Child Protection: A Novel of Deception by Don Rice, Jr.

All Rights Reserved ©

Charlie and Marissa

April 1984

Marissa pulled into the hangar parking lot just as Charlie was coming out the door with a couple other officers. He spotted her as she came around the corner to where he stood talking with his fellows. They all greeted her as she came to a stop. They told Charlie they’d see him tomorrow, then went to their own cars.

Marissa slid over the to the passenger side as Charlie walked around and got in behind the wheel. He kissed her soundly, then put the car in gear and took off.

“You hungry, sweetheart?” he asked.

“You know it, hon. Where do you want to go?”

“Oh, I was thinking the officers’ club; they serve a pretty good dinner. Whattaya say?”

“Sounds good to me; I’m thinking about that red snapper dinner they have on Fridays. Maybe some shrimp cocktail while we’re waiting.”

“You got it, darlin’!”

After dinner and desert and a few minutes to digest their meal, the waiter came over, pushing a cart with a magnum bottle of sauvignon blanc in an ice bucket. He opened it, poured a sample, into one of the two flute glasses, then handed it to Charlie. Charlie sniffed it, sampled the taste, and nodded his approval, so the waiter topped off his glass, filled the second, then served them both.

When the waiter had gone, Marissa raised an eyebrow and asked, “What’s the occasion, Charlie?”

Charlie looked back at her with both eyebrows raised as if he was confused.

“Occasion? None that I know of.” He leaned toward her and whispered, “Other than that today is two years since we met.” As he spoke he took a small package out of his pocket, opened it on its tiny hinge, and showed it to her with a nervous smile. He allowed a few seconds for her to look from the ring in the box to him.

Then he asked, “Marissa, will you marry me?”

May 1985

A year later, Major Charles Richardson retired from active duty, forced out due to his strict adherence to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or UCMJ, which had led him to observe, keep a journal, and report on abuses, especially when it came to promising enlisted personnel being harassed. Like that one case he’d watched a few years back, of the young Marine who had been railroaded for offenses he hadn’t committed. Charlie left Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station behind, even though he was staying in the area. Marissa smiled at him, knowing that soon he would take off his dress blues with all those medals. She couldn’t wait to get to their new home in Havelock, North Carolina, within a mile the base.

Marissa wondered whether to tell him about the baby they were going to have toward the end of the year.

October 1986

The call came just as Charlie was finishing with his newest client. He picked up the phone. “Hello, Richardson Security. Please hold a moment.”

The anguished voice on the other end cried, “No, Charlie, I can’t hold! You have to come home right now!”

“Mari, what’s wrong?”

“The sheriff is here with some puta from the county, and they said they got a report that we’re abusing little Charlie and they’re taking him away!”

“What? Nobody abused him! He just had a physical and he’s fine! They can’t do that!” Thinking fast, Charlie added, “Tell them they are not to enter our home without a warrant, and they are not taking Charles without just cause. And tell them that I’m on the way home, I should be there in no more than a half hour. I’ll see you then, Mare.”

He hung up the phone and ran out the door, making sure it was locked. He ran to the parking lot, got in his car and peeled out rapidly, burning rubber as he made the turn onto the road. In two minutes he was on the freeway and pushing the gas pedal hard. He wanted to arrive home sooner than he’d told Marissa to inform the sheriff. He didn’t know why, but he had a feeling something unsavory was going on.

When he pulled into the driveway, he was glad he’d pushed it. Marissa was in the yard screaming incoherently, held by two deputies while some woman Charlie didn’t know was carrying their son to a white sedan with county plates. There were two county Sheriff’s cars close by. He took in the scene as he slammed the brake pedal and skidded to a fishtailing stop.

Little Charlie Junior was screaming “Mommy! Mommy! No! I don’t wanna go ’way!” Tears were running down his face in sheets, and Charlie wondered what his son must be thinking right then. He had to be scared out of his little child mind to be taken away like this, and his parents weren’t stopping the bad lady from taking him. It was a good bet that he couldn’t understand that they could do nothing. Charlie couldn’t understand it himself, but he was bound and determined to give it his best shot. He jumped out of the old Jaguar and headed toward the sedan, a Dodge Diplomat, and the woman who was now trying to force the boy into the car.

“I don’t know who the hell you are,” he addressed her, “but you better get your hands off my son right now. You have no right to do this, and I will sue you, your supervisor, and the sheriff’s department if you keep this shit up!”

