CHILD TORTURE CASE

Date: 2005-02-14

Edition: 0 SOUTH PINELLAS
Section: NATIONAL
Page: 1A
Big family on the move faced few questions

ABBIE VANSICKLE
St. Petersburg Times

Charlotte Swaggerty bought buckets of KFC chicken and carried them over to her new neighbors on Stringtown Road. She had seen a large family moving boxes inside, and wanted to welcome them to her neighborhood in this wooded and mountainous corner of east Tennessee.

She got a surprise when she sat the buckets down for Linda Dollar and four of her children. The kids wolfed down the chicken pieces.

"They were very hungry," said Swaggerty, who was a mortgage banker at the time, in 1999. It was not long after breakfast, and "they just looked like they needed to be fed."

Swaggerty is just one of the many people who over the last dozen years caught glimpses of John and Linda Dollar and their family. An encounter with the Dollars often left people scratching their heads.

Just last month, when the Dollars brought their RV to a garage in Kodak, Tenn., to have its water heater repaired, mechanics wondered how a couple and seven children could possibly travel comfortably in a one-bedroom motor home. It was so stuffed with belongings that bags were stacked in the shower stall. And the mechanics thought it was odd to see Linda Dollar order the children to march single-file across the repair shop's parking lot.

The Dollars allowed two of the children to run about freely. Most of the time, the other five children stayed in the family's Suburban SUV or in the motor home, said Jim Branson, a mechanic. He thought the children were elementary-aged, not teenagers.

"We all saw them," he said. "They looked like they were 7 or 8."

Now that John and Linda Dollar are accused of starving and torturing five of their children, former neighbors and others who saw them in recent years are wondering what it is they did not see - and why.

One answer is that no one seems to have laid eyes on the Dollars for long. In the last five years, the family has lived in at least five houses in Valrico, Plant City, Lithia and Beverly Hills in Florida. Neighbors noticed they would leave for trips in their RV for six to eight weeks at a time. Even at home, they didn't seem like a family with so many adopted children. The kids usually stayed out of sight.

The itinerant lifestyle prevented neighbors from getting to know the Dollars well, but the family's isolation is only a partial answer. Some people who spent time with the Dollars saw no signs of abuse.

Paula and Rick Spradlin enrolled their 7-year-old son Matthew in a private school the Dollars started in Strawberry Plains in 1999. They recall the Dollars had some quirks. Convinced that computers would crash at the dawning of the year 2000, the Dollars stockpiled toilet paper and canned goods at the school and bought a generator.

And the Spradlins noticed that Linda Dollar kept her own kids separate from the other students, and banned such items as Pokemon cards because "she just thought that was real satanic," Mrs. Spradlin said.

But she had no reservations about the Dollars.

"I thought they were a good Christian family," she said.

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Linda Dollar, who is 51, grew up in Indiana. In papers she filed with Florida's Department of Children and Families in 1995, she described her mother as very loving and caring. Linda was only 6 when her mother died, and afterwards she found "very little love and affection" in her family. She said she left home at age 16 because her dad was alcoholic and "verbally and physically (not sexually) abusive."

John Dollar, now 58, grew up in a farming family in Humboldt, Tenn., a rural town in the western part of the state. His family was well known in the town, particularly his mother, Pauline, a beloved junior high English teacher.

After high school, John Dollar joined a local insurance firm and married his first wife, Suellen Senter.

In the early 1970s, Dollar moved to Jackson, Tenn., a larger city just south of his hometown. He and Senter soon divorced.

Dollar married for a second time in 1976, to a woman named Linda Sparks. He sold real estate in Jackson, and the couple attended a Baptist church. Dollar sang tenor in the choir.

He also taught a night class at Jackson State Community College, and it was there he met Linda Stanley, who would become his third wife.

Two weeks after divorcing Sparks, John Dollar married Linda Stanley, in Las Vegas in March 1986.

Sparks lost track of her ex-husband until she ran into him in Jackson in the mid 1990s. He was living in Florida, he told her, and had adopted several children. Sparks was surprised. When she married Dollar, he was adamant he didn't want children.

