Once More With Feeling
Wade Hutchins' day of reckoning has arrived. The former teacher was to be sentenced June 19 for molesting more than two dozen boys at north Phoenix's Cactus View Elementary School.
A long prison sentence is a certainty.
The incarceration of a criminal--especially in such an emotion-charged case--often marks a turning point in the recoveries of victims and their kin.
But the Hutchins case has too many "ifs" for the wounds to heal so readily. And little boys weren't the only ones left with emotional scars.
The list of casualties includes Cactus View's principal, two Phoenix police officers and the parents of the abused boys.
Feuds over the handling of the Hutchins case are rampant in this mostly white, mostly middle-class community. Some insist principal Judith DeWalt failed to protect her students; others believe just as adamantly that she acted properly.
DeWalt's detractors say she and Tom Krebs, the Paradise Valley Unified School District's assistant superintendent of personnel, failed to respond to Hutchins' documented pattern of fondling students.
Cactus View parent David Cool, whose son was not a victim of Hutchins, went so far as to ask the Arizona Board of Education to revoke DeWalt's certificate. The board is scheduled to consider the matter June 24; an advisory committee has recommended against sanctions.
But Cool's views are hardly universal.
"It has been brought to our attention that a small group of parents feel that some of the Cactus View staff members acted negligently in matters concerning this case, and that our children's safety was in jeopardy," the Parent-Teacher-Student Association board wrote in a flier sent home with Cactus View's 800 students on April 11. "We wholeheartedly disagree with these sentiments."
The flier's timing outraged the case prosecutor and police investigators. Hutchins' trial--not a foregone conclusion at the outset--had started April 8, and only two of more than 20 alleged student victims had testified.
The disdain with which some parents and school staffers held the victimized youngsters and their families--people they consider to be gross exaggerators--was palpable.
But this was not another case in which overzealous investigators, prosecutors and confused parents cajole children into making outrageously false claims.
Once police finally realized the scope and gravity of the 28-year-old Hutchins' misdeeds, things went by the book.
But state law--and common sense--dictates what educators must do in cases of abuse. In a nutshell, the law requires school personnel to immediately report any suspected abuse to police or state Child Protective Services.
That didn't happen in this case.
There's no evidence that DeWalt, a veteran educator with a previously unblemished record, conspired with Hutchins to ensure his access to children. But her failure to take any significant action against Hutchins allowed him to abuse students at Cactus View for more than two years.
There was no physical evidence in this case, as Hutchins seemed to draw the line at fondling the genitals of his prey.
Apparently, DeWalt alone knew the extent of Hutchins' offenses. At the time of Hutchins' arrest in March 1995, that record included several complaints from parents about Hutchins' physical affections toward their young sons.
Until the end, however, DeWalt continued to laud Hutchins in job evaluations. One such positive review came in November 1994, just three weeks after she'd warned Hutchins he was on thin ice for repeated "inappropriate" contact with boys.
Investigators would later find such duplicity baffling and infuriating.
"I see a definite pattern to his behavior," a police detective told a school administrator after Hutchins' arrest. "I would think . . . that bells should have been ringing."
More than 1,000 pages of public records suggest that the bells were in fact ringing, but nobody in charge wanted to listen.
Judy DeWalt isn't the only one whose professional reputation has been tarnished. Phoenix police officers Gerald Funk, a school DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer, and Eddie Rodriguez also failed to pursue solid leads against Hutchins.
Not surprisingly, several of Hutchins' victims and their parents have filed lawsuits against the City of Phoenix, the Paradise Valley school district and individuals.
But the victims' parents have their own crosses to bear: Before Hutchins' arrest, several of them told DeWalt they doubted their children's allegations.
"The school administrators were as derelict as [Officer Funk] and so on," says Hutchins trial juror Beverly Bright, a businesswoman. "Mrs. DeWalt's whole attitude before they arrested Hutchins was, 'Please don't make me look into anything off-colored. I have a cushy job.' And the police work was a disgrace before they finally got their act together. But what really grabbed us is how many of those parents didn't believe their own kids until it was too late."
