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Wednesday, September 5,2001

Guilty until proven innocent

Willis Daldorf still under unfair suspicion and persecution

by Wayne Laugesen (letters@boulderweekly.com)

Willis Dalldorf can't get a break to save his business, his reputation or his home. All were sacrificed at the alter of media and law enforcement arrogance, since the day he was booked last spring on two bogus charges of felony sexual assault on children.

On Aug. 9, this column told how three unruly fifth graders complained to a teacher about Dalldorf, who had volunteered as a chaperone for a field trip his son was on. Dalldorf asked the girls to dress according to the guidelines of a written dress code, because they would be hiking in sub-freezing temperatures along the north face of a mountain.

Dalldorf was so concerned about the girls' attire that he and his son carried extra coats and sweaters up the mountain, which the girls ended up using. Yet his comments about their improper attire-which passed from the girls, to a teacher, to a principal, to a school counselor, to a police chief, to the Boulder County Sheriff's Department-became the grounds for a felony sex assault arrest. Suspicions about Dalldorf were fueled by fuzzy allegations that he might have bumped a breast on one of the girls while reaching for sugar as the group of children and adults made pancakes. Another "maybe" in the police report involved Dalldorf's demonstration of an antique tractor seat. To show how the seat was designed to absorb shock, he pulled down on it while one of the girls was sitting on it. As reported to sheriff's investigators, his hand was near the girl's buttock and might have even touched it. This "sexual assault," keep in mind, was committed in front of at least a dozen other adult chaperones.

The charges against Dalldorf were sheer, utter nonsense. They were so weak that the Boulder District Attorney's office-best known for its ongoing and righteous crusade against sex offenders-walked away from the case without filing formal charges. Days after Dalldorf's arrest, on two occasions, prosecutors begged separate judges to ease up on conditions of bond that were keeping Dalldorf from children and from his family.

Yet he'd been hung out to dry, as a common child-sex predator, by the Boulder Daily Camera and his hometown paper, Nederand's Mountain Ear. Each paper cited the charges and ran Dalldorf's arrest mug. Neither bothered to mention the shady details that led to the arrest. And each paper ignored the little matter of prosecutors telling a judge they had no case and that formal charges wouldn't be filed, even after Dalldorf called and told them all about it. Each paper allowed the public to continue viewing Dalldorf as some sort of dangerous, menacing sex pervert. Dalldorf, a reputable portrait photographer, was dropped by most of his clients. He was treated as a pariah by some of his neighbors and peers.

Two days after this column told of Dalldorf's ordeal, the Daily Camera ran a tiny story that at least said the DA had opted not to pursue charges. It would have gone far in easing fears about Dalldorf, had it not been for a calculated dig in the last two paragraphs. One paragraph introduced readers to Detective Sgt. Dan Barber, head of the Sheriff's detectives' bureau, who said Dalldorf remains under suspicion. The other quoted Barber saying: "We're still going to talk to kids. We're not done with this investigation."

One takes from this a feeling that Dalldorf got off on a technicality, and that police know something more. Alarmed, I called Barber three times to ask what he knows. Barber didn't call back, so I called his boss, Sheriff George Epp. I asked him to look into the case and tell me whether anyone in his department would have reason to remain suspicious of Dalldorf and continue the investigation. He graciously honored my request.

Epp called back and made it perfectly clear that Dalldorf is no longer a suspect, is not under investigation, and the department has no reason to continue investigating him.

"I just finished reading all of the one thousand, one hundred and thirty two lines of this report," Epp said. "In answer to your question, 'is anything else going on?' No. There's no further investigation of this case."

Then I called reporter Christine Reid, of the Daily Camera, who wrote the last Dalldorf story with Reporter Pam Regensberg. In our conversation, Reid initially confused Dalldorf with a former teacher in Nederland who was convicted of child molestation. An innocent mistake, but her remark about the confusion is telling.

"Sorry, I'm getting my bad guys mixed up," Reid said.

Dalldorf isn't a "bad guy," but Reid apparently thinks he is simply because officers arrested him. Dalldorf is a man who volunteers as a Boy Scout leader and involves himself directly in the day-to-day activities of his own kids. He gives money to charity and was voted Volunteer of the Year by the Boulder County Department of Social Services. Dalldorf's arrest was a bad rap, plain and simple, and any honest and objective review of the case reveals this fact. Just ask Sheriff Epp.

Clearly, however, Regensberg and Reid did not wish to present Dalldorf to the public as an innocent man arrested on false charges. Nor did Sgt. Barber, who gave Regensberg a careless statement crafted to make Dalldorf appear the bad guy that he's not. To say he's not bad, after all, would be for the head of detectives to admit a mistake. And why should anyone admit a mistake, when a simple misrepresentation-one that will perpetuate the ruination of Dalldorf's life-cover's everyone's butts?

The media's handling of Dalldorf's arrest is a travesty far greater than the destruction of one man's reputation. It reflects a disturbing media trend in which reporters and editors take government faxes and e-mails at absolute face value. If cops make an arrest, it serves as proof positive among media types that the suspect is bad.

It's not supposed to work that way. We in the media enjoy almost unlimited freedoms, guaranteed by the Constitution, because the Founding Fathers wanted us to act without retribution as watchdogs. And who are we supposed to watch? Not citizens, but government. Every word and every phrase of the Constitution was written carefully to empower the citizenry over its government, not the other way around. Not a word of the Constitution grants power to the criminal justice system or any other branch of government. Quite the contrary, the document limits government powers.

The media aren't supposed to protect the public from child molesters. That's the role of all citizens and cops, and at best a secondary role of the press. When covering law enforcement, the media are supposed to keep in check the police-who are armed agents of the state. Reporters should look with suspicion on cops-not their suspects, who are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Had the media done its job, Dalldorf wouldn't be suffering. Instead, reporters would have scrutinized the case before going to press and demanded answers from police. One man's reputation is worth it. For it's better that ten guilty felons go free than one man pay for a crime he didn't commit. Losing his portrait photography business, home and reputation, Dalldorf gets to pay.

To hire Willis Dalldorf for portraits, call 303-258-7923.

Send letters to the editor to: letters@boulderweekly.com. Fax: 303-494-2585. Snail mail: Boulder Weekly Letters, 690 S. Lashley Lane, Boulder, CO 80305. Contact Wayne Laugesen at Wayne@Laugesen.com.

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