A HOUSE DIVIDED
part 1 of 2
Bob Wahrle rose early. He wasn't one to dawdle in bed--efficiency and precision were close to his heart, befitting a man who'd spent the past twenty-four years working in quality control. He donned a white dress shirt and dark slacks and carefully knotted his tie. His wife, Sharon, was running late that morning, and so the job of shuttling eighteen-year-old Steven to his classes at Green Mountain High School fell to Bob.
No one has ever described Bob Wahrle as a sentimental man, nor as a particularly loving one. But before Steven hopped out of the car that day, Bob told his son that he loved him.
Bob arrived back home shortly before 8 a.m. As Sharon continued putting on her makeup upstairs, he methodically went about his morning's work. He tucked a neatly folded note in the left pocket of his shirt and retrieved an extension ladder from the side of the house. His hands were full as he climbed upward. From the roof, he had a panoramic view of the mountains to the west and the plains to the east; he'd even climbed up there once or twice to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July.
Bob walked to the apex of the trilevel house. Then, clutching a .22 rifle, he put the barrel in his mouth and fired. The retort of the gun and the thud as his body crashed to the concrete patio below set off the agitated barking of the family's dogs. It was their frightened yelping that alerted Sharon to what had happened.
Police and paramedics arrived within minutes of her frantic call for help. Some of the Lakewood cops knew Bob, or knew of him, which prompted a flurry of phone calls to headquarters, to the Jefferson County District Court and to prosecutor Dana Easter.
Easter accepted the news and passed it on, her face white, her voice shaky: "The defendant," she said, "killed himself."
For almost a year, Bob Wahrle had been at the center of a vicious vortex, accused--along with his son, Steven--of sexually assaulting his teenage daughter, Suzanne. On May 20, 1994, the day he killed himself, Bob was waiting for a jury that had just sat through a two-week trial to decide his fate.
The jurors' verdict was never delivered; their deliberations were cut off after Bob's death.
But last month, after another two-week trial, a separate jury acquitted Steven of all charges.
Bob, Steven and Sharon Wahrle always claimed that Suzanne's charges of sexual torture were false, stories from the mouth of an indisputably brilliant and arguably vindictive child. They said, too, that the police conducted a sloppy investigation and that the prosecutors were hell-bent for conviction no matter what the cost.
Police and prosecutors, on the other hand, see a family in which a child was treated horrifically and then emotionally abandoned after her allegations came to light. They consider Steven Wahrle's acquittal a failure and Bob Wahrle's suicide a confirmation of his guilt.
While it's true that Bob Wahrle's death cheated justice, justice for whom may never be known.
Bob and Sharon met in 1971, through mutual friends, and married the next year. It was "no great romance," Bob admitted to a psychologist years later. But they fell into a comfortable relationship, and he proposed because Sharon was the only person "who would put up with my crap."
To Sharon, then 22, Bob represented a measure of security that she found attractive. He was already working at Gates Rubber Company (where he would continue working until his death), he owned a house, and at five years her senior, he seemed more mature than most of the men she knew. Those qualities were important to Sharon; she knew that, contrary to the dictates of the rising tide of feminism, she would want to quit her teaching job and stay home with her babies when they came along.
The Wahrle's first child, Steven, was born September 5, 1975. Though parenthood can bind a couple, that was not the case with Bob and Sharon, who said their marriage began deteriorating shortly after Steven's birth. Bob was impatient about the time and attention Sharon devoted to their son, and it didn't help when Steven failed to develop as fast as they thought he should.
When Sharon became pregnant again, less than a year after giving birth to Steven, Bob hoped for a girl. He imagined Steven "look[ing] after his sister, best of friends through school and life." Suzanne was born in May 1977, but the relationship between the children would make a cruel and twisted mockery of Bob's hopes.
Suzanne's arrival seemed to focus a glaring light on Steven's flaws. When she was only a few months old, Bob said, he began to realize his son "wasn't normal." And at seventeen months, Steven suffered a severe ear infection, which led to deterioration of his speech. After that, Sharon embarked on a quest to find help for her son that would consume much of the next decade.
Steven was sent to a special preschool. Sharon lugged him to Children's Hospital twice a week for speech therapy. He had allergies and required surgery for sinus problems. His early childhood consisted of "one doctor after another after another," Sharon says.
The constant care did little to alleviate Steven's problems, however. When Steven was five years old, Bob testified, "he had a vocabulary of about ten words. And he had trouble with people understanding him until he was probably in eighth grade."
Sharon also noticed that Steven seemed to have difficulty concentrating. He couldn't stay on task. His muscle coordination was poor, he was impulsive and he had odd sleep patterns. Sharon expressed her concerns to the doctors at Children's; while still in kindergarten, Steven was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and placed on the medication Ritalin.
Bob was never able to come to grips with the fact that his son was not perfect, and he took to belittling the boy. At Bob's trial, Suzanne testified that her parents had numerous arguments about Steven in front of the boy. Her father, she said, would complain that "this stupid little retard should go to an institution."
Suzanne seemed Steven's opposite. The carrot-topped child was bright--almost aggressively so --and physically agile. By the time she was two or three, she'd surpassed Steven emotionally and physically. She began playing the piano when she was in kindergarten. She took gymnastics lessons. When she was in third grade, she won a fiction-writing contest sponsored by the Tattered Cover Bookstore. In everything, Suzanne was intensely competitive.
"Suzanne always had to be Number One," says Carole McNeilly, a former neighbor who's known the Wahrles since Suzanne was just eighteen months old. "If someone did something, she was going to bust her butt to make sure she did it better." And Suzanne, she notes, was particularly competitive with Steven.
Sharon believes the sibling rivalry was rooted in the amount of attention devoted to Steven. Suzanne was often forced to accompany her brother to his therapy sessions, cooling her heels in a continuous stream of doctors' waiting rooms. And back at home, Sharon spent much of her time tutoring Steven, since she was determined that he attend public school. "I knew he had abilities, and I wasn't about to put him in a special program where I thought he didn't belong," she says.
Suzanne herself could sometimes be difficult to handle. "Suzanne constantly tattletaled," McNeilly says. "We had so many time-outs I can't count them, because she'd tattle and tattle and tattle on anything and anybody. And sometimes I would have been standing right there, and I knew it didn't happen."
Suzanne and Steven were only four and five when their competition developed into biting, scratching fights. "Suzanne always won," McNeilly says. "He was afraid of her. You could see it from the time they were little."
Steven started the fights about half the time, Sharon says, and Suzanne instigated the rest. But no matter who started it, Suzanne always had to have the last word. She would slug her brother, hightail it to her room and slam the door, Sharon remembers. Sometimes, Steven would follow and pound and kick the door in frustration. Between the two of them, Bob had to replace a number of bedroom doors.
Bob wasn't much of a disciplinarian, Sharon says. He traveled a great deal, and when he was in town, he'd sometimes put in sixteen-hour days at work. "I was the one who stayed home and held the family together," she says. "He saw his position in the family as being the provider, and that was it. He was not the type of father who played a lot with his kids."
When Bob got home from work at night, Sharon continues, "it was like his bag was full, and his frustrations would come out in verbal and emotional abuse. He was emotionally and verbally abusive toward Steven and I. He probably was emotionally detached from all of us."
The kids felt the sting of their father's rejection so much that Suzanne later testified in court that the two of them hatched a number of plots to kill their dad. Some plans never came to fruition, she said, "because we'd fall asleep or something." But once, she added, Steven put some sort of "poison stuff" in their father's drink and it made him ill. (Sharon says her son put food coloring in Bob's soda.)
When Suzanne was older, she spent a great deal of time trying to convince her mother to leave Bob. And if the family split up, Sharon says, Suzanne wanted Steven to go with Bob.
Both Wahrle kids grew up interested in science, a result of their mother's own interests and her teaching abilities. When they were still quite small, Sharon would entertain her children by showing how certain household chemicals reacted with one another.
