Story Time

The town of Laporte sits on the edge of the Roosevelt National Forest, its back turned to the interstate a few miles away, and that's how it should be. Fewer than ten miles from the heart of Fort Collins, Laporte is the kind of nostalgic refuge from the big city that has all but vanished from Colorado's Front Range. Horses and sheep graze in front yards; children pedal fat-tired bicycles along the main road, oblivious to the traffic that creeps along at twenty miles an hour past the tidy red-brick schoolhouse.

Nothing bad, it seems, could happen here. It's not unusual to find locals who've lived in Laporte all their lives, venturing into booming Fort Collins as little as possible. The insular, small-town feel has also lured a wide range of urban refugees, from survivalist types (Pastor Pete Peters's notorious "Christian Identity" church calls Laporte home) to rush-hour-weary commuters looking for a safe, clean place to raise their kids.

John and Susan Hellner fall into the latter category. The Hellners moved to Laporte in the late 1980s, primarily for the sake of their two young daughters. John was a train conductor with some flexibility in his work schedule, and Susan had given up a job with an oil company to become a full-time homemaker.

"We're very conservative people," John Hellner explains. "This may sound corny, but we made an agreement that she would stay home and help the children be the best they could be at everything."

For several years the arrangement worked well. The Hellner children went to the tidy red-brick school, Cache La Poudre Elementary; Susan supervised their homework, volunteered at the school and served as assistant leader of a Brownie troop. But in the spring of 1992 it all fell apart. Safe, quiet Laporte suddenly erupted in accusations of child abuse, and the Hellners' lives have never been the same.

In May of that year a handful of children at Cache La Poudre began to tell strange stories about Jack Shepard, the school counselor. They talked about meetings of small groups of kids in Shepard's office that many parents hadn't known about, much less approved. They talked about "trips" they had gone on with Shepard, during which they'd been attacked by alligators or faced other dangers. They talked about things Shepard supposedly said about having "the power" or being a god. And they talked about games they'd played with Shepard, games that seemed to involve inappropriate touching.

Under frantic questioning by parents, the descriptions of the games became more elaborate, increasingly charged with sexual overtones--leading the parents to believe that the counselor was physically or sexually abusing their children.

The stories came out in pieces, but they kept coming--and expanding. The Hellners' youngest child, then six, said she had seen Shepard play the "trust game" with two other children, which seemed to involve placing a hand on their private parts over their clothing. Months later the girl would claim that she, too, had been touched between her legs; that Shepard had taken a photograph of her surrounded by dolls and holding a baby's rattle; and that Shepard talked a lot about the devil. Her older sister also described weird games and said that kids in her first-grade class used to get sick to their stomach or fall asleep when Shepard visited the classroom.

Within days of hearing the first rumors about Shepard, the Hellners and more than a dozen other parents took their children out of school. The Larimer County Sheriff's office launched an investigation, and Shepard, who was never charged, was placed on administrative leave with pay. Before long the alleged victims were being probed and questioned by a gauntlet of sheriff's officers, social-service caseworkers and private doctors and therapists.

Shepard, a respected educator who had taught in Poudre School District R-1 for more than twenty years, including eight years at CLPE, denied that he had done anything wrong. That summer he passed a polygraph test. Faced with conflicting stories and no clear physical evidence of abuse, the district attorney's office declined to file charges in the matter.

Much of what the children had to say--which grew, in short order, from accounts of "scary" games to accusations of molestation and even intercourse--was beyond belief. But what happened next was almost as incredible. Reinstated at his job, Shepard went to court to seal the records of the abuse investigation. He then filed a lawsuit against seventeen parents, seeking damages for, among other things, malicious prosecution, defamation and interference with his contract. The suit claimed that the parents had conspired to spread vicious lies about Shepard and had "coached" children into telling wild stories in an effort to get him fired and to change the curriculum at CLPE. When the official investigation failed to result in charges, he claimed, the parents had continued to harass him and had even plotted to kill him.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast