzer notes that his clients, the Kannenbergs, never made any formal charges of child abuse. In fact, Shepard has presented no evidence that Tim Kannenberg ("a hardworking plumber," Kutzer says) made any statements about him whatsoever. Yet the couple was dragged through the litigation for years until Shepard's attorneys voluntarily withdrew his claims against them earlier this year. Now Tim Kannenberg has filed a countersuit against the CEA, Cooper and Shepard, charging malicious prosecution, abuse of process and civil conspiracy.

"I'm convinced they never saw this as a damage case," Kutzer says of the CEA. "That raises the question of motive."

The Hellners, Lawrences and Sandersons have filed countersuits naming the CEA, too. Ironically, their countersuits claim that the CEA has defamed the parents by, among other things, linking them to an alleged plot to kill Shepard. His original complaint, signed by Cooper, claims that all the defendants were involved in a solicitation of murder--an allegation apparently based on the off-the-wall encounter between the Perkinses and the servicemen in a Fort Collins bar.

It may be months or even years before the legal brawling concludes, but it's already left its mark on the litigants. Jack Shepard is now the special-education teacher at Cache La Poudre Elementary, which has added more windows to its counseling office. Some of the children who were his accusers are now nearly twice the age they were when the case began, and none of them attend CLPE any more. Three families have left the state, while others have moved to other cities in Colorado, places not at all like Laporte.

"The people sued by Jack Shepard have been scattered every which way," says Dale Parrish. "The effect this lawsuit has had on them has been absolutely devastating. It has impoverished them. It has traumatized them. It has strained their marriages. It has given them issues in their families, educational and the like, that exist to this day."

"It's just atrocious," says Susan Hellner. "The time. The stress. We talk about it every day."

Parrish says he has a difficult time understanding how the litigation has benefited Shepard, either. "If the purpose of this complaint was to exonerate Jack Shepard," he says, "can you imagine the effect of a trial? We know that a bunch of different children said a bunch of the same things about Mr. Shepard. We can prove that. And we can prove that the sheriff's office recommended the filing of criminal charges against Mr. Shepard. On those two items of proof alone, you tell me how that evidence presented to a jury in that community will serve to clear his name."

Of course, it's entirely possible that Jack Shepard has stuck to his guns because he didn't do anything wrong--just as he's always insisted, just as his longtime friends and supporters have always believed. But that doesn't explain the equivocal way the case was handled by authorities, who first encouraged parents to believe their children had been abused and then decided nothing could be proved. And it doesn't explain the actions of the CEA, which has tenaciously pursued Shepard's accusers as if they were all conspirators in a right-wing plot to overthrow the public education system rather than concerned, fearful parents, stirred to outrage by the inexplicable words and behavior of their own children.

"The hardest question for the union to answer," attorney Kutzer says, "is when Mr. Shepard asks them, 'Why am I being sued now?' How do they explain that to him?"

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