by Jeremy Rogalski / 11 News Defenders
HOUSTON—If a bank robber had an epiphany and called police to confess he just robbed a bank, it stands to reason there would be a quick arrest.
But in the case of a Houston man who confessed to sexually molesting two girls, including his own daughter, there was no speedy arrest. There was only anger and confusion from the victims’ relatives.
There was also outrage from child advocates, who called the case the tip of a troubling iceberg. They believe the justice system treats sexual assaults of children far less seriously than other “equal” crimes on Texas law books—crimes like aggravated robbery, kidnapping and even murder.
But even more troubling to those advocates is how slow police processing leaves possible pedophiles on the street, awaiting arrest and possibly offending again.
For example, last June, a woman went on her husband’s computer and saw child pornography being downloaded.
(Note: 11 News has chosen not to reveal the identities of the parents or the suspect, as that may reveal the abuse victims’ identities by association.)
“My world turned upside down,” said the woman.
But it was about to get worse, because she said she asked her husband if he had done anything more.
“And he said yes, he said that he had touched our daughter,” she said. But she said he also claimed it had been a fully clothed molestation.
Scared and confused, the mother took her kids and left him, uncertain if she should tell anyone. Then, a few months later, Christmas came around. The estranged husband was staying at the home of long-time family friends. They, too, had a 9-year-old daughter.
“She said, ‘Mom I’ve got to tell you something,’” the girl’s mother said. “Something happened in the middle of the night.”
Their daughter remembered the man crawling into her bed and taking off his pants.
“I was shocked and hurt,” said the mother.
“I did not know how to react. I started shaking,” said the father. “I wanted to attack the guy. I wanted to kill him.”
And then something surprising happened. The suspect confessed—right away—to family and friends, and also to police. In fact, a Harris County Sheriff’s Department incident report states “the suspect reported he sexually molested two girls.”
But what happened next has troubling implications about how police are handling child molestation cases, and if, in the process, they are endangering other children.
Even after his confession, police let the suspect go.
“I was livid,” the suspect’s estranged wife said. “Are you kidding me? This makes no sense.”
Even worse, her daughter then began to open up.
“Finally she broke down and she told me everything, and it was horrific,” she said.
According to her daughter, it was more than just touching, but unclothed acts that even included attempted intercourse.
When police interviewed the girl, the mother said they promised an arrest in a few days, but it didn’t happen.
“A week goes by, a week and a half goes by, two weeks,” the mother said.
She said investigators made promise after promise, but the suspect remained free.
In fact, she said the lead investigator on the case told her “it can take up to nine weeks to get someone arrested.”
The mother was outraged, and so the next time she called him, she recorded the conversation.
First, Harris County Sheriff’s Sergeant James Fitzgerald blamed his caseload.
“I’ve got a hundred of these things that I’m actually working on literally, and there’s no way you can work ‘em with any kind of consistency and keep up,” Fitzgerald said.
But what about the fact the suspect actually confessed?
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “You can’t turn yourself in for a crime that hasn’t been charged yet.”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “Unless it’s a homicide or something.”
Mother: “You can’t go to police and confess that you committed a crime?”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “Not this type.”
Confused? Randy Burton sure is, and he’s a former Chief Prosecutor for the Family Offenses Division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
“I cannot for the life of me understand it. It’s inexcusable,” Burton said. “There’s no difficulty here. We’ve got a child’s statement, and we’ve got the confession, it’s a slam-dunk case.”
Burton, who founded the child advocacy group Justice for Children, said if police are letting suspects walk free for as much as nine weeks, it poses a real danger to the public.
“People who sexually assault children can’t help themselves from assaulting other children,” Burton said.
That risk was apparent when 11 News visited the suspect in this case, who was staying at a home in northwest Houston with children living nearby.
So what did the lead investigator have to say?
11 News: “What took so long to make an arrest in this case?”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “This is one of the many cases we’ve got and, we have to prioritize them.”
11 News: “So even with a confession that didn’t prioritize it?”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “That actually would make it slightly lower because he’s not a risk to anybody.”
11 News: “How can you be so sure he’s not a risk?”
Sgt. Fitzgerald: “Well, everything is an estimation.”
“I’m appalled,” Burton said. “I think anybody who hears this story should be appalled.”
The former prosecutor said he doubts this is the only case police have handled this way.
“I worry about how deep it goes,” Burton said.
In the end, the suspect was finally arrested, six weeks after he confessed. But so far, he’s only been charged with sexually abusing his own daughter and not the second victim. Harris County Assistant District Attorney Denise Oncken said it was because the girl didn’t disclose what happened during a videotaped interview with investigators.
But Burton said the law is clear—she doesn’t need to. As long as she made an outcry to an adult, (which her parents said she did), the adult can testify in court.
“That is sufficient to make a case,” Burton said. “There’s no reason, with the evidence that they had, that they couldn’t have gone forward.”