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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Neighbors rescue girls from years of molestation

BY ROY WENZL
The Wichita Eagle

Shelly Vasey had promised not to tell. She kept that promise for two days.

She called several times the next day. “Stop calling us,” one of the girls told her. “You’ll get us in trouble.”

She cried for two days, mostly from rage.

Jim finally told her to act.

“You can’t live like this,” he said.

Jim had not spoken out until that moment; but he thought not telling was wrong.

“We’ll call Scott,” Jim said. “Scott will know what to do.”

At Countryside Christian, Scott Wiswell was one of their church elders.

Looks can deceive. Scott looked meek and introverted — slight of frame, light-colored hair, gentle eyes peering from eyeglasses that made him look bookish and shy.

But Jim had served with Scott on the church elder board, had become friends, and knew what Wiswell did for a living: Wiswell carried a gun, and at work had an excellent reputation for tenacity.

He was a sex crimes detective for the Wichita Police.

***

Wiswell had hunted and captured adult sex abusers and rapists for a long time by the time Jim Vasey called him; it was Wiswell who led the team that had hunted and captured the Riverside Rapist, Leon McClennon Jr., who preyed on women in the late 1990s in Riverside and other neighborhoods.

He knew that sex crimes are some of the tougher crimes police ever solve. There are few witnesses, except for victims, and victims are usually scared.

They fear that no one will believe them. They fear the rapist. They fear what might happen to their family, if the rapist happens to be in the family, as he often is. Some victims lie because the rapists are sometimes the only family they’ve known, the people they depend on.

Very little surprised him anymore, either about how vicious the rapists act, or how needlessly reluctant victims and witnesses are about calling police.

At Countryside Christian that night, Shelly and Jim met with Wiswell expecting a long talk. But he was surprisingly blunt and brief. Shelly had barely begun telling what she knew when he reached into his pocket for his cell phone.

“We need to call 911 right now,” he said.

Shelly was aghast. She’d promised the girls she wouldn’t tell the police, and now she was talking to a cop with a sudden glint in his eyes.

“Wait . . .” she said.

What would Kellie and Kathie think? They’d been betrayed by their family, and now she was betraying them.

“Couldn’t we go talk to the mother?” she asked.

“Is the one who abused them still in the house?”

“Yes.”

“Then no. The abuser is still in the house. Confronting the mother will make it worse. We don’t know the girls are safe.”

He held out the cell phone.

“The only question is whether it’s you or me that makes the 911 call.”

Shelly took the phone. It was 7:30 p.m. March 23, 2005.

As the trauma of their early lives becomes more distant in memory the Henderson twins have begun to enjoy life more, including when they meet to visit with their mentor and friend Shelly Vasey.

Promise Not to Tell

***

In the two days after they told Shelly, Kellie had felt infinite relief.

Like many rape victims, she and Kathie had not told everything; they had said Andrew had raped them, but failed to say how often, failed to mention Matt and Dad. Then they’d led Shelly to believe they wanted secrecy.

They had muddled their own rescue, and Kathie got raped again. But the muddle would end now — Kellie was sure.

Kellie stared at the ceiling, stared at the walls. She had asked Shelly not to tell; but she knew Shelly would tell. She knew Shelly would rescue them. She felt joy: she could hardly wait.

Two nights after the visit to Shelly, Kellie heard a knock at the front door. It was getting late, almost 8:30 p.m.

Her heart raced.

When she saw the tan uniforms she felt another surge of joy.

***

Can we come in?

Two stocky Wichita police officers walked in, their high-traction shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor. She saw badges and holstered guns. Kellie called out to her mother. “The police are here. They want to talk to you.”

Are your brothers home? one cop asked.

No.

For that, she felt relief.

But when the officers asked the question she had hoped for most of her life, she lied.

***

The officers wore bullet-proof vests. Shelly had told the officers what the girls had told her: that Andrew was dangerous, that he had a police scanner and security cameras where he could see whether the police were coming up the walk.

Could we talk to you one at a time? one cop asked.

Yes.

Kathie heard her mother whisper to the girls to say nothing.

The cops questioned them one at a time at first.

Are you being molested?

No.

Kellie lied. All the girls lied, except Kathie, who said “no,” then nodded “yes.”

Could we talk to you all together?