He saw his son look at him, a brief surge of hope on his little face. But that look was short-lived.

The woman, a stocky, short-haired blonde in a navy blue pants suit, finished putting the child in the car, then buckled the seat belt and closed the door. She glared as she replied, “I have every right, Mr. Richardson. We received a report that you abused this child. We’re required to put him in foster care until we finish our investigation. If you interfere, you will be arrested, and it will look bad in family court. You may lose custody and all parental rights. So back off.”

She spoke the last three words with such vehemence that Charlie froze. All his military training seemed to desert him momentarily. But only momentarily. He turned on his heel, a perfectly executed about face, and returned to his car. The door was still open; he reached under the seat, pulled out a pistol, identical to the Colt .45′s he had become proficient with in the Marines. Holding it at his side, he turned back, saw the social worker finish buckling Charles into the car seat and close the back door. Through it all, he could hear his son screaming, even through the closed window of the sedan, just as he heard his wife screaming incoherently.

As he took a step toward the now pale and clearly frightened woman, he heard a car door open, turned his head toward the sound. It was one of the sheriffs’ cars, and the county sheriff himself, whom Charlie had considered a friend, was getting out. He held a revolver, and it was aimed in Charlies’ general direction.

“I’d advise you to put that piece away, Charlie,” he said calmly. “You don’t want to escalate this situation.”

“Hal, what the fuck is this bullshit? You know we’d never abuse my son.”

Sheriff Hal Bennett took his left hand off the car door and ran it through his thinning hair. “I know that. But these people got a report that you did, and they got to look into it. Part of that, because the report was against you, is to take the little tyke to foster care. That’s just the way it’s done, Charlie. Nothing I can do about that, and nothing you can do either. Just let it go for now, and we’ll sort it out later. But between you and me, I think you should get you a lawyer.”

Charlie dropped his head briefly, debating with himself. Then he sighed and stuck the gun in the waistband of his pants. The woman from the county social services let out the breath she’d been holding, shivered for an instant, then got in the car and drove off. Charlie glimped through his own tears the face of his son pressed up against the car window, looking at him, and saw the fear in the childs’ face but knew he couldn’t do anything about it. Not yet, anyway.

Marissa screamed, “Noooo!” She tried to force her way past the two deputies, but with her small frame, that was impossible. She clawed one and tried to knee the other, but only connected with his outer thigh as he turned to avoid the blow.

Charlie ran over the several yards and caught her from behind, lifting her small frame out of the melee before she got herself arrested. He carried her back toward their house and put her down on the porch. She tried to run at the deputies again, and he grabbed her once more.

“Let me go, cabron!” she yelled.

He answered as calmly as he could, “Not until you calm down, Mare. We have to be strategic about this. It won’t look good if you’re in jail.”

“But they took my baby!”

“Our son, sweetheart. He’s not exactly a baby any more, either. He’ll be going to school next year.”

“I don’t care! He’ll always be my baby!” She was crying now, the rage dieing down some as the beginnings of shock set in. She stopped fighting him, and he eased her over to the wicker loveseat next to the front door. She sat down, tears rolling down her cheeks and falling in her lap, unheeded.

Charlie held up his arm and motioned Sheriff Bennett over. “Hal, tell me what you know about this shit.”

The sheriff ran his hand roughly over his six-hour growth of whiskers. “Well, to tell ya the truth, Charlie, not much. Seems they got an anonymous call claiming little Charlie Junior was bein’ neglected over here, and maybe abused. When they called my office for backup, since they knew you used to be in the Corps, I tried ta tell ’em I knew the both of you and there ain’t no way there could be any truth to that report. But they insisted they had to come out and take Junior, and that it was my sworn duty as Sheriff of this county to be here to prevent an ‘incident’ as they called it. Of course, knowin’ you two, I knew there’d be trouble, so I hightailed it out here right behind those two deputies over there.”

“Is there any way to find out where the call came from or who made it?”

“Nope. Not that I know of. They don’t tell us nothin’ unless the abuse is so bad it has to become a critical matter. An’ they decide that, usually if there’s real long-lasting damage. Unless a kid dies, then the prosecutor makes the call, and maybe, if there’s a history, he might consult with them CPS folks. Hell, they don’t even tell us when they know who the caller is. They say it’s confidential by law.”

“Okay. Is there anything else you can tell me?”

