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Chapter 51

Bushy eyebrows joined together, State Attorney Clark Stackhouse looked more annoyed than concerned as he sat across from her at 7:45 on a Monday morning, Kristin noticed.

On the phone late Saturday, he sounded surprised, skeptical, curious and finally somewhat alarmed. His office acted as legal counsel for the privatized community-based care agency in charge of foster kids. Paula Travers was an agency supervisor. To even suggest impropriety on her part stirred up his defenses. As Kristin poured them both cups of steaming black coffee and set out some cheese and cherry pastries, she heard the click of high heels and the lighter swish of Italian loafers entering her chambers. She hoped the coffee and pastries would stretch.

“Judge,” Stackhouse said, rising to greet the newcomers. “I think you know these folks. Paula Travers, agency supervisor. Sam Bernstein, her attorney.”

Kristin nodded, surprised that Sam Bernstein was on the case so soon. Had she pulled a Rip Van Winkle and slept through a week of legal proceedings? She clutched the tiny camera, colorful amulet and flash drives in her lap to bring her back to reality. She had Skip and Jordan on stand-by downstairs, ready to join them if necessary.

Stackhouse began the conversation.

“The Judge and I talked late Saturday. Indeed, there is a warrant out for Haller’s arrest. I called Ms. Travers and filled her in with the details. Asked her to join us this morning. I left her my cell phone number, in case of any conflicts. Yesterday, as I was at early Mass, St. Jerome’s, I got a call from Mr. Bernstein here. He said he would be representing Ms. Travers.

“We met yesterday morning. Mr. Bernstein said his client, Ms. Travers, was ready to deal. In return for complete immunity.”

“Immunity?” Kristin exclaimed. “At this stage? We don’t even know all the facts.”

Kristin found herself talking and thinking in clipped sentences, like Stackhouse. It was catching.

“Normally I would agree, Judge. But Mr. Bernstein showed me a document that Ms. Travers was willing to sign. Confessing her role in the Luke Haller matter. Providing other key information. Like where he might be located. What children he may have exploited. Of course, he didn’t let me read it. It’s bait, he said. In return for a full grant of immunity.”

Paula Travers never lifted her head. She stared at the table, refusing all refreshments. She seemed to be waiting in another world.

“I added a few other conditions, Judge. She will never be able to work in a job with children. Or supervising children. She will forfeit her pension. Also any benefits connected with her job. She will agree not to sue the state or the agency. Not to seek a reference from us or the agency for future employment. And, of course, her full cooperation. She is to provide information leading to the capture and arrest of Luke Haller. And, her sworn testimony against him.”

“Your conditions are a little harsh, Clark,” Sam Bernstein said, leaning across the table to include Kristin in the conversation. “Ms. Travers will agree to resign from the agency, and to detail her relationship with Luke Haller, in return for immunity, as well as to testify against him, but her pension benefits and ability to work elsewhere in her field of child abuse are very valuable. I don’t think she will agree to that.”

Stackhouse looked to Kristin, and threw up his hands as if to declare an impasse.

“Meanwhile,” he said, “a predator is on the loose. Kids’ lives are at risk. And we’re talking job benefits. Shit, Sam. Can’t you see the big picture?”

The word “picture” jolted Kristin to action. She got out her laptop, inserted the first flash drive, and for half an hour the four of them watched the most vile videos of young girls having sex in all possible positions and variations with men whose faces were never shown but whose chests, bellies, butts and genitals were all exposed. Mikayla Wright was in the videos with Germaine and other men. Jordan appeared in a few short scenes, undressing for bed in her aunt’s house.

The second video was a short, odd sort of biography of Luke Haller. He mentioned being charged with soliciting sex from minors in a group home setting, under the pretense of giving them computer lessons. The charges were dropped when he agreed to delete all their accounts and never have contact with them again. The girls were too embarrassed to proceed, the group home manager stated. Earlier, there was a clip from an Ohio newspaper that described his arrest as a swim coach at a private school, with a hidden camera in the room where the girls changed into bathing suits. Again an arrest but formal charges dismissed when the parents of the girls involved sought privacy.

Paula Travers hung her head-- in shame, Kristin hoped. Even Sam Bernstein was at a loss for words. Finally, he spoke.

“That’s the first time either Paula or I have seen the videos. Those images are pretty shocking. But I gather that’s why she’s willing to give information that will help locate Haller, in return for full immunity from prosecution in this case and…”

Stackhouse cut him off.

“Frankly, Sam, I’m nauseated after seeing those videos. I’m dumbfounded that she would even mention her pension. Mention working again in this field. We don’t have a deal yet. I might well withdraw any further discussions of immunity. We will take this to separate trials.”

Stackhouse could not take his eyes off the laptop. His face was red.

“Sam, does your client realize she could be charged in a conspiracy to solicit sex from minors? Or as an accessory to sexual assault of a minor? Or even to kidnapping and maybe attempted murder? All in cahoots with Luke Haller? Is she taking this seriously? Hell, are you?”

Kristin buzzed her assistant on the office phone. “Have Skip and Jordan arrived yet? Good. Please show them in.”

Kristin rose when they entered the room. She placed the amulet in Jordan’s hands. Paula Travers finally looked up. When she saw Jordan, tears came to her eyes. She looked at Skip, apologetically.

Ten minutes later Jordan and Skip had gone over the details of Jordan’s plan, Skip’s rescue and her aunt’s recovery from a gunshot wound and strangulation. Though faint, the bruises around Jordan’s throat were still visible.

No one spoke. Finally, Sam Bernstein found the words to plead for mercy for his client, but he was interrupted.

Paula Travers stood up and spoke to everyone in the room.

