'GROTESQUE' ABUSE CASE WASN'T WHAT IT SEEMED
CAROL MARBIN MILLER, JACK DOLAN, PHIL LONG AND AMY DRISCOLL
The Miami Herald
On paper, John and Linda Dollar pledged to be ideal adoptive parents. Educated and devout, with five adopted children already, they insisted they had room to spare in their home and in their hearts.
Spanking? Only as last resort, and tempered with "an expression of love" afterward, they told Florida's child welfare agency in a 1995 foster care application.
"Spanking may have to be considered," John Dollar wrote, "after every avenue has been tried and used to correct a very difficult and inexcusable problem . . . Never should a spanking physically harm or hurt a child."
A decade later, the same Dollars who carefully weighed the necessity of corporal punishment - and received state permission to foster and then adopt three more children - are the focus of a child-torture investigation with allegations so loathsome that police have compared the children to concentration camp victims. It's a case that has captured national attention since the Dollars' arrest in Utah 10 days ago.
Five of the children, ages 12 to 17, told Citrus County detectives last month that their parents had been tormenting them for years: ripping out their toenails with pliers, starving them, shocking them, confining them with chains, using a vice and hammer on their feet, forcing them to sleep in a closet.
The investigation, now expanded to three counties in Florida and one in Tennessee, has netted potential evidence including a cattle prod, chains, pliers and, most gruesome, remnants of possible toenails from an RV in Polk County owned by the Dollars.
A SWIFT DEPARTURE
The Dollars - Linda, 51, and John, 58, a commercial property appraiser - fled the state in their gold Lexus SUV just before a Jan. 31 court hearing. Police caught them on a Utah highway Feb. 4, after a nationwide manhunt. They will be returned to Citrus County in a week or two on aggravated child abuse charges.
The accusations have made headlines across the country. Gov. Jeb Bush called the case "grotesque" and said he hoped the Dollars would get the maximum punishment, if guilty.
Investigators described the Dollar children in grim terms - so thin their growth was stunted, so gaunt they looked like death-camp detainees. Twin 14-year-old sons adopted 10 years ago weighed 36 and 38 pounds, and a 16-year-old weighed 59 pounds. "The only thing I can compare it to is Auschwitz survivors," said Gail Tierney, spokeswoman for the Citrus County Sheriff's Department. "Ribs showing, big knobby knees with thin little legs. But such sweet faces."
Until a 911 call on Jan. 21 started unraveling the case, hardly anyone ever saw the Dollar children. Their parents moved them frequently between Florida and Tennessee, and since August, they lived virtually unseen in a three-bedroom house with a pool in Beverly Hills, north of Tampa. They were even home-schooled by Linda Dollar, who has a master's degree in education.
"We were just flabbergasted when we heard about the accusations because we never even saw the kids," said Lee Jenkins, who lives within sight of the Dollar house in a wooded neighborhood of new homes, many with three-car garages. Linda Dollar made the call that brought paramedics - and later police - to their door. Her 16-year-old boy had a head wound, gushing blood, she reported.
Doctors alerted police that the boy was emaciated and had red marks on his neck, "as though he'd been picked up by the neck and dropped," said Tierney. After a search of the house, all seven children were taken into state custody.
Much about the case remains a mystery, and Department of Children & Families documents only offer more questions. Linda Dollar told officials she had been abused as a child by an alcoholic father and during her first marriage. The children told police that she often withheld food, while John Dollar administered the physical punishment.
The documents also contained a small warning about the Dollars' beliefs about spanking, with DCF officials noting: "Staff should monitor their discipline techniques, because [the Dollars] seem to believe that spanking can be useful as a last resort." The state prohibits spanking for foster children.
John Dollar and Linda Stanley were married to other people when they met at Jackson State Community College, in Jackson, Tenn., where he was teaching a class in real estate appraisal. They married in 1986, after nearly simultaneous divorces, the second for each.
Records show multiple addresses for them in Tennessee and Florida during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Police said all their children were adopted in Florida, including a 25-year-old woman who still lives in Florida.
Acquaintances in Tennessee noticed that every time the couple moved to Florida, they returned a few months later with another child, said John's ex-wife Linda Sparks. "I couldn't believe that he would qualify to adopt a child from any state agency," Sparks said, because Dollar had been married three times and moved so often. "He told me all of the adoptions were arranged privately by a lawyer he had some connection to in Florida."
AN UNSAFE HAVEN
Florida has long been viewed as a haven for couples seeking an easy way to adopt, said Michael T. Dolce, a West Palm Beach attorney who helped draft the 2001 revision of Florida's adoption law.
Dolce said lawmakers left unfinished business by declining to beef up standards for adoption home studies, which help determine who will be allowed to adopt. "In many cases, the credibility of the home study, and the recommendation, is assumed," he said. "That may not be a safe assumption."
In 1999, the Dollars opened a private home school on a remote, tree-covered ridge in Strawberry Plains, Tenn., near Knoxville. They attracted several dozen students with a newspaper ad that read, "Where God comes first." They promised to teach all subjects in a biblical context.
In 2000, the Dollars announced they were "selling everything, buying a bus and moving to Florida to become missionaries," said David Hoskins, whose son had been a student. "They made it sound as normal as if they were going to the grocery store for a loaf of bread."
For a Florida court appearance last month, John Dollar asked Gordon Lennon, a property appraiser he'd known for 25 years, to testify as a character witness. Lennon agreed, although he hadn't seen the children in 15 years.
"He told me the one kid wasn't eating and he had to take him to the hospital," said Lennon, a former police officer. "I didn't even question it, but then I'm sitting in the back of the courtroom and I start hearing one kid weighs 39 pounds and I think, Jesus, something doesn't sound right here."
Since their relocation into foster shelters, police say the children are adjusting.
"The foster homes are reporting that the children ate and ate until they couldn't eat any more," said Tierney. "They're finally slowing down."