After Steven's fourth-grade class experimented on meal worms, Steven began dissecting maggots and bugs at home. Sometimes, he says, he and his sister would go down to a nearby pond and catch crayfish. Then the two of them would incinerate the creatures in a little mud "crematorium" they'd built underneath the back porch.
As he grew older, Steven began experimenting with fungus and algae, building a crude "lab" complete with aquariums in the basement of the Wahrle home. He was, he says, "trying to develop a kind of fungus that would break down things a lot faster--like for compost."
One of his fungus experiments proved deadly for Suzanne's pet mouse when it drank some of the slimy concoction.
Steven also began setting fires in what he claims was an attempt to burn off chemicals. Sharon eventually became so concerned that she took Steven to the fire department for a lecture on fire safety.
Steven would often boast about his experiments to friends and family, telling them that he was working on "recombinant genes" and that someday he'd win the Nobel prize. His therapist, Paul McClain, says Steven's experiments were an attempt to show that he was worthy. But Steven's lab work had just the opposite effect on his perfectionist father.
"I like things that are nice and objective," Bob testified at his trial last May. "And, you know, if you make something, it should be nice and square or whatever. And [Steven] was into all these strange things, [and I'd tell him] `Get the slop out of the basement,' or, `What are you doing with that slime?' And you know, I didn't compliment him on making slime. To me, that was slime; to him it was something special, but to me it stunk up the basement.
"I knew he had problems," Bob continued, "but he didn't have the type of problems like somebody born without an arm. It wasn't quite so obvious. So after a number of events like the fire setting, you know, he was doing his experiments, I would tell him, `No, no, no.' And then it was, `What's wrong with you? Are you retarded or something?'"
When Steven was in the seventh grade at Dunstan Middle School, he became involved in the Science Olympiad, an after-school activity in which students test and build devices such as amphibious vehicles or bridges. The program was supervised by Steven's science teacher, Bruce Hogue. At the end of his eighth-grade year, Steven invited Suzanne to join. That, however, was less of a kindness than a practicality--his team would be penalized in the competition unless a girl took part, too.
Suzanne did well in the competition. The following summer, she participated in an astronomy program for high-potential students. From then on, her interest in science soared. When she was in eighth grade, her team won the state Science Olympiad, and she personally received eight medals.
Steven himself won a medal at the regional level, but it wasn't enough to win the respect of his sister. "Suzanne was constantly putting him down because he wasn't able to achieve what she had achieved," Sharon testified at a court hearing. And Steven, finding that he could not compete head-to-head with Suzanne, quit the Science Olympiad program.
While Steven turned his attention to Boy Scouts and his basement laboratory, Suzanne's interests took her far afield. She became involved in the Edge of Space Sciences, a group that uses ham radios and atmospheric weather balloons. At thirteen she became one of the youngest members of the International Association for Astronomical Studies at the Denver Museum of Natural History. She also became a show operator at the planetarium, explaining to members of the public how to use a telescope.
In ninth grade Suzanne won a scholarship through the National Space Foundation to attend the Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama. That would be only one of many science-oriented trips she'd take in junior and senior high. After she joined an Explorers group at Martin Marietta and helped prepare a fluid-droplet experiment that was sent up on the space shuttle Endeavor, she was invited to Cape Canaveral for the 1992 launch.
Suzanne went to Wisconsin through the IAAS and to Tucson with her Science Olympiad team. She traveled to Utah to study the stars. All the while, her grade-point average ranged between 3.6 and 4.0.
Suzanne expected her father to appreciate her achievments, Sharon says. And he did, in his own way, boasting about Suzanne to co-workers. "We knew how brilliant his daughter was," says Bob's boss, Randy Gorby. "He was so proud of her and of how she was doing in school, her science projects, the science fairs she had won."
But Bob was not good at showing his daughter that he was proud of her. He found it exhilarating to compete with her on projects, bragging when he was able to do something better than she had. Once, after she brought home a report card of A's and just one B, he ignored the A's and complained about the lower grade, leading Suzanne to write in her journal: "The stupid jerk. Gosh, I hate him."
