Bill and Becky Wallis' perseverance pays off.
The sister -- from whom the Wallises were estranged following her unsubstantiated claim against Bill Wallis of abuse in 1990 -- reported through one of her multiple personalities that a terrible thing was about to happen: Bill Wallis would sacrifice his young son during the "Fall Equinox ritual," and the killing would be masked by a car accident in which the boy's body would be incinerated. The sister based this on her recently recovered "memory" from 20 years earlier of her father, Dave Stecks, wearing a cult robe and chanting hypnotically, "On the first full moon after two blue moons a child will be killed."
The threat here was considered so dire that San Diego County established a Ritual Abuse Task Force.
THE SAN DIEGO UNION - TRIBUNE
November 2, 2000
Parents of two seized kids to get $750,000.
Escondido case arose from story of Satanic threat.
ESCONDIDO -- Police officers came in the middle of the night to take the two young children away. The boy's third birthday coincided with the impending fall equinox, and officials believed his family planned to kill him that day as a sacrifice to Satan.
Now, nine years after their son and 5-year-old daughter were taken from their beds, Bill and Becky Wallis will collect $750,000 from the city of Escondido.
Perhaps fittingly, news of the federal court judgment arrived on Halloween.
The money comes as a result of a lawsuit the family filed in 1992 against Escondido police, county social workers and a physician for violating their constitutional rights to be free from "unreasonable intrusions on their privacy, person and home."
Twice, a U.S. District Court judge ruled against the Wallises and dismissed their lawsuit, and twice they appealed to a higher court and had it reinstated.
Bill and Becky Wallis are elated that their perseverance paid off.
"We are so happy that Escondido finally admitted they were wrong. That was the main thing for us, it wasn't about money," Becky Wallis said yesterday. "Hopefully, what we went through in this case will keep it from happening to someone else.
"The whole thing was so bizarre and such a shock to our family. It's still unbelievable to us that anyone could have put stock in such a story."
The Wallis case was the product of a Satanic scare that swept through San Diego and many other communities a decade ago.
It was a time when certain psychotherapists, social workers, police officers and prosecutors became convinced that secret cults were subjecting children to all sorts of evil rituals, even murder.
The threat here was considered so dire that San Diego County established a Ritual Abuse Task Force. But finding evidence was another matter, and the task force disbanded without fanfare.
Court documents show that the Wallises' ordeal began during a September 1991 session in a psychiatric hospital between Becky Wallis' sister, a schizophrenic with a history of severe mental illness, and Candace Young, a psychotherapist who served on the Ritual Abuse Task Force.
The sister -- from whom the Wallises were estranged following her unsubstantiated claim against Bill Wallis of abuse in 1990 -- reported through one of her multiple personalities that a terrible thing was about to happen: Bill Wallis would sacrifice his young son during the "Fall Equinox ritual," and the killing would be masked by a car accident in which the boy's body would be incinerated.
The sister based this on her recently recovered "memory" from 20 years earlier of her father, Dave Stecks, wearing a cult robe and chanting hypnotically, "On the first full moon after two blue moons a child will be killed."
Young, a marriage and family counselor, reported this to Child Protective Services.
Sue Plante, a CPS social worker involved with other alleged 'Satanic-abuse' cases, launched an investigation. Escondido police were notified, along with a deputy district attorney, Jane Via.
According to court documents, Plante was told by Via that "we have enough to pick up the kids." But social workers never formally petitioned a judge, and no court order was ever issued to take the children into protective custody.
Escondido Police Officers Diana Pitcher and Ralph Claytor, and their supervisor Ken Burkett, however, testified about getting a call from CPS saying a court had ordered the Wallis children to be picked up.
But even without the order, the officers testified, they believed the children were in danger from Satanists and they acted reasonably.
Their investigation, they said, had turned up a curious fact about the kids' grandfather: Dave Stecks, the alleged Satanic priest, lived on a boat in Oceanside Harbor named the "Witch Way." Never mind that the vessel was named that when Stecks bought it.
The Wallis children were taken to Hillcrest Receiving Home, then shuttled between foster families for the next 2 1/2 months.
A Juvenile Court judge discounted the Satanic-abuse allegations, but kept the children from their parents because Dr. Mary Spencer reported that the daughter showed signs of sexual abuse in an extensive physical examination.
But that finding was reversed two months later when Dr. Susan Horowitz, a child-abuse specialist at Children's Hospital, reported that her examination of Spencer's records and photos of the Wallis girl revealed no abuse.
"No one now contends that either child was ever sexually or physically abused," a federal appellate judge wrote last fall.
After 68 days, during which Becky Wallis lost her job and about 20 pounds, and the children cried constantly for their parents, according to court records, the brother and sister were sent home.
The Wallises sued.
In 1997, they settled for "a nominal amount" with the county of San Diego. Spencer was dropped as a defendant after a ruling that she was immune from the suit by law.
Now the Wallises have a stipulated judgment against the city of Escondido. The case is not quite over, however.
A lawsuit remains against the individual police officers, including Pitcher, who is still on the force, and Claytor and Burkett, both retired. A motion by the city to dismiss the suit is to be ruled on soon.
"I remain convinced that the actions our Police Department took were consistent with custom and practice at that time," Mark Waggoner, assistant city attorney for Escondido, said yesterday.
"What they had was a therapist telling them there was a legitimate threat to the kids' safety, a CPS worker saying there was a court order and a DA agreeing the threat needed to be taken seriously. Looking at all that, I can see an officer saying, `I may be skeptical about this Satanic stuff, but what if I don't take those kids and then something happens?' "
In reinstating the lawsuit last year, the appellate court judge found that the city had not conducted "any significant investigation" of what were extraordinary allegations before seizing the children.
Donnie Cox, an attorney representing the Wallises, said the lawsuit changed the law in that parents now must grant permission before "doctors are allowed to do invasive examinations of their children."
Becky Wallis said the judgment sends a message to social workers, prosecutors, police officers and others with power over the lives of parents and children.
"I think such people are a lot more cautious when making such critical decisions then they were back then. At least we hope so," she said.
"We were pretty trusting people once. We thought that bad things don't happen to good people. But our kids learned at age 3 and 5 that life sometimes is horribly unfair. We have all been through a terrible experience and our lives will never be what they once were because of all this."