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In 1999, the Dollars opened a small private school called Mountain View Christian Academy in Stawberry Plains, not far from the rural childhood home of country singer Dolly Parton.

The idea was to create an environment where children could learn at their own pace and be taught in the Christian tradition, said Pastor Bruce Martin, who was the Dollars' pastor at Mount Harmony Baptist Church. The school opened in a one-story gray house high on a hill on Stringtown Road, the same house to which Charlotte Swaggerty had brought the buckets of chicken. The Dollars turned the garage into a classroom and put in cubicles.

Ashley Wade enrolled in the school in August 1999. She was a high school sophomore and had attended public school. She was looking for a Christian-based education, but she spent only one week at the school. It wasn't at all what she expected.

"I think the last straw for me was when Mrs. Dollar told me I could call her `mom,' " Wade said.

Linda Dollar phoned her several times, imploring her to come back.

Paula Spradlin, whose 7-year-old went to the school, saw no signs of the Dollar children being underfed. She recalls that on Fridays, there was a pizza party for all students.

Martin, who baptized two of the Dollar children, bristles when asked about the children's physical appearance at the time.

"Were they thin or abused?" he said. "No. They were well behaved. They didn't look extremely skinny or anything."

The Dollars closed the school in the spring of 2000.

They were moving, they said, back to Florida.

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In Florida, the family moved from house to house; at times, they seemed to be shuttling back and forth between two homes they owned simultaneously in Valrico.

The oldest daughter, Shanda Rae Shelton, married and moved to Pasco County during this time. (She is now 25 and is seeking visitation with her brothers and sisters, and would like to help raise one or more of them.)

People who encountered the Dollars in Florida say that five of the seven remaining children often stayed hidden. When they saw any of the Dollar children, it tended to be two of the older ones. These two children do not appear to have been the targets of abuse.

"I always had a funny feeling about them," said Dawn Crescimone, who lived near the Dollars two years ago in the FishHawk Ranch area of east Hillsborough County. "They had seven children and you never saw them outside playing."

Jon Almon saw the children more than most of the Dollars' many neighbors. Almon, 22, who works for a pest control service, lived next door to the family in Plant City. He says the Dollar children once somehow set the back yard on fire, and he had to help douse it with a garden hose, while the Dollars filled coolers and poured water onto the flaming grass.

Afterward, John Dollar brought over two of the boys and asked Almon which one set the fire. Almon didn't know.

"He grabbed them both by the neck and walked them in," Almon said.

He didn't think too much of it, figuring he himself might have gotten some punishment if he had lit his back yard on fire as a kid.

Mike Storms, a Realtor, met the Dollars in spring 2004, when they were trying to sell two properties they owned in Valrico. Storms helped them sell a three-bedroom home on Happy Acres Lane.

"They are good, friendly people," Storms said. "They love the Lord. They seemed like the real thing."

Storms said the Dollars always boasted about their children, saying how proud they were of them and how much they loved them. But he never once saw them.

"I always wondered where these kids were," Storms said.

Two months ago, Storms said, Linda Dollar called to say they had made "a big mistake moving to Crystal River."

The family wanted to move back to Valrico. She said her husband's commute was too long.

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One of the mysteries about the Dollars is their finances.

In the last decade, they have managed to buy and sell good-sized homes on large lots while frequently changing addresses and taking many extended trips in their RV. Prevost Marathon motor homes like the ones they drove can sell for more than $200,000.

Where did the Dollars get their money?

Dollar worked as a commercial real estate appraiser for a Tampa company. Mrs. Dollar, who has a master's degree and was a licensed teacher in Indiana, had not worked recently, and stayed home with the children.

In 1995, John Dollar reported to the Department of Children and Families that his annual income was $66,000.

John Eldridge, who works at the shop where the Dollars took their RV last month, got into a conversation with John Dollar about his finances. Dollar told Eldridge that his mother helped the family out financially and that she had been living with them in Florida. Dollar also said he inherited money from his father's estate.