Hal scratched his head. “No, not that I can think of. Unless …” he trailed off.

Charlie looked at him sharply. “Unless what, Hal? Don’t hold out on me.”

“Well … There’s a fella I know, he might be able to help. He’s a straight arrow, don’t put up with no bullshit. But I don’t know if he’d like me tellin’ anyone about him. He works for the gubmint, some kinda investigator up in Washin’ton, D. C.”

Charlie thought for a minute, then asked, “Could you give him a call, tell him what happened here and ask if he’d meet with us?”

“Yeah, I guess I could do that. But don’t you tell nobody, Charlie. If word got out, I’d lose my job as sheriff, an’ I’m getting’ a bit long in the tooth to get trained for some other job. Plus, if folks knew I was friends with a Fed, I couldn’t get no kinda job around here, not even dog catcher or dishwasher.”

November 1986

Martin Rothman landed the plane, a Cessna 425 Corsair twin turbo-prop, at the small private airfield between the small town of Havelock, North Carolina and the even smaller town of Newport. It was his plane; the last payment had been made five months ago. He was the only one on board, having flown it out of another private field on the outskirts of Arlington, Virginia. Since his discharge from the Air Force seven years ago, he’d bought this plane so that he could keep flying. He wished he had more time for it, and relished every chance he got to take her up. This trip was a perfect excuse to do just that.

He was here at the request of an old friend, one he owed a debt to. He found it interesting that Hal Bennett wasn’t calling in that debt for himself, but for a retired jarhead he knew. It seemed the man had a problem with a local agency that was in violation, or so it seemed, of federal law, and that agency acted with impunity and got away with it because nobody ever filed any complaints.

He shut the plane down and stepped to the hatch, opening it. There, waiting by a car parked next to a small building that served as a terminal and business office, was his friend.

He walked over and the two men shook hands. “Good to see you, old friend,” Rothman said in greeting.

“Emphasis on the ‘old’, Marty. Glad you could come.”

“My pleasure, Hal. So tell me about this guy. What’s his situation?”

Bennett opened the car door on the drivers’ side. “Hop in, let’s go grab some grub. We can discuss it while we eat.”

They were quiet while Hal drove carefully down the rough dirt access road to avoid potholes, rocks and fallen tree limbs. He turned right onto Route 70, known locally as Main Street, at least within town limits. He explained what happened at Charlie Richardson’s home. “Marty, I know this family. Charlie’s a stand-up guy, retired Marine Corps major stationed here for quite a few years. He flew A-6 Intruder jets, both two- and four-seaters, that got some fancy electronic stuff in ’em. Classified, he told me once when we were both half drunk and I asked. Retired after twenty years when he married a woman he met out on Atlantic Beach. They liked the area and decided to settle here.

“His wife’s a pip. Puerto Rican. Tiny little thing, shy at first, then sweet as can be once she gets to know ya. But don’t piss her off, and don’t let her size fool ya. And their kid is one of the happiest I’ve ever seen. They never spank the boy, but he’s not spoiled rotten either. I really don’t understand why the kid was taken like that. There’s no way they ever neglected that child, and they for damn sure never abused him.”

Hal got in the left lane to turn onto Fontana at the light, then pulled into Steak and Egg, where they served breakfast all day long and stayed open twenty-four hours, even on Sundays.

Before getting out of the car, he keyed the mic on his radio for the dispatcher. “Nora, this is Hal. Do me a favor, will ya? Call Charlie Richardson and ask him an’ Marissa to meet me at the Steak and Egg.”

There was a second of static, then Nora’s agitated voice came over the speaker. “Hal, dang it, you had your dang radio off again! I been trying to raise you ‘cause Charlie’s been callin’ all mornin’! You better get on over there right now; it’s real bad! Charlie’s ready to kill someone, and he’s barely hangin’ on, an’ I had to send Liz an Shirley out to keep Marissa from doin’ the same!”

Hal looked at Rothman, who was watching his friend. He keyed the mic again.

“What happened, Nora?”

“Charlie Junior’s dead, Hal! That sweet little boy never had a chance!”

“What happened, Lynette?”

“According to the report, the welfare worker was takin’ Junior for a doctor’s appointment. The worker, Jim Brandywine, went through a red light and was hit broadside by a tractor-trailer. They think he had a heart attack or a stroke.”

