"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?"

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman