January 25, 2001 News » Cover Story

Suffer the Children 

The tragic case of Aaren Dunn's murder raises questions of responsibility, responsiveness and the need for reform in child protective services

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart?

--Thomas Wolfe

Look Homeward Angel

On June 26, 2000, in the late afternoon, just as heavy rain was beginning to break what seemed like an endless, dry heat wave in Manitou Springs, inside a small house on the main street of the tiny mountain town, Robert W. Dunn broke his 7-year-old daughter Aaren's arm, stabbed her in the chest with a kitchen knife, then repeatedly stabbed her in the neck until she died.

Aaren's 11-year-old sister Nadine, who had endured an afternoon of terror alongside Aaren, was also under her father's grip but wrenched away, ran out of the house and down the street to the neighborhood convenience store, Tubby's Turnaround, where she screamed for help while her father continued his attack on Aaren.

Two men responded swiftly and rushed to the Dunn house. Finding the front door locked, they ran to the back of the house and entered the unlocked back door. They found Robert Dunn in the kitchen, hovering above Aaren, who lay on the kitchen floor, no longer breathing.

One witness pulled Dunn away from his daughter and dragged him to the back yard where, after a short struggle, he lay down on the grass, face down, bloodied palms up.

Within minutes, Sgt. Mary Jo Smith and Officer Michael Jon-Thomson of the Manitou Springs Police Department arrived on the scene. According to the police report filed by Sgt. Smith, when she arrived Dunn said to her, "The devil is here." Dunn then yelled, "I killed the devil. She was possessed. I killed the devil." Sgt. Smith handcuffed Dunn, then ran into the house.

A crowd gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Dunn home. A neighbor from across the street, Sandra Cross, comforted Nadine Dunn until she was taken by police to the Manitou Springs Fire Department. She waited there until her mother, Jennifer Dunn, arrived to take her to her home in Widefield.

Manitou police took Robert Dunn into custody, and their officers and an agent of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation questioned Mr. Dunn until late that night when Dunn was taken to the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center. In an extended interview, Dunn contended that the devil possessed his daughter, that the devil was here in Manitou Springs and he had no choice but to kill the devil.

In days to come, Manitou neighbors, classmates, school teachers and friends of the Dunn girls gathered to mourn Aaren's passing. A blanket was passed around and signed by all who wished to be part of a tangible memorial to the little girl.

Aaren Dunn was buried on July 3, 2000, next to her maternal grandmother, in a cemetery near Calhan.

Her death and the memorial were chronicled on television and in the local daily newspaper. Some mourners expressed their bewilderment over the circumstances of her death, asking how it could have happened right under their noses. What could have been done, some wondered aloud, to prevent the tragedy?

On July 1, Robert Dunn was moved from the El Paso County jail to the state mental hospital at Pueblo (Colorado Mental health Institute), because he threatened suicide while in custody and because the public defender assigned to the case, Deborah Grohs, wanted him placed there for psychiatric evaluation.

A competency hearing was held in which Dunn was declared competent to stand trial. On Dec. 14, in a preliminary hearing, Dunn's attorney, Grohs, entered a plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI), citing a diagnosis agreed upon by three state psychiatrists and one psychologist obtained by the public defender's office.

On Dec. 21, following brief testimony by the state hospital's chief forensic psychiatrist, Dr. David Johnson, El Paso County prosecutors Geoff Heim and John Newsome declared they had no evidence of sanity and could not, therefore, prosecute Mr. Dunn. Division V Judge Larry Schwartz, citing the prosecution's burden of proof, declared Mr. Dunn Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.

Dunn was sent back to the state mental hospital where he was ordered to remain until he is no longer deemed a danger to himself or anyone else. Should he be deemed no longer a danger, he could be released and cannot be tried again for the crime.

That's one side of the story.

But the larger story, told by Aaren's mother, Jennifer Dunn, and by a close look at the DHS record and the Manitou Springs Police Department report, is messier. Gaping holes in the initial account of events raise questions that should not be ignored by a society charged with the protection of its youngest members.

Did the Department of Human Services act appropriately, promptly and without prejudice or malice in the case of Aaren and Nadine Dunn? Did the family court system of El Paso County adequately serve to protect the Dunn girls? Was there reason to believe that Robert Dunn was a danger to his daughters prior to Aaren's murder and, if so, why were the girls allowed to remain in his custody?

Can any of us presume to know what's in a father's -- or a mother's -- heart?

Talking heads

In an e-mail addressed to the weekly Pikes Peak Journal last fall, following an account of the Dunn murder, Jennifer Dunn wrote: "To date there has been precious little in the way of a relationship with the truth in the matter of the lonesome death of Aaren Marie Dunn."

And in a civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court on August 28, 2000, Ms. Dunn charged criminal negligence and dereliction of duty by the state of Colorado, by the El Paso County Dept. of Human Services, by CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates of El Paso County), and by individuals of all three agencies.

Almost immediately following Aaren Dunn's death, El Paso County DHS began an internal investigation to determine what, if anything, they might have missed in the Dunn case -- what, if anything, they could have done to prevent Aaren's murder at the hands of her father.

Six months later, in early January, 2001, a 12-person panel at the state of Colorado Department of Social Services exonerated El Paso County DHS of all blame, concluding that, though clerical errors occurred and reports filed by Ms. Dunn against her former husband dating back to 1996 had been overlooked by DHS in the months leading up to Aaren's murder, there was nothing the department could have done to change the outcome.

