Sexual abuse lies keep man in prison; courts refuse to hold new trial
They took away the children eleven years ago. They took away the family photos just the other day 212 glossy images of kids now grown, of smiling grandchildren he's never seen or held.
Charles Farrar kept the pictures in his cell in the Sterling Correctional Facility, a collection that expanded with every letter, every precious word from his far-flung tribe. He's never made a secret of them. But men convicted of terrible crimes aren't allowed to have certain kinds of photos in their possession. So when a recent shakedown turned up a snapshot of his youngest grandson having his diaper changed, the kid just lying there exposed well, that was the end of the pictures.
That's what happens when you're condemned to a mountain of time. Piece by piece, inch by inch, they take it all away. Your freedom. Your memories. Your ties to anything human.
But Farrar isn't a man who gives up easily. He's filed a lawsuit over the seizure of his "contraband" family album. The dispute has already cost him his clean disciplinary record, his job in the prison upholstery operation, and his place in an honor pod reserved for the best-behaved inmates in Sterling.
Farrar doesn't care. The pictures mean that much to him.
"Hope has been snatched from me so many times," he says. "They put me in here for life. Family is basically what has kept me going. The biggest reason I don't do away with myself is my kids. I want to make sure they're doing okay."
Family may be what keeps Farrar going, but it's also what put him behind bars. In 2002 an Arapahoe County jury found the former bakery worker guilty of multiple counts of sexual assault on a child after hearing the horrific story told by his oldest stepdaughter, Sacha. She testified that Farrar, often assisted by her own mother, had subjected her to more than a hundred instances of molestation, rape and sexual abuse from the age of eleven until she was fifteen. Judge John P. Leopold sentenced Farrar to 145 years to life the kind of time usually reserved for serial killers, terrorists or Bernie Madoff.
Like many convicted sex offenders, Farrar has always maintained his innocence. Unlike most of them, he doesn't bother to hide the nature of his conviction, even though child molesters can expect brutal treatment from other prisoners. But what truly sets his case apart is the degree to which family members continue to support him, insisting that he couldn't possibly have done such a thing. And his staunchest defender for the past eight years has been the one person, other than Farrar and his co-defendant, who knows what really happened: his alleged victim.
Shortly after Farrar's trial, prosecutors dropped similar charges against Sacha's mother, Debbie, because Sacha refused to testify against her. A few months later, after Sacha turned eighteen, she went back to court and told a very different story.
She said that she'd lied, that she'd fabricated the allegations against Debbie and Charles so she could live with her grandparents in Oklahoma. That she'd made fools out of the cops, the social workers, the prosecutors, who not only swallowed her preposterous tale, but coached her on how to tell it better on the stand. And when she tried to call the whole thing off, two caseworkers and a prosecutor pressured her into sticking to her story and ignored her assertions that it wasn't true.
"I ultimately testified against my stepfather at his trial because I was scared by threats of being placed in a mental institution," she wrote in an affidavit submitted in court. "I have had trouble sleeping since I made these allegations. When I do sleep, I have nightmares about ruining innocent lives."
Sacha's explosive claims triggered a series of hearings before Judge Leopold. Prosecutors and social workers took the stand to deny any misconduct; relatives testified that they'd expressed doubts about Sacha's story to officials but had been told to keep quiet. If it had been a different sort of crime at issue, in any county other than Arapahoe which has a formidable reputation for aggressively pursuing child sexual-assault cases the new evidence might have made Farrar a free man. Instead, the case has become a long, tortuous gauntlet of legal wrangles and appeals, and Farrar remains in his cell.
In America's holy war on sex offenders, it's a matter of gospel to believe the children no matter how improbable the claims, how inadequate the investigation, how suspect the credibility of the alleged victim. The children must be believed. Unless, of course, they change their story to something nobody wants to hear.
"This is a terrifying case," says attorney Mark Walta, who's worked on Farrar's appeals since 2003. "The prosecution's entire case was staked to this woman's credibility. But when you're dealing with someone who is more or less a pathological liar, you don't know where the truth starts and ends."
"It's crazy," says Craig Truman, the veteran criminal defense attorney who represented Farrar at trial. "I just find it amazing that some judge somewhere didn't say that without this girl, there's no evidence and he deserves a new trial."
"Our system is totally and royally screwed up," says Sacha Bruce, now 26 years old and still fighting to get her stepfather out of prison. "I don't know if they believed me or not or if they were just covering their own butts. I wanted this fixed. I thought I would be leaving the courthouse in handcuffs, and they would let him go."
The son of an Air Force officer, Charles Farrar kicked around several states, from North Dakota to Texas to Illinois, before arriving in Colorado in the early 1990s. He was in his late twenties, hardworking and ambitious. He also had two young sons with him from his second failed marriage.
One night he began chatting on a phone dating line with another single parent, a woman named Debbie. She lived in Westminster. He lived in Aurora. They decided to meet at a truck stop in Commerce City, kids and all.