Wade Hutchins graduated from Eastern New Mexico State University in 1989 with a degree in physical education. A year later, the Mosquero, New Mexico, school district hired him as a social studies/gym teacher. After one year there, he moved to Arizona and sought work.
Hutchins seemed a nice catch for the Paradise Valley school district as the 1991-92 year started. Young and eager, he was willing to work as a substitute until a full-time position opened.
One jarring note marred Hutchins' application. His written reason for leaving Mosquero: "Contract not renewed."
In an April 1 pretrial interview with prosecutor Cindi Nannetti, Judy DeWalt said she'd never heard about this.
"His application wouldn't have gotten to me if everything was not on the up and up or acceptable," she told Nannetti. ". . . It's a policy to call on references."
But Paradise Valley officials apparently didn't ask the New Mexico school district about Wade Hutchins.
An investigator from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office contacted the former superintendent of the Mosquero district days before Hutchins' trial began. The superintendent described Hutchins' troubling relationship with a fifth-grader.
"We had our suspicions, but no real proof [of molesting]," the superintendent said.
The investigator, Tom Buckner, also called Mosquero school board members who had voted to let Hutchins go. The board president said he'd heard complaints from parents whose children weren't "comfortable" around Hutchins.
Buckner then spoke with an ex-student of Hutchins'. The teacher had lived with the New Mexico boy and his family one summer. Now 18, the student denied having been sexually molested, revealing only that Hutchins sometimes would give him back rubs.
(The jury at Hutchins' criminal case didn't hear of Hutchins' actions in New Mexico.)
Hutchins soon found himself in trouble in Phoenix during the 1991-92 year. It happened at Echo Mountain Elementary School, where Judy DeWalt was principal and where Hutchins filled in as a substitute.
That fall, a volunteer aide, Jo Ellen Marley, told a school counselor that Hutchins' behavior disturbed her. The new sub, Marley said, was constantly embracing the boys, having them sit on his lap, stroking their hair.
Marley says she then spoke with Judy DeWalt, who related that a student's mother also recently had complained about Hutchins. Hutchins had given her son his home phone number, Marley recalled DeWalt saying, and he had called the boy late one evening.
DeWalt has said she doesn't recall the meeting with Marley. But she did admit to speaking to Hutchins about the mother's complaint.
"He said he didn't feel there was anything wrong with being friendly with the children," the principal later told police.
Despite the glitches, a full-time teaching job was in the offing for Hutchins in the fall of 1992. The Paradise Valley district opened a new school, Cactus View Elementary. Hutchins and two others applied for a P.E. slot. The new school's principal, Judy DeWalt, chose Hutchins.
DeWalt asked two other P.E. teachers to watch Hutchins. She later told police investigators, "I said, 'This is confidential. I need you to keep your eye open,' and they didn't observe anything and they watched him like a hawk, because we don't need somebody like this destroying everything we're trying to do."
The other teachers apparently saw nothing amiss, but several parents certainly did during the next two years.
In December 1993, a mother told DeWalt that Hutchins had made her son sit on his lap as he put his hands up the boy's shorts' leg. The mother--we'll call her Mrs. M.--followed up the phone call with a letter to the principal.
That December 17, DeWalt made a notation in her personal log: "Re: Child being touched by WH. Does not want to file complaint, but to make me aware. I'll read policy. Talk with her again, re: What she wishes to be done. Matter will be addressed. (On lap, hands up pants/shorts leg.)"
DeWalt explained the log entry in a pretrial interview with prosecutor Cindi Nannetti: "In [Mrs. M.'s] letter, she basically told me it didn't happen. There was a miscommunication. It would be very difficult for me to say, 'I'm going to write you [Hutchins] up, this is inappropriate,' when the mother just told me it didn't happen."
Nannetti then showed DeWalt a copy of the letter.
"I . . . do not wish to place a formal complaint," it said in part. "I feel he's a good P.E. teacher and well-liked by the students, and I don't feel this was an isolated incident. I would appreciate you speaking with him as we discussed so hopefully Mr. Hutchins will realize that some touches are not acceptable and can leave a student feeling uncomfortable and parents feeling deeply concerned."