“I accept the State Attorney’s conditions as laid out today, if it will give me immunity from prosecution. I am so, so sorry.” She looked right at Jordan, who held her gaze.

“If someone has a tape recorder, I’m ready to put this on the record.”

Bernstein jumped up. “Don’t do anything hasty, Paula.”

“Sit down, Sam. If you can get me immunity, you’re a hero. I don’t care about the other conditions, after seeing those videos. I hate myself. I don’t deserve a pension. I’m not fit to work around children.”

“Okay,” Stackhouse said. “I have a recording device on my cell phone. Judge, can your assistant act as a stenographer? Also, please place Ms. Travers under oath.”

Paula raised her right hand, still standing, and Kristin administered the oath.

“I met Luke Haller at an agency function to promote adoption of foster kids. He was with Jordan’s Aunt Erin and the two of them seemed pretty chummy. He asked me a lot of questions about foster care, adoption and group homes. I thought he showed a lot of interest in the system. He asked me about Jordan’s case, and after a couple of glasses of wine, I told him more than I should have.”

She glanced at Jordan

“He took my contact information and called me the next week. He told me he and Erin were engaged, that he was fairly well off financially, and that the two of them would like Jordan to be placed with them for a possible adoption. That sounded good to me, as relatives are preferred under the law, but Erin never had a stable living situation.

“We met a couple of other times. Luke wanted information on the location of our group homes, as he said he was available to do Face Book and other computer instruction for the girls. He also suggested that we might be partners in a private bit of business that would make money for both of us.”

“Background check,” Skip interjected. “When the hell did you get around to doing a background check on that piece of scum?”

Paula shrank a bit.

“Right at that time,” she said, “and, yes, I found all that background that we just watched on the flash drive on the judge’s laptop. I knew he should never be approved to be around Jordan or any other foster kids. But I held that as leverage.”

“Leverage? For what?” Stackhouse chimed in.

“Jordan, can you step out a minute?” Kristin asked. This was way over the head of a girl of her age, no matter how spunky she seemed.

Kristin rose and put her arm around Jordan’s shoulders. “But before you do, I want everyone in this room to know that right after this meeting we are going to expedite your adoption. Cecilia Holland is a wonderful foster mom and in a few weeks she will be your legal mom.”

Jordan hugged Kristin, and Clark Stackhouse stood up to shake Jordan’s hand. “Jordan, you deserve that and much more. I will be attending that adoption ceremony and I’m putting you in for a Crime Stopper’s Award. You broke the case against Luke Haller. And maybe, you’ve provided leads to some other cases as well. It was a risky thing that you did, but it is why we’re all here.”

Skip beamed as Jordan walked out, but then turned to Paula Travers. “Leverage, you said. Leverage for what?”

“Leverage for a bigger cut of the deal he was proposing. Luke wanted the names and addresses of the group home girls, and to be approved as a computer teacher. He had offered me a thirty percent cut of a life insurance scheme. I was to purchase term life insurance for all the children in our care—dependent or foster kids—until they reached eighteen. As you know, so many of these kids are abandoned, abused or neglected so early that they die before maturity. Once insured, upon death Luke would get seventy percent of the life insurance benefits and I would get thirty percent. We created a special account under the agency bookkeeping that went straight to me, with no supervision or audits. Premiums were paid out of this account, and I was to keep track of the benefits paid, and distribute them.

“Son of a bitch,” Skip spat, as Kristin sighed, “Oh my God” and Stackhouse grunted.

“Once I found out about Luke’s background, I used that as leverage to make a fifty/fifty deal. He agreed, because he really wanted to be Jordan’s caregiver. He had a thing for her, that’s for sure.”

Stackhouse interrupted.

“There is one thing wrong with that scheme,” he said, “and that’s insurable interest. What insurable interest did the agency have about kids no longer in their care, the adopted or re-united kids?”

Paula almost smiled.

“Ah, that was where Luke came in. He was an insurance broker and he could muddle and disguise that issue, collecting premiums from me, until a death would occur. Then he could persuade the insurance company to accept the agency’s status and pay the benefits.”

“How much did you collect?” Stackhouse asked.

“We’d just begun,” she answered. “Only two deaths for a total of $200,000 in benefits.”

She looked at Kristin, clearly ashamed now. “The first was an infant who died from shaken baby syndrome. The second was Nikki, the foster girl in Judge Dahlen’s court found murdered by sex traffickers last fall.”

Kristin shook her head, remembering lively Nikki.

“We didn’t have anything to do with their deaths,” Paula continued. “Foster kids just have a higher incidence of early deaths, so life insurance made sense. The premiums were fairly small and the odds were with us. That’s the part of the scheme I concentrated on. Really, please believe that I didn’t know about all this child pornography and sex videos.”

“Well, you set him up,” Stackhouse grumped. “Now I’m adding another condition. Repayment of the insurance proceeds you received. Within ninety days.”

“There’s one thing I don’t get,” Skip said. “That second flash drive. Why would Luke put such incriminating information on a flash drive? You know, the newspaper articles about being charged with sex crimes?”

Paula slowly shook her head. “Don’t you see? He got away with it in both those cases. The charges were dismissed or dropped to protect the girls’ privacy. He was proud of that. He has a huge ego. He probably used those stories to show how invulnerable he was. He was always seeking partners for his ventures and this was his way to explain away a criminal background.”

Paula nailed it, Kristin thought.

“Where is Luke Haller now?” Skip demanded.

He stood next to Paula, nose to nose.

Sam Bernstein jumped up. Paula looked his way and he nodded for her to speak.

“Immunity. With the State’s conditions. Once I receive that in writing I’ll tell you where I think he is.”

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