Hal looked out at the distance for a few seconds, thinking about how Charlie and Marissa must be taking this. Then he told the dispatcher, Nora Morgan, “Call Charlie an’ tell him I’m on my way. Over and out!”

He started the car again, food forgotten, put his roof lights and siren on, and peeled out of the parking lot and crossed Route 70, heading east on Fontana, which was Route 101. He continued all the way to Harlow, then turned left onto a winding dirt driveway.

The Richardson house was on a waterway that branched off from the southern edge of Pamlico Sound. In the front, the driveway circled around so that people could be dropped off by the door. A side roadway went around the building to a boathouse and a barn that had been converted into a garage. The house itself was constructed of concrete blocks covered by overlapping wood planks, which were firmly anchored into the blocks. It looked like a wood-frame structure, but the concrete inner walls both insulated the home and helped protect it from total destruction by fire.

When Hal broke through the trees lining the driveway, he saw three sheriff’s cars parked close to the front of the house. A half-dozen deputies were gathered near Charlie and Marissa, who were sitting on the top step of the wooden porch. Charlie was holding his wife; both of them were sobbing in their grief and denial, but Marissa was definitely worse. She was fighting against her husband’s hold on her, trying her damnedest to break away.

Hal parked behind as close to the porch as he could without blocking the other vehicles. He put on his Mountie hat, checked that his portable radio was clipped to his belt, and opened the car door as he told Rothman to stay back for a bit. For his part, Rothman got out of the car and found a spot where he could have a clear view without being in the way. He surreptitiously check his shoulder holster to make sure he could get at his weapon quickly and easily. Just in case, he thought as he always did in uncertain circumstances.

Hal picked his way through his deputies and came to a halt at the bottom of the steps. He saw the two female officers, Elizabeth Johnson and Shirley Booth, at the top of the stairs, kneeling close to Marissa Richardson. They were both speaking quietly with the distraught woman, seeming to take turns and not interrupting each other, but providing a steady stream of words trying to break through the shell of anger the woman had built around herself.

Hal stepped up and set his hand on Charlie’s shoulder. Charlie looked up at his friend, then back at his wife. “Mare,” he asked, “Hal’s here. Do you want to talk to him?”

Marissa looked up at Charlie, then past him to the Sheriff. The loathing on her face was palpable, rolling off of her in waves. “You son of a bitch! You let them take my baby! Now he’s dead and it’s your fault!” She struggled to break free of her husband’s arms, failed, then slumped back onto the loveseat, sobbing loudly.

Hal motioned for Charlie to talk off to the side. Charlie looked at his wife, then asked the two female deputies, “Can you take over here for a minute?” They both nodded.

Off to the side but still able to watch the porch, Hal asked his friend what had happened.

Charlie took a deep but unsteady breath. “Junior was in a car that got hit by a semi. Some CPS worker was driving, and the Beaufort cops that came here said that he ran a red light.”

“I know that much, Charlie. What I need to know now is what happened after they took Junior.”

“Last week, the day after they took Junior, they hand-delivered a notice of hearing on temporary custody. We were supposed to go to court next Tuesday at nine in the morning. I drove over to Joe Reiner’s office and explained the situation, then asked if he’d represent us.

“You know Joe, Hal. If there’s a chance of snubbing his nose at the powers that be without substantial risk of screwing himself, he’ll grab it. I wrote a retainer for a grand to make it official. Got the receipt, talked a while about how to handle the case.

“I’m waiting for Joe to show up now; he had court this morning.

“I’m on my way out the door when a Beaufort squad car pulls up to the porch. I’m wondering what a Beaufort cop is doing in Harlow. Two officers get out, ask if they can come in.

“Hal, you know I have no problem letting cops in my house; hell, I work with you guys all the time, consulting on security and electronics. Most of the cops between here and New Bern know me. But after last week, Marissa and I agreed, nobody from any police agency is coming in here without a warrant. They told us what happened, and that we had to go down to the morgue to identify his body.”

Hal looked over at the porch, then back at his friend. “Ya know, if I were you, I’d think about suin’, Charlie. I know it ain’t a good time to say it, but you really need to think about that. But don’t tell nobody I told ya that; I’m supposed to be representin’ the gov’ment interests here.”

Charlie looked back at Hal. “I know. I won’t say anything.”

They walked back to the porch.

March 1987

Charlie took Hal Bennetts’ advise and sued, but not before he discussed it with his wife. Marissa agreed almost as soon as Charlie spoke the words. Joe Reiner, although young, was a hotshot attorney with a solo practice in Morehead City.

