A different kind of Christmas 

'I promised not to tell. He thought I wouldn't. But I did.'

Editor's note: The parents in this story acknowledge that for years they were unable to deal with serious personal problems. Both sought help and they now say their family is healing—even from the shock last January, when the couple learned that their 11-year-old daughter had called a sex-abuse hotline, accusing a close family friend of rape.

The parents and the girl, now 12, wanted their names used in this article, both to counter the stigma associated with sex crimes and to encourage other troubled families to seek help. Due to the age of the child, however, the Times required pseudonyms for the family. All other names are real.

Alle is wearing a green Riverfest T-shirt and gray workout pants. She's barefoot and her hair's tied back in a ponytail. She sits on a couch in her grandfather's house, responding easily to questions. At her request, her parents have left the room. They sit outside on a porch swing. She says it's "embarrassing" to talk about this in front of them.

"I was four when they got divorced," she says. "They fought all the time. When they got divorced, my mom moved to Texas and my brother left me. He was about 14 or 15 and he moved in with friends.

"The chaos of my whole life has been horrendous. For so long, my dad was an alcoholic. I was scared it was literally going to kill him. And my mom was caught up in being a teenager again. That's why I went to a hotline instead of her."

In separate interviews, Alle's parents, Powell and Annette Dell, talked about Alle's call to the sex-abuse hotline—and what preceded and followed it. Both believe that the timing of her call, on Jan. 4 of this year, 10 days after Christmas, is central to their story. As Annette put it: "Of course, this was after Powell had been sober for a year and one week."

On the surface, Alle has good life. She lives in Hillcrest, just a few blocks from the house where her father grew up and where her grandfather still lives. Her parents used to own a local business. From kindergarten until last year, Alle attended the private Cathedral School, which she loved.

"It was very calming and I felt very relaxed there," she says. "We had chapel on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we'd sing songs, and the music would touch me. I would just sit there and be happy, and I would think how good I actually did have it."

But that placid surface hid a number of deepening fractures. Some are evident even in the brief history recounted by Alle's parents, Powell and Annette.

Having met at Central High School, they married at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church in 1982. She was 19. He was 23. Their first child, a son, was born eight years later, in 1990. Four years after that, they started their business.

Powell liked his work, but found he hated owning a business. It was all-consuming. He missed seeing his son grow up. Annette, having abandoned hope of becoming a veterinarian, turned to accounting and kept the shop's books. "We lived in the neighborhood," she said, "so it was 24/7."

The couple felt close to Powell's parents. "My own family was so, so dysfunctional," Annette says, "it was as if God had blessed me to have this family as my family."


'Family sickness'

But by 15 years into their marriage, Powell, who'd begun drinking after high school, was an alcoholic. "I was scared of my shadow," he now says. "I was scared of people, places, anything that was new. I was always scared, and alcohol just took that away. Then, somewhere in the last 10 years, the alcohol quit working for me, and I wanted to quit but I couldn't."

When Powell's mother, the "rock of the family," died unexpectedly in 1997, he says, "I didn't know how to grieve. That is when my substance abuse got out of control."

He tried to quit drinking the next year, when the couple's second child, Alle, was born. He failed. And Alle was not a healthy baby. "She was diagnosed with asthma by the time she was 2," Annette says. "She couldn't eat any solid food until she was 4 and a half. She was on a lot of medicine. So all her life she was not able to do what other children were able to do."

Struggling, but determined to be more present for both their children, the Dells quit their business and took jobs. Then, when Alle was 2 and her brother 10, Annette's grandmother—the woman who had raised her—died. The next year, so did her brother, at the age of 37.

Looking back, Annette thinks that those three deaths, combined with Powell's worsening alcoholism and her own unaddressed problems from childhood, pushed her over the edge. "I was sexually molested between the ages of five and nine by a second cousin," she says. "It wasn't rape and I never reported it. It stopped when he went into the military. I have another relative who was sentenced to seven years in prison for sexual abuse. It's a family sickness, for sure, in my dad's side of the family. But it was swept under the carpet."

For Annette, the result was "a mental breakdown." Between 2002 and 2004, she was admitted four times to a mental hospital. She also found spiritual help.

"I went through three and a half years of cognitive behavioral therapy," she says. "I wanted to understand what was wrong with me. I wanted to help myself, plus my family." Upon returning from her fourth hospitalization, she kicked Powell out of the house. Alle was six years old.