Debbie turned out to be a petite, outgoing woman with two daughters and a son: Sacha, Brittani and Dustin. She had a history of getting mixed up with violent men and had recently fled a relationship in New Mexico after she discovered that her boyfriend had been neglecting and abusing her children while she was at work even tying them up and sticking them in a closet.
Farrar, too, had a tumultuous background; his second marriage, to a stripper, had not ended well. But he figured he'd learned from his mistakes. He had a good job at a Safeway bread plant and was working his way up to a foreman position. The couple hit it off immediately. The kids, all under the age of ten, seemed to get along, too. When the date was over, Sacha and Dustin tried to sneak Charles's boys, Eric and Charlie, into their station wagon so they could keep playing.
After a few months of driving between each others' apartments, Farrar proposed that they move in together a matter of economy and convenience as much as passion. "At first she shot me down," he recalls. "Then about three weeks later, she changed her mind."
Debbie who has since started a new life in another city and doesn't want her last name published doesn't recall any doubts. "He was a very nice guy," she says. "He treated me good, and he treated the kids good. We did things as a family, and that's what I wanted."
In 1995 the couple and their extended brood moved into a house in Aurora with a large back yard. They started with a pile of bills, but Farrar was determined to turn that around. He worked long hours at the plant, then picked up work on the side cleaning houses; eventually he got into renovating and flipping them, generating a six-figure bank account in the process. He built a swimming pool and a clubhouse for the kids.
Debbie remembers those years as very busy but happy times. "For the most part, the kids all got along," she says. "There were times when Charles and I had conflicts, when I felt he favored Charlie and Eric over my kids, and vice versa. But we tried to treat them all the same, and to this day they're brothers and sisters."
Because Debbie also worked, processing Medicaid forms for Adams County Social Services, Farrar decided to move his elderly parents into the home, too, so they could help supervise the children. In 1998, a new baby, Austin, joined the clan, bringing the population of the house up to ten.
"Yes, there were six kids," recalls Eric Farrar, now twenty. "But our Christmas trees were covered in presents. It was a wonderful life."
Yet not so wonderful, perhaps, for Sacha, the oldest of the children. She was a bright, creative girl, but also one who demanded and expected other people's attention. The expanding household made that increasingly difficult.
Sacha, her siblings say, had always been...different. She'd struggled with dyslexia at first, but when she finally learned to read, she took to it with a vengeance, devouring fat tomes like Gone With the Wind in a single marathon session. She would then start acting like a character in the book and persist in it for days, or claim that some adventure she'd read about had happened to her.
"Sacha had an issue with being honest and factual," Debbie says. "When she graduated from kindergarten, they gave them certificates for different things. Hers was for storytelling."
As she grew older, Sacha seemed to live increasingly in her own head. She binged on Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Phyllis Whitney. She had few friends at school, usually younger kids that she traded Pokémon cards with in the lunchroom. But she could spin a yarn like nobody you ever met. Cathy Timmons, Debbie's sister, was astonished by how quickly her niece could improvise an elaborate and detailed story. Timmons watched the adolescent Sacha explain to one acquaintance that she was a certified air-conditioning technician, to another that she was a trained chef.
"At first I just thought she had an active imagination," Timmons says. "But when she got older, the stories she would tell she would say it like she believed it. You'd call her on it, because you were there and you knew it didn't happen, and she'd still argue with you."
Whatever was going on, Sacha wanted to be at the center of it. And if there was nothing going on, she could invent a situation. "I can remember one time when Dustin fell off his bike and scratched his face a bit," Charlie Farrar recalls. "Sacha came home and said half his face was missing. Another time she said someone got shot down by the creek and that kids were having sex down there. I didn't believe any of it."
Her stepfather noticed that other kids would befriend Sacha and then abruptly drop her. He suggested to Debbie that maybe the girl had a psychological problem, what doctors call a factitious disorder, but Debbie didn't agree.
By the time she entered middle school, though, it was clear that Sacha had plenty of problems on her plate. Her grades were abysmal. Tests indicated that she had the ability to operate at a much higher level; she just didn't bother to turn in her work. "I was really bored," she says now. "It was pretty much, 'Nobody wants to listen to me or respect me, so I'm not going to have anything to do with them.'"
She resented her living arrangements more with each passing year. Before Farrar came along, her mom had had plenty of time to do fun things with her and Dustin. Now both Debbie and Charles were always working, and she was stuck at home with Farrar's mother, who had strict rules about staying close to the house. Sacha preferred her maternal grandparents; she and Dustin used to spend summers with them in Oklahoma, but now those trips were over because the whole family was too busy to go.
Much to Sacha's displeasure, Mrs. Farrar helped herself to puzzles and games from Sacha's room. The girl retaliated by moving furniture around at night or brushing a broom against the ceiling below her keeper's room, trying to convince her that the house was haunted.
