Citrus couple arrested, face abuse charges

Date: 2005-02-05

Citrus couple arrested, face abuse charges

Investigators find John and Linda Dollar in Utah by tracking cell phone signals, ending a search that attracted national attention.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE and CURTIS KRUEGER
Published February 5, 2005

A Citrus County couple accused of torturing and starving five of their eight adopted children were arrested Friday evening in southeastern Utah.

John and Linda Dollar were arrested at 7:10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time after law officers saw their gold Lexus sport utility vehicle on a roadway.

Investigators said they learned the Dollars were in Utah by tracking their cell phone signals.

John Dollar, 58, and his wife Linda, 51, were being held Friday night at the San Juan County jail, said Citrus County sheriff's Capt. Jim Cernich. It was unknown late Friday when they would be returned to Florida to face charges of aggravated child abuse.

The arrest ended a search that attracted national media attention Friday. CNN and America's Most Wanted posted mug shots of the Dollars on Web sites and broadcasts.

The children told investigators that the Dollars starved them, shocked them with electricity, pulled out their toenails with pliers, bound them with chains and strips of plastic and struck their feet with hammers.

A 16-year-old boy weighed 59 pounds. Twin boys, age 14, weighed 36 and 38 pounds, the Sheriff's Office said.

Seven children, ranging in age from 12 to 17, were living with the Dollars on Jan. 21, when authorities first began to suspect abuse. The children now are in the custody of the Department of Children and Families.

Investigators had announced Thursday that the Dollars were wanted and presumed to have fled Citrus County.

As law officers tracked the couple Friday, DCF officials and acquaintances of the Dollars tried to piece together what happened.

DCF released documents that showed the Dollars adopted three children in Hillsborough County in 1995; at that time, they already had five children.

DCF also said it had not investigated any complaints of child abuse or neglect involving the Dollars, adding to the puzzle of how allegations of such heinous acts, which authorities believe occurred in Tennessee as well as Florida, failed to surface over many years.

Friends and neighbors, meantime, described the Dollars as religious and strict, and said the children hardly ever were seen.

The investigation began Jan. 21 when Mrs. Dollar called an ambulance for her 16-year-old son, said sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney. The boy was taken to Seven Rivers Regional Medical Center near Crystal River, where he was treated for head and neck injuries.

His injuries weren't the only thing that caught the attention of law enforcement. No one in the family seemed able to explain how he got the injuries, including red marks around his neck, Tierney said.

Oddest of all was his weight: 59 pounds. He looked closer to 6 years old than 16, Tierney said.

In the next six days, investigators interviewed the children and John Dollar's elderly mother, who lived with the family in rural Citrus County. The children were put in DCF custody Jan. 27.

Investigators also spoke with the couple's oldest adopted child, who is now more than 20 years old and no longer lives with the family.

On Monday, the Dollars failed to appear at a hearing where the court system would determine, among other things, whether their children would remain in DCF custody or be returned to their parents, Tierney said.

When the Dollars didn't show, authorities went to their home and found two of their vehicles missing and much of their belongings cleared out, Tierney said.

A breakthrough came late Friday morning when investigators found the couple's motor home abandoned in a Polk County RV park.

After tracking the couple's cell phone calls, law officers determined the Dollars were near Salt Lake City and likely traveling in their gold Lexus SUV, which the motor home had been towing.

"I was shocked," said Frank Stanley, who knew the Dollars years before, when they lived in Indiana. "When I knew them, I never ever thought they would do that."

Stanley met Mrs. Dollar when both were living in Muncie, Ind., he said. Mrs. Dollar, then Linda Stanley, earned a master's degree in education from Ball State University.

When she married John Dollar in 1986 in Las Vegas, they seemed like "just an ordinary couple with a lot of ambition who loved children and wanted to take care of them," Stanley said.

"They seemed to move around a lot, and they seemed to acquire children everywhere they'd go," Stanley said.

Stanley said the couple moved frequently between Florida and Tennessee.

By 1995, the couple had adopted five children and were looking to adopt three more, according to DCF records in Hillsborough County.

In applying for a foster care license, John Dollar described himself as a commercial real estate appraiser with a bachelor's degree. Mrs. Dollar said she was a housewife with a master's.

Mrs. Dollar wrote that she "would be interested in adopting (a) sibling group that would jell into our family unit to share lifetime of love."

She listed "time out, spending time alone in room, loss of rewards, discussions" among the forms of discipline she found most effective.

John Dollar said Mrs. Dollar was his third wife and guessed she would call him a "loving, caring, good father and a good provider, hardworking," the records showed.

"We have 5 adopted children and have seen what we can do to help those less fortunate," he wrote. "We see so many children who need special care, love and an opportunity to be a part of a warm, loving, caring home atmosphere."

He said he was looking forward to "seeing a child's eyes response, and attitudes change from fear, neglect and apprehension to one of being accepted, loved and needed."

Hillsborough County property records show the Dollars have owned property in Hillsborough County since at least 1990, when they bought a 2,420-square-foot home at 8603 Chadwick Drive in northwest Tampa for $120,000.

The couple moved frequently, buying and selling a half-dozen homes in Hillsborough from Plant City to Riverview to Valrico.

Mark Lucas met the Dollars while they were selling him their Valrico home. During a walk-through inspection, he noticed the walk-in closet in the master bedroom had a lock.

Mrs. Dollar said they kept a safe inside the closet. But "it looked more like it was set up to lock someone in than to keep someone out," Lucas said.

Mike Storms met the Dollars in spring 2004, while the Dollars were trying to sell two properties they owned in Valrico.

Storms said the Dollars always boasted about their children, saying how proud they were of them and how much they loved them. But he never once saw the children.

Storms said Mrs. Dollar called two months ago saying they had made "a big mistake moving to Crystal River." The family wanted to move back to Valrico.

She said her husband's commute to work was too long.

He said one of his Realtors showed the couple a home on Guiles Road about 45 days ago, but never made an offer. That was the last time Storms heard from the couple.

Times staff writers Eddy Ramirez and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report.

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