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Mental problems toppled abuse case

ST. PETERSBURG — From the start, the woman's claims of sexual abuse kept getting more elaborate.

She said members of a ministry had sexually assaulted her and her brother years ago. She said they forced her to have sex with other children, including her own brother. She said she was assaulted with a screwdriver and forced to have sex with dogs.

Thus began a St. Petersburg police investigation into alleged child sex abuse by three prominent members of the Gospel of Truth ministry, known for the elaborate Christmas display at Ted Kresge's house heralded as one of the largest in the country.

Records show that despite clear indications that the accuser at the center of the allegations was troubled, the extent of her mental problems only recently became clear. Last week, authorities dropped all charges, largely because of the issues that came up during an April 28 deposition.

The accuser said during the deposition that she had more than 6,000 personalities and had only come forward recently after watching a TV show about a little girl who had been abused.

"I had what they called body memories and nightmares and things would trigger, like, flashes, like pieces of a puzzle, but I didn't have a clear recollection of what happened to me," said the accuser, 28.

Many victims of child sexual abuse come from troubled backgrounds. Quite often, child abuse experts say, the mental aftershocks of abuse linger for years, even a lifetime.

Dr. Tonia Werner, an assistant professor and chief of the forensic psychiatry division at the University of Florida, said multiple personalities are not present in a person from birth.

Instead, they are often caused by factors such as childhood abuse or overwhelming stress.

In this case, the accuser's mental issues were simply too serious for prosecutors to go on with the case, especially given the dearth of any corroborating evidence. The full extent of those mental issues only came to light in the last few months, long after the arrest of the ministry members.

"There's nothing to say that these events didn't happen," said Bill Proffitt, a spokesman for St. Petersburg police. "But proving them in a court of law can be difficult."

Three arrested

The assaults supposedly happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Several people interviewed by police described the Gospel of Truth ministry as an extremely poor place during those days. They said many families who joined the ministry had so little money that children fished for food in Dumpsters.

The accuser told police it was during that period that she and her brother, now 29, were abused.

Based largely on their statements, police arrested three people in April 2006 on charges related to capital sexual battery: 74-year-old Wesley Ball, 44-year-old Angela Hunnicutt and 42-year-old Lytricia Gardner. All three were longtime members of Ted Kresge's Gospel of Truth ministry.

But other people named as possible witnesses told police they weren't sexually abused and that they hadn't seen sexual abuse. The accuser's brother contradicted himself at times in a recent deposition. For example, he told police that Ball watched him and his sister have sex, then said at the deposition that he didn't remember Ball watching them.

At one point during a deposition, he said: "I want to go. I don't want any part of this."

The woman and her brother are not being named because of the nature of the allegations.

As the investigation continued after the arrests, more problems with the case arose. Others associated with the ministry and named by the accuser and her brother as victims didn't remember sexual abuse of children.

Then, on April 28, the accuser who triggered the investigation said during her deposition that she had numerous personalities. When asked if different personalities help her remember or dig out information, she said they did.

The accuser's mother was convicted of abusing her children. The accuser has been receiving treatment for mental health issues since age 14, according to her deposition. She has been seeing mental health counselors and taken various medications.

"I had memories where I could see things happening," she said.

What convinced her the memories were real?

"The pain I feel; the anguish, the shame, the helplessness, the hopelessness," she replied.

Credibility questioned

During an unrelated law enforcement investigation in the mid 1990s, the woman had denied being abused by ministry members. She said in her deposition that she had just begun recovering her memories.

When asked why she didn't tell authorities immediately about all the gruesome things she experienced, the accuser said she didn't exactly know how she remembered such things.

"I just know that I remembered. I don't know if it came from personality or not," she said.

Dr. David Corwin, the chief of child protection and family health at the University of Utah's pediatrics department, said that, in general, accounts of abuse that expand should set off alarm bells.

"There's realistic questions about credibility that can be raised," he said.

At one point during the deposition, the accuser said she was disassociating herself from the proceedings or getting help from a personality.

"I feel vulnerable right now, and scared, and someone stronger is trying to come out and protect me," she said.

She said she had over 6,000 personalities within her. She didn't know the name of the one helping her at that point in the proceedings.

Times researcher Caryn Baird

contributed to this report.

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached

at araghunathan@sptimes.com

or (727) 893-8472.

Mental problems toppled abuse case 05/23/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2008 11:19am]

    

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