Her quarrel was chiefly with her stepfather's mother, but Sacha had issues with Charles, too. When she was twelve, she and Dustin, carried away in a game with the younger children, had handcuffed Eric and gagged him with a sock. An angry Charles confronted them; when they lied about what happened, he slapped them in the face, drawing blood and considerable anguish from Debbie, who told him never to touch her children again. It was the only time her stepfather ever struck her, and he soon apologized, but for Sacha, it resurrected ugly memories of her mother's previous boyfriends. "Something like that stays with you," she says. "I find it hard to respect someone who would hurt someone weaker than them."
That same year, frustrated by the school's refusal to hold Sacha back for her bad grades, Debbie decided to home-school her daughter. The move left Sacha more isolated than ever. Debbie's parents, who disagreed with the decision, filed an anonymous complaint with social services, suggesting that Sacha wasn't getting an education. Debbie soon learned the source of the complaint and cut off all contact with them.
Sacha returned to public school the next fall. Her grades still flatlined. Sick of her daughter's refusal to pick up after herself or do her schoolwork, Debbie began removing things from her room, until there was nothing left but a bed and a dresser. Defiant, Sacha snuck out at night, partied, smoked weed and got drunk.
She seethed over the grandparents she wasn't allowed to talk to and the ones who wouldn't leave her alone and the new baby and how little time anybody seemed to have for her. And she started to think about ways to get away from her awful, awful parents, who wanted her to go to school and clean her room.
Her extensive reading of trashy novels had provided valuable insights into the perils of sexual abuse. Health classes at school had filled in some gaps in her knowledge, assuring her that there was a vast network of concerned adults ready to assist her in a crisis. And there was something else: In 1998, a social worker had come to the house to ask her if anyone had been "inappropriate" with her. From what she could gather, two stepdaughters from Farrar's second marriage had come forward to accuse him of something that may or may not have happened years before. Sacha told the woman that nobody had touched her, adding that she'd immediately tell her dad meaning Farrar if anyone tried. The investigation was soon dropped, but the whole episode was still fresh in her mind two years later.
"I probably sat in my room and thought about it for a couple of months," she says now. "Whether it could work. Whether I could actually get out of the house."
The situation came to a boil in the first days of March 2000. Sacha was fifteen, in eighth grade, terrified that she might be pregnant and just as terrified about what might happen if her mother found out. Then, to her great surprise, Cathy Timmons contacted her at school and gave her a phone number for Debbie's parents. Debbie may have banned them from their lives, but Aunt Cathy wanted Sacha to know that her grandparents still cared about her and wanted to hear from her.
Sacha called them the next day. Juanita Timmons, her grandmother, would later testify that the first ten minutes of the conversation was "quite normal," but then Sacha started to hint that she was being abused. Timmons asked her what she meant. She said Charles had touched her.
Timmons asked her if anyone else was involved. Sacha said no. Timmons urged her to report this to a teacher right away.
That night, Debbie busted her daughter and Dustin for smoking cigarettes. The heated conversation that followed convinced Sacha she could never, ever 'fess up to her pregnancy fears, if Mom could get this worked up over a lousy cigarette.
"She was talking about how worthless we were because we got caught smoking," she recalls. "She'd always smoked. She was being a major hypocrite."
The next day, Sacha visited a counselor at her middle school and said she was having a hard time at home. The counselor asked about her mom's boyfriend and got some jaw-dropping answers. The counselor brought in a social worker and an Aurora police officer, who had many more questions.
As Sacha talked to them, she realized that simply accusing Charles would not be enough. They would just take him away and send her home.
She was going to have to put her mother in the story.
Sacha didn't come home from school that day. Worried, Charles called Debbie at work, then decided to drive around and look for her. The police pulled up behind his truck before he could go anywhere.
"I'm sitting there, trying to figure out what the hell is going on," he says. "They asked me where the videotape was. I said, 'What videotape?'"
Sacha's siblings were pulled out of class and summoned to the principal's office, where a social worker showed them anatomically correct drawings and asked them to identify various body parts. (There was a disagreement among the adults over whether eight-year-old Brittani should be shown the male drawing.) No one explained what was going on. The children were sent home, where other social workers were waiting for them and police were searching the house.
"I remember seeing my dad talking to the policemen," Eric recalls, "and the social workers telling us to pack up a few things. We were going to be gone a few days but would be home soon. I was totally confused."
"I remember Debbie crying," says Charlie, "and my grandparents telling her things will be okay. My dad was very angry. I had never heard him curse before."
They took all the kids even Austin, who was a week shy of his second birthday. Farrar was arrested and booked. Debbie bailed him out later that night. The police decided there was no need to arrest her yet, but they asked a lot of strange questions.
"They wanted to know how often Charles and I had sex, who initiated it, what positions," she recalls. "It had nothing to do with the case."
The couple didn't learn what the case was about until they were handed court documents. The enormity of Sacha's accusations left them speechless.
She'd told the police that Charles Farrar had been sexually abusing her since around the time of her eleventh birthday. It began one night when her mother told her to come to their bedroom and had her lie down between them while Charles groped her breasts and crotch. In subsequent encounters, Farrar performed oral sex on her, which she called "munching," forced her to perform oral sex on him and had intercourse with her while Debbie held her down.
