"A Pretty Good Person Other Than in This Area"
Sunder Schlagel: You mean I make love better to you now than I was when I was ten years old or eleven years old?
Jill: Mmmm-hmmmm. Yeah.
Sunder: Mother, you cut me down...
Sunder: That's basically it. The sex life was just probably the only thing that was working out, right?
Jill: Well, it seemed to be, because you seemed to be interested in other people all the time. You know, you had a driving interest in other people...
Sunder: Would you say that you were in love with me?
Jill: Yes, I was. I always was. I still am.
In October 1984, Sunder Schlagel, then nineteen years old, turned to the Boulder County justice system for help. He walked into the Longmont Police Department and informed Detective Phil Root that his adoptive mother, Jill Schlagel, had begun molesting him when he was ten and had maintained a sexual relationship with him throughout his teens. He had brought along evidence: a tape of a phone conversation with Jill. Under Root's direction, Sunder made two more tapes.
The tapes reveal a strange relationship. The tone of both participants is flirtatious--they sound more like a pair of amorously bickering teenagers than mother and son. The sexual references are plentiful.
Sunder and his brother Sam had arrived in the United States on the 1975 babylift from Vietnam. It was a terrifying and disorienting voyage. Their mother, Mai Nguyen, fearing for their safety in Vietnam, had left them with a stranger and told them she had errands to run. They were afraid they would never see her again. They watched as soldiers tossed babies onto the planes in the panicky exodus for the U.S.
When they finally reached Denver and were greeted by Jill and Jerry Schlagel (the couple has since split up), Sunder felt he'd reached a safe haven. Jill seemed to him "one of the sweetest people I've ever known."
The incest began, according to Sunder, within weeks of his arrival. Still recovering from the experiences of the war, an alien in a foreign culture, Sunder barely understood what was happening.
"I was having a nightmare or something, and she asked Jerry to go sleep in another room," he told Westword in a 1984 interview. "She asked me questions--you know, do you think I'm attractive? I didn't understand. One minute she said, are you scared? I said, I don't know. Well, she tried caressing my chest, and she asked me if that felt good. Yeah. Started just touching...and suddenly she just got up, and I can remember her removing her nightgown."
The sex continued for years. "I don't remember seeing him in his bedroom at all," his brother Sam told Westword. "He spent most of the time in Jill's room."
Sam described a chaotic household in which Sunder was "Jill's man of the house" and "Sunder hit me a lot of times.
"He always was really unhappy."
Sunder said he felt almost completely controlled by Jill. Through his teens, he lashed out in numerous ways--throwing stones through windows, lying, breaking into houses, flying into inexplicable rages, bringing a gun into the house. When he threatened suicide, he was institutionalized for two weeks. He had to beg Jill to let him come home.
About six months after the boys' arrival, Mai Nguyen made her way to America. An immigrant with four other children and no job, she was persuaded to sign adoption papers, leaving her sons with the Schlagels. But over the years, she became aware that something was very wrong. In a 1978 letter to Larimer County Social Services, she wrote:
"[Jill] has created in [Sunder] a desirable bed partner for herself, and she regularly requests that Sunder join her in her bed. She had told him that she loves only him and no longer loves her husband...The sleeping arrangements--causing the problems between the adults--have also created great friction between Jerry and Sunder, with the result that Jerry had hit Sunder and the blows were returned. Surely this is an unhealthy situation for Sunder, and it can become aggravated and explosive."
Earlier, Jill had told social services that Nguyen was lying because she wanted her sons back.
The next year, Nguyen approached Legal Aid in Santa Cruz, California, seeking to have the adoption revoked. Because the adoption had taken place two years earlier, the agency was unable to help her.
Meanwhile, according to Sunder, Jill completely dominated his life, threatening to take him out of sports programs if he didn't comply with her wishes, becoming furious if he showed interest in a girl his own age.
He spoke out more than once--to one of his sisters, to Jerry Schlagel, to a middle-school counselor--only to be disbelieved or coaxed and bullied into recanting by Jill.
"You ever seen a flower that is the most beautiful flower on earth and if you touch it you get poisoned?" Sunder asked back in 1984. "That's her."
In the Vietnamese culture, family is everything. Despite all that had happened, Sunder was fiercely attached to his adoptive family. He wanted their acceptance. He wanted his brothers and sisters and Jerry--whom he still called dad--to understand that there was a reason behind his moodiness and his rages.
"Going through court and hearing the perpetrator is going to be punished is very cleansing for victims," Detective Root told Westword. "Victims carry a lot of guilt. He was hoping the family would realize she's the bad person, not Sunder."
But Sunder did not come away from Boulder County justice feeling cleansed.
The Boulder County district attorney on the case, Alan Katz, did not feel the tapes constituted particularly strong evidence.
"It's not all that clear that making love necessarily means intercourse," he told Westword at the time. "I think he could have nailed her down better."
Then there was the question of Sunder himself. "There are a lot of things about him that wouldn't make him the greatest of witnesses," Katz continued. "He was troubled when he came here, coming from a war. I don't think he understands how much not fun and not satisfying it would be...There are aspects of his life that make him open to attack.
"I don't think he has such a command of the language or the sophisticated manner to override the strategy of [Jill's defense attorney, Paul McCormick's] questions. He's a troubled child. If we go to trial, all I get is he gets to sit on the stand. She gets the same sentence, and he gets hurt."
Besides, Katz added, he felt Jill was "a pretty good person...other than in this area."
The Boulder DA's office agreed on a plea bargain. Jill pleaded guilty to one count of incest, occurring after Sunder turned sixteen. She was sentenced to four years' probation, during which she would perform a hundred hours of community service each year. And she was told to pay for Sunder's psychiatric care.
Although he told her that what she'd done was "wrong, very wrong" and chided her for her denial, Judge Murray Richtel, too, expressed some sympathy for Jill. He spoke of her "otherwise exemplary life" and concluded, "This is not a case where prison is appropriate."
Richtel had not heard the tapes. According to Root, as part of the plea, the DA's office and Paul McCormick had agreed they would not come into evidence.
Jill, with Jerry's backing, continued to maintain that she was innocent and had pled nolo contendere only to spare her war-crazed, paranoid son the trauma of testifying.
Had she been charged with aggravated incest and sexual assault on a child, as the police investigators had urged, she could have been sentenced to up to twelve years in prison. Thanks to the DA's deal, however, Jill never spent a day in jail.
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