"That's not how I remembered it at all," DeWalt replied.
"Would you agree with me that that letter doesn't really indicate that she said nothing happened?"
"Yes, after reading it, yes."
The principal decided this episode didn't merit a mention in Hutchins' personnel file. Instead, she wrote a glowing evaluation of the teacher, in which she commended his "dedication to Cactus View."
DeWalt never spoke with Mrs. M.'s son about the allegations, but if she had, it's doubtful she would have elicited much. Her lack of investigative expertise became evident after Hutchins' arrest.
A few months ago, an investigator asked DeWalt about her interview of a student that Hutchins would be convicted of molesting.
"Did anybody ever say, 'When he tucked your shirt in, did he touch your private area?'" DeWalt was asked.
"No," the principal replied. "I'm not that sophisticated."
Arizona's reporting statute is based on a sound premise--that law enforcement professionals must investigate allegations of crimes against children as soon as possible.
The law is blunt:
Anyone with responsibility for the care or treatment of a child and who has "reasonable grounds" to believe that a child has been abused must contact police or the state's Child Protective Services. The reporting must be done "immediately," followed by a written report within 72 hours.
It's a misdemeanor not to report such a conclusion.
But educators and police officers contacted by New Times say it's rare for reports to be made in a timely manner. Those sources also can't recall any examples of a school official being charged with failure to report.
In the Hutchins case, Paradise Valley administrators improperly allowed district policy to supersede state law. The policy called for school bureaucrats to conduct their own investigations before alerting police. (That policy has been changed.)
"I function as the investigator, the whole shooting match," assistant superintendent of personnel Tom Krebs told detectives. "I'll make a determination. If it's found against the employee, we'll send the information."
At the same time, Krebs defended DeWalt.
"[Judy's] impression was that the parents didn't believe the kids," Krebs said. "Now, if the parents don't believe the kids are telling the truth, that puts you in a funny situation. . . . In schools, we run into situations on a weekly basis where we're not sure what to do. Is this reportable or not?"
"Would you get a call every day about inappropriate conduct or touching by a teacher?" the detective replied.
"Probably a lot more often than you can imagine," Krebs answered.
In a separate police interview, however, DeWalt said she'd never faced problems of this magnitude with any teacher but Wade Hutchins. And his modus operandi continued unabated through the end of the 1993-94 school year.
A mother, Mrs. S., told DeWalt in the spring of 1994 that her son had complained that Hutchins had hugged and fondled him during a detention period. He was so upset he didn't want to return to school.
Mrs. S. claims she pursued the matter in person with DeWalt, a meeting the principal couldn't recall. In any case, DeWalt spoke to Hutchins about Mrs. S.'s son.
"I said, 'Do you have students in detention singly? If you do, you are not to do that.'"
A few weeks later, Hutchins received his year-end evaluation.
"Wade, congratulations on a successful year in physical education at Cactus View," Judy DeWalt wrote. "You have expanded the opportunities for our students."
That summer, Hutchins worked with children at a Phoenix Parks and Recreation center. In August 1994, a mother, Mrs. R., told Phoenix police that Wade Hutchins had molested her two young boys at the rec center.
Sex-crimes detective Eddie Rodriguez was assigned to investigate. Records show the detective spoke to the boys, then interviewed Hutchins by telephone for a few minutes before inexplicably putting the case on the back burner.
Though Rodriguez later admitted he knew Hutchins was a teacher, the detective never informed school officials of the allegations.
The 1994-95 school year wasn't a month old when Wade Hutchins became the focus of yet another set of complaints.
In late September 1994, a fifth-grade student, Jack, wrote a letter to a Phoenix police officer. The officer, Gerald Funk, was a 21-year veteran respected for his ability to communicate with kids. Funk was assigned to the department's DARE program, in which selected officers spend much of their time at public schools.
In 1994, Funk would be chosen as DARE's Officer of the Year, an irony considering what was to happen.
Much about Jack's letter to Funk--and a subsequent letter allegedly signed by four female students--remains shrouded in controversy. Both letters mysteriously have disappeared, and Officer Funk's recollection of the events is vastly different from principal DeWalt's.
At Hutchins' criminal trial, Jack told the jury what he'd written: "Dear Officer Funk, I'm feeling uncomfortable with Mr. Hutchins. He has been putting on my belts and tucking in my shirts. Really, he has been touching my private parts and I was wondering if you could do anything about it. P.S. Don't tell no one! Thanks."
Funk said under oath that Jack had mentioned nothing about "private parts." DeWalt--who recalled vaguely that Funk read the note aloud to her--concurs with the officer.
Funk and DeWalt agree they spoke to each other at Cactus View shortly after Funk got the letter. But DeWalt has said repeatedly she recalls little about the letter's substance, and is uncertain even if she knew its author was Jack.
Amazingly, there's no record indicating that DeWalt told Funk about the litany of prior complaints against Hutchins.
"It was totally out of my mind because I relied on Jerry [Funk]," DeWalt said later. "He was taking care of it."
In truth, both the principal and the officer were derelict.
Funk told a detective hours before Hutchins was arrested that he'd given Jack's damning letter to DeWalt. He recalled DeWalt telling him she'd handle the matter and that Jack's parents weren't interested in a prosecution.
"I was too buried to mess with it," Funk told his fellow officer. "I dropped the ball and shouldn't have."
Neither Funk nor DeWalt apparently recalled a second DARE letter, penned around this time by a student named Denise. Testimony at Wade Hutchins' trial indicated three other girls also signed the letter.
Three of the four testified that the note--which also has disappeared--detailed how Hutchins had been fondling boys. One of those boys was Denise's brother Tommy.
The girls also told the jury how a Cactus View teacher had overheard them discussing the allegations against Hutchins and had accused them of lying.
DeWalt says she never saw Denise's note, though her journal reveals she met with the girl to talk about Hutchins.
"Did [Denise] tell you that Wade Hutchins had put his hands down [Tommy's] pants?" prosecutor Nannetti asked DeWalt during the criminal trial.
"She said that's what he had said," the principal responded.
Funk's attorneys in the pending civil suits say he neither saw Denise's note nor spoke to the girl "regarding any such allegations concerning Wade Hutchins."
But the same teacher who reportedly scoffed at the girls' allegations testified at Hutchins' trial that Funk had showed her Denise's note. That teacher also testified she told DeWalt about Denise's note within a day of seeing it.
It's not unreasonable to wonder why DeWalt was failing to heed the warning klaxon. The latest allegation against Hutchins sounded hauntingly similar to the December 1993 notation in her journal, "On lap, hands up pants/shorts leg."
DeWalt met separately in the next few days with Jack's father and Tommy's mother. She claimed later that Jack's father didn't want her to interview the boy. In fact, she said he suspected Jack was making some things up.
According to DeWalt, Tommy's mother also had her doubts: "She told me up-front, [Tommy] tends to lie and exaggerate."
DeWalt spoke to Tommy in his mother's presence.
"He shut down," DeWalt recalled of the interview. "In other words, he wasn't going to tell me any more. Mom was sitting there and she said, 'Is there anything else?' I don't remember if she asked him if Mr. Hutchins touched him specifically."
In October 1994, DeWalt wrote to Jack's father: "It is my perception that you wish the matter concerning Mr. Wade Hutchins to go no further. You feel that 'things seem okay now.' . . ."
The principal wrote a similar letter to Tommy and Denise's mother.
DeWalt says she informed assistant superintendent Krebs about Hutchins' latest problems. Krebs told her to issue the teacher a "summary letter," a step below formally disciplining him.
"This is to summarize our conference regarding when staff members should or should not touch students," the November 7, 1994, letter stated.
"It was reported by two parents that their sons had stated that you helped them with their makeshift belts so that their shorts would not fall off of them. They also said that you tucked in their shirts in their shorts as you did this, and they were uncomfortable with the situation. . . . We also discussed the danger of misinterpretation of assisting students in other ways, hugging, and when they tried to sit on an adult lap. It was decided that caution will be taken regarding all students when touch is involved. This is for your protection on a legal basis."
However, three weeks later, DeWalt gave Hutchins another rave review, this one tinged with unintentional double-entendre:
"Keep up the great work," she wrote. "Thank you for the extras you give the students at Cactus View."
Three months later, Hutchins was behind bars.
Wade Hutchins' sexual predation on the Cactus View campus ended in late February 1995. His downfall came after a mother overheard several boys gabbing about how Hutchins was always touching them and their classmates.
After several frantic calls to other parents, the mother called DeWalt on February 21, 1995.
"She said, 'I think something has been going on for years,'" the principal recalled, "'and I think he touches kids.' And she said something about [Hutchins] molesting [Jack]."
Four parents met the next day with DeWalt and assistant superintendent Krebs. In graphic detail, they described what Wade Hutchins allegedly had done to their sons. Per district policy, Krebs handed each of them a "sexual harassment" complaint form to fill out.
Immediately after the meeting, DeWalt and Krebs tracked down Hutchins at a skating rink and told him he was suspended with pay.
But the school officials didn't contact police or Child Protective Services, as Arizona law requires they do "immediately" after hearing criminal allegations.
The parents returned three of the four "harassment" forms to Cactus View within a day. (The fourth came a few days later.)
One parent wrote that her son had told her that on at least three occasions, "Mr. Hutchins went to tuck the shirt into his shorts and put his hand on his privates and rubbed."
A second parent's complaint read: "Approximately one year ago, when [my son] was in fourth grade, Mr. Hutchins unbuttoned the top button of [my son's] pants and slid his arm down the front of the pants and fondled his penis and testicles. . . . He also showed in a 'hands-on manner' how to massage a groin pull."
Another parent angrily scribbled: "Statement of child sex crimes: Years of sexual crimes, including abuse, harassment, threats and intimidation by Mr. Wade Hutchins. . . . When: 'Anytime he wants.' Earliest recollection: Second grade--slow touching--4 yrs. 'It's like he owns me. He treats me like a puppet on a string.' . . . Takes down or unzips pants, puts hand inside underwear, touches penis and does anything he wants."
But the Paradise Valley school officials still weren't ready to report these chilling allegations to law enforcement.
"The vast majority of the initial complaints turn out to be unfounded," Krebs explained in his first interview with detectives after Hutchins' arrest. ". . . [but] looking at it and knowing what you've got today from those three or four parents, it certainly looks like more should have been done in January or October, or whenever it was. It's an easy call right now."
"Prior to these parents coming forward," the detective asked, "had you heard anything from any source, [about] inappropriate conduct or anything negative about Mr. Hutchins?"
"No, not once," Krebs replied, apparently forgetting the 1994 summary letter he instructed DeWalt to write, the DARE letters and other numerous complaints against Hutchins about which DeWalt had sought his counsel.
The Paradise Valley Unified School District never did report the allegations against Wade Hutchins. Instead, an outraged parent called police on the evening of February 24, 1995.
By that time, Krebs--again following district policy--had showed Wade Hutchins the completed "harassment" forms. That action gave a suspected serial child molester a rare opportunity to know exactly what his victims were saying.
On March 2, Phoenix police executed a search warrant of Judy DeWalt's office at Cactus View. At first, they couldn't locate Hutchins' personnel file. Finally, an officer found it inside DeWalt's briefcase.
She explained she'd taken it home so no one else could see it.
Spin control became the order of the day after Wade Hutchins' arrest.
Paradise Valley Unified issued fliers that included ironic comments about how its employees were cooperating fully with police.
The Phoenix police themselves were spinning about how Gerald Funk had failed to take action on the students' DARE letters. Spokesman Mike Torres claimed Jack's information had been vague.
"It wasn't, 'That guy touched me inside my clothes,'" Torres told reporters after parents learned of Jack's DARE letter. "It was more, 'He makes me feel uncomfortable.'"
How Torres knew this, since Jack's letter had vanished, is unknown. (Investigators wouldn't become aware of the second DARE letter, written by Denise, for weeks.)
