By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
In 1992, when their youngest son was five, one of the Everses' distant relatives was arrested for domestic violence and his two-year-old daughter removed from the home. The Everses offered to adopt her.
The girl, Leia, had been neglected and abused. After the Everses took her in, however, "she did beautifully," Sandy says. "A couple years after we got her, all of the children said, 'We want more babies.' We thought it would be good for Leia."
In September 1995, the family received approval from the state to adopt up to three more children. The very next day, the Everses were informed that nine children were available for adoption out of Pueblo. Would they be interested in seeing the kids?
The entire Evers brood trooped to Pueblo for an unofficial peek at the children, who were playing at a local McDonald's. They decided that two of the boys, Teddy and Johnny, would fit in perfectly with their family.
"I called social services, and they informed me that the boys were biological brothers but that they couldn't be placed together," Sandy remembers. "They said the boys were abused physically and that they were afraid they'd interact with each other sexually." But the Everses believed the two boys, then age three and five, should remain together, and they petitioned the court to allow them to adopt both. The boys came to live with them in late October.
"They weren't here probably five days when the oldest boy, Teddy, looked at me and said, 'What about Berta?'" Sandy recalls. "And I said, 'Who's Berta?' And he said, 'My little sister.'
"I called social services. And they said the boys had a four-year-old sister but that she wasn't adoptable. They said they hadn't decided yet whether to institutionalize her."
Berta had been diagnosed as suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, post-traumatic stress syndrome and RAD; she'd also been subjected to horrific sexual abuse, the Everses learned. "She'd been raped by her mother with a broom handle and by her father and his addicted friends over half her life," Dennis says.
As a result, Sandy says, Berta had begun acting out sexually, molesting other kids. "She'd do things to toys you can't even imagine an adult doing," she adds. "She was very smart and very controlling. She knew how to work people. She was very sweet and very workable, but scary."
The Everses petitioned to adopt Berta. Seven months, three therapists and a special court hearing later, they brought her home to Bayfield, a tiny town in the southwestern corner of the state.
In a report to the court concerning the Everses' petition to adopt Berta and her brothers, La Plata County Department of Social Services adoption specialist Sheri Ramsey wrote: "The Evers provide a loving, stable home environment" for their children. Foster-care coordinator Tom Milazzo chose to feature the Everses -- who've fostered sixty kids over the years -- in a 1995 article in the Durango Herald celebrating National Week of the Young Child.
But even with all of their experience, the Everses sometimes found Berta to be a challenge. She was given to episodes of depression. She injured herself: banging her head, biting her lips, peeling the skin from her hands and fingertips. She could vomit at will, Sandy says, and she did so -- at the dinner table -- on more than one occasion. She also had trouble sleeping and wandered the house at night, symptoms stemming from her attachment issues.
Berta's psychic injuries were so deep that she was impossible to "fix," Dennis says. "You don't fix these kids; you manage them, you live with them, you guide them and direct them."
In an attempt to manage Berta, the Everses say, they restrained her at night, tying her hands and feet to the bed with a leotard and a bathrobe sash and putting what Sandy calls a "net" (and what prosecutors called a "cage") around her bottom bunk as "protection."
In June 1998, one month before her seventh birthday, Berta died in that bed.
Although Sandy says she thinks Berta died of heart arrhythmia, the La Plata County District Attorney's Office believes Berta choked on her own vomit, unable to clear her windpipe because she'd been tied to her bed. And so prosecutors charged the Everses with child abuse resulting in death.
Dennis and Sandy Evers went on trial in May 1999. While family members, friends and schoolteachers described the couple as loving and compassionate, prosecutors described the couple as parents frustrated in their attempts to control a wayward child.
After a twelve-day trial, the Everses were convicted of a lesser charge: criminally negligent child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury. Before sentencing, the judge received numerous letters in support of the couple as well as a petition carrying 347 names, asking him not to sentence the Everses to jail time.
But jurors didn't want the Everses let off so lightly. "A child died because she didn't fit an artificial image of perfection created by the Evers," jury members wrote in a letter to the judge. "A six-year-old girl was tied up and caged as a means of control and punishment, which led directly to her death. The seriousness of this crime should not be underestimated, nor should the danger to the community be minimized."