Allegations depict house of horrors

Date: 2005-02-20

Couple facing charges in Florida have many Tennessee connections

Mike Branom
Associated Press
The Commercial Appeal

BEVERLY HILLS, Fla. - When John and Linda Dollar adopted eight children a decade ago, social workers regarded them as model parents who filled their home with love and even dealt out punishment with a patient hand.

But now the Dollars - who met and married in Jackson, Tenn., and once ran a church school in Strawberry Plains near Knoxville - stand accused of monstrous acts against five of the children, ages 12 to 17, who told investigators they were starved, shocked with a cattle prod, beaten with a hammer and had toenails yanked out with pliers. Their emaciated bodies were compared by police to victims of Nazi concentration camps.

"This is probably the worst that I've seen," Citrus County Sheriff's Capt. Jim Cernich said. "Hitting their feet with rubber mallets and canes. Making them sleep in a closet."

John Dollar, 57, grew up in a farming family in rural Humboldt, Tenn. Linda Dollar, 51, grew up in Indiana.

They face aggravated child abuse charges and are being extradited from Utah where they were arrested two weeks ago. The couple fled Florida ahead of a hearing with the Department of Children & Families, which put the children in foster care after the abuse allegations surfaced.

Authorities discovered the alleged abuse Jan. 21, when the Dollars' 16-year-old son - weighing less than 60 pounds - was taken to the hospital with a head wound and red marks on his neck.

The couple's attorney, Charles Vaughn, said the Dollars want to tell their story, but are waiting for their return to Florida.

The Dollars are a well-educated and religious couple who, according to a 1995 state application to become foster parents, seemed successful and were doing a fine job raising five adopted children while seeking permission to take in three more.

"Adoption provided my wife and I the opportunity to extend our love to children we were not fortunate enough to have on our own," John Dollar told Florida welfare workers in his application. "We both found God sending us children who needed us and we needed them."

The dazzled caseworkers wrote: "The Dollars love and want to help children. They feel the more children they have, the merrier they are."

John Dollar is a commercial real estate appraiser and his wife is a former businesswoman with a master's degree in education. The Dollars live in a spacious home in a secluded development about 70 miles north of Tampa.

But the abuse allegations show not a loving home but a house of horrors. Investigators said they found a cattle prod, a pair of pliers and what appear to be toenails in the home, which they say corroborate what the children told detectives.

Child welfare workers, who cleared the Dollars as foster parents and eventually deemed them fit to adopt, saw no red flags in the couple's backgrounds.

"It's a tragedy, and I wish there was something we could've done sooner," DCF spokesman Bill D'Aiuto said. "But if we don't know about it, or if the school system doesn't know about it, or if a neighbor doesn't know about it ... there's nothing that us or law enforcement or anyone else can do to protect these children."

State welfare workers stopped monitoring the Dollars after the former Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, the agency that preceded the troubled DCF, determined a decade ago the couple would make suitable parents.

"Most people can understand a parent, in a fit of anger, losing it," said Kathleen M. Heide, a University of South Florida criminology professor. "But to systematically hurt a number of kids over time, and in the way they did, not only flies against all reasoning but also it's pathological."

Nobody is sure when the alleged abuse started. Investigators say the more violent acts stopped in August, when the Dollar family - plus John Dollar's aged mother - moved into their current home.

Six months of home visits, background checks and interviews by child welfare workers in 1995 revealed nothing out of line about the Dollars. And Tennessee Department of Children's Services officials have said they never investigated the Dollars while they lived in that state.

But were there warning signs?

When the Dollars applied in March 1995 to be foster parents, to 4-year-old twin boys and their 2-year-old sister, through the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, state records show Linda Dollar revealed her own stories of abuse.

She told social workers she had been on her own since she was 16 after leaving her alcoholic father's home where her own mother had died when Linda was just 6. She noted she was verbally and physically abused as a child and told caseworkers her first marriage ended because her husband abused her, the documents said.

Also, caseworkers had concerns the Dollars believed in spanking as a last-resort form of punishment. John Dollar said his father would spank him and his siblings "after giving us several opportunities to straighten up."

But he softened the stance in writing: "Never should a spanking physically harm or hurt a child. No other form of physical discipline is known to be acceptable by me."

That aside, the Dollars seemed to be raising wonderful children - including Shanda, then 15, who had been adopted as an infant by Linda Dollar in a previous marriage.

The caseworkers noted how two of the girls already living in the Dollars' home were "daddy's girls," writing that one was a "lovable, very smart ... beautiful and artistic."

This past week, Shanda Rae Shelton - now 25, married and out of the home for three years - was denied visitation to her siblings after social workers said she participated in some of the abuse.

Shelton admitted she locked her brothers and sisters in closets and bathrooms as punishment, but she said she did so under threats of violence and being thrown out of the house.

"John and Linda were overwhelmed," Shelton said. "That's no excuse. I can't say why they did what they did."

Vickie Chachere in Tampa, Fla. also contributed to this report.

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