The police didn't mention the previous investigative blunder that involved their own Detective Rodriguez. Detectives didn't learn of the 1994 Phoenix Parks and Recreation incident and the two brothers until the boys' mother contacted them shortly after Hutchins' arrest. (Two other Hutchins victims later emerged from the summer program. Rodriguez later was transferred out of sex crimes and Funk out of the DARE program.)
As it turns out, Rodriguez had spelled the suspect's name "Hutchens," with an "e" instead of an "i." The department's computers hadn't picked up on it.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley provided his own bit of spin in declining to prosecute DeWalt and Funk for failing to report Wade Hutchins to the proper authorities. Romley wrote to their superiors to say that, for technical reasons, his office had determined "no reasonable likelihood of conviction" would ensue.
"Unfortunately," Romley added, "the decision to handle this incident at an administrative level within the school district did not allow a full investigation as contemplated by the Legislature."
The Hutchins case illuminates a huge loophole in Arizona's statutes on mandatory reporting of abuse. It comes in this clause: "Any [school personnel] having responsibility for the care or treatment of children whose observation or examination of any minor discloses reasonable grounds to believe" that the minor has been abused . . ." (Emphasis added.)
In other words, a school principal or any other official in Arizona may escape prosecution by claiming he or she failed for whatever reason to "observe or examine" a possible abuse victim.
That caveat has been raised by DeWalt's defenders.
In the wake of Hutchins' arrest, many of his student victims transferred out of the district. The victims' civil lawyers are putting their own spin on the case. They depict a world in which irate, frightened parents marched into Judy DeWalt's office and declared their sons were being sexually molested--without mentioning the doubts many once had expressed.
Even a parent whose child hadn't been molested entered the fray.
Within two weeks of Wade Hutchins' May 10 conviction, the state Department of Education's Professional Practices Advisory Committee heard more than 12 hours of testimony in a matter brought by David Cool against Judy DeWalt.
Cool, a Maricopa County employee with no legal training, is seeking sanctions against DeWalt.
"I have taught my son if he has a problem at school," Cool told the committee, "he can go to his principal or teacher and he will be in a safe haven and that he can trust them. That trust has been more than shaken. It's been shattered."
One of DeWalt's lawyers argued his client had acted admirably.
"She acted within the utmost morality," attorney Steve Leach said. "At no point, until the allegations leading up to [Hutchins'] immediate suspension, did Judy DeWalt ever hear that Wade Hutchins had touched the genitals of a child. . . . She knew she had a teacher in front of her who had given wonderful service to that community, to the Cactus View School."
Cool's heart was in the right place. But his emotions and lack of legal experience weighed against him. Leach overwhelmed Cool with superior oratorial and procedural skills.
"I would hazard to guess," Leach told the committee, "that since I've been talking, there have been a dozen kids across the Phoenix area who have been hugged by a teacher. Maybe a couple of their shirts [were] tucked in, a couple got pats on the head, arms around. Are those teachers pedophiles? . . . We know that parents aren't happy with the fact that under the new policies, that's almost the standard of reporting."
Like the Phoenix Police Department's Mike Torres, Leach was prescient.
"There is no private parts mentioned in the DARE letter," Leach said, trying to build an argument based on a missing document by claiming that DeWalt had been under no legal obligation to report Wade Hutchins.
DeWalt won the day. The committee voted unanimously to recommend that the State Board of Education take no action.
The board is scheduled to consider the DeWalt issue at its June 24 meeting.
"I got my butt handed to me in about 20 different ways," David Cool says. "But I truly believe that Mrs. DeWalt and Tom Krebs breached the faith that we as parents entrust in them as educators and administrators. If only they had let law enforcement do its job, a bunch of kids might not have had to go through what they went through."
Cool, however, says he's happy about one tidbit of news confirmed at the committee hearings by Steve Leach.
"I guess she's about to become the director of curriculum for the Paradise Valley school district," Cool says. "I guess that means she'll be pushing paper upstairs somewhere instead of having to deal with all these protection and reporting issues. That's fine with me."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.