Suzanne's journal, part of a sophomore school project, would play a crucial role in the trials of her father and brother. In it, she was unsparing in her criticism of both the male Wahrles.
One such journal entry was written on September 3, 1992, after a visit with Science Olympiad coach Bruce Hogue and his wife, Barbara. "Mr. Hogue asked, `Can I have a hug?'" she wrote in her childlike scrawl. "Dad never does that. He's not much of a husband to [Mom] or a father to Steven and I. I don't feel close to him at all like I do with Mr. Hogue." Of her father, she wrote, "My mom thinks he's going to have a heart attack. Somehow I don't think I'd be very sad. He's tormented us long enough! I'm sick of being called nasty names and being yelled at for no reason. I'm really sick of it."
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.
Sharon finally capitulated, taking Suzanne to a nearby Holiday Inn. Ross followed in her car to make sure that Sharon registered.
Suzanne stayed at the motel that night with her mother, then spent some time at her grandparents' home; she returned to the Wahrles' shortly before the end of Christmas break and the start of classes at Green Mountain High.
After the harassment incident, Suzanne later testified, her parents took away the phones and grounded her. But she continued to communicate with the Rosses and other friends by plugging into a computer bulletin board and passing electronic notes. Her mother, she said in a note to the Rosses dated January 10, 1993, "has been trying to lay a guilt trip on me" and was begging Suzanne to drop the charges. She accused her father of "destroying evidence" by replacing damaged doors and getting rid of all traces of Steven's "animal experiments."
She also said that Steven had threatened to kill her.
By now, the Wahrles had started seeing a family therapist, Paul McClain, to work out their many problems. Suzanne was resistant from the start. "Argggghhh!," she said to the Rosses via modem. "Now my mom wants to work everything out and doesn't want to divorce my dad at all. They're both hacked off at me because I don't want that to happen.
"I have, as of tonight," she wrote, "shifted my goal from helping my family (get Steven help, have my parents get divorced, that sort of thing) to getting myself out of here."
Suzanne got her wish. On January 13 Enid Ross contacted a victims' advocate with the Lakewood Police Department and reported that Steven was continuing to harass his sister. The following day Suzanne was met at school by the victims' advocate, a social worker and Lakewood detective Laurel Vander Meulen. When Suzanne was asked if she'd been sexually assaulted, she answered in the negative.
The trio decided, however, that it would be best if Suzanne left her house for a brief "cooling off" period. Suzanne suggested that she stay with the Hogues. Her mother and the Hogues agreed.
Suzanne's stay with her Science Olympiad coach and his wife was originally to last a week or so. At the end of that time, though, Barbara Hogue offered to extend Suzanne's stay if that would help the Wahrles.
Sharon was in a quandary. Steven had received a deferred sentence on the harassment charge, which meant his record would be cleared if he managed to stay out of trouble for a year. But Suzanne had already warned her that if Steven assaulted her again, she intended to call the police. Knowing her children, Sharon was convinced that they'd soon get into a fight and that Steven would be arrested. So Sharon allowed Suzanne's visit to be extended from week to week through the winter and on into the spring.
In March Sharon began making plans to take Suzanne for spring break. But Barbara Hogue testified at Bob's trial, "We just didn't have a high assurance that Suzanne would be safe." So Suzanne instead jetted to the Bahamas with the Hogues, and they picked up the tab.
Suzanne was more than comfortable living with the Hogues. "It was," she wrote in a class assignment, "like going from hell to heaven.
"I was really shocked to see how a healthy family system worked," she continued. "No one beat anybody up or cussed anyone out. Then I began to realize how awful the things that happened to me were. I started remembering many things that I had tried to shove back in my memory banks and forget about...I have developed a strong relationship with the Hogues. They weren't able to have children of their own, but they treat me as though I'm the daughter that they never had. They've made me realize what a neat thing a family can be."
end of part 1
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.