"They Hurt the People They're Supposed to Protect"
Mark is looking after a friend's three-month-old baby. "I'm her godfather," he says proudly.
Mark is a young man with fair hair and fresh coloring, sipping an iced mocha in a downtown Peaberry's, the baby sleeping in a carrier at his feet.
Mark, now twenty years old, is one of the seven children of Michael and Patricia Ballard. Six years ago the Ballards, along with their friends Dennis and Marcia Dunnan, were found guilty of inflicting horrendous abuse--physical, emotional and sexual--on their children, who were neglected, tormented, beaten and raped by their parents, Dennis Dunnan, and strangers who paid the Dunnans for the privilege.
Today Michael Ballard is serving a twelve-year prison sentence, to be followed by eight years in community corrections. Patricia was released from prison last month, after serving five years of an eight-year sentence.
For several years the Ballards had moved frequently to evade the attention of teachers and social workers. But when the crimes finally came to light in Boulder County in 1992, all four adults were offered pleas by the district attorney's office.
Marcia Dunnan was given eight years' probation, which she violated within a year. Protesting her innocence throughout--"I will not admit to something I did not do. As God is my witness, I didn't do it"--she was sent to prison.
Her husband, Dennis, insisted on going to trial and represented himself in a display of ignorance and self-deception that would have been laughable were the circumstances not so serious. Mark, then fourteen, had to testify against him.
"There were a lot of stupid questions," he says calmly. "He was a couple of bolts short of a car. He would ask things like, if you claim you've done this, this and this, then you can describe my body parts. I'm like, no, I can't, and I wouldn't want to."
He laughs. "No thanks."
Dennis Dunnan, who had several previous convictions on his record, received three consecutive life sentences.
All three pleas were controversial, Marcia Dunnan's in particular. The district attorney's office said that the children were too damaged to testify in court and that without that testimony, the adults might go free. Certainly some of the children suffered disassociation and delusion; some of the testimony they gave was contradictory. In addition, one of the prosecution experts pointed out that four trials and their possible appeals might have stretched out the process for years, severely affecting the children's ability to recover and perhaps hurting their chances of being placed with stable families.
"Some of the children could not testify," says Mary Keenan, who prosecuted the case with Pete Maguire. "We were told by a psychiatrist it would have taken six months out of the little girls' lives to put them through videotapes and interviews."
"I don't know how you do it right," says one observer. "This thing was like a freight train. And there weren't a lot of protections for the kids."
Other observers said the children could have received stronger support from the DA's office and that the option of having them testify on video should have been explored.
"I am a foster parent of one of the Ballard children," read a letter to Boulder's Daily Camera dated November 28, 1992. "I am very upset about the plea bargain for Marcia Dunnan...Our child does not feel safe with Marcia on the streets...
"The Ballard children deserve more respect and consideration than they have received in this case so far. They deserve a justice system that is equitable and sensible and will support them in their abilities to testify."
Three years ago Mark spoke at Patricia Ballard's parole hearing. According to a source who heard his testimony, "He discussed how forever he'd be a prisoner of what he suffered. He wondered if he'd be a good parent, would he hurt his children, could he even risk having a child. And she's going to walk away free."
Mark is still bothered by the pleas for Patricia Ballard and Marcia Dunnan. His mother may not have been the most vicious of the foursome, he says, but "she was still guilty of what she did. That's the whole entire point. She still was involved and she was still guilty. So either you're guilty or you're not. It's like you turn your lights on or you turn them off. They're not kind of on.
"Anything you do to a child in a negative light is a serious matter, especially to that child. There's no in-between there. You're still hurting that child."
Mark had testified against his mother as well as against Dennis Dunnan; it was extraordinarily difficult for him. When he heard about the plea, "I felt like I did all this work and it was almost for nothing," he now says. "If you were going to plea-bargain anyway, then why did you even need me?"
The baby makes a little grizzling noise. "What are you doing?" he says to her. "You're just getting squirrelly, huh?"
She emits a few experimental cries, then settles. "Kids are helpless," he says, turning back to the table. "They're completely at your disposal, and you're completely responsible for them. When you have children, you accept the responsibility and make sure that they're going to be safe."
Mark is troubled not just by the plea bargains, but by the tenor of his dealings with the DA's office. He remembers being questioned by two attorneys from that office, Pete Maguire and Mary Keenan, when he was twelve and living in a treatment facility in Westminster.
"I didn't feel that they were there to help me," he says. "I felt more threatened by [Maguire] than anything else--just his manner. I thought that he was very, very pushy. Things that I was not ready to talk about, I ended up having to talk about."
When the family had lived together, Mark had desperately and continually attempted to protect his brothers and sisters; he spoke to the attorneys out of a sense of responsibility.
But, he says, "I think there were a lot of scares: If you don't do this, we're going to make you testify. That's maybe not how he said it, but it's how it came across. And I testified anyway.
"Sometimes I felt like they were putting words into my mouth and it was like, no, that did not happen. Trying to make things sound worse than they really were. I mean, it wasn't a cakewalk, in general, but you don't need to make it worse," Mark continues.
"I thought they should take their time doing it. Every time they were with me, it was, let's do this, let's do this, let's do this. There's no concern. There's no regard. That's the way they want to do it, and that's how they're going to get it done. There's really nobody to supervise them, nobody above them, and they get to do what they want to do.
"It's fine maybe where you're dealing with older people, but when you're dealing with younger people, you ought to have more regard. You need to understand that they're still young, and young people can't handle certain things.
"The thing that sticks out the most is when they wanted me to break it down into incidents, specific things that I could remember. And they were putting it on this big poster board like you get at conference meetings. They got frustrated with me because I was thinking about it and trying to organize, to do my own thing with it, and he couldn't be patient enough to understand what I was trying to do, and he was like, 'You need to help. We need to get this done right now.' I think that's when I had to leave the room.
"Looking back on it now, I think that this was something they really wanted to prosecute, and the people involved are always going to be remembered for this case. So they were trying to do really good and get everything done really quickly, but I think in doing that, they more hurt the people they were supposed to protect."
Although Mark says he found the police detective who questioned him helpful and supportive, he does not remember any encouragement from the DA's office before or after his testimony in court. "Once I got done testifying with them, that was it," he says. "I never saw them again. You share that kind of information with them, you at least expect to hear something from them. The only thing I've heard afterwards was a letter informing me of parole rights and that sort of stuff. It's very cold."
Nonetheless, Mark believes that confronting his mother in the courtroom was helpful. "It was something I just felt I had to do," he says.
Does he expect to see his mother now that she's out of prison? "No," he says. "I have no interest. I'm a completely different person. I have a new life, and that's not part of it." He has finished high school and some college courses, knows his career path and has a job he enjoys.
The baby's grizzles have broken into a full-blown howl. Mark holds her to his chest and offers her the bottle, but she refuses to be comforted. Finally, he darts off to the men's room to change her. When he emerges, she's still howling. People are starting to stare. A little flushed, Mark asks the man at the counter for hot water to warm the bottle and expertly prepares it, one-handed. He offers the baby the nipple. She seems about to refuse, then takes it mid-cry. Her crinkled face smooths out. Her dark eyes fasten on his face. He watches until they droop shut, then puts her tenderly back in the carrier.
"This is her favorite blanket," he says, adjusting it. "She just rubs it against her cheek and falls asleep."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.