Truth on trial

Nov 4, 1998 at 12:00 am

Clutching a teddy bear that's nearly as big as she is, a 9-year-old girl sits on the witness stand in a Washtenaw County courtroom. With hair pulled back into three tight ponytails, a frilly pink dress and white lace socks that fall like little ruffled curtains over her shiny black patent leather shoes, she stares with eyes wide at a room that's vast in its emptiness.

Occasionally, Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton leans over and reminds her to move the stuffed animal so that her small voice can be heard clearly.

The room has been cleared of all spectators, including the jury, which watches the child's testimony through closed-circuit TV. No one remains except the lawyers, the judge, court personnel, and defendant Donald Lee, who faces three counts of criminal sexual conduct for allegedly molesting the little girl we'll call "Michelle." He's tucked away in a corner where he cannot see his accuser, but can hear her every word.

Before they begin, Judge Shelton asks Michelle if she knows the "difference between the truth and pretend."

"Ye-ah," she says in two syllables, raising her voice at the end as if she's asking a
question. She adds, "If I don't tell the truth, I'll go to jail."

Or, more accurately, someone who may be innocent will go to jail. That's the point Glynn Barnett, Lee's attorney, tried to drive home in his opening statement the day before. He depicted a man of extremely low intelligence caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"If Donald Lee is guilty of anything," said the gray-haired, court-appointed attorney, "he's guilty of living with an utterly humiliating, disheartening form of poverty. Right now, he's wearing the only clothes he owns."

From my seat in the audience during opening arguments, I peered into the face of Donald Lee. His bright eyes darted around the room, resting first on the jury box, then on the windows of the courtroom, then to the papers in front of him. I strained for a clue as to whether Lee could be capable of raping anyone, much less a child. A 2-inch-high tuft of hair sits atop his otherwise shaven head. He wears a bushy black goatee. His purple and black T-shirt bears the satanic face of a horror-rock artist like White Zombie. If looks could convict, I mused, Donald Lee would be jailed on the spot.

But the jurors seemed less judgmental. After all, they had already been put on trial themselves. For a half day, lawyers had questioned them about their own experiences with child abuse, and what weight they would give a child's testimony. "Do you think that if a child believes in Santa, the child's testimony cannot be believed?" the lawyers probed. "Do you think you need more evidence to believe a child's testimony over an adult's?"

The lawyers selected 12 men and two women, two of whom would serve as alternates. Now it was the jury's turn to sit in judgment. Would they believe the testimony of 9-year-old Michelle, or of Donald Lee, a 31-year-old Burger King employee who was caught up in one of the largest child sex abuse rings in Michigan's history?

Laurel Avenue nightmare

One thing is certain: Horrible things happened at the home of Harvey Santure, an immense 32-year-old, who lived with his aging parents, Bernice and Carl, on Laurel Avenue in Ypsilanti Township. For a man who never worked and seldom left the house, the 400-pound Santure had an awful lot of friends. So many, in fact, that neighbors grew jumpy as they watched a troop of adults and children come and go on Laurel Avenue. In one year, more than a dozen adults and children may have lived in the Santures' modest three-bedroom home.

In May 1996, Donald Lee and his wife, Chandelle, were struggling financially. When their landlord raised the rent $50 a month, the Lees could no longer afford their apartment. Harvey -- who knew Donald Lee from their days as special-education students in high school -- came to their rescue, inviting them to live in his basement for $100 a month and a promise that Chandelle would regularly cook dinner for the household. Harvey also bought a used car and sold it to Donald, allowing him to pay in installments.

In July 1996 -- after the Lees had temporarily moved out -- a neighbor called the police, claiming that something strange was happening in a car in front of the Santure house. Three men were in the car with a baby for several hours. The caller suspected the child was being molested.

"It was the most horrible home I'd been in," testified Detective Sgt. Fredrick Farkas of the Michigan State Police, one of the officers to arrive on the scene. "There was the stench of rotting food, everyone in the house had potent body odor, there was food left decaying on the table, cockroaches were crawling on the walls, the bedrooms were piled with debris. ..."

Because of the horrible conditions, the children then living in the house were taken into protective custody. (Michelle was not living there at the time.) Lacking evidence, police made no arrests for child abuse. Instead, they kept the case open and waited for new developments.

Soon after the raid, the Lees moved back in with the Santures, where they stayed until January 1997.

It was nearly a year after the raid that investigators said they had concrete evidence of abuse. In April 1997, police arrested Harvey Santure for sexually abusing a 5-year-old boy and his 6-year-old sister. As the net widened, more current and former residents of the Santure house, including Harvey's parents, were arrested on various counts of child abuse. By then, the press was reporting the horrors of a full-fledged "child sex abuse ring."

