PARENTS ACCUSED OF ABUSE CLAIMED THEY WERE LOVING

Date: 2005-02-13

CAROL MARBIN MILLER, JACK DOLAN, PHIL LONG AND AMY DRISCOLL
The Miami Herald

BEVERLY HILLS, Fla. - On paper, John and Linda Dollar pledged to be ideal adoptive parents.Educated and devoutly religious, with five adopted children already, they insisted they had room to spare in their home and in their hearts.

Spanking? Only as a last resort, and always 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 Holocaust 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.

The Dollars - Linda, 51, and John, 58, a commercial property appraiser - fled the state in their gold Lexus SUV just before a Jan. 31 emergency 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.

A `GROTESQUE' CASE

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 found 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,'' Tierney said. 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 usually administered the physical punishment.

The documents also raised a slight red flag 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 the spanking of foster children.

COUPLE'S MARITAL PAST

John Dollar and Linda Stanley were married to different 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 of 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.''

ADOPTION STANDARDS

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.

``Florida has had that reputation for many years,'' he said.

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.

``I really liked that part,'' said Paula Spradlin, who enrolled her then-6-year-old son. ``They would ask questions like, `If Noah had five animals on the Ark, and three got off, how many were left?' ''

But Spradlin removed her son from the Mountain View Christian Academy after one semester, partly because of the Dollars' apocalyptic beliefs about Y2K.

``They were sure everything was going to end, that the government would shut down,'' she said. ``They even stockpiled food and bought generators.''

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.''

Like others, Hoskins gave old toys and clothes to the Dollars for their school and family. ``They were like Ozzie and Harriet. The kids always said `yes sir' and `no sir.' It was the way everyone would want their children to act,'' Hoskins said. ``Looking back, you start to think these people were just good hustlers.''

REVELATION IN COURT

For a Florida court appearance last month, John Dollar asked Gordon Lennon, a property appraiser he had 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 homes and shelters, the children have been adjusting, police said.

``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.''

Herald reporters Gary Fineout and Charles Rabin contributed to this report.

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