By Fred Dickey Published May 9, 2012
There are episodes in any city’s history from which those involved will scurry away like a bridal party in a rainstorm. And if certain members of San Diego’s legal establishment of past years had their way, the case of Dale Akiki would be misfiled deep in cobwebbed archives. Our system tormented Akiki as cruelly as could any hooded Elizabethan executioner.
Akiki, the man who endured that abuse, survived and sits in front of me in his modest Mira Mesa condo prepared to talk about those black days.
In 1988, Akiki says, he started attending the large Faith Chapel in Spring Valley. When the church was seeking volunteers, he offered to serve in the nursery school.
According to Akiki’s lead counsel, Kate Coyne, some parents started to protest after about a year, saying his looks were disturbing their children. The head of the Sunday school investigated and said she found no fault with Akiki and said the children loved him.
Coyne says events heated up when a mother started questioning her daughter in an “intensely suggestive manner” until sexual-abuse accusations came forth. The mother then went to the pastor, who called the sheriff’s office. The sheriff and church sent inquiry letters to parents, and then the hysteria started to mushroom, Coyne says, and Akiki was asked to leave the congregation.
For two years, authorities investigated the allegations. In the meantime, Akiki met and married Sharon Bulger, who had also attended the church. His life returned to normal until 21 years ago today. On May 10, 1991, he was arrested while stepping off a city bus on his way home from work. He was carrying a bag of aluminum cans he regularly collected for his wife’s spending money.
Of shock to him, he was charged with child abuse and kidnapping. The charges reached 52 counts by the time of the trial.
The result? Akiki found himself facing a lifetime in prison.
This is tough for him to relive, but he does not flinch from the memories. He’s a soft-spoken, devout man of 54 with the moral strength that allowed him to climb some steep hills in his life. He carries a shunt inside his skull to ease migrane pressures on the brain. Even worse, he was born with a rare genetic disorder called Noonan’s syndrome. It caused him to be small and slight, and with a noticeable limp and facial features irregular enough to get startled glances from strangers. Even, perhaps, enough to scare small children.
He is at ease with his debility and appearance. In a strong baritone voice that belies his size, he says, “There’s nothing I can do about it, so I accept it and trust other people to accept me on the type of person I am. I try to be a good friend and kind to all people.”
After the arrest, he was forced to resign his job as a computer assistant for the Navy. He was held without bail for 30 months in the old downtown jail while awaiting trial and during it. Over that time, he was repeatedly denied bail because the court considered him a flight risk. He recalls one judge saying, “Well, if the other judges denied bail, I will too.”
Once delivered to the jail, he was placed in protective custody. However, in any jail, “protective” is an iffy promise, and an accused child molester is a rabbit with no thicket to hide in.
The old downtown jail. Think dark, think shadowy, think cold stone and rusted steel, think echo chamber of angry voices.
Akiki says he quickly learned there were bad guys in cells just yards from his who would have played with him like a doll.
“I got threats. Guys were threatening to kill me. I had things thrown at me when I went to the showers. It was a nightmare. I just closed my mind and day-dreamed that one day I would wake up and turn over in bed, and there would be my wife.”
He recalls how those days in jail dragged and his spirits flagged. He sought comfort from his faith, but depression had a voice, too, and its whisper was low and coaxing.
“I always thought if they found me guilty, I would’ve done something to myself. There’s no way I was going to prison for something I didn’t do.”
That’s suicide he’s talking about.
Help in jail came from unexpected sources. Two southeast San Diego gang-bangers put the word out that if anyone messed with Akiki, they would have to answer to them. Slowly over the months, the jail population rallied to Akiki’s defense. It is a phenomenon of that culture to be protective of whomever they consider innocent and defenseless — except their own victims, of course.
Akiki was also heartened by groups of faithful supporters who frequently gathered outside the jail for candlelight vigils and chanted for his freedom. His Navy co-workers turned out in force.
“I couldn’t see, but I could hear them,” he remembers. “Those people out there helped keep me going.”
The case finally came to trial in 1993 and lasted seven and one-half months, with testimony from 170 witnesses. It remains the longest trial in San Diego history.
Prosecutors alleged multiple sex acts against the children and claimed they had “dozens and dozens” of children who would testify, but called only nine to the stand, according to Akiki’s co-counsel, Susan Clemens. The children were about 3 and 4 when the events supposedly occurred, and 6 to 8 when they testified. Among other bizarre things, they told the court that Akiki had killed a giraffe and an elephant in their presence and sacrificed a child and drank its blood in the nursery.
What the charges boiled down to was a twisted doctrine called “ritual sexual abuse” that gained a following back in that day: in effect, modern-day witchcraft.
I am not making this up. I wish I were.
When testimony ended in November 1993, the jury took only seven hours to return a not-guilty verdict. Akiki wept as the clerk’s words told him he was finally going home.
Later, jurors were withering in their denunciation of every aspect of the state’s case and anyone associated with it. The county grand jury later joined the chorus.
When Akiki was released to cheers and news coverage, he was driven home in a stretch limousine. It was paid for by 20 deputies at the jail.
He reached out for his former life. He got his Navy job back. His and Sharon’s lives settled down uneventfully. They renewed their marriage vows on their fifth anniversary.
“We missed the second, third and fourth anniversaries,” he says, “so we wanted to start fresh.”
After the acquittal, he sued and won $2 million from the county, the church and therapists for what they had taken from him. Akiki says the attorney who filed the suit for him took half of the settlement.
District Attorney Ed Miller was soundly voted out of office, largely as an outgrowth of this case. The chief prosecutor of the case, Mary Avery, was transferred and eventually left the D.A. staff.
Akiki’s lawyers, Coyne and Clemens, were named California Public Defenders of the Year in 1994. Akiki says he still regards them as family.
Today, gray is spreading across Akiki’s hair as he looks forward to retirement in September. The anticipation is muted by the loss of Sharon, who died of an embolism in 2009 at age 45. Remarriage is not on his mind. “Sharon was my princess,” he says of the woman who stood by him steadfastly. “I could never replace what she meant to me. She is still in my heart.”
In the ensuing two decades, the church has not contacted him with an apology, regrets or even an offer for prayers. None of the children in the case, now grown, have attempted to talk to him. And if one did?
“I would say, ‘I didn’t do anything to you, and you know I didn’t, so why did you say those things?’”
The early ’90s were a time when sexual predation of children was coming to the fore of public awareness. That caused a surge of targeting those who had abused children for years with relative impunity. But rightness of the cause aside, there is a difference between zeal and zealotry, just as there is between love and jealousy. Always close behind the reformer is the man with the guillotine.
Looking back, who was at fault? Who caused this vile thing to happen to such a gentle man? The answer is elusive. Was it the children’s parents who egged them on? Was it therapists and activists who needed a poster boy to pin their cause on? Was it the District Attorney’s office, hellbent on getting a conviction? Was it the judges who could have thrown the case out, or who could at least have granted bail?
Maybe it was nobody. But if it was nobody, then it was everybody. And that’s what’s frightening, because that means it could happen again.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]