"That's right," Powell says. "Annette booted me out and filed for divorce, which is what I needed." Needing a place to stay, Powell called his friend Zay Dee Whitaker, who was also recently divorced, and moved in with him. The couple divorced in 2005. Alle and her brother visited their father at Whitaker's every Wednesday and every other weekend.

But the "chaos" of Alle's life, with an alcoholic father and a mentally disturbed mother, did not end with the separation. Annette married again and moved to Texas, leaving Alle with Powell's father, so that she could stay at her school. When that marriage failed, Annette returned to Little Rock, where she struggled to make it on her own, moving often, taking Alle with her. Powell's alcoholism, meanwhile, had worsened, and he'd moved in with his father. Their son was getting into trouble with drugs.

Finally, Powell says, "I started realizing my drinking was making me and my family miserable. I started asking for help. Actually, I started to pray."

In 2008, Powell's boss told him, "Go get help." Powell checked into a hospital for four days of detox, then joined Alcoholics Anonymous. By Christmas, things were looking up. He and Annette were discussing getting back together. For the first time in four years, the family was going to spend Christmas Eve together.

But Powell blew it. A drink after work turned into a night of drunkenness. His promise to bake cookies with Alle crumbled in the ruins.

"In the past I would have 'fixed' it," Annette says, "but this time, when he came home, I told Alle, 'You go in there and ask him why he's doing this.' "

"She was very angry and hurt," Powell recalls. "She said, 'What if you died? Why did you do this to me?' She glared at me through her tears. 'Why did you drink that stuff? You promised me you wouldn't. Why did you do it?' I just remember her face and her hurt."

He now says, "Alcoholism wants you to kill yourself and it wants you to hurt everyone who loves you the most while you do it." That Christmas, Powell stopped drinking for good. After Alle confronted him, he says, "the obsession went away."

Annette, too, was back on a course she wanted in life, studying to be a nurse. The couple remains together. "We're not trying to rush anything," Annette says. "We're trying to lay a good foundation, and not screw this up by doing something silly."

On Christmas 2009, with their son doing better and now in college, he, Alle and their parents celebrated the holiday—and Powell's first year of sobriety—together. Powell's gift to Alle, now 11, was a cell phone.

It was a happy time, or so Powell and Annette believed. They did not realize how badly their daughter was faring.


'Like my god-uncle'

For most of her life, before her parents' reconciliation, "I just felt terrible," Alle says. "I would cry myself to sleep and not know if I was going to wake up to a dead dad or my mother moving out of the country or my brother dying from an overdose."

By this time last year, she says, she was also carrying a terrible secret. "I felt isolated from the whole world. Hopeless. My self-confidence was low. I wanted to be alone all the time."

The secret, she says, concerned her father's best friend, Zay Whitaker. According to Alle, Whitaker began sexually abusing her when she was five years old, even before her parents' divorce; the abuse, which she says included rape, continued throughout the chaotic years of alcohol, moves, and mental hospitals; and was maintained, even as she grew older, through a combination of trust on her part, threats on his and confusion about where to turn.

Powell had met Whitaker when he owned the family business and Whitaker managed Hillcrest Liquor. Powell acknowledges, "We became friends, partly because I was over there every day."

Annette recalls, "He was not somebody I liked. I wasn't a drinker, so I didn't fit in with them and their drinking. I didn't dislike him. I accepted him because he was Powell's best friend.

"And he's funny," she adds. "We kind of felt we were sharing a family with him, because he didn't have a good family life growing up."

Powell agrees. "For the last three years, Zay has been part of this family. He would play cards with Alle. I didn't have the patience to do that. He was like a grandfather to her, or an uncle. He liked to spoil her, so it felt good to me that there was somebody who would try to indulge her."

To Alle, "He was more like my god-uncle. I called him that. He would buy me presents for no reason. Lots of stuff. For my birthday. For Christmas. I liked it. I liked the stuff and the attention. But at the same time I felt violated, like, 'You've got no right to touch me.' "

Though she says she tried to hide it, she describes an insecure childhood that, with Whitaker, became bounded by attention and abuse, confidence and threats.

Throughout her parents' and Whitaker's various moves, Whitaker was often at the house, and she was often at his. Alle says this was because he would demand that she tell her parents she wanted to go see him and back up those demands with threats.