They gathered in the kitchen, the officers sitting, four children and the mother standing around them.

Are you being molested?

Excerpts from Kellie Henderson's writings

Promise Not to Tell

Kellie froze. She was 13 years old; it was one thing to tell Shelly the truth, but it was another thing altogether to say it out loud with her mother standing right there.

No, Kellie said. Everything’s fine.

Kathie agreed. No.

Are you sure?

Yes.

The cops did not move.

We’re going to ask this again, one said. This is about your safety. Sexual abuse is wrong. If it is occurring, you should tell us. Is it going on?

No.

The officers asked again. And again.

No.

Between the lies, there were moments of silence. Kellie’s heart raced. They were blowing their own rescue. But then her mother spoke up.

It’s all right, she said. You can answer honestly.

Kellie stared at her.

Just tell them, Lisa said. Tell them the truth.

Kellie hesitated.

OK, she said. Yes.

Then she started to cry.

The officers said the girls must leave with them. Now.

They gave them only enough time to put on their shoes.

***

At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Chris Zandler towers over other detectives from the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit, but he tempers his size with an engaging manner and a flair for child-pleasing art; many of the walls of the unit that investigates sex crimes are covered with paintings he's done of the Jetsons, the Flintstones and Scooby Do.

In sex crime investigations an engaging manner is a virtue — you succeed if you’re gentle with children, and with the creepy guys too. You never yell; you talk nice, and persuade the suspect sitting with you that you respect him.

He was new to the unit, and was learning what Detective Bill Riddle and other veterans already knew: how widespread sexual abuse is in Wichita — hundreds of cases a year. He was learning how to catch the bad guys, too, from working cases and listening to veterans like Riddle.

Riddle was a big guy too, 6 feet 1, 260 pounds, and he was the one who’d taught detectives never to use size or loudness or attitude to intimidate. He had hunted abusers for six years by the time he and Zandler met the Hendersons, and he liked to say that you should never raise your voice.

Instead, you tell the guy you understand, that you understand that he had sex with his daughter because he loves his daughter, or sister, or granddaughter.

In fact, the goal, Riddle told Zandler and other new detectives, was to be so agreeable that the guy reaches out a hand after he confesses, and shakes your hand.

And you shake it. Because you’ve caught him.

***

Zandler interviewed the younger sister, age 12. Zandler was new enough to child sex crimes to still be shocked, and what the little girl told him was so upsetting that he did not at first believe it.

“Man,” he thought. “Is she making this stuff up?”

But she insisted, and told him specifics that sounded plausible.

He finished the interview, feeling sick, feeling slight twinges of doubt. But then he walked into the hallway.

He knew all the blood had drained from his face.

Across the hall, a door opened and Detective Jeff Gilmore walked out from where he’d been interviewing Kellie Henderson.

Gilmore had the same sick look. He’d been a cop for nine years, and this was the most horrifying case he’d seen.

“My God,” he told Zandler. “We need to get some help down here.”

Shelly Vasey had made that 911 call on Wiswell’s cell phone at about 7:35 p.m. The patrol officers had arrived at the Henderson house to question the girls at about 8:30. At 9 p.m., five hours after the Exploited and Missing Child unit detectives had gone home for the day, their supervisors called Zandler and Gilmore back in, and told them they’d all work through the night and next day.

They faced a huge, complex case that needed not only speed but smarts and organizational skills. Gilmore respected Riddle, who had shaped such cases for years. He wasn’t in there on this case.

But they called him in now.

***

Not long after, Kathie Henderson, 13 years old, stared in wonder at Riddle: A huge dude, she thought, shaved head, big shoulders, and a serious manner. Kathie was already scared, and Riddle’s intense manner scared her more.

“Could I have a glass of water?”

“Sure.” He brought it.

Riddle was trying to hurry, and was taking the lead in organizing the complexities. Wiswell had suggested speed; the patrol officers had worked fast. The detectives moved rapidly now: The rapists were at large, the detectives wanted to capture them quickly, but needed carefully gathered evidence proving they had a right to scoop up the boys when they came home.

Riddle showed Kathie anatomical diagrams.

“Show me,” he said bluntly. “Show me what touched what. Tell me what happened.”


Five years after they helped rescue her and her sisters, Kathie Henderson in November reconnects with Exploited and Missing Child Unit detectives Bill Riddle, center, and Chris Zandler. She wanted to thank them for helping her.