They paid her "hush money," usually ten or twenty dollars per episode, and threatened to "put her six feet under" if she told anyone, she said. At one point she was allowed to go to a "Spring Fling" event at school only after she allowed them to videotape a particular kink of theirs having her mother suck her stepfather's semen out of her. Farrar had also urged her to persuade a friend to join her in "doing a party" with several of his beer-drinking buddies, who would pay $30 each to have sex with the girls. Sacha said she'd stalled him by claiming the other girl wouldn't commit to the job.
There was no proof of any of this, just Sacha's word. But to the bewilderment of Debbie and Charles, the official investigation generated by such devastating allegations was minimal, as if the police didn't feel any need to confirm or disprove Sacha's story. Farrar readily consented to a search of the house, which failed to turn up the videotape Sacha had mentioned. The officers didn't collect any clothing for possible DNA tests even though Sacha claimed the most recent assault had occurred just four days earlier.
A medical exam confirmed that Sacha was sexually active. Debbie told police that her daughter had a boyfriend and had asked her to make an appointment so that she could obtain birth-control pills. (Sacha insisted she'd only had sex with her stepfather; nobody bothered to ask the boyfriend.) Debbie also told them that Sacha lived in a "fantasy world," an assertion that several other witnesses would have affirmed, had they been asked.
No one did ask. The lack of skepticism or any attempt at serious inquiry extended to other areas, too. Sacha claimed to have endured more than a hundred assaults at the hands of Charles and Debbie, in a house that contained two other adults and five children. There were no doors on her bedroom or the master bedroom much of the time because the house was being renovated. But investigators never questioned Sacha's siblings about what they might have heard or what they might know.
"I wish they would have talked to the other kids in the house," says Charlie. "We were always around each other, and someone would have seen something if any of it ever happened."
Even the most outrageous or nonsensical elements of the story didn't seem to give anyone pause. Farrar says he wasn't much of a beer drinker and far too much of a workaholic to have friends, let alone friends he could invite to an underaged-call-girl-and-beer party. And why would a pervert who's determined to keep the molestation a secret risk exposure by letting several other men in on the deal? Why would the couple have to threaten Sacha with death or bribe her if, as she also claimed, she sometimes went into Farrar's room unbidden and initiated sex with him while he was sleeping?
A few weeks after his arrest, one of Farrar's lawyers arranged for him to take a polygraph test. He denied any sexual contact with Sacha. The examiner deemed his answers truthful.
Colorado's victim-rights laws prohibit subjecting alleged victims to a polygraph test. But few questions were asked of Sacha after her initial interview with police. She repeated the story a week later, in a videotaped interview at the SunGate child-advocacy center, explaining that she was unable to provide specific dates of the assaults because it was all "one long nightmare." She had no further conversations with police or prosecutors until shortly before Farrar's trial, two years later. This peculiar lack of followup would later be explained in court as a desire, on the part of the investigators, not to "retraumatize" the victim.
Yet trauma was inescapable for the entire family. From the moment of Sacha's outcry, their lives were no longer their own. The children were scattered among foster homes, their parents buried in court hearings. As the days stretched into weeks and then into months, it dawned on each of them that they were never going to be all together again.
Charles and Debbie begged to be allowed to speak to Sacha, under any conditions police observation, hidden microphones, whatever. They were informed that their victim wanted nothing to do with them. "I was told by my therapist that my mom and Charles refused to speak to me," Sacha says. "They were being told the same thing. But I never said I wouldn't talk to them."
The couple could barely speak to their other children. They had to be "cleared" by a sex-offender assessment team before they could visit them, for an hour or so a week, under the watchful eye of Arapahoe County Human Services. "We got greeting cards for the kids," Farrar recalls. "They said, 'We love you. As soon as you get home we're still going on our vacation.' I'd been busting my ass all this time, putting money aside so we could go on a Disney cruise. The kids never got the cards. The social workers said we were enticing our children."
Although Farrar had not yet been convicted of any crime, he and Debbie fought a losing battle against having their children adjudicated as "D&N" dependent and/or neglected and then having their parental rights terminated. (Debbie also lost her social services job.) The standard for finding a child dependent or neglected is much lower than that of a criminal case, notes the couple's civil attorney, Carrie Clein; the mere fact that Sacha made such allegations, whether true or not, is deemed ample evidence of a problem in the home.
That Debbie supported Charles's innocence worked against her in the parental-termination proceedings, Clein adds. "If she in any way questions the allegations made by her child, then she is said to be choosing the husband over the child," she says. "We have had to advise parents to split up in some situations in order to keep the children."
The children tried to keep track of each other, but it was difficult. Despite her age, Brittani was put with Sacha in a home for troubled adolescent girls, some of them suicidal or addicts or both. Dustin and Austin went elsewhere. Charlie and Eric got passed through several foster arrangements, separately and together. They all met occasionally for group visits and therapy sessions, but there were always adults hovering.