"When I was seven, or maybe six," Alle says, "he started telling me he loved me. That would have been two years into our unhealthy relationship. Even so, sometimes he would throw me up against walls and yell at me and throw me around like I was a rag doll. He was very abusive, but at the time, I thought he actually did love me."

Picking up a framed photograph of herself from a table beside the couch, she says, "This is my third-grade picture. Zay got someone to do my hair so I would look good in this picture. And I do look good, don't you think? I was glad he did that. It was just very confusing."

She adds: "In some part of my mind, I didn't want it to stop. But I did. I was sort of half-and-half. I wasn't getting attention from anybody but him. My parents were in their own worlds for a really, really long time.

"I felt completely, utterly alone, and I wanted every bit of attention I could get. So I'd say it was 50 percent due to Zay. The other 50 percent was me, me and my life. My life was just terrible."

Yet, in fifth grade, Alle wrote an essay titled "All about Me." It began: "People may be the same on the outside, but on the inside we are all totally different." When she considers how she's lived most of her life in one neighborhood, close to a grandfather she loves and attends school like other kids, she says, "I lived a very normal life, beside the rape. That's the only thing that wasn't normal, but yet it was normal, for me."

By September 2009, Powell and Annette could see that "Alle's moods were swinging," as Powell put it. They attributed part of that to the fact that she had just changed schools, and part to her medications, many of which were steroidal. They never suspected Whitaker.


'I was just done'

January 4 of this year fell on a Monday. It was the day that classes resumed after the holiday break. Alle stayed home from school with a sinus infection. Her parents were at work. Whitaker, who was then unemployed, came to the house.

That day everything changed. While Whitaker was taking a shower, Alle picked up the phone her father had given her for Christmas and dialed 800-448-3000, The Boys Town National Hotline. She says she had no intention of revealing her true identity or of getting police involved, though she believes she'd been moving toward that moment for some time.

"I was just done," she says. "My dad had been sober for a year. I don't know what shifted, but I was done taking orders from somebody who didn't scare me anymore. I knew that I'm my own person and no one but my parents could tell me what to do."

The woman who answered identified herself as Betty and asked how she could help. At first, Alle did not speak. Then, sounding like she had a cold and/or had been crying, she answered: "Umm. Well, there's this person that won't stop touching me and I don't know how to deal with it."

"Well, I'm glad you called, Honey," the woman replied. "When did all this happen?"

The phone call lasted half an hour, during which Betty alternately soothed Alle, told her she'd been brave to call, and tried to elicit precise information about Alle, the "person" and her family. Much of what Alle reported matched the facts of her life and what she later told police.

She said she lived with her mom and dad, that the man had threatened to beat her or kill her, that she lived in Little Rock, the companies where her parents worked, and that she didn't tell them about the abuse because, "my dad trusts him."

She also said things that were not true and that didn't conform to later accounts. She said that she was home alone at the time; that she'd gotten the Boys Town number, first, by "looking in the phone book" and then from a friend who "was having a little trouble with sort of the same thing"; that she had two brothers and two sisters; that she went to Forest Park school; that she didn't know where her attacker lived, and that she had visible bruises at the time of the call.

When "Betty" asked for the name of the person who'd hurt her, she gave a false name. When asked for her own last name, she said it was, "Whitaker."

The woman on the hotline tried, with little success, to get Alle to identify some adult in whom she would confide. When the woman gently asked Alle how she would feel about her notifying the police, a note of alarm came into the girl's voice.

"I thought you were a place where you wouldn't tell anybody," she said. "I just need somebody to talk to." A bit later, she told the woman, that if she reported the call, "I'll get really, really hurt."

"I told them I was going to call them back, but I didn't," Alle says. "I was scared. I don't really know what I was scared of. I was making things up because I didn't want them to call the police. I just was not ready to go through that."

Alle hung up. Unbeknownst to her, the staff at Boys Town notified the Little Rock police.


'I'm sending an officer'

A short time later, a Little Rock police officer called Alle on her phone. She said she couldn't talk and hung up. With information from the phone company, the officer then called Alle's father, who had the contract for the phone. Powell was just coming home for lunch.

He recalls: "Zay had brought her lunch. He'd showered, and a few minutes after I got there, he left. My phone rang and somebody asked for Zay. When I said he'd just left, they asked for his number. I asked Alle, 'Do you know Zay's number?'

