By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Something was terribly wrong with her son, and Marci Johnson didn't need a mother's intuition to know it.
Although 10-year-old Michael is deaf, he had always been a lively, cheerful boy, fond of baseball and swimming. For the past few months, however, he had grown sullen and withdrawn, frequently collapsing into prolonged fits of sobbing.
At first, Marci thought Michael was distraught over the serious illness of a grandparent. But when the bouts of depression and mood swings intensified, she began to ask what was wrong.
"Nothing, Mom," became the lanky, sandy-haired child's standard reply. He would smile unconvincingly, Marci remembers, avoiding eye contact--and then quickly change the subject or bolt from the room.
Finally, on a warm spring night in May 1992--while Michael was helping his mother fold laundry--he announced that there was "a story I have to tell."
It was a story that is every parent's worst nightmare. A story of molestation.
Haltingly, Michael told his mother that there was an "older boy" on the bus he rode every day to and from the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf--the state-run institution for hearing-impaired students--who was "touching him."
Using a mix of spoken words and sign language, his nimble fingers spinning letters in the air that spelled out the unthinkable, Michael described how during the long bus rides--more than an hour in length--David" had repeatedly pulled his pants down and had fondled his penis.
"He feels it and tells me that he loves me," Michael told his mother.
Marci sat down for an earnest, heart-to-heart talk with her son. Over the following hours and days, an embarrassed Michael slowly revealed more details: He had been "touched" as many as 30 times. David had pulled the pants off two other PDSD kids, both young girls, and "played" with them, as well.
In addition, on at least one occasion, David had forced Michael to hold the older boy's penis and had ordered him to perform oral sex. Michael had managed to break free--but the fondling routine continued unabated.
Marci's anger and disgust mushroomed when she later discovered that Michael's attacker was not a "boy," after all, but an 18-year-old adult, enrolled in the PDSD high school.
She quickly assuaged her maternal grief and rage, however, with the thought that since her son's dark secret was now out in the light, at least "something would be done--and quick."
"I was sure that when your kid was molested, people would really get upset and do something," she says. "I mean, a molestation gets results from people, right? I figured there would be plenty of shoulders to cry on."
The results, however, weren't what she expected. The only shoulder Marci was to receive from school and law enforcement officialdom was of the cold variety.
During the next six months, Marci and her husband, Chuck, ran headlong into a maddening series of barriers in their quest to bring David to justice. They discovered that rather than investigate the molestation and take action to prevent similar events from occurring, publicity-shy school bureaucrats and police officers and prosecutors were intent on burying the case in a maze of delays and obfuscation.
It was a sex crime no one wanted to face.
Police documents obtained by New Times and interviews of those close to the investigation indicate that Jay Farman, the PDSD principal at the time--eager to quietly deal with the molestation "in-house"--refused to contact police, the state office of Child Protective Services or even the parents of other children Michael claimed had also been molested. In failing to notify the proper authorities, he apparently violated a state law requiring him to do so.
In fact, Farman failed to contact authorities even after David had confessed to school officials that he had molested Michael, and after the principal had reason to believe the young man was violent and "could not be controlled."
Documents also show that when the Phoenix police were notified by the Johnsons of the alleged molestations, the detective assigned to the case waited nearly three months to contact and interview David--despite the fact he knew that the young man had confessed on two separate occasions to the crime and despite corroborating testimony from other children who verified key elements of Michael's story.
Marci Johnson says the officer told her that there was "no hurry," because it is "difficult to put deaf people on trial," and there was thus little chance that David could be arrested and convicted.
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office evidently agreed. According to Marci, the office informed her that David's victims would have difficulty communicating what had happened to a jury--and that the time and expense of giving them the chance to do so would be prohibitive. The case was officially closed in October 1992.
But for the Johnsons and other parents of deaf kids, it remains an open wound. Along with other serious incidents at PDSD, the case has become a symbol of what some parents say is a dangerous school environment.
Critics say the unique composition of the student body at PDSD--sexually mature students, some as old as 22, mingle with children as young as 3--places younger students at a higher-than-normal risk of sexual abuse.