Although he was in his 40s, Luther E. Wright preferred the company of small children.
Wright, known by his middle name “Earl,” kept a tab at the local gas station where the owner allowed him to charge candy between paydays so he’d always have some on hand to pass out to kids.
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He mingled with children whenever he could and sometimes would stand beside a neighbor’s trampoline catching youngsters in his arms.
Many adults admired Wright’s apparent devotion to children. He had no criminal record. In this small Wayne County village, he was well-liked, a trusted babysitter.
But Wright heard voices in his head that commanded him to sexually violate children and mentally handicapped women, when he thought he could get away with it, according to police.
The voice simply said, “Do it,” he later told police.
For years, Wright got away with his crimes. Many prosecutors will simply refuse to pursue “he said, she said” sex crimes in which the evidence consists primarily of the word of a juvenile or mentally handicapped person against a suspect who denies wrongdoing.
Wright managed to avoid arrest, even though he was investigated by local police on three occasions beginning in 2002, by insisting that they should believe a proper citizen like him over a mentally handicapped woman or an impressionable child, according to police reports.
Police said Wright preyed on society’s most-vulnerable victims without serving a single day in jail until Dec. 5, 2008, when his sister-in law caught him in the act of sexually assaulting his 7-year-old autistic niece. The girl’s disability prevented her from being able to speak. He was upstairs watching a movie alone with the child when the voice said, “Do it.”
This time the girl’s mother, Cindy Wright, walked in and caught “Uncle Earl” performing oral sex on her daughter.
With the mother as a witness, Wright confessed. He pleaded guilty to avoiding trial, and is serving 10 years in state prison.
Wright is a registered sex offender and is classified by the state as a “sexual predator.”
Sex crime cases involving children are difficult because they often lack physical evidence or credible witnesses, police and prosecutors say.
Even when local police receive help from the Illinois State Police, many cases go nowhere.
Of 62 felony sex crime cases from 2005-09 where local police departments in 18 Southern Illinois counties asked the State Police for help:
ISP investigated all of these cases and sent 34 to local prosecutors, who rejected 31 of them.
Of the 31 rejected cases, 26 involved victims younger than age 13.
In the three cases that were prosecuted, all involved a confession, including Luther Wright’s case.
Experts say police and prosecutors need to work harder in cases where a child’s word is the only evidence.
“In many of these cases, if a prosecutor approaches it from the big picture view they will find it’s not ‘he said, she said,’ that there’s plenty of evidence,” said Kenneth Lanning, who worked as an FBI special agent for 30 years and has trained thousands of officers in how to conduct child sex crime investigations.
If police look, they usually can find other victims of the same suspect, said Lanning, now a consultant with a group in Fredericksburg, Va., that specializes in police training.
“Then it’s not ‘he said, she said’ because we have a second, third, fourth, fifth and even a sixth victim, and now it’s ‘he said, they said.’”
Lanning said a key mistake some investigators make is automatically believing everything a child says.
Sometimes, children actually like the attention and gifts they get from child molesters, but when asked about it by untrained interrogators, are ashamed to admit it and instead feel compelled to come up with a distorted view of the suspect as pure evil, he said.
“Most likely the child described him this way because that’s what people wanted to hear,” Lanning said.
When police investigate further and determine it is unlikely the suspect ever threatened to murder the victim or family members, as some children claim, investigators assume the child was lying all along and drop the whole case, Lanning said.
The infamous McMartin preschool sex crime trial in California in the 1980s went on for six years but failed to produce a single conviction. Parents had accused members of the McMartin family, who ran a daycare, of sexually abusing children. The trial launched a backlash against believing children in sex crime cases, said Richard Wexler, former director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Washington, D.C.
“Before McMartin, children were thought to be incapable of lying about sexual abuse. Now it may have swung the other way, and children are never believed,” Wexler said.
Lanning said it’s important for police to control their emotions when interviewing suspects. If they show rage or contempt, a suspect will likely “clam up.”
“Suspects in these types of crimes will admit to only two things: what they think you already know and what they can rationalize.” Staying calm and allowing a suspect to try to explain away allegations will often result in admissions that lead to an arrest, he said.
Besides children, Wright told police he sexually molested several mentally handicapped women who were confined to a local developmental center.
He would peer around a doorway while visiting at a local developmental center to make sure no one was coming down the hall, then fondle the women’s breasts and digitally penetrate them, according to a report by State Police Special Agent Rick White, who investigated the extent of Wright’s crimes.
Wright mentioned three other attacks but police suspect him of more.
After confessing to the attack on the 7-year-old girl, Wright “danced” and said, “Hallelujah! I feel so much better, like a load is off my shoulders,” according to White’s report.
In an interview, White said, “These guys find a vulnerable victim. They molest a woman on drugs, or a kid, because it’s hard to get a conviction on that.”
Referring to a previous case where Luther Wright was suspected of sexually violating a handicapped woman, White said, “It was his word against a profoundly handicapped person. There was no forensic evidence. They confronted him and he denied it. He told them, ‘Your daughter is retarded. Are you going to believe her over me? I’m normal.’
Wright told the investigator he underestimated one mentally handicapped female victim who fought him off and called for help. Still, local police did not believe her story. Wright simply denied any wrongdoing, and no charges were filed.
“The mentally handicapped are much more vulnerable because they are easily manipulated,” said Deborah Denno, a law professor at Fordham University in New York who has studied sexual assaults on the mentally handicapped. “It makes them more difficult to deal with as witnesses.”
Cindy Wright, the mother of the girl Wright sexually assaulted, welcomed a BND reporter’s request for an interview about the tragic events, noting that everyone in the community already knew what her brother-in-law had done.
“It won’t help my daughter to keep this secret. That will only hurt her,” she said. “She must know that none of this was her fault.”
During a follow-up interview, Cindy Wright said her daughter, now 13, recently began to speak and now attends school. “We are so happy with that,” she said.
Cindy Wright said she never suspected “Uncle Earl” of hurting children and hopes he is never allowed to be around them again.
“Earl had a personality that made people like him,” she said.
“He was so good to kids. He would do things for them. We never thought or knew anything was going on until I walked in on it,” she said. “The psychologist told us my daughter will never get over this.”
The only warning that Earl was dangerous to women and children such as Gene and Cindy Wright’s daughter came a few years earlier, although Gene Wright said he didn’t realize at the time what it meant.
Gene Wright said that on her death bed, their mother, Betty Wright, told him, “Be careful about your brother. Something isn’t right about him.”