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Boy Wonder

Raoul Wuthrich caught the Jeffco Juvenile Justice System with its pants down.

The response by the public, particularly the European public, took the Jeffco District Attorney's Office by surprise. By coincidence, Pam Russell, the DA's press information officer, had just returned from a vacation in Switzerland, where she'd marveled over the closeness of Swiss families. She was a little shocked when a Swiss friend's teenage daughter showed her a teen magazine that featured full-frontal nudity. And though she personally was not comfortable with the way they'd publicly drop their clothes to change into bathing suits before going for a dip in an Alpine lake, she thought it refreshing.

When Russell returned from her trip in early October, she heard that there was an incest case involving a juvenile who had dual citizenship and that his parents had left the country. But that was all she heard. She turned her attention to higher-profile cases.

On October 12, however, all hell broke loose. For the next three weeks, Russell received more than a hundred telephone calls a day to her office or pager -- most of them from the outraged European media, but some from private citizens here and abroad. There were a few expressions of support, particularly from victims of sexual abuse. However, a more typical call was like the one from the man in Germany who said this was the worst abuse of a human being he'd seen since the Nazis were in power. There were dozens of similar letters, even pretty postcards from the Alps condemning the Jeffco authorities.

James Bludworth
Seen of the crime: Laura Mehmert looks out her window at the former Wuthrich yard.
Brett Amole
Seen of the crime: Laura Mehmert looks out her window at the former Wuthrich yard.

In the worst of the media onslaught, there were "conversations" with U.S. Department of State officials who warned that the uproar went deeper than Raoul Wuthrich -- that it was a carryover of Swiss resentment over the fact that the U.S. had been pressuring Switzerland to return gold the Nazis had stolen from Jews and placed in the tiny neutral country's famous banks.

The case of The People of Colorado vs. Raoul Wuthrich quickly became a high-level international incident. The Swiss ambassador to the United States expressed his concern to President Clinton, who sent a representative to Colorado to keep track of the case and monitor the boy's incarceration. In Switzerland, the Bern City Council presented a petition signed by 62 of its 80 councilmembers to the U.S. embassy, "demanding the liberation of Raoul Wuthrich." Several members of the German Parliament said they intended to intervene somehow, calling the way in which Raoul had been treated "barbaric." Amnesty International, which rarely gets involved in U.S. cases (other than those involving the death penalty), weighed in against the manner of Raoul's arrest and incarceration.

The main target for vilification by the European press was Jeffco Deputy District Attorney Nancy Hooper. A prosecutor for fourteen years, with the crimes-against-children unit for more than six of them, she had dedicated her professional career to helping protect children from physical and sexual abuse. Yet, having taken over the case when the first prosecutor had to leave on a family emergency, she became the personification of the "barbaric" American juvenile justice system. Her photograph was plastered all over the Swiss and German newspapers, which labeled her "a beast."

"It was disturbing," Hooper recalls. "And frustrating. We couldn't say anything because the case was ongoing. But the worst thing for me was that this little girl was forgotten in all of this. It was as if she didn't exist, or that no one believed her."

The girl wasn't lying about what happened to her, Hooper insists. While any child's mind will wander, it's clear from her interview with the Jeffco Children's Advocacy Center's Dan Jarboe -- all of it on videotape -- that she understood the questions and was talking about what had actually happened to her. "And for me, Raoul's changing stories showed that he knew what he'd done was wrong," Hooper says.

Much of the vitriol aimed at Hooper and other members of the DA's office had been generated by Raoul's arrest and incarceration. The image of a little boy in handcuffs didn't do much for the public perception of the Jeffco sheriff's office, but what most people didn't know was that there was a reason for the sheriff's actions. In 1992, state trooper Lyle Wohlers had stopped a stolen car driven by a fifteen-year-old boy. Instead of handcuffing the suspect, searching him and placing him in the backseat as would have been standard with an adult suspect, Wohlers let the boy sit in the front seat next to him -- and the boy pulled a gun and shot Wohlers to death. Police agencies all over the state made it policy that any person apprehended, regardless of his age, must be handcuffed before being transported.

The district attorney's office and human services department maintain that Raoul's parents could have prevented the controversial scene if they had only cooperated. Before the Wuthriches fled the country, the Jeffco Department of Human Services had asked if there was someone -- a relative, a church member, a neighbor without young girls -- who could take Raoul while his case was resolved. If there had been, the district attorney's office contends it wouldn't have felt compelled to act so expediently just to get him away from his sister. But Beverly and Andreas said there was no one. Later, however, after Raoul's parents had left the country, his maternal grandmother showed up on the scene, asking that he be allowed to stay with her. But by that time, the DA's office was in no mood to allow Raoul to go to a family member.

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