Reiner and his legal secretary/paralegal assistant drew up the suit in two weeks time. Between the two of them, they thought they had a good chance of putting the screws to the system.

After the suit was filed and all parties served, his assistant came to his house late one night, looking troubled.

“What is it, Betsy? Did your husband get in trouble again?”

She looked at Joe. “No, it’s nothing like that. I was at the beauty shop over in Beaufort, and a friend of mine who works in the welfare office told me something I think you should know about. It’s about the Richardson case. But I really don’t know if we can use the information.”

“Well, why don’t you tell me about it, and we’ll see what we can do.”

Fall 1987

Finally the lawsuit began in earnest, and ended quickly. Witnesses were questioned and cross-examined. The State called the coroner, as everyone had expected since this was a wrongful death proceeding. Joe Reiner was looking forward to cross-examining him, especially since he’d been stonewalled on one item in the discovery process. But he did finally get the names of the foster parents, arguing that he might need to put them on the witness stand to testify about their dealings with CPS. That wasn’t the real reason he wanted to know the names, but he wasn’t about to tell anyone other than Charlie and Marissa Richardson. He knew he could get in trouble and maybe lose his license, but his clients really needed to see that justice was done, no matter what the price.

His clients had been briefed in advance on the contents of the autopsy report and what it may indicate. So they were the only ones who had some idea of what was coming. He looked over at them and winked; they each nodded their heads, as ready as they could be for the show that was about to happen. They sat there stoically, refusing to look anywhere but straight at the witness stand.

Reiner said, “Now, Doctor Dinsmore, you testified, and your report as the Carteret County medical examiner said, that there were internal injuries on the child, Charles David Richardson Junior. But the report gives no cause for those injuries. Is that correct, or is my memory and reading ability off in some way?”

The county attorney, a slender, almost ascetic man nearing retirement, smiled and called out, “Objection. Calls for speculation on the Plaintiff attorneys’ mental capacity.”

There was a round of chuckling, including a pained grin on the judges’ face. After a moment to quiet the small courtroom, Judge Gordon replied, with a not-quite-straight face, “I’ll allow the main question without the speculation, Mister Parker, and advise Mister Reiner to refrain from trying out his meager skills as a stand-up comedian.”

Reiner said, “Of course, your Honor.” Then he addressed the coroner. “You haven’t given a cause for those injuries, is that correct, Doctor?”

“That is correct, sir.”

“Could you tell us why, Doctor?”

“I suppose I could. It’s not against my religion.”

The judge didn’t even wait for an objection. “Doctor, Dinsmore, be advised that my warning to the plaintiffs’ attorney applies to everyone in the courtroom, including you. I don’t care that you slapped my backside when I was born, this is a court of law, and I’ll have proper decorum.”

“I understand, Judge.”

“Good. Now answer the question. Or are you so old and senile you need it read back to you?”

“No, Judge.” He turned toward Reiner. “I didn’t state a cause for those injuries because it would require me to speculate. There are several possible causes, and I couldn’t rightly rule out any of them.”

Reiner asked, “Could you name a few of those possible causes?”

“Objection, calls for speculation,” came the response from Bud Parker.

“Of course it calls for speculation, your Honor; Doc Dinsmore said he could only speculate.”

“I’ll allow it, Counsellor,” the judge ruled.

Dinsmore replied, “Well, it could have been caused by a severe obstruction of the large intestine, possibly from eating something that didn’t digest properly. We call that being bound up, of course you’re familiar with that problem. But on a child that young, it could cause the damage I saw in my examination of the body. Then there could have been congenital abnormalities that weren’t noticed at birth, but that’s not very likely with today’s medical technology and training. Or it could have been some kind of infection that caused the inflammation severe enough to prevent passage of food through the intestinal tract. I thought for a minute that maybe the child was born with a malrotated intestine, but further exploration ruled that out.”

“What exactly does malrotated mean in this context, Doctor Dinsmore?”

“Just that the intestine didn’t rotate properly during gestation, and as a result it wouldn’t be in the normal position for proper functioning. It’s kind of a rare condition though, and in my forty years of practice, I’ve only come across it once.”

“Okay, I think we can move on. Is there anything else that could cause this damage? Anything other than medical conditions?”

“In a child that young? Not likely, I would think.”