Promise Not to Tell

***

The girls implied at first that it was only Andrew, and only a few times. Kellie was so cryptic and closed off that it took Gilmore half an hour of talking to get her to tell him anything. But Riddle had mentored them, had coached them to expect lies and evasions, even from victims. They are scared, betrayed, fragile kids, he had told them; some of these kids, because they never had good family, assume that forced sex is normal in families. Riddle taught new detectives like Gilmore to be gentle, gain kids’ trust — and keep them talking. So that’s what they did — and the girls opened up.

They revealed more, about Andrew and how often, about Dad and Matt. They told how Andrew and three friends slapped their nine-year-old brother around. One night, they told the cops, Andrew and his friends duct-taped the boy to a chair and left him.

The cops later arrested the friends.

The girls told how violent it was; a female sergeant photographed the bruises on the youngest sister’s thighs.

By then Gilmore had gone through the Henderson house. It made him sick.

On the outside it looked like other middle-class homes. Inside, the Hendersons had torn all the doors off the kitchen cabinets; they had a picnic table for a table; the basement was a pit, graffiti sprayed on black walls, the windows sprayed black. My God, a dungeon, Gilmore thought, as he walked down the steps. The stench nearly overpowered him — in the basement Andrew used an old green trash can as a toilet that he never emptied. But it was what Gilmore saw that upset him most: In the middle of the filthy floor was a small, filthy, twin-bed mattress, right where Kellie said it would be.

***

After their interviews, Kellie and Kathie saw Andrew sitting in a tiny interview room.

“Can I get a look at him?” Kellie asked.

The detective let her peek through one-way glass.

Andrew looked alone and scared. He stared at the floor, shaking his head.

By then the girls seemed almost cheerful. After the interviews, they treated the detectives like heroes, asked for their business cards, traded them like baseball cards with each other. They asked for autographs with a sweetness that touched the men down deep. Zandler signed his cards “Z-Man.”

After that, they took Kellie and the younger kids to the Wichita Children’s Home. But Kathie, who had been raped hours before, was taken to a clinic to be swabbed, “violated again,” as she put it.

When Kathie got to the Home about 3 a.m., Kellie hugged her.

“It’s over,” she said.

***

Riddle and the others tricked Brad Henderson into coming back to Kansas. They used the girls as bait.

Riddle had a woman from EMCU call Brad in Colorado.

His sons and ex-wife were in custody, the caller told Brad. “The girls need their father.”

Brad drove all night to get to Wichita.

Zandler saw him in the hallway when he arrived; Brad was laughing. Zandler watched him with grim satisfaction. “He thinks he’s gonna get his girl toys back now.”

Brad sat down in an interview room; he still looked cheerful. Gilmore walked in, shook his hand, smiled, and talked in a friendly way to Brad about how the girls were doing. But then, still smiling, Gilmore read Brad Henderson his Miranda rights. “You have the right to remain silent.”

Beads of sweat broke out on Brad’s forehead.

He sighed.

It was his last breath as a free man.

Afterward, as Gilmore always did when he shook hands with one of these guys, he went to the bathroom and washed his hands with soap and hot water.

He still felt sick. When he’d interviewed Andrew, he’d asked him why he raped his sisters.

Andrew gave an answer the detectives never forgot.

“Well,” he said. “It’s legal in Alabama.”

***

The Henderson case and the ten-year torture the girls described would haunt the three detectives for the rest of their careers. Gilmore, who had already worked the Carr brothers quadruple homicide in 2000, and who went on to help with 75 homicide investigations by 2010, would say later that the Henderson case disturbed his sleep more than any case he ever worked.

Zandler felt the same way. You couldn’t help but look at those girls, as sweet as they were, and wonder how damaged they might be, Zandler thought. “You wonder how they’ll turn out.”

In the years to come, Kellie and Kathie and their sister would confront that question — along with how they felt about their family.


Kellie, left, and Kathie Henderson. (Nov. 5, 2010)

Promise Not to Tell

Their family was wrecked, and not just those in custody.

The girls struggled to come to terms with who they were, what love is, and what to do now. They would each supply different answers.

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THE SERIES

PART ONE: For a decade, girls endured the horror at home

PART THREE: As shattered lives are put back together, cracks remain

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