"The voice on the phone said, 'Is Alle with you?' Then, 'How long have you been there?' I said, 'About two minutes.' The person on the phone said, 'I'm sending an officer to your house.' That was the first I knew that something was going on."

Alle's own memory of that day is blurry. When she heard that police were coming, "I was freaking out," she says. "I was pacing. Then the police came."

"They took Alle into a room alone," Powell says. "When they came out, they told me that Alle had called a hotline. They said she was denying ever saying this man was raping her.

"I sat down next to Alle and I said, 'Alle, has Zay touched you?' She fell apart. She said she was afraid if she told me I'd hurt him and I'd go to prison. The police officer was wonderful. She held Alle while she cried. Then she said we had to go to the hospital."

"I got tested—that whole thing," Alle recalls. "I felt grossed out. They were touching me in places I don't want to ever be touched again.

"And then came telling my story. I told it like 37 times. On top of that, I was sick. I had a sinus infection. That's why I was home from school. I was feeling terrible, and they would wake me up between naps and stuff. The police, the DA's office. Over and over again. I got over it because I knew they were doing it for my own good. But it felt like..." She doesn't complete the sentence, then adds:

"This is like the last time I'm going to tell this story. Maybe I'll tell my grandchildren."


'I wasn't really a person'

While it is known that many, perhaps most, sexual assaults of children go unreported, and that follow-up is sometimes patchy, action in this case was swift. The day after Alle's call, police further questioned her parents. "I've been investigated by everyone from Day 1, which is fine," Powell says. "I should be investigated. But they couldn't find anything."

During questioning, Powell and Annette told detectives that Alle had recently begun seeing a therapist—at Whitaker's suggestion. Powell told the police, "Well, Zay said that she had been talking to him and telling him that she was wanting to talk to somebody."

When Powell didn't promptly make an appointment, Whitaker raised the issue with him again, Powell said. He said that Whitaker said Alle had mentioned it again, adding that now she was talking about suicide. This time, Powell immediately made an appointment for her. Neither he nor Annette could explain why Whitaker might have taken the apparent risk of encouraging Alle to speak with a therapist.

"I did want to talk to someone," Alle says. "I felt like I was worthless. I didn't really have a purpose. I felt that no one really cared about me, that I didn't really matter, that I wasn't really a person. I started thinking about it when I was 10. I wanted to die, my heart to shatter."

But in her meetings with the therapist, Alle did not mention the abuse. "I couldn't tell that one thing," she says, "because I was scared." She says Whitaker was confident of his power over her—that she both loved and feared him—and that she wouldn't tell. "He made me promise I wouldn't," she says. "And he thought I wouldn't. But I did."

The day after Alle's call, a Little Rock judge granted a temporary order of protection, which was later made permanent. Whitaker was not to go within 500 feet of Alle, her home or her school.

In March, Whitaker was charged with rape and sexual assault. Circuit Judge Herbert Wright set bond at $100,000. Whitaker was jailed, declared indigent and appointed a public defender. Three months after his arrest, Whitaker wrote a letter to the judge complaining that his court-appointed attorney was not preparing adequately for his Aug. 11 trial.

In April, police received reports from the State Crime Laboratory. Tests showed a high probability that DNA found on cuttings from a comforter taken from a bed in a trailer where Whitaker was living had come from both him and Alle. She had visited the trailer often. However, because the trailer was small, it seemed possible that the bed was one of the few places a person could have sat, even to watch television.

Prosecutors had to decide whether to go to trial or offer Whitaker a plea deal. When the trial date arrived, officials of the Pulaski County prosecuting attorney's office offered a deal. The rape charge would be dropped if Whitaker pleaded guilty to sexual assault in the second degree, a Class B felony. Whitaker agreed.

John Johnson, the county's chief deputy prosecutor, says, "It was a hard decision for us." One consideration was that "the girl" did not want to testify, he says, and her parents supported that decision. (Alle says, "I did want to testify.") Another factor, Johnson says, was that, "Aside from her statement, there was no evidence that directly pointed to his guilt."

Whitaker was sentenced to the time he'd already spent in jail, plus five years' probation and a $1,000 fine. He was free, but was required to register as a sex offender.

In the four months between Whitaker's arrest and guilty plea, Alle attempted suicide twice. When she was hospitalized for a week after the first attempt, she remembers thinking, "Why am I here? I'm not mental. I'm not anything. I'm just wanting to die."

