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Ravaged through a child's lies

The sixth-grader's favorite subject was make-believe. The only time her foster mother noticed her getting excited over homework was when it was time for a class play.

"She would write the script, direct it, and play a part," remembered Kathy Bellamy, her former foster mother.

In July 1993, the girl who loved acting accused William Bellamy, her former foster father, of having sex with her. It happened several times a week for nine months, she said, and she was willing.

Bellamy, a Shady Hills resident, was arrested by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in August. His employer, the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, labeled him a molester and fired him.

In December, the girl said she was lying. She accused Bellamy to gain sympathy in her new home, she told prosecutors. Bellamy's case was dropped, and a prosecutor said it appears Bellamy is innocent. But a month later, HRS still has not offered him a simple apology, much less his job back as a supervisor in Hernando County.

Bellamy acknowledges that nothing can repair his reputation. Regardless of the facts, some people will forever believe he is a child raper.

The prosecutor who oversaw the case defended the actions of the state attorney's office. "I don't know really what could have been done differently," said Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.

A thorough evaluation of the girl's truthfulness by the initial investigators would have been a start, said J. Larry Hart, Bellamy's attorney. "The blame lies with the detectives and HRS," he said.

Though the girl's story changed each time she told it, investigators never doubted her. No detective, prosecutor or counselor ever challenged any part of her accusations, she testified in her deposition.

The state also ignored HRS' own evaluations of the girl, Hart said. Reports said the girl was skilled at manipulation, required counseling to deal with her habit of lying and had changed her story on the 1988 accusations that made her an HRS client, Hart said.

If investigators have doubts, they press children further, but this girl's tale set off no warning bells, Bartlett said. "You just can't go inside the kid's head and see if they are telling the truth."

Bellamy's case was the result of a system that has made "believe the children" its credo, Hart said, and whose employees are determined to do what it takes to convict those accused of molesting kids.

"There is a price that is being paid in compromises of the truth and innocent people who are caught up in a system out of control," Hart said. "The bottom line is that each of us is only one good liar away from being where Bill Bellamy found himself."

In 1986, John Patellis, an elementary school teacher, found himself charged with fondling two 10-year-old girls. It turned out the girls were lying. They were mad at Patellis for disciplining one of them for cheating.

In 1987, Pasco school bus driver Ed Hartmann was charged with sexually abusing three girls, ages 3, 4 and 5, on his bus. Nineteen months later, charges were dropped. Questioned again, the children had said nothing had happened.

In 1988, Citrus Day Care Center operator Edward Clark and assistant director Arnita Shuler were charged with repeatedly abusing at least 10 preschoolers in their charge.

A jury heard the case against Shuler and acquitted her in 10 minutes. Clark's charges were dropped.

All three cases should have ended with a thorough investigation, said Hart, who had a role in all three with partner William Webb. Instead, those people were marked forever with the stigma of child molestation charges.

Hart, who was a state and federal prosecutor before becoming a defense attorney in 1986, said investigators lower standards in child abuse cases. Explaining contradictions between an accuser's statements becomes less important, he said, as does independent confirmation of allegations.

Child abuse investigators "start out with the idea that this kid has been molested and this guy is guilty," said public defender Doug Loeffler, "as opposed to, "Let's check it out.' "

They do not investigate in the usual sense of the word, but look for evidence to support the accuser's story, Loeffler said. When they find enough, they make an arrest.

Considering the nature of the crime, Bartlett said, it's not surprising that most molestation cases are not based on hard evidence.

Completely consistent statements and independent confirmation are unusual in such cases, as is physical evidence. Often a child's words are all there is, but that shouldn't stop the state from prosecuting, he said.

When children testify about sexual abuse, they often muddle details. Younger children, especially, are weak at recalling dates, times and details, he said. That doesn't mean they can't accurately say they were raped.

Even if children recant their allegations, that doesn't necessarily mean they were not molested, either, said Judy Griffiths, director of the Pasco Child Protection Team, a non-profit group that evaluates possible abuse victims.

Family members could have put pressure on the child, or they could be terrified of the courtroom. "The truth is," Griffiths said, "sometimes it's almost impossible to know whether they recant the truth or recant a lie."

If the girl had stuck to her story, Bellamy might be in prison. A believable, freckled 13-year-old would have told Bellamy's jury that he used her like a sex doll whenever he pleased.

Hart would have tried to highlight the inconsistencies and her record of lying in order to attack her credibility. But if jurors in a molestation case see their duty as a choice between believing the child or letting a molester go, a solid story isn't important, Hart said. "Jurors can be very forgiving."

Hart won't guess how it would have turned out. But before the girl admitted lying, William and Kathy Bellamy spent hours rewriting the family budget, calculating how to pay the mortgage with him in prison.

It was less than two years earlier, in March 1992, that the Bellamys met a "cute little tomboy" who reminded Kathy of herself as a girl.

The Bellamys, unable to have children, had already adopted a 7-year-old boy. The tomboy was going to need a new foster home soon.

The Bellamys considered how hard it might be raising a child who had spent the past four years in foster homes. Then they imagined the girl spending her teen years drifting from home to home in the foster care system.

Besides, they thought, they were unusually qualified to raise a troubled child. He had counseled troubled children for years and headed the Hernando County delinquency unit at HRS. Kathy also worked at HRS, in public assistance.

The girl arrived in April 1992. During the summer, she was busy with karate lessons, swimming lessons, horseback riding lessons. Trouble arrived with the start of school, William Bellamy said.

The girl would say she was walking around the block with friends, then secretly meet boyfriends. The Bellamys found long-distance calls to a boyfriend on their bill, but when confronted, she denied making them.

She also liked to shock people with lewd comments, they said. Using a vulgar term, she told William Bellamy that she had performed oral sex on a boy. When he didn't react, Bellamy said, she took it back.

A girlfriend said the girl talked about having sex with a Pepsi bottle. While with a neighbor, the girl said she wondered if she was bisexual.

A year after she arrived, the Bellamys had decided they did not trust her, and she couldn't stay.