Religious pair charged in son's death

Date: 1986-10-30

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - A religious couple who had been traveling cross-country with their 17 children, most of them handicapped, for two years in a converted school bus have been charged with first-degree murder in the beating death of a 13-year-old son.

Michael Joseph Diehl and his wife, Karen Louise Diehl, originally from Idaho, also were charged with abduction.

Dominick Joseph "Andrew" Diehl, one of the couple's 13 adopted children, died of "acute head trauma" Wednesday while attached to life-support equipment at Virginia Beach General Hospital.

The youth, known as Nick in Idaho but called Andrew in Virginia, was described as a hyperactive and disruptive child, Police Lt. J.W. Pritchard said.

The Diehls called authorities for help Friday and told them the youth had fallen in the bus at Indian Cove Campground.

According to a search warrant, Diehl told police he had been tying the boy to the floor of the bus for about a month and beating him with a wooden switch.

Paramedics said the boy's hands and feet were swollen and his buttocks had open sores, the warrant said. Police seized ropes, a homemade whip, a wooden stick and a diary from the bus.

The Diehls left their home in Post Falls, Idaho, two years ago and began traveling around the country, Pritchard said. "Apparently, they traveled to spread the word of the Lord," he said.

Diehl said Monday that he and his wife were not ashamed of the way they treated their children and that God had guided their actions.

In March, the Diehls had stopped here to see a taping of the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club," the cable television show of evangelist Pat Robertson. After appearing on the show, they were befriended by members of the fundamentalist religious community.

Their 16 other children, who range in age from 2 to 17, were taken by social services officials, pending a child custody hearing. Police said the other children showed no outward evidence of abuse.

The Diehls' attorney, Paul E. Sutton II, declined to say what the Diehls told him about their son's death.

"They are in a serious state of grief and also very distressed," he said.

Since March, the Diehls had been living in a school bus in various Virginia Beach campgrounds.

Sue Smith, an Idaho social worker, said the adopted children include a girl severely disfigured in a fire; another with cerebral palsy who was abandoned on the streets of Calcutta; a boy from San Diego with multiple deformities; and five children who were passed from relative to relative in North Carolina.

The child who died had been abused by his natural family in the slums of Chicago and was so difficult to control that a foster family adopted his brother but sent him back to the agency, Smith said.

Smith said Karen Diehl had worked as a volunteer at her adoption agency, which specializes in finding homes for hard to place children.

Smith said that she had become somewhat concerned when the Diehls withdrew from a parent-support group and refused to participate in counseling.

Diehl, 41, a former forest ranger and carpenter, had said earlier that the family lived on about $2,200 a month it got from various adoption agencies.

Hamman said it is "incomprehensible" that the Diehls could be involved in "any form of abuse." He said the Diehls believed in spanking, but "I'm sure I've spanked my three kids more than they ever spanked all 17 of theirs."

Hamman said the child who died was "the most difficult of the kids. He was abusive to the other kids, and had a long history of inappropriate behavior. Some people suggested that Nick needed to be institutionalized, that he was harming the others, but Mike and Karen would say, `We are committed. God has a purpose for him.' "


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