Sacha was the star of the gatherings. "They were always telling us that Sacha was in the right," says Eric, "that we shouldn't be mad at her, because our father was the one who did wrong. There wasn't much therapy, as far as helping us with our situation. It was all about trying to make us understand what was going on, the way they saw it."
Some of her siblings wanted to confront Sacha but didn't know how. It was months before Brittani even learned the real reason why she was in foster care. "I was told it was because my parents smoked in the house," she recalls.
"I remember Sacha explaining in one of those meetings the stuff that happened," says Charlie, "and how she used to drink nail polish remover and bleach to remove the pain. I don't know why I didn't say, 'What the fuck are you talking about?' I never believed her story from the beginning."
Sacha says she began to regret what she'd done almost immediately. She had not expected to end up in crummy foster homes for months, waiting for the okay to move in with her grandparents. She had not expected her siblings to be removed from the house, too. She turned out not to be pregnant, much to her relief, but the therapists kept pushing her to talk about her problems until she refused to speak, and then they kept pushing anti-depressants on her until she felt like a zombie.
But her lot was better than some. "I don't want to say I hate her," says Charlie, "but she tore my life apart. She destroyed it. We should have had such a different life. I should have been somebody else."
All the siblings have horror stories about foster care filthy conditions, neglect and worse. One of the boys says he was sexually assaulted by an older teen who had a prior record of sex crimes. The victim reported the assault to the police the next day.
"All they did was move [the older boy] to another place where he could have no more contact with that house," he says. "I never heard anything else about it. It didn't make much sense to me. I mean, that's why we were in foster care, because of what supposedly happened at our house. But it really was going on in the foster home, and nobody cared."
Farrar made it clear to his attorneys from the start: There would be no plea bargains, no weasel deals that would leave him branded as a sex offender for life. He wanted vindication.
His strategy was simple: Just get on the stand and tell the truth. "I knew I would be acquitted," he says now. "I knew what I'd done and what I hadn't done. Not knowing the law or anything, I guess I was being sort of stupid."
But his attorney, Craig Truman, did know the law. Defending a kiddie sex case, he says, is never easy not even when there isn't a shred of evidence and the alleged victim's story is as contradictory and convoluted as the tale Sacha told. The issue is so inflammatory, the believe-the-children mantra so pervasive, that potential jurors walk into the courtroom inclined to castrate the defendant before they've heard a word of testimony.
"We never have skepticism about these cases, because we believe the victims," Truman says. "The most recent one of these I did, we questioned 65 or 70 jurors. And a third of them said they couldn't be fair; they'd vote guilty just on the basis of the charges. It's easier to do murder cases."
In fact, he adds, Farrar would probably have been facing less severe penalties if he'd beaten Sacha to death in a drunken rage: "Many of my people are doing more time for a pat on the bottom than they would have if they pistol-whipped somebody. I'm not in favor of sex assaults, but I'm also not in favor of pistol-whipping."
Farrar was adamant. No deal. He and Debbie would tell their story, Sacha could tell hers, and any rational person could figure out who was telling the truth.
But his 2002 trial went in directions Farrar hadn't expected. He hadn't counted on the effect of having all these other witnesses, social workers and counselors and police and so on, take the stand and recount what Sacha had told them. The repetition seemed to reinforce the story we believe it, why won't you? And he hadn't expected Sacha to come to court so well-prepared for battle, surrounded by a coterie of social workers, victim advocates and other professionals.
She flew in from Oklahoma, where she was now living with her grandparents. She told an investigator for the district attorney's office that she was terrified about testifying, and her aunt and grandmother knew she was a reluctant witness at best. But none of that came across in the courtroom.
Asked why she no longer lived with Charles and Debbie, Sacha rushed into a speech simmering with grievances. "Around the time I turned eleven," she said, "they began sexually abusing me. And my mom had emotionally abused me for years. She has a history of abusive boyfriends, and after a while it just began to eat me away from the inside out."
"She was a ferocious witness," Truman recalls. "She was snide. She fought with me. She'd wait for pauses to slip things in. She was as feisty as any I've ever had just a very, very angry young lass."
Some observers thought she overplayed the part. Even one of the prosecutors, Darren Vahle, would later concede that Sacha "didn't sell well as a witness" and came across as "odd." Normally, Truman would have to tiptoe a bit in cross-examining a seventeen-year-old girl who claimed to have endured such a shocking ordeal. But her combativeness gave him license to respond in kind, barreling into the absurdities of her claims about call-girl parties, videotaped kink shows and the rest.
Sacha stood by her story even though by now it was several stories, from the one she told her grandmother about Charles touching her, to accusing her mother the next day, to the shifting chronology of the variant versions she told at the D&N hearings and in Leopold's courtroom. When it was over, the state's star witness retreated to the women's room and became violently sick.
"I spent an hour and a half in the bathroom," Sacha says now. "I was convinced they were going to send me to a mental hospital."
