One weekend morning last May, I ordered a cup of coffee and sat down at a table to wait for my interviewees to arrive at the coffee shop. Yolanda Mah walked in, accompanied by a tall, chestnut-haired woman I'll call Jessica, which isn't her real name. They both smiled and Yolanda hugged me.
Yolanda had reached out to the Independent saying she needed to talk to someone about her ex-boyfriend, whom I'll call Jeff—also not his real name. Jeff had been arrested by Missoula police and charged with raping children. One of those children, now a teen, was Jeff's and Jessica's daughter. The Independent is disguising Jeff's and Jessica's real names to preserve the victim's privacy.
Over the next hour and a half, Yolanda and Jessica told me what it was like to find out that someone you know and trust has been molesting children. And they were furious with how Jeff's case had been handled by the justice system. Yolanda—mother to a child by another man—told me that while she dated Jeff, she came to suspect he was a pedophile, and reported him to police more than six months before he was arrested. Yolanda had seen recent headlines about other cases in which convicted child molesters received short or deferred sentences. Jeff initially pleaded not guilty, but by the time I met them, the women had both been told by the county attorney's office to expect a change of plea. Yolanda was afraid that the prosecutor's office was going to allow Jeff to make a plea deal instead of going to trial. Jessica said she wanted to see Jeff go to prison for the rest of his life for what he did to their child, who is identified as "Jane Doe 2" in court documents.
Both women had questions, and they wanted me to help them find answers. Why wasn't Jeff arrested sooner? Was Jeff going to be allowed to go free? Who could be held responsible for this child's suffering, and her mother's?
"Why? Why, why, why, why?" Yolanda asked.
Ever since, I have been seeking some understanding of why Jeff's case played out the way it did, trying to find answers to the questions that haunt Jessica and Yolanda. I didn't find any tidy answers or obvious solutions. But the story of this crime can illuminate how such devastating abuse can take place in everyday circumstances, how hard it is to secure satisfying convictions for even the most heinous acts, and how an almost impossible compassion may be the only helpful response to tragedy.
Why wasn't he arrested sooner?
Yolanda, an outgoing social worker and single mom, met Jeff on a dating website. He told her he was a single dad. They sometimes exchanged flirtatious, explicit texts late at night. Transcripts of the texts were later entered into the court record of a custody hearing for Jessica's daughter, Jane.
In his text messages from the summer of 2015, Jeff cajoled Yolanda to share "taboo" fantasies.
"How about you tell me something dirty nasty taboo?"
He explained that he liked to watch incest porn. He described fantasies of their children walking in on them while having sex. He asked Yolanda to describe erotic scenes including little girls.
"Oh. I don't find that sexy at all love and it is hard for me to even say that," Yolanda responded.
"I know but its just dirty talk [sic]. Not ever going to happen. Just a thought that could if we were not the way we r. K like... I mean if we weren't moral parents," he writes.
The text transcripts show Yolanda trying to steer the conversation away from Jeff's incest fantasies, but he keeps circling back to them.
"I know that stuff turns you on but I am really uncomfortable with that shit. It is just so fucked up to me," Yolanda responded.
Yolanda told me that she kept talking to Jeff, trying to see if he would confess to a crime. His texts grew increasingly graphic, describing Jane and other young girls in sexual situations with him. He texted about a fantasy of 10-year-old girls at a birthday party sleepover seducing him.
Yolanda, whose job requires her to report suspicions of abuse, says she had no qualms about breaking up with Jeff and taking her concerns to Child and Family Services and the police in September 2015. She felt sure that the texts were enough to get him arrested.
But she struggled with how to reach out to Jane's mom.
"I didn't know what to do, because I was like, this will tear these fucking lives apart," Yolanda says. She recounts this chronology during our second meeting, months after the first, around Christmas time. "O Holy Night" plays from overhead speakers. Beside her, Jessica sips a latte. An energetic, talkative woman in her late 20s, she wears carefully applied shimmery eyeshadow. She smiles at Yolanda.
"And I say, thank you for ruining our lives, because it had to happen," Jessica says. Then, to me: "I wouldn't have my kid right now. Before I met Yolanda, I started to take [Jane] to therapy. I was like, my kid is going to kill herself, and I don't know what's going on."