She was hospitalized again after the second attempt, this time "on total lock-down." Nothing seemed to help, she says, until she began seeing a counselor at Safe Places, a Little Rock non-profit that works with victims of sexual assault, child abuse and family violence.


'Not just about Alle'

Safe Places is an amazing place," Alle says. "It makes you feel good about yourself. You're told you're good enough, you're a survivor. I think there are a lot of young girls like me who would love to go and be able to talk to someone."

Alle's parents also credit Safe Places, particularly her counselor there, Angela McGraw. "There for a while, she had nowhere to put the pain," Powell Dell says. "It had developed into a sick, toxic relationship, where they were going to be together forever. Finally, she said, 'I quit.' And she wanted to die. But since she's been with Angela, there's been such a change."

Alle now had her family for support too. "I used to always tell myself, 'One day at a time, Alle,' " she says. "That's what my dad would tell me. You can't take it all in in one day. You've got to spread it out and process it. You have to go through a bunch of different emotions.'"

Despite that advice, Alle was jolted when the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on Whitaker's plea, even though her name was not mentioned in the article. "Basically everyone knew," she says. "It said his name, Zay Whitaker, and my age. It scared me. At the time, I didn't think I wanted people to know that I was hurt and abused. I barely wanted to admit it to myself."

Now, Annette says, Alle sees McGraw every week, and a psychiatrist, less often, for her medications. Difficult as it has been, she says, the process of "breaking these silent, generational bonds has truly helped our family."

But Annette wants to see more help for children who've been victims of sexual abuse. She is concerned that, even after she'd brought the no-contact order to Alle's school, officials there thought it applied to Powell, rather than Whitaker. And both parents wish school officials had a better understanding of the impact of sexual abuse.

"Alle went to court two weeks before school began," Powell says. "And now she has a lot of appointments. She misses a lot of school." He and Annette don't think teachers realize that she needs time to recover.

"I get the impression that they think we want them to handle her with kid gloves, and that's not what we're asking," Powell says. "We're just asking for a little extra consideration for a little while."

Both parents praise the work of police, prosecutors, social workers and the staff at Safe Places. "They were all so compassionate, so caring. They were fabulous," Annette says. But in her view, "Once it hit the court system, all hell broke loose."

Annette Dell is particularly upset about the delay—which police have told her could be as long as a year—in conducting the assessment required for Whitaker's registration as a sex offender. The Arkansas Department of Correction conducts the screening process to determine a convicted offender's community notification level.

The levels range from one to four. Level 4 offenders are considered "sexually violent predators," and require the "highest and most visible means of community notification." But the lag between a conviction and assessment, during which an offender's status is not publicized and no restrictions are imposed, has allowed many convicted offenders to skirt laws such as those forbidding them to live near schools.

In September, Gov. Mike Beebe asked the Arkansas Crime Information Center and the Department of Correction to institute changes to assess sex offenders more quickly. If the changes do not adequately speed up the process, Republican state Rep. Jon Woods of Springdale has said he will introduce legislation in January to require a faster system. Meantime, Annette Dell was distressed to see Whitaker, after his conviction, living so close to a public school that he could "see the playground from his backyard."

"Where is it that we're actually, truly standing up for our children," she asks, "especially in cases of rape and molestation? We are grateful that because of Alle, this is coming out now, rather than when she's 39 years old. But we know it's not just about Alle, it's about all children who are in this situation. I really, truly want to reform what we do for the victims."

Powell is still somewhat confounded by all that has happened concerning his daughter and his former friend. "To this day," he says, "I still cannot picture the person I know doing this. But the police and prosecutors, everyone has told us, 'People who do this hide it very, very well.' "

On Nov. 17, Whitaker petitioned the court for post-conviction relief, claiming that he signed the plea agreement, "under intense pressure and with literally no time at all to ponder it," due to the ineffectiveness of his public defender. He declined comment for this article, citing the advice of his new attorney.

Alle appears comfortable now. "Dad is in recovery," she says, "and my mom is doing a lot better because she doesn't have to run away from everything anymore."

Alle also seems comfortable with people knowing her story. "Even though I'm not quite proud of it, I am proud, in a way, because I'm healing. I'm getting a little better as days go by. I go to bed feeling good about myself."

She adds: "The good thing is, I have parents who care. Because a lot of kids don't have that."

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