Date: 1986-10-30


Donald P. Baker
The Washington Post

VIRGINIA BEACH, OCT. 29 -- The transcontinental odyssey of a religious Idaho couple with 17 children ended tragically here today when one of the children, 13-year-old Dominick Andrew Diehl, died of head injuries that police say resulted from a beating. The parents have been arrested in the case.

Michael Joseph Diehl and his wife, Karen Louise Diehl, who have four children of their own and who adopted 13 handicapped children, were charged with felonious assault and felony neglect. Michael Diehl was released on $25,000 bond tonight and his wife was freed on $10,000 bond.

In March, the Diehls, traveling in a converted school bus, stopped here to see a taping of the Christian Broadcasting Network's "700 Club," the popular cable television show of evangelist Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, CBN officials said.

The Diehls ended up telling their story on the show and were befriended by many persons in the large fundamentalist religious community that has settled here, partly because of Robertson and his CBN.

The Diehls' arrests forced the city's social services agency to find foster homes for their 16 other children, ages 2 to 17.

Sue Smith, the Idaho social worker whose agency handled adoptions for the Diehls, 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 siblings who were passed from relative to relative in North Carolina until their family gave up on them.

Dominick, who was known as Andrew, was a hyperactive youth who 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.

Last Friday, a frantic Karen Diehl summoned the Virginia Beach rescue squad to a campground here where the family had been living in its school bus. She told officials that Andrew had been injured in a fall, they said.

After taking the unconscious teen-ager to Virginia Beach General Hospital, rescue squad workers notified police of their suspicion that he had been beaten. The youth died early this morning, without regaining consciousness.

The Diehls were arrested Saturday, after a search of the bus uncovered ropes, clamps, a handcuff and a radiator hose clip, which, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kenneth A. Phillips said today, is part of "evidence that the boy was tied to the trailer {bus} floor and severely beaten."

The Diehls left their home town of Post Falls, Idaho, about two years ago, jammed into the orange bus that Diehl, a skilled carpenter, had rigged for a meandering, cross-country journey through California, Texas and eastward to central Florida, where they visited Disney World.

Peggy Wallace, manager of the Indian Cove resort campground here, said the Diehls arrived April 21 as the guests of an owner of one of the park's 400 spaces. Because rules permit no camper to stay more than 14 days out of any 21, Wallace said the Diehls alternately camped at Seashore State Park, but "that was expensive, because they charge a per-person rate, which for them was $40 or $50 a night."

At Indian Cove, the Diehls became a familiar sight, conducting daily Bible study at the picnic table or piling into the bus for trips to the grocery store, Wallace said.

A front-page story in The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk in June told of the Diehls' huge requirements: It takes 50 slices of bread and three pounds of bologna for one round of sandwiches; $50 worth of quarters for the laundromat.

Diehl, 41, a former forest ranger and carpenter, told The Virginian-Pilot that the family lived on about $2,200 a month it got from various adoption agencies.

In Idaho, the family owns what was described by an adoption agency official as a beautiful home on a five-acre ranch.

Stephen Hamman and his wife Christine, of Post Falls, are "very close friends" of the Diehls, he said. He said that Karen Diehl, 35, called them from the hospital Friday and "asked us to pray, and don't stop praying."

Hamman said both parents, in separate phone calls, said Andrew had fallen as he ran through the bus, and hit his head on a wooden crayon box. "With that many kids, they need a big box for crayons," said Hamman.

Virginia Beach homicide Lt. J.W. Pritchard said preliminary results of an autopsy indicate Andrew died of "acute head trauma . . . violent contact with the head that could not have occurred in a fall. There was more than one blow."

Pritchard said the prosecutor's office "will decide tomorrow whether to upgrade the charges to murder."

Paul Sutton II, the Diehls' attorney, said a custody hearing is scheduled in juvenile court Thursday. He said the Diehls are "anxious to establish visiting privileges" with the children, who will remain in foster homes for the time being.

Sutton said a local church is making funeral arrangements for Andrew.

Hamman said members of the Cornerstone Christian Fellowship, a United Church of Christ congregration to which the Diehls belonged in Post Falls, have taken up a collection to send Hamman to be with the family in Virginia Beach and to provide bond money if needed.

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 Andrew, who was known as Nick in Idaho, 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.' "

Hamman said he flew to Texas last year to visit the Diehls during a stopover there and was told by Nick that he was "tired of being bad," and that as a reward for his improved behavior he had been given a new name, Andrew.

Smith, the caseworker at Adoptions in Idaho, said large adoptive families are not uncommon in the Northwest. In the town of Post Falls, which has a population of 5,000, the Diehls were one of three large families with adopted children -- Smith herself had 19 children, 16 of them adopted.

Karen Diehl worked as a volunteer at the adoption agency, which specializes in finding homes for hard-to-place, handicapped children. Smith said both she and Diehl found some of their children as the result of work there.

Smith expressed anger about "some of the questions being asked, about cults, and adoptions," by officials in Virginia. "Abuse isn't an adoption or a large-family issue," she said. "People are asking, 'Why didn't you stop them?' But nothing was wrong when they were here."

She said just before the Diehls left in the fall of 1984 on what was to have been a three-month trip, "I became a little concerned, a gut feeling, because they had withdrawn" from a parent-support group and refused to participate in counseling.

In addition, Smith said that because the Diehls chose to teach the children at home, they had little contact with outsiders.

"With that many kids, with those many problems, anyone would need help," she said.


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