Jessica began dating Jeff when they were both teens. He got her pregnant when she was 16 and they broke up. She raised their daughter, Jane, alone until the girl was 2 years old. Suddenly, she says, Jeff reappeared in their lives, wanting to be a father. He signed an agreement that he would pay child support and help take care of Jane. (Jeff has at least one other child with another woman, who has previously filed demands for child support and custody, according to court records.)
Looking back, Jessica suspects that Jeff probably started abusing the girl soon after he came back into their lives. In elementary school, Jane exhibited major depressive and suicidal behavior, and threw tantrums in grocery stores and Walmart. She also showed physical symptoms of emotional trauma, including headaches, stomach aches and insomnia.
Before Yolanda came to her with the texts, Jessica says, she was desperately trying to understand what was causing her daughter's symptoms. Jane had not, at that point, told her mother about the abuse.
"We were seriously driving around Kalispell to get her to a pediatric neurologist just because she's getting all these migraines," Jessica says. "Every sign was there. I'm treating it, I'm trying to get it taken care of, and I'm kind of mad at the medical world for not being, like, 'Hey, we've seen this before.'"
While Jessica grappled with the revelation, Yolanda tried to get the attention of the authorities. Armed with the text messages, Yolanda thought she had clear-cut evidence for Jeff's proclivities. She says she repeatedly called the Missoula Police Department and Child and Family Services in September 2015 with her concerns. She remembers sitting in her car in a parking lot, dialing the CFS hotline every morning before she went into work. "Apparently when I reported 50 million times, they didn't care," Yolanda says. "Nobody called me back. Not one phone call back from them."
Yolanda isn't the first person to encounter little help from Montana Child and Family Services. Across the state, CFS agencies report being inundated, primarily with cases related to parental methamphetamine or heroin abuse. CFS is overseen by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. In an emailed statement, DPHHS spokesman Jon Ebelt says calls to CFS go through an "intake specialist" who determines if follow-up is warranted. In 2016, the CFS hotline answered 35,226 calls, resulting in 9,154 investigations.
According to state statistics, only 30 percent of child abuse investigation paperwork was completed in a timely manner in 2015. That's down from 80 percent in 2010. A state report released in December 2016 found that from 2015 to 2016, 14 Montana children died within a year of abuse reports being filed. Representatives from the governor-appointed Protect Montana Kids Commission have told several media outlets that there's a "very wide, systemic problem" with CFS' effectiveness.
In a December 2015 custody hearing, Jessica asked a judge to bar Jeff from unsupervised contact with Jane. She submitted transcripts of Yolanda's text messages and included lengthy written testimony expressing her fears about Jeff's behavior. In response, the court granted the order and limited Jeff's access to the girl, though he and his parents were allowed to spend six hours with her on Christmas Day 2015. The judge expressed concern about Jeff's text fantasies and ordered a follow-up investigation by police. Jessica took Jane to the First Step Children's Advocacy Center, which conducts interviews of sexual assault victims in conjunction with the Missoula Police Department, among other services. A detective was present for the interview, according to court documents. Jessica says she wasn't allowed to be in the room.
At that time, Jane didn't disclose anything about her father's behavior. No charges were brought. Jessica says she was enormously frustrated by the inaction. She and Yolanda still don't understand why Jeff wasn't arrested in 2015, or why the text messages weren't enough to generate charges. Throughout the process, Jessica says, she struggled to understand what was happening, even though she frequently kept in touch with the city-county Crime Victim Advocate Program. "I had to constantly call them and be, like, do you have any information?" Jessica says.
I asked Missoula County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Jason Marks why the texts weren't enough to arrest Jeff. Marks says that without incriminating testimony from the victim, his office had no probable cause to press charges.
"Really, we either need a video, which sadly we see sometimes, that establishes that yes, this happened, or we need the kid to be able to say it happened," Marks says. "People being suspicious and having concerns—there being red flags—gets you to an investigation, the kid going into First Step, maybe the suspect being brought in and questioned about it. But it doesn't get you to a point that you can prosecute."
