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Politicians key to man's fate

Today, in the peak of election season, Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida's elected Cabinet will be asked to set a convicted child molester free.

Just think of the headlines.

But Norman Peterson's family says he is an innocent man.

They say he deserves to get out of Glades Correctional Institution and come home. In affidavits, the three victims _ his daughters _ say another man molested them, a man now imprisoned in Pennsylvania.

The Peterson family goes before Florida's Board of Executive Clemency, made up of Bush and the six-member Cabinet, today. The state's Parole Commission is recommending that clemency be granted.

But with Bush's brother running for president, and two clemency board members running for statewide office (Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher and Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson), the family worries that politics will keep 46-year-old Peterson behind bars. Clemency is a political proceeding, not a legal one.

In the end, it's a judgment call.

The story begins with a rocky marriage and five tiny children in a trailer park in Florida sugar country.

The official facts are these:

Peterson was sentenced to 45 years in Hendry County after three of his five children _ little girls who were then ages 5, 6 and 8 _ told state child-protection workers he molested them repeatedly in the family's trailer near Clewiston. The girls were taken to a doctor, and an examination showed no physical signs of sexual abuse. Peterson maintained his innocence but pleaded no contest, sharply narrowing his chance to appeal. He was convicted of three counts of lewd and lascivious acts upon a child under 16 in 1990, and he has served 10 years so far.

Now grown, all three of the girls _ Chavonne, Rosemarie and Jennifer _ signed affidavits in 1997 saying their father didn't molest them.

All three of the girls' affidavits say their mother, Joyce Woodruff, told them to accuse their father years ago in Clewiston. At the time, in 1985, Norman and Joyce were in the midst of a nasty split.

"Basically, my mom put it to us that they would take us away from her if she didn't do something to prevent it, and the only way she could prevent that was to have something bad on my father," says Jennifer, now 23.

In their affidavits, the girls say they were molested for years, but not by their father. They say it was Walter Krieg, who had an affair with their mother in Florida and later married her. With Norman Peterson in prison, the family moved to Pennsylvania.

The children's secret came out in 1996, when a frightened Rosemarie told her high school counselor that Krieg had been molesting and raping her and her sisters for years.

"I was 15, and he (Krieg) had raped my sister Chavonne," Rosemarie said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times. "I told him if it happened again I would turn him in, and I did."

The children went to foster homes. Krieg was arrested. He pleaded guilty to numerous counts of rape and sexual assault and is serving a 13- to 30-year prison term.

"He has put guns to my head," said Rosemarie, now 19. "I have scars on my chest from being sliced open. Until this day, I still have the feeling there's no escape. It's very hard to deal with the fact that my dad was put away when this guy was running around doing this stuff to us."

Their mother also served prison time in Pennsylvania for child endangerment because, authorities said, she knew about the abuse but didn't report it.

In a telephone interview from her home in Pennsylvania, Joyce Woodruff denies coercing the girls to accuse their father. But she, too, believes he is wrongly convicted.

"Norman is innocent," she says. "I know for a fact now Walt is the one who was doing it all along. I got charged because I more or less defended him. It took me a long time to realize what they said about Walt was true. I was petrified of him. The abuse was not just physical, it was mental. I'm going to go on living with the fact that I, more or less, allowed this to go on out of fear."

In interviews with the Times, Rosemarie and Jennifer were adamant about their father's innocence. But 21-year-old Chavonne _ who signed her 1997 affidavit absolving Norman Peterson and wrote Gov. Bush in January to say that "my father is an innocent man" _ is wavering.

She broke with the family recently after she packed up her 1-year-old twins and ran off with a man she met on the Internet.

In a brief telephone interview, Chavonne said she is unsure about who, exactly, molested her in Clewiston.

"Flashbacks are coming back," she said. "I'm not sure who the guy is."

On the phone, a man in the background started yelling obscenities at Chavonne. The phone went dead.

"My family," says Rosemarie, "is so messed up."

It's an old case. The original records from interviews with the tiny children are typed on an old typewriter, the words faint from age and hard to read.

The children describe sexual abuse in great detail. But the original interviews, and in later depositions, the children and their mother give conflicting stories about key details. One says the kids always had their clothes on. Another says they had them off. The 12-year-old brother, David, says he saw his dad rape Jennifer in the living room. Jennifer says it never happened in the living room _ only in her parents' bedroom. David says they were "always quiet." Jennifer says she screamed her head off. One says their dad was always home when they came home from school. Another says he never came home from his job as a tile setter before 7 or 8 p.m. And there was always a string of other people in the house, including Walter Krieg.

State child-protection workers didn't suspect Krieg.

"Was there any indication that Walter was mistreating the children at all?" a prosecuting attorney asked state caseworker Troy Brumley in 1990.

"None at all," Brumley answered.

At age 6, Chavonne met with authorities in Hendry County:

Q: Did, uh, did you ever talk with your mom about it? About your dad going up and down on you and Jenny?

A: (Shook head no.)

Q: Why not, Chavonne?

A: I forgot.

And later:

Q: Do you like Walt?

A: I like my mom too.

Q: Of course. Is Walt good to you?

A: Yeah.

Eleven years later, when she was 17, Chavonne went to a hospital in Pennsylvania as a rape victim. They took physical evidence. The perpetrator: her stepfather, Walter Krieg. She said he had been molesting her since she was 6.

In Florida, Norman Peterson had a string of public defenders, and his case languished for five years before he struck a plea agreement of no contest and went to prison. The court-appointed lawyer who arranged that deal, James Sloan, is now a county judge. Sloan did not return phone calls seeking comment.

At times, Norman Peterson was suicidal. Unable to see his children, he moved back to Pennsylvania while his case was pending. Florida authorities found him in a psychiatric hospital in Cleveland and brought him back. His only prior criminal record in Florida was for writing bad checks.

Rosemarie, Jennifer and David say their mother told them their father was dead. Other times, she said he was in jail.

"None of us knew what to believe," Rosemarie says.

On the day of her 16th birthday party, Rosemarie says, she got a call from her dad for the first time. Jennifer, the oldest, had arranged the prison call through her father's relatives.

"He told me he loved me and he missed me and whatever happened he forgives us kids for it," Rosemarie said. "And he was sorry we had to go through what we went through."

In clemency cases, the governor's office usually gives the local prosecuting attorney the chance to oppose the release of a prisoner he put behind bars.

The sitting state attorney is now Joseph D'Alessandro, and he hasn't decided whether to oppose release, said his spokesman Tony Schall.

"The recantations kind of change everything," Schall said.

Schall said Norman Peterson, who has since married an old friend, is taking a lie detector test in prison.

"We have not seen the results of his polygraph test," Schall said. "We would like to polygraph the three victims. Ordinarily, we would find that distasteful, but in light of these recantations, we strongly feel it's a good idea."

In a family where lies and truth flicker like a hall of mirrors, it is hard to know what truly happened years ago in Clewiston.

"After talking to these girls face to face _ not once, but dozens of times _ I believe them," said Debra Clark of Jacksonville, Norman Peterson's cousin.

"You've got a bunch of kids crying out for help. These kids need arms around them."

Fifteen years ago, state caseworker Brumley came to the same conclusion in Clewiston:

"They were starved for affection, all the kids were," Brumley said in a 1990 deposition. "all the kids, even the little baby, they would come out like fiddler crabs with their hands."

The "little baby," Michelle, is now 17. Family members say she now has a baby of her own.