Critical as it was, Sacha's testimony may not have been the defining moment of the trial. In sex-offense cases, prosecutors are allowed to introduce evidence of prior bad acts even acts remote in time and very unlike the charges at hand that would never be permitted in most other criminal trials. Farrar's jury got to hear two other adolescent girls accuse him of sexual assault.
The girls were the daughters of his second wife, Tina. Years after Farrar left Illinois, the youngest had come forward with an account of Farrar having intercourse with her up to twenty times when she was five. Her older sister, who would have been eight at the time, alleged that Farrar had oral sex with her.
The defense considered the allegations highly refutable. Farrar had remained friendly with Tina and her daughters after they split and had even had conversations with them about visiting him in Colorado in 1995. An official investigation into the claims wasn't launched until 1998, after he'd had a falling out with his ex, and had resulted in no charges. The case had big problems: The younger girl said her recollection of the assaults had come to her in a dream; Farrar insists he never lived in the house where the girl said these assaults occurred; and the alleged ongoing, brutal rape of a five-year-old had apparently gone unnoticed by the rest of her family.
Yet prosecutors brought the girls from Illinois to tell their story again, in an effort to give more weight to Sacha's account. "The prosecutors were allowed to admit this evidence because it was ostensibly similar, for establishing an MO," Walta explains. "They argued it as a kind of law of probability. How is it possible that lightning could strike the same man twice? He would have to be the unluckiest man on earth."
In closing arguments, Vahle and Truman agreed that the case came down to credibility whether you believed Sacha or Charles and Debbie. But it also came down to the prior allegations. Neither accusation had much chance of prevailing on its own merits. Combined, though, they made an unbeatable stew of depravity and transgression.
The jurors clearly didn't believe Sacha on several points. They acquitted Farrar of sexual exploitation of children (the videotape incident), inducement of child prostitution (the call-girl party) and some other king-sized whoppers. But they found him guilty on 22 counts.
"I was floored," Farrar says now. "But I've had a lot of time to think about this. If I was on that jury, would I have convicted myself? I think I would have. It wasn't any one thing. It's just the trust you put in kids. You don't think they are going to be lying about something like this. And the charges are stacked not one count, not two, but thirty. Something must have happened, there are so many."
Farrar was taken to his sentencing hearing in high-security gear: leg and belly chains, handcuffs and black box, the works. Like they were expecting him to explode. But he was calm when Judge Leopold handed him the 145 years. The waiting was over. He now knew exactly what to expect from his life.
All he could do, he told the judge, was hope that some day his accuser would come forward and tell the truth.
A few weeks after the Farrar verdict, Sacha asked Cathy Timmons if she could borrow a video camera. Her aunt assumed it was for a school project, but Sacha told her she wanted to make a statement admitting that she'd committed perjury.
"I asked her, 'Do you want to change your story because it's torn everybody apart, or because it isn't true?'" Timmons remembers. "She said it wasn't true, that she shouldn't have said it. She said it got out of control and she didn't know how to stop it."
A couple of days later, Debbie arrived in Oklahoma. She was still facing trial herself, but she'd received permission from the court to visit Dustin and Brittani, now staying with her parents, for Mother's Day. She expected that she would have to steer clear of Sacha. But Sacha sought her out and insisted that the two of them sit down and talk.
"She was apologetic," Debbie says. "She was talking about wanting to recant and do a video."
Sacha says she was sleeping badly, eating in binges or not at all, and trying to figure out how to undo what she'd done. She didn't make the video or take any formal action to help Farrar for almost a year; other relatives apparently dissuaded her, telling her she risked prison herself if she changed her story. But she'd made up her mind on one point: She was not going to testify against her mother. "There was no way I was going through that again," she says.
As the date for Debbie's trial approached, social workers, therapists and prosecutors Christine Schober and Darren Vahle called Sacha several times, urging her to testify. Her aunt and grandmother say Sacha became hysterical at the prospect, threatening suicide. They also maintain that she told the prosecution that if called upon, she would admit to having made it all up.
"She'd say that, and they'd redirect the whole conversation," says Cathy Timmons. "They'd talk about how they were going to put her in a nice hotel, pick her up at the airport they wouldn't listen when she said she couldn't go on with it. They didn't say anything about how maybe we should all go talk to the judge."
Schober and Vahle would later deny that Sacha had threatened to change her story. Schober said that Sacha told her she "thought her mother should be convicted of everything that happened" but just couldn't endure the stress of another trial. Her office "ultimately left the decision up to Sacha," she testified.
But not without some arm-twisting first, including a looming contempt-of-court action against Sacha for her refusal to cooperate with the prosecution. Summoned before a judge in Oklahoma, she informed him that she wouldn't go back to Colorado to testify and told him to kiss her ass. "My grandmother told me she appreciated the sentiment but not the language, and it was not to happen again," she says.
Her grandmother, Juanita Timmons, testified that the standoff ended only after she left a message for Schober saying, "We may have to come, but you won't like it." The case against Debbie was soon dismissed.