“I’ll get back to that in a minute. But first I want to ask if there was anything odd about the damage, anything out of the ordinary.”

The doctor scratched his chin for a moment, then said, “Well, now that you mention it, there was one thing that puzzles me. The anus was torn, like it would be if the child passed fecal matter that was too large for it. That’s normal under that particular circumstance. But what it looked like was that the matter came out partway, then went back in, and repeated that a few time before finally passing out altogether.”

“How can you tell that, Doc?”

“The pattern of tearing was different than if it had passed through completely. But that’s something that, in my experience, almost never happens.”

“Okay, Doc, you’re doing good. Now let me ask if you’ve ever seen that pattern in an adult.”

Dinsmore looked up at him, startled. If he’d looked around, he would have seen the judge and everyone else in the room do the same. “Well, now, that’s a whole ‘nother can o’ worms, Mister Reiner. Yes, I have seen it, once or twice. What comes to mind off the top of my head was that young fella that got out of prison out in Raleigh a few years back, came out here to try to start his life up again or so I’ve been told. He died from a shotgun blast out on Atlantic Beach. But when I examined him, I saw that same, almost identical pattern of tearing, but it was a whole lot worse. Come to find out he’d been raped while he was locked up. Several times. His medical records showed that he’d been hospitalized with extreme rectal bleeding, it was so bad. There really oughtta be some way to stop that from happening, though some folks would say he deserved it for being a criminal anyway. But I don’t see how that applies to this child.”

“Doctor, why do you say that?”

“Why, that kinda thing only happens in the big cities, like New York or Los Angeles. It could never happen here in Carteret County.”

“I understand your reluctance to accept that it might happen here, Doc. Hell, I don’t want to believe it myself, and I’m sure I speak for everyone here today. But, what if I told you that there’s a man here, moved here some years back, from the big city of Miami, Florida, who has a record of doing things like that?”

“I’d say we should run him out of town on a rail. Tarred and feathered. But how does that square with this child?”

“The man got a legal name change, moved here, met a local lady, and married her. As it turns out, he committed suicide late last year. He and his wife were the foster parents assigned to care for little Charlie Richardson.”

“Objection!” came the loud yell from Bud Parker at the county table; it didn’t quite override the sudden hubbub from the spectators. “Speculative and covered by anonymity laws!”

The judge banged his gavel repeatedly, calling for order and threatening to clear the courtroom. Finally quiet was restored, with the people watching in a stunned silence the type of which often follows such outbursts.

“We’ll take a short recess, and I’ll see both counsel in my chambers.” He banged the gavel again and got up from his bench.

“Mister Reiner, you violated the anonymity law in there. I want to know why.”

Reiner replied, “Judge, without that information, my clients don’t stand a chance in hell of getting any compensation due to the legal presumption that the people who work for the child protection system are just doing their jobs and are therefore immune from prosecution. If they were doing their jobs, then they would have known this guy was bad news. They would have uncovered the name change and known better than to certify him as a foster parent. And if they did so knowing his background, then they’re in violation of the law themselves for failure to protect the child. If they did that, then they were clearly acting under color of law, which is unconstitutional as hell.

“And now that child is dead, and even though no amount of money can bring him back, my clients should have every opportunity to see that justice, such as it is, is done. I’m filing a motion to set aside that presumption in this case for the reasons I’ve just stated. If you hadn’t pulled us back here just now, I would have submitted it in open court. As it stands now, I’ll submit it here in your chambers.”

“You’re skatin’ on thin ice, young fella, borderin’ on contempt of court. But I’ll overlook that now due to the highly emotional nature of the case.” Gordon turned to the county attorney. “What do you have to say about this, Bud?”

“Only that I stand by my objection, Judge. As far as color of law, that’s pretty hard to prove. Sometimes, hell, most times, impossible to prove. The statement Joe made is highly speculative, even though the medical evidence might lean toward his supposition. But as you noted, he also broke the anonymity rules, and my position is that these two things should be grounds to dismiss this lawsuit.”

Gordon looked piercingly at the two lawyers. Then he said, “I’m gonna study this issue for a bit. We’ll go back out there and I’m gonna recess until Monday. Then I’m gonna study this issue for the rest of the week. I’m gonna relax over the weekend, have a cookout with my family. On Monday, I’ll render my decision. Just so you know, if I decide not to accept your motion, Joe, that’ll be the end of this suit as far as I’m concerned. Now, you can appeal if you want, but I doubt you’ll get very far. That presumption of innocence is pretty well set. Mind you, I’m not sayin’ it’s right, but I’m not one to go against precedent or established law. Am I clear, Gentlemen?”