A month later, police arrested Donald Lee for violating probation on a 1993 charge of molesting a 10-year-old girl -- he had moved without notifying authorities. In July, police added the Lees to the list of alleged abusers tied to Laurel Avenue. They charged Donald with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct against Michelle, then only 7 years old.

By this time, 10 adults had been accused of molesting Michelle and three other children over the course of a year.

In a 22-page letter to Judge Shelton, Santure admitted that he was a pedophile, described a childhood of sexual abuse, and pleaded for mercy. Showing none, Shelton sentenced Santure to 25 to 50 years in prison, then later sentenced his mother to three to 15 years, and his father to one to 15 years.

Donald Lee was one of only two defendants who, claiming innocence, insisted on a jury trial. The other, Isaiah Simpson, got the stiffest sentence in the case: 40 to 60 years. Undeterred, Lee persisted on his day in court.

His decision initially paid off. On May 15, after a weeklong trial, Lee's jury was deadlocked. Little Michelle's testimony had failed to persuade all of the jurors. In the eyes of the law, Donald Lee was still an innocent man.

On the stand

It's a crisp Tuesday morning in late September, the second day of the retrial of Donald Lee. From closed-circuit TV, I watch the prosecutor give Michelle a stack of pictures of the adults she has accused of repeatedly molesting her. I prepare myself for the child to shudder in fear or cry out as she looks into their faces.

But she does neither. Instead, she matter-of-factly identifies her assailants, as if reciting the names of players on baseball cards. I remind myself that this is not a moment of truth for Michelle; it's just another in a long line of interviews where competing adults keep urging her to tell the truth.

Occasionally, as if struggling to pay attention, she yawns. Otherwise, she speaks calmly--except when asked about Harvey Santure. Michelle's reaction is visceral toward the man she describes as "fat" and "dirty." About her life on Laurel Avenue she says: "It got cockroaches in it and ants downstairs. ... They kept on putting dog food on my plate."

"Did bad things happen with Donald Lee when you lived in the house?" asks assistant county prosecutor Lori Coates. This is it. I lean closer to the television monitor.

"No," says Michelle simply.

"Do you remember telling us Donald Lee did something like Harvey?" Coates tries again.

"I don't remember," says Michelle, unmoved.

"Did Harvey do something bad?"

Michelle hesitates. Her lips move as if something distasteful is in her mouth and she doesn't know how to get it out. Finally, she says, "I forgot."

"What did Harvey do to you?" Coates presses gingerly.

"Put his weenus in my ... twitty," says Michelle lowly. She looks down at the teddy bear she calls Princess, and draws her mouth tightly. After this first admission, Michelle is not any more forthcoming. She again denies that Donald Lee ever abused her. But when questioning persists, she says that when they were alone, Lee put his "weenus" in her "twitty" once, and on several occasions he touched the "inside of her twitty" with his hand.

In spite of myself, I can't believe a thing Michelle is saying. She is so noncommittal, so easily led by the questions. I believe that Santure abused her, but for the first time, I seriously wonder whether Lee did, too. I can visualize a child trapped between horror and hell, unable to trust any adult, now becoming the pivotal player in a plan to punish those adults who did nothing to protect her from Santure.

Does she have a reason to protect Lee and deny that he abused her? Or is Michelle capable of fabricating a story of multiple abusers in order to please the people who have suddenly taken great interest in her life?

I thank God I am not a juror.

Part 2: Open questions

On a May afternoon in 1997, Michigan State Police Officer Kristi Grumeretz and lead investigator Detective Sgt. Farkas visited the school where Michelle was a first-grader. They had asked permission to speak to the little girl after her name came up in the Santure investigation.

Since her graduation from the police academy three years earlier, Grumeretz had received several days of special training specifically on collecting evidence and interrogating witnesses in child sex abuse cases. Prior to her assignment to Michelle's case, she had worked on nearly a half-dozen others involving child sexual abuse.

"I asked her if she knew the difference between a good touch and a bad touch," testifies Grumeretz. "She said, 'When Harvey touches me, it's bad,' pointing to her crotch area."

In that first interview, Michelle "did not implicate Donald Lee," recalls Grumeretz. The interview concluded in time for Michelle to catch her bus home, which was no longer on Laurel Avenue. Grumeretz made an appointment to pick up Michelle the next morning before school.

"When I picked her up," says Grumeretz, who has the healthy, tanned look of an Alpine skier, "she was waiting for me on the sidewalk. I noticed that she smelled really bad. She said it was because her cat peed on her book bag."

Michelle said she was hungry, so Grumeretz took her to McDonald's before heading to the police post. At the station, Michelle ate her breakfast, watched TV and wrote on a dry erase board while waiting to be interviewed.