Notes in Schober's file, later produced in court, describe the factors shaping that decision: "Considering all this child had been through...the fact that the Farrar jury said they would have a very hard time convicting mom, and she has already lost her home, her husband, and her kids, we have decided, Darren Vahle and I, not to force this child to come here and testify against her will."
The quick abandonment of the case against Debbie, once it was clear Sacha wasn't on board, raises questions about whether the prosecutors believed their own theory of the crime, defense attorney Walta suggests. "The allegations she made against her mother were in some ways more disturbing than what she said about Mr. Farrar," he says. "The fact that case was simply dismissed because she didn't want to testify has always struck me as something that didn't smell right."
The dismissal was the beginning of a renewed relationship between Sacha and her mother a fragile one, amid much chaos. Sacha ran away from the Timmons home and told the police a wild story about her grandmother trying to force her to marry a boy who abused her. She shacked up with a guy who was cooking meth, got strung out, then called Debbie to rescue her. Debbie did. At eighteen, sober and no longer under the supervision of social services, Sacha decided to proceed with her recantation.
"I'm done running from this," she told her mother. "I'll face the consequences. Find me a lawyer."
Sitting in his cell one year and 25 days after a jury found him guilty, Farrar learned that his stepdaughter was withdrawing all her accusations. "All the emotions just came rushing forward again," he says. "I was walking on cloud nine. I knew I was going home and the family was coming back together again."
An investigator from the public defender's office told him that his attorneys hoped to have him back on the streets in two to six months, based on the newly discovered evidence. But it took Judge Leopold nearly two years to rule on Farrar's motion for a new trial, which drew fierce opposition for reasons that went well beyond the question of his guilt or innocence.
Among sex-crime prosecutors and judges, a recanting victim is regarded with great suspicion. It's the flip side of believing the children: If the children change their story, they must have been pressured into it by relatives or are suffering a mental breakdown. Despite research that indicates as many as one in five reports of sexual abuse are false and that false reports are even more prevalent when custody issues or other acrimonious family disputes are involved prosecutors continue to regard recantation as a mental-health issue."Recantations are routinely used by victims to disengage the criminal justice system response," declares a position paper on the topic by the Oregon Attorney General's Sexual Assault Task Force, "and are therefore NOT, by themselves, indicative of a false report."
"Courts deem recantations, particularly in cases of interfamilial abuse, to be presumptively incredible," says Walta. "The notion is based in social science, but also in this societal movement toward believing the victim and the intense social disapproval of sex offenders. It's not unjustified, but the system can't react well to exceptional cases."
"I've tried cases where the victim recanted at trial," Truman says. "Then the prosecution brings on experts to say it's typical for people to recant it just shows they were telling the truth before, and now they're conflicted because they really loved the defendant at one point. I remember one case where the expert convinced the jury that the recanting was just part of the ongoing victimization."
But prosecutors had particularly strong motives for attacking Sacha's recantation. Her affidavit didn't just claim that a cadre of criminal-justice professionals had been duped by a teenager; it also contained several serious allegations of prosecutorial misconduct.
According to Sacha, she'd told several people that the story wasn't true even before Farrar's trial. She'd asked one of her caseworkers what would happen if she'd made it all up and never heard back from her. Another told her she would likely be committed to an institution. Her therapist, she added, also dismissed her efforts to recant to her.
She said she tried to tell Schober it was all a lie the morning that the trial started the first time the two had actually met in person. Schober, she claimed, replied that any change in her story would lead to a mistrial and that Sacha might be deemed mentally unstable and locked up.
Because the conduct of the Arapahoe County District Attorney's Office was under fire, Leopold appointed a special prosecutor from Denver, Carlos Samour, for the recantation hearings. Schober, Vahle and the two caseworkers all denied under oath that Sacha had tried to recant to them or had been threatened in any way. Schober maintained that she had far fewer contacts with Sacha than the girl claimed. She'd only spoken to her by phone twice before the trial began; there had been virtually no opportunity for the prosecutors to assess Sacha's credibility for themselves prior to putting her on the stand and putting her stepfather away for life.
"I don't like to meet with the victim and go over the facts with them prior to trial," Schober testified. "I want them to go from their memory."
Was Sacha weaving outrageous lies into her recantation, just as she'd done in her original accusations? Perhaps, but certain aspects of her claims of being coached, cajoled and ignored were confirmed by other witnesses.
At one point Cathy and Juanita Timmons had eavesdropped on speakerphone when a social worker was prepping Sacha for Farrar's trial. The woman corrected Sacha on several points, including what age she was when the abuse supposedly started, so that her testimony would be consistent with her earlier statements. "My mom stopped it," Cathy Timmons says. "She picked up the phone and said, 'If she doesn't know what the truth is, you're not going to tell her.'"
Juanita Timmons testified that she'd warned Schober that Sacha "tended to make things up and tell tall tales." Schober's response, she remembered, was similar to the reply Sacha claimed to have received from the prosecutor about her misgivings: "She told me to comply and to not volunteer any information that I was not asked, or they would declare a mistrial."