The Dollars' secluded life began to unravel three weeks ago, on Jan. 21, when Linda Dollar called 911. Her 16-year-old son had blood gushing from his head, she said. At a hospital near Crystal River, the boy's 59-pound weight and the red marks around his neck quickly attracted attention.

Within days, investigators were hearing stories from the Dollar children of being shocked with a cattle prod, of having their toenails pulled out with pliers.

John and Linda fled and were arrested in Utah. They are now awaiting extradition to Florida.

The children were so starved that the teenagers resembled gradeschool kids.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office says twin boys who are 14 weighed 36 and 38 pounds.

How does a weight of 38 pounds compare to what's normal?

"That's like the average size of a 3 1/2-year-old, just to put it in perspective," said Dr. Kate Campbell, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of South Florida.

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For everyone who saw a glimpse of the Dollars - the people who admired them and the ones who wondered about them - there is a common reaction at the inhumane level of abuse they are accused of committing: disbelief.

"They seemed like nice, ordinary people," said Wilma Hensley, 59, a retiree who lives in Valrico on Happy Acres Lane. "Who would ever have thought that?"

"It surprised the heck out of us" said Delmer Rhoden, 77, a retired mechanic and a onetime neighbor of the Dollars on Ranch Road in Valrico. "We never heard anything; we never saw anything."

Another thing surprises the neighbors, including the neighbors who liked the Dollars. They assumed the Dollars' children were much younger than their true ages, now between 12 and 17.

"They looked healthy for 10-year-olds," said Jon Almon, the neighbor from Plant City.

Barbara Dunlop is the administrator of a private school, Tampa Educational Academy of Christian Heritage, and she gave academic tests to the homeschooled Dollar children in April 2002. When she asked why the kids were so little, the Dollars told her they had been adopted from "a family of small stature," she said in an e-mail to the Times.

"I was deceived by this family," Dunlop wrote, "as were the agencies who investigated them before every adoption, as was DCF in licensing them as foster parents, as was the doctor who signed their required health and immunization forms."

Times staff writers Eddy Ramirez and Leonora LaPeter and researchers Caryn Baird, Kitty Bennett and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

The Dollar Family

John Dollar grew up in Humboldt, Tenn. Linda Dollar was from Indiana. Public records and interviews paint a partial picture of the couple - and their eight adopted children - as they hopscotched between homes in Tennessee and Florida.

March 27, 1986 - John and Linda Dollar marry in Las Vegas. They met when both worked at a community college in Jackson, Tenn.

1988 - The Dollars move to Florida and live in Holiday.

March 1995 - A foster parent licensing file is opened for the Dollars in Hillsborough County.

Aug. 5, 1995 - A foster parent licensing file is closed. Often this means a family has adopted children. A state report said the Dollars had five children and were intending to adopt three more in Hillsborough County.

1996 to 1998 - During at least some of this time, the Dollar family lives in and near Sevier County, Tenn.

May 19, 1999 - The Dollars join Mount Harmony Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., where they tell the pastor they plan to open a private Christian school.

1999 - The Dollars move to secluded home in Kodak, Tenn.

September 1999 - The Dollars open Mountain View Christian Academy at a house in Strawberry Plains, Tenn.

2000 to April 2002 - The Dollars return to Hillsborough and live in a home in Lithia.

2002 to 2004 - The Dollars live in two homes in Valrico and a home in Plant City.

July 2004 - The Dollars move into a home on Pink Poppy Drive in Beverly Hills.

Jan. 14 - The Dollars and seven children stop in Kodak, Tenn., to have their motor home repaired.

Jan. 21 - Back in Citrus County, Mrs. Dollar calls emergency dispatchers, asking for an ambulance for her son, who has a head injury.

Jan. 27 - All seven children are removed from Dollars' care by Citrus County investigators.

Jan. 31 - The Dollars fail to appear in court.

Feb. 3 - A warrant is issued for the Dollars' arrest on one count of aggravated child abuse and torture each.

Feb. 4 - The Dollars are arrested in southeastern Utah.

In a Valrico home formerly occupied by the Dollars, new homeowner Mark Lucas found a closet had a door with a locking knob on the outside. "It's set up to keep somebody in, not somebody from getting in," Lucas said.

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