Moreover, Marks says, it's not always a slam-dunk even if the child later does open up and decide to disclose the abuse.
"And then you get a defense attorney who's, like, 'Well, the first time the kid said nothing was going on, and there's been this custody fight or intervening circumstance, so we think Mom's putting her up to it,'" Marks says. "So it makes for a more challenging case."
The path to arrest and a plea deal
The texts alone didn't amount to probable cause. But then one night in 2016 Jeff was drinking at a woman's home in Missoula with some friends. The woman's grade-school-age daughter went to her bedroom in the basement. Jeff disappeared from the party for a little while. According to court records, the little girl came back upstairs later that night and told her mother that Jeff had followed her into her bedroom and forced her to perform oral sex. The mother called 9-1-1. Police arrested Jeff.
Investigators brought Jane into First Step for another interview. With the knowledge that her dad had been charged with assaulting another child, she told detectives that her father had sexually abused her for as long as she could remember.
She finally told Jessica, too. Jessica says she was sitting at home watching TV with Jane when her daughter turned and said she needed to talk. "Everything came out," Jessica says. Jessica learned that when Jeff previously had unsupervised custody of Jane during the daytime, he had molested her in grocery store and Walmart bathrooms.
The county attorney's office charged Jeff with two felony counts: one of rape, for the event reported by the other victim's mother, and one of incest, for the abuse alleged by his daughter.
Jessica and Yolanda both wanted to see Jeff put on trial and sent to prison for the rest of his life. But Yolanda was worried. She thought about those headlines in which convicted pedophiles received short prison sentences. In 2013, for instance, a petition circulated demanding the recall of a Billings judge who sentenced a 47-year-old teacher to a month in jail for raping a 14-year-old student (though the sentence was later overturned and lengthened by another judge to 15 years with five suspended). In May 2016, a former Missoula County Youth Court officer received a six-year deferred sentence—less than the mandatory minimum punishment—for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. In Oct. 2016, a Glendive man convicted of raping his 12-year-old daughter received a suspended sentence, prompting a dozen constituents to write Gov. Steve Bullock asking for intervention. Bullock responded that he was horrified by the case, but couldn't do anything.
When the county attorney's office announced that Jeff had entered a guilty plea as part of an agreement with prosecutors, Yolanda feared a similarly unsatisfying result. She and Jessica were upset when Marks told them he thought a plea deal would offer a better chance of conviction than a trial. The proposed sentence offered the possibility of parole in 10 years, though it would be months before the sentencing hearing made it official.
Yolanda texted me when the plea deal was reported in summer 2016, furious at the news.
"There is such little support for [Jessica] and her daughter and other victims like her, and so little justice done to the perpetrators, that it is easy to give up," Yolanda wrote. "The process is long, and [Jessica] has given so much time and energy for barely an acknowledgement that her daughter's father committed incest."
Marks says he knows that victims and the public often want to see the harshest possible penalty for men who rape children. Jessica told me that she wanted Jeff to be publicly humiliated for what he did. When news of the plea deal was published in the Missoulian, it prompted outrage from others as well. One commenter demanded that Jeff receive the maximum prison sentence before speculating that Jeff must be related to the judge or prosecutor. Such comments don't escape Marks' notice. But in the absence of physical evidence, sexual assault prosecutions usually rely on testimony from the victim to prove their case. And Marks says that testifying at a trial in front of their abuser and strangers isn't always the best thing for a traumatized child. Prosecutors can ask adult victims to decide for themselves if they want to testify. Children—especially younger children—often aren't able to make that call. Marks won't disclose how he decided that Jane shouldn't be asked to testify, but he does say that, in general, he takes the advice of parents and therapists and performs his own assessment of the situation when deciding whether to put children on the witness stand.
In any case, there's no guarantee a jury will believe the victim. In Jeff's case, Marks says that without testimony in front of a jury, the text-message evidence and First Step interviews alone wouldn't have been strong enough to convict him on the incest charge.
"If a jury comes back with a not guilty [verdict], they're left with—they told the truth about this terrible thing that happened to them, and no one believed them," Marks says. "So there's a lot of countervailing pressures against 'damn the torpedos, take the case to trial.'"