Special prosecutor Samour led a vigorous counter-charge against the attacks on his colleagues. He suggested that Debbie had bought Sacha a car in exchange for her testimony and paid for her attorney, but there was no proof either insinuation was true. He summoned an ex-boyfriend of Sacha's, who said she'd told him her stepfather really did molest her and showed him poems she'd written about sexual abuse. But the boyfriend turned out to be a good defense witness: He admitted that, as the romance soured, Sacha had lied to him about being pregnant with his child and threatened to make false accusations against him and the poems could be interpreted any number of ways. Even Sacha's multiple diaries couldn't resolve anything; one version claimed the abuse was concocted, another didn't mention any abuse, and they all seemed to be a blend of fact and fiction.
Judge Leopold brooded for months over the conflicting testimony, then issued a highly equivocal ruling. Many of the victim's claims at trial were "bizarre" and "difficult to believe," he conceded. But her claims that Schober and Vahle had knowingly allowed perjured testimony were "not worthy of belief," either. In fact, Leopold was highly offended by her attack on the prosecutors' integrity, which he regarded as "a far more heinous allegation" than the ones she'd made that condemned a man to life in prison.
She was no more believable now than she was at trial, he concluded: "Nothing that the Court heard or saw during this post-conviction proceeding persuades it that the newly discovered evidence would produce a complete acquittal at a new trial...motion is denied."
The judge's ruling puzzled Walta, since demonstrating Sacha's lack of credibility would seem to be the key to an acquittal. "It was clear to him that she had significant credibility problems," he says. "But the jury never heard evidence of the recantation which was the whole point of the proceeding."
The case made its way to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed Leopold's decision, then to the Colorado Supreme Court, which in 2009 narrowly upheld Farrar's conviction. The justices split 4-3 on the matter, with Michael Bender authoring a sharp dissent that echoed Walta's concerns.
"The victim's suspect initial testimony, when coupled with the lack of corroborative evidence in this case, demonstrates that this key witness's recantation would probably bring about an acquittal," Justice Bender wrote. "Thus, justice requires a new trial."
A motion for reconsideration of Farrar's sentence, which draws heavily on the deeply divided Supreme Court decision, has been pending in front of Judge Valeria Spencer for almost two years. "This issue has been fully and vigorously litigated and tested at all levels of our court system," says Arapahoe County Deputy District Attorney Jay Williford, who's asked Spencer to deny the defense motion.
Former prosecutor Schober, now in private practice, did not respond to a request for comment on the Farrar case. Vahle, currently a judge in Arapahoe County, declined to comment through a spokesman. Leopold retired in 2006; his replacement on the bench turned out to be former special prosecutor Samour. Michael Bender is now the chief justice of the state's highest court.
Charles Farrar is still in prison.
Colorado Department of Corrections officials get nervous when journalists ask to talk to a convicted sex offender. Westword's request to interview Charles Farrar was at first denied, on the grounds that inmates in his situation tend to "get beat up or commit suicide" when the press is done with them. The interview was granted only after Farrar insisted that he was eager to tell his story.
Talking helps keep Farrar from despairing over nearly a decade of incarceration with no end in sight. The letters and phone calls he gets from his family Debbie's kids, his kids, they're all his family to this day anchor him in the present, focus him on the fight. He discusses with them his legal research and strategies, his dwindling options for relief. Despite the best efforts of the justice system to paint Farrar as a monster and drive a wedge between him and his family, the bonds endure.
The minute he turned eighteen and was eligible to visit his father at Sterling, Eric Farrar had a ride and the paperwork already lined up. "My dad has always been the biggest thing in my life," he says. "I remember my big, stocky daddy. But the first time I walked in there, seeing the time and stress that prison has put on him...he'd lost weight. He looks a lot older. It destroyed me, seeing him looking like that."
One family member isn't supposed to have any contact with him; sex offenders are prohibited from communicating with their victims. But that hasn't stopped Sacha from trying. Prison officials have intercepted her letters and banned her phone calls. But she has managed to get messages to her stepfather through various back channels. "Why does she stay in contact with me all these years if any of this happened?" Farrar asks.
Sacha Bruce can never visit him. She lives in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, a small town outside of Tulsa that welcomes visitors with a sign declaring that CHARACTER COUNTS. It's the kind of backwater that still has a family video store, one that offers free rentals to kids with good report cards. Sacha has a husband and two children of her own now, including a tenth-month-old daughter, Bella, named after the heroine of the Twilight series.
But she still tells the same story that she did eight years ago. The story of her recantation, unlike so many wild stories she's told over the years, has remained remarkably consistent. It's the story of a fifteen-year-old girl who did a terrible thing with a lot of help from adults.
She still considers Charles Farrar the only real dad she ever had. Her kids have never met this man, and that bothers her a great deal. She wants to make things right.
"He's told me he forgives me," she says. "We go forward. We do what we can."
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.