Grumeretz says that she did not think to tape the child's testimony. "It's not protocol," she testifies. "And I wouldn't have videotaped the interview even if I had a camera."

But how can the jury decide how much of Michelle's testimony was prompted by skilled questioning and how much the child spontaneously disclosed, I wondered.

"Michelle named people without me suggesting any names," says Grumeretz, as if reading my mind. "She volunteered who had done bad things to her."

Michelle said that Harvey had put his "dick in her mouth and peed." She repeated the same allegations against a half-dozen people. But Donald Lee wasn't one of them. In fact, Lee's name did not come up until nearly a week later when Grumeretz picked Michelle up to take her for a medical exam. By then, a rapport was growing between the officer and the little girl who doctors say had injuries "consistent with sexual penetration."

"In the car, I asked her more questions," recalls Grumeretz. "I told her she needed to tell the whole truth about anyone who had touched her, no matter what they said. Then she said that Donald and Chandelle Lee had had sex in front of her and that Chandelle had molested her. I asked her, 'What about Donald?' And she said, 'He did the same thing Harvey did.'"

When allowed to select a "support person" during her a preliminary exam in the Lee case, Michelle chose Grumeretz. As she testified, she clutched Grumeretz's badge in the palms of her hands.

The whole truth?

In the nearly empty courtroom, defense attorney Barnett stands to cross-examine Michelle. Watching the monitor in the clerk's office, I wish that Barnett would leave the little girl alone; she's been through enough. But Barnett has a client to defend, and Michelle's testimony is key.

"What are you taking in school?" he asks, with a grandfatherly smile. I realize that for Michelle, no adult is safe, even kindly grandfathers.

"Speech," she quips.

"What? No math, no reading?"

"No. Just speech," she says sincerely. Later, Michelle can't even remember the name of her cat.

"Are you telling the truth when you said Donald Lee didn't do anything to you?" asks Barnett.

"Ye-ah," says Michelle in her sing-song response.

"And the last time you were in court, didn't you tell the judge that Donald Lee didn't do anything to you?"


"Did you tell Ms. Coates that Donald Lee did what Harvey did to make Ms. Coates feel good?"


"Are you trying to answer my questions so that I'll feel good?"


Barnett continues to plant the seeds of doubt surrounding Michelle's credibility. He does a roll call of the defendants, asking if any of them molested her. The only name Michelle says "yes" to is convicted sex offender Harvey Santure's.

Part 3: No one stopped it

On the second day of the trial, Frankie Wehagen, 31, comes into court in orange prison scrubs. He has the same pallor, the same absurd resemblance to Jesus, the same indifference to the crime of which he's been accused as the killer played by Sean Penn in the film Dead Man Walking. He's already pleaded guilty to molesting Michelle, but hasn't been sentenced: He must testify against his good friend Donald Lee in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Now it's time to hold up his end of the bargain. Frankie says that he watched as Harvey, sitting on the sofa in the living room, directed then 7-year-old Michelle to take off her pants and underwear and sit in his lap as he "put his fingers in her pussy." Then, says Frankie, Michelle went to Frankie's lap, then Lee's lap as the men penetrated her with their fingers.

He says that nearly everyone in the house gathered around to witness this entertainment, which occurred in exactly the same way on three different occasions. Harvey would initiate the abuse and Michelle voluntarily would go from Harvey to Frankie to Donald, while other adults in the house watched.

"What did you do," asks Barnett incredulously, "ring a bell and have everyone gather around at a certain time?"

No, replies Frankie. It just happened that way. No one spoke a word, and no one intervened on Michelle's behalf, says Frankie, implicating himself as easily as he condemns his friend.

Clashing accounts

Fifty-year-old Phylis Wehagen, Frankie's mother, takes small, uncertain steps toward the stand. Her mouth is collapsed and toothless, her hair gray. She, too, has already admitted sexually molesting Michelle.

On the verge of tears, Phylis testifies that twice she went to do laundry in the basement and discovered Lee molesting Michelle on the bed. She also discovered Frankie molesting Michelle in the basement on one occasion.

Another time, she went into the bathroom in the middle of the night where she found Donald and Michelle. Michelle was making a "gagging sound."

The testimonies aren't adding up. Frankie has just admitted molesting Michelle in his mother's presence in the living room on three occasions. But now, Phylis says she saw her son molest Michelle only once -- in the basement. The living room ritual is also important because that's where everyone in the house should have seen Donald Lee abusing Michelle. But Phylis says she witnessed Donald attack Michelle only in the basement, where a hanging sheet should have obstructed her view to the Lees' living quarters.