And even if prosecutors secure a conviction, the judge is the sole authority who can hand down the sentence. There's no guarantee what a judge might decide to do.
Determining prison sentences for pedophiles
Montana's sexual assault statutes give judges wide leeway for rape charges involving minors, from a four-year prison term to a life sentence. Judges can opt to defer sentences, too.
In Missoula, former Youth Court officer Vayeeleng Moua was convicted last May of raping a 13-year-old girl. Prosecutors asked for a 20-year sentence with 15 years deferred. Lake County District Court Judge James Manley instead handed down a six-year deferred sentence, and a requirement for community-based treatment. Manley said the sentence was "the most unique and difficult decision I've had to make," and asserted that it was based on psychological evaluations of the offender indicating that he posed little risk of re-offending and had been punished enough by his own conscience.
The outcome frustrated the state prosecutors who worked on the case, but Manley's decision is understandable if you ask Andy Hudak, a Whitefish-based therapist and lobbyist for the Montana Sex Offenders Treatment Association. I called Hudak to see if he could shed light on how judges make sentencing decisions.
It's true, Hudak says, that some judges make uninformed decisions based on personal bias. But other judges sometimes hand down short sentences based on recommendations drawn from the offender's psychosexual evaluation, which the public doesn't have access to.
Hudak—who discloses that he is a victim of sexual abuse himself—says that lengthy prison sentences are not always the best way to deal with sex offenders. He emphasizes that he shares with victims and citizens the same protectiveness toward children and disgust at molestation, but he also thinks that gut instinct isn't necessarily the best source of smart public policy.
"I'm all for spending a million dollars to lock up a high-risk guy to protect the community. Yeah. We're for that. But not for a guy who's low risk, who does not represent a danger to people's children," Hudak says.
Hudak recommends that judges assign punishment based on the convict's risk of reoffense. In the 1980s and '90s, the psychiatric community developed several criteria based on evaluations of incarcerated sex offenders. A 2006 study by Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada examined findings from 29,450 sex offenders: 13.7 percent committed a new offense—lower than the recidivism rate for the general prison population. Child molesters, even those who commit incest, reoffend at even lower rates of 7-8 percent, according to the Canadian study.
Jeff's psychosexual evaluation is sealed, so it's unclear what conclusions investigators drew about his background and motivations and risk of recidivism.
Some studies have shown that sex offenders in general are likely to come from troubled backgrounds. A 2014 study in Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, which examined 679 convicted sex offenders, found that male sex offenders are three times more likely to have experienced child sexual abuse than men in the general population. Sex offenders also reported experiencing significantly more emotional neglect, physical abuse and verbal abuse than average.
Hudak says that doesn't mean offenders shouldn't be held accountable, but it does blur the line between "good and evil" that so often delineates the public discourse about such crimes.
"There's a division the world looks at between offenders and victims," Hudak says. "When you're around long enough you see that frame break down constantly. When I do sex offender treatment, I also do victim treatment. A lot of [abuse] is born of emotional, physical abuse that isn't processed well. The average sex offender is also a victim of abuse."
Hudak says that kind of input from a psychiatrist might prompt judges to offer some compassion. In the Moua case, for instance, Judge Manley said he sided with the recommendations of the defense and the psychosexual analysis to treat Moua not in prison but in his community, where he'll be supervised under the state's sex offender registration program.
Prison sentences don't stop cycles of abuse
No matter how long an offender goes to prison for, the trauma left behind doesn't go away. In Hudak's experience, therapeutic intervention is vital for ensuring that child sexual abuse victims go on to lead better lives. A wealth of studies, including several published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, shows that cognitive-behavioral therapy and other treatments can successfully reduce the symptoms of PTSD and harmful behaviors in traumatized children.
Hudak says it can be tough to convince kids to disclose molestation if they're afraid that they'll be responsible for sending their family member to prison. In early February, Hudak spoke out against House Bill 133, a proposed state bill that would institute a mandatory 25-year minimum sentence for anyone convicted of raping a child under the age of 12. (The measure didn't make it out of committee.) Hudak says that such bills mean well, but that a 25-year mandatory sentence places an unreasonable burden on a child who's told that her testimony could send her dad or uncle away for the rest of his life.