“Yes, Judge,” they both said in unison.

“Good. Now let’s go back out there and formally declare a recess.”

The lawsuit was dismissed. The ruling stated that neither the welfare agency nor it’s employees could be held liable for Charlie Junior’s death because of a legal presumption that they were doing the jobs they were hired to do. The only way they could be held liable is if they were shown to be acting on their own in ways that violated the law, and using their official positions to do so.

In his research, Reiner had discovered that many cases across the country were disposed of in this manner. As he told Charlie and Marissa, it was his considered opinion that this practice was tantamount to giving low-level bureaucrats carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, as long as they covered their tracks. It was justified by the same legal principle that an accused person was always presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty. And their in-house training, after they’d been hired on a permanent basis, seemed to include learning how to do this.

But something was wrong; something stunk to high heaven. And dammit to hell, he was going to find out what it was and at least try to do something about it. But what, he didn’t have the slightest clue.

During the past eleven months, Charlie had gotten acquainted with Hal’s friend, the FBI man. Marty Rothman. Rothman had come down originally to look into the child abuse issue; but since the child had been killed, that was moot for all practical purposes. He’d seen instead that there was a tension building between the Richardson couple. He sensed that marriage was most likely over. And the day after their lawsuit was dismissed, Marissa told her husband that she wanted a divorce.

Charlie cried for the first time since his childhood days. He had nothing to say, nothing he could say. Over the many arguments and near-arguments they’d had since Junior’s death, he’d said all he could. Marissa wouldn’t be turned from her course.

His security consulting business took a nosedive that started after Junior had been taken and got worse as time went on. He got new clients to replace some of the ones who’d left, but it wasn’t enough. The only reason they still had the house was because Charlie had paid cash at the outset and he had enough money in the bank to cover the property taxes and other bills for several years if need be. And there was his military retirement pension, which helped in a pinch.

One thing Rothman noticed was that, in spite of the circumstances, Charlie had always maintained a level head. No matter how pissed off he got, he was always able to think clearly. This impressed Rothman enough to mention it to his boss at the Bureau, along with a reminder of his proposal to put together an investigative unit to look into the claims of fraud in state and local child welfare agencies across the country. He told his boss, “Charles Richardson would be the perfect candidate to lead the unit. After we train him, of course.”

After due consideration, the Special Operations Director had acquiesced.

After dinner in the Steak and Egg, Rothman put his proposal to Charlie.

Hal looked flabbergasted, his mouth hanging open. Marty had never told him anything about trying to recruit Charlie. But Charlie smiled sadly and said, “I’ll think about it, Marty.”

Almost a month later, Charlie’s divorce was finalized, much to his chagrin. He had agreed to everything Marissa asked, including the midnight blue Mustang in the garage. She knew Charlie would never give up the Jaguar.

When he saw the divorce decree in the mailbox, Charlie called Rothman at his home in Baltimore, Maryland to accept the offer.

Spring 1988

Marissa had moved out of the house after the lawsuit had been dismissed. She bought the trailer she’d lived in when she’d first met Charlie at the Sand Dollar on Atlantic Beach. She considered herself lucky that it was still empty, or maybe empty again, and even luckier that she’d been able to talk the owner into selling.

She got a job at the Sherwood Motel in Havelock, as a desk clerk. She didn’t care if Charlie found out where she was, as long as he left her alone.

A couple days after the divorce was over, she got a letter from Charlie. He was taking a new job, and would be away for an extended period. If she needed to get in touch with him for anything, he could be reached through Marty Rothman until he got a phone in his new residence in Arlington, Virginia.

Four months later, he got a letter from Marissa. She wanted to stay friends, and she asked how he was doing in his new job. She also said that she wasn’t happy with her own, and was curious what kind of positions she might find around the nations’ capital.

Two months later, she found herself in a pancake house in Mount Vernon with Charlie and Marty Rothman. The latter was giving her a pitch about investigating corruption in child protective agencies, and that with training, she could be part of that and have an opportunity to make a real difference.

She thought about it for a week, staying in a motel off Interstate 95. Then she called Charlie and asked him to tell Rothman that she was interested in trying out for the job.

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