I stare at the woman on the witness stand in disbelief. I find it hard to imagine a household so deviant that children are abused in the living room while people pass through on their way to the kitchen, or in a basement while someone is putting whites in the dryer. A house so deviant that mothers can watch a child being abused and do nothing.

Not as bargained

Chandelle Lee, now Donald's ex-wife, plods through the courtroom angrily, as if she's just been rudely awakened from a deep sleep. She makes a half-hearted effort at swearing to tell the truth, then takes the stand.

When first arrested for sexually assaulting Michelle, Chandelle also contended she was innocent and demanded a trial. But after Isaiah Simpson received a 40 to 60 year sentence, Chandelle changed her plea to guilty on one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. The prosecutor had promised to drop a second count against her if she cooperated with the investigation and testified truthfully in related cases.

Of all the co-defendants, Chandelle seems least cowed by the prospect of prison time. She says that she caught Harvey molesting Michelle, and that she had even molested Michelle. But in a stunning statement against her own best interest, Chandelle claims Donald Lee never abused the child.

Assistant County Prosecutor Anthony Kendrick challenges Chandelle: "Didn't you tell Officer Grumeretz that you saw Donald Lee with his 'tallywacker' in Michelle's mouth?"

Chandelle is pissed. "When I told Grumeretz that, I was yanking her chain because I knew she would believe anything I said," she nearly yells.

Lee takes the stand

Barnett calls the final witness to the stand: Donald Lee.

Lee listens to each question with a dopey intensity, then responds, his answers veering in strange directions. He admits that he knew Harvey was molesting Michelle, but he didn't do anything about it because he was afraid that Harvey would kick him and his wife out of the house. Instead of confronting Harvey, Lee says he told Michelle to stay away from his friend.

"I told her that she should wait until she was 16 or so," Lee advised the little girl.

Although he had lived on Laurel Avenue with Michelle for several months, police testify that even after Lee learned Michelle had been sexually molested, he never showed any concern for the child and never asked to be updated about the progress of the investigation.

As prosecutors corner Lee on several inconsistencies -- including whether he had ever touched Michelle's genitalia -- doubts give rise to suspicion. Lee says he once applied medicated Vaseline to a rash on Michelle's vagina at the request of Michelle's mother. Earlier he had testified that he was medicating Michelle for "crabs," a form of body lice that lives in pubic hair. During police questioning, he denied that he ever had sexual contact with Michelle, then later recalls an incident where Michelle touched his penis as he got out of the shower.

Lee accounts for the contradictions this way: "I read my Bible, and what I say depends on what the Lord puts in my mind."

The Lord evidently gave Lee quite a few instructions. Barnett told me later that Lee believed that the Lord intervened on his behalf, resulting in the hung jury in his first trial. And while awaiting his retrial, Lee sent Bible verses to his "friends" who were testifying against him.

"Did you ever write any letters to Frankie Wehagen while in jail?" asks Lori Coates.

"Yes, yes, I did," says Lee.

"Did you send him a letter quoting Proverbs 13:2-3? 'A man shall eat good by the fruit of his mouth: but the soul of the transgressors shall eat violence. He that keepeth his mouth keepeth his life: but he that openeth wide his lips shall have destruction.'"

"Yes, yes, I did," chirps Lee, unflapped.

"Do you think he could have interpreted that as a threat?" presses Coates.

By now, some jurors have physically turned sideways so that they won't have to look at Lee. Lee frowns in forced contemplation.

"Yes, yes, he could have taken that as a threat," he says without blinking.

The jury speaks

By Thursday afternoon, the judge gives the case to the jury. I await the verdict anxiously. I think about the low credibility of Michelle's testimony and the double-crossing testimony of the co-defendants. I think about Michelle's visceral reaction to Harvey Santure's name and the doctor's testimony that she was likely a victim of sexual abuse. I waffle between doubt and certainty. I am only sure of one thing: Lee knew Michelle was being molested and did nothing to stop it.

On Friday afternoon, the jury foreman stands ready to deliver the verdict.

"Your honor," he says, "We the jury find the defendant Donald L. Lee guilty. ..."

The foreman's voice cracks and his body trembles. Donald Lee rocks back on his heels slightly, then regains his composure. Afterward, Barnett stands alone near the courtroom door.

"I tried," he says softly, exuding a genuine sadness. "I knew this jury was going to convict him."

Prosecutor Coates is so emotional, it is nearly 15 minutes before she can speak. "All I feel right now is a great sense of relief," she says, her face tear-streaked. "Relief that this little girl will never be abused by him again."

At the time this story went to press, Judge Donald Shelton had not yet sentenced Donald Lee. The Laurel Avenue police investigation remains open. Police say that Michelle and the four other children whose cases have been adjudicated are the tip of the iceberg, claiming that up to 36 children could have been abused on Laurel Avenue since 1986.