"Often [victims] hate the offense but love the offender," Hudak says. "But then if they tell, Dad goes away for 25 years. ... Then we're back in the 1950s and '60s when nobody came forward."
Child sexual abuse rates are slowly going down. Today, one in five girls and one in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center. That's lower than when Hudak first started practicing in the 1970s, when the numbers were one in four girls and one in six boys.
While the offender goes into treatment on his own, Hudak says, the remaining family members can find emotional healing if they are willing to communicate and work through issues together. He's most concerned about families in which the trauma of molestation is compounded by other dysfunctions, including alcohol abuse, lack of communication and poverty.
"We've served justice. The guy's gone away for 10 years or 15 years," Hudak says. "But those of us who work with those families, we deal with what happens afterward."
What happens after sentencing?
In a Missoula County Courtroom, on a sunny day in 2016, Jeff sat quietly, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, awaiting his sentencing. Jeff's lawyer stood, his hands in his pockets, seemingly wanting to keep his distance from his client. Jeff had already pleaded guilty to charges of incest and rape. "The mom wants to read a statement," said another lawyer, representing Jessica.
Jessica stepped up to the witness stand and unfolded a piece of paper. Her hands shook as she read her statement, describing how she had learned that Jeff had groomed and sexually abused her daughter since she was a toddler. Jessica wept as she read, and the judge handed her a box of tissues. Jeff's parents sat in a row by themselves, observing the proceedings stone-faced. Across the aisle, a court-appointed victims' advocate kept her arm around Jane.
The judge expressed regret that he couldn't impose a harsher penalty before delivering the agreed-upon sentence: 50 years in total, with 30 years suspended, and eligibility for parole in 10 years. The hearing took about half an hour. When it was over, the judge went to lunch. I went back to my office.
But the story wasn't—and isn't—over for Jessica and Jane.
The sentencing was enormously difficult for Jessica, the last straw in a long series of struggles. She'd been attending the University of Montana and working full time, but she went broke trying to take care of her children (she has a second child by another father), handle Jane's medical needs and pay attorneys fees. Even after Jeff was restricted from access to his daughter and charged with incest in spring 2016, he still legally retained parental rights to Jane, and Jessica had to seek a court order to remove those rights before sentencing.
She got evicted in spring 2015, when I first met her, and eventually lost her job. She tells me she's called the YWCA, the Salvation Army, WORD and the Crime Victim's Advocate Program looking for help getting back on her feet. She says none of them could offer any help—there were waiting lists, or stipulations she couldn't meet, or she didn't qualify for their particular type of assistance. Jessica talks quickly, in disjointed sentences, when she gets upset.
"So from the CVA, I was in there, and I was like, 'We're getting evicted, this is going on, I'm about to lose my job, I had to drop out of school, is there anything you can help me with?" Jessica remembers. "She was like, 'Here's a $10 gas card.'"
Jessica acknowledges she has an "alky problem," too. A few weeks after the sentencing, she was arrested on Highway 93 for felony drunken driving. Her children, including Jane, were in the car. Jessica served jail time, during which family members took in the kids.
The last time I met with Jessica, in December, she was living at the Poverello Center. She doesn't think Jane is going to therapy regularly, but she thinks she has little power over the situation. In February she messaged me: "My life is a mess right now."
Yolanda is trying to move on, though she says she's often reminded of Jeff when she sees the kind of delivery van he used to drive. She says that even though Jeff will be in jail for at least 10 years, she's frustrated that the legal system hasn't offered any help for Jessica and Jane—Jeff's sentence didn't include any restitution—and that the nonprofit system isn't equipped to help them in the aftermath of the crime, either.
"It's like nobody cares. It's like just all forgotten because there's so many [child abuse] cases to keep up with, the problem just cycles over and over," Yolanda says.
It's unclear what the future holds for Jane, but Jessica does say she's more optimistic about her daughter now that they can talk about what happened. She sees Jane befriending other kids who grew up with tough family situations. Jessica says she tries to keep their relationship as open and honest and possible.
"She says, 'Mom, you cannot imagine the things I have seen. I can handle the truth," Jessica says.