Jennifer Dunn contends that asking state DSS to investigate county DHS is "a little like asking Bill Clinton to teach a class in sexual abstinence."

She claims the county's excuse that it misplaced the early files in another family member's folder -- and thereby effectively lost them -- is bogus. Ms. Dunn says that she was told when she filed complaints of behavior by Mr. Dunn she believed to be sexual "grooming" for eventual abuse, that those complaints were inadmissible under DHS guidelines.

Ms. Dunn contends, and DHS reports confirm, that "peeping" behavior and charges involving the willful misplacement of pornography by Mr. Dunn were dismissed as unfounded and insignificant.

In the two months prior to Aaren Dunn's murder, Manitou Springs police were called three times by friends of the girls, and by personnel at Manitou Elementary School. Each time a report was filed, DHS was contacted.

Reports filed between May 1 and June 26, 2000, the day of Aaren's death, alleged physical violence, threats, bizarre behavior and rages by Robert Dunn. None of those reports individually, nor the sum of those reports, were deemed worthy of an investigation by the county into the Dunn household on Manitou Avenue where Robert Dunn finally killed his youngest daughter.

Trouble ahead, trouble behind

Robert and Jennifer Dunn married in May of 1992. It was her third marriage. In May of 1995, the Dunns separated when Jennifer fled the house and took the girls with her to the Safe House run by the Center for Prevention of Domestic Violence.

At that time, says Ms. Dunn, there "was a great deal of agitation in our marriage" related to Mr. Dunn's alleged sexual addiction and his unwillingness to seek treatment from any therapist besides one who had recently ended her private practice. "I believed it would be in the best interest of the children to prevent them from being exposed to any further domestic violence," said Ms. Dunn.

Experience with domestic violence was, unfortunately, not unknown to Jennifer Dunn. Her second husband had severely beaten her two sons by her first husband, an event noted in her DHS file. Ms. Dunn was charged with Dependency and Neglect by DHS for failing to report her husband's physical abuse, a turn of events which, she says, "got her sober." An admitted alcoholic, she stopped drinking and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous sessions religiously.

Further complicating matters, in 1993, after serious bouts with suicidal depression, Jennifer Dunn was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and began taking lithium under a doctor's direction.

The Dunns had no legal arrangement from May of 1995, when Jennifer left, until February of 1999. The girls spent time with both parents.

During this time, in order to try to understand the dynamics of her marital difficulties with Robert Dunn, Jennifer began attending meetings of COSA, Codependents of Sex Addicts Anonymous. It was there that she began hearing of "grooming" behaviors. Close friends in the group, including Fred Stone *, a man who had been convicted of sexually molesting his own daughter and a leader of conferences for people in sex addiction recovery groups, assured her that these behaviors should not be ignored and that the potential danger to her daughters was real.

"Until you commit the crime, there's no scrutiny," said Stone. "But you've got to keep it away from the kids. In most cases, there's a serious addiction to pornography associated with molestation."

In November, 1996, a report was filed with DHS accusing Mr. Dunn of improperly exposing the children to pornography. Seven months later, Dunn was accused of inappropriately "peeping" at his young daughters while they dressed and when they were in the bathroom. Both of these complaints were filed with DHS and were considered unworthy of investigation.

Finally, in February of 1999, after Nadine Dunn once again told her mother that her father had left pornography laying around the house, Jennifer Dunn called the police, called DHS, then drove to the Manitou home of Robert Dunn where she loaded the girls in the car and took them into hiding. On Feb. 25, Mr. Dunn arrived at Ms. Dunn's Holland Park apartment with a court order and a police escort to remove Aaren and Nadine from their mother's home and return them to Manitou Springs. Jennifer Dunn was ordered to appear in court before Magistrate Jan Du Bois.

"When she asked me why I took the children, I explained the soft perp or grooming behaviors, the phone call from Nadine and the hardcore porn," said Jennifer Dunn. "Magistrate Du Bois ordered the appointment of a Court Appointed Special Advocate volunteer to conduct interviews and compile a report for the court's determination of custody."

In effect, this event marked the beginning of divorce proceedings between Robert and Jennifer Dunn.

A temporary custody arrangement placed the girls in Mr. Dunn's home Monday through Friday, and with their mother from Friday evening through Sunday.

In a report dated May 20, 1999, CASA worker Ann Beckerman stated: "Both of the parents have concerns about the ability or suitability of the other parent to be an appropriate and nurturing parent for the Dunn children."

But Ms. Beckerman's report of October 18, the final word before divorce and formal custody arrangements were handed down, said those concerns were apparently relieved. She recommended that the custody and visitation arrangement remain the same as they had been since the girls were retrieved in late February, giving Mr. Dunn primary custody of the girls.

Beckerman's report dismissed Jennifer's concern about Dunn's alleged grooming behaviors, but expressed another "main concern" -- that Jennifer Dunn was influencing Nadine's opinions and feelings about her father by making statements about him in front of the child.

Indeed, many people involved in the case believed that the children were unfairly drawn into the middle of an ugly custody battle in which each parent pitted the children against the other. One neighbor, who asked not to be named, cited "revenge and vengefulness on both parts," and said, "... from what my daughter had told me, I told a DHS worker that, in my opinion, Bob (Robert Dunn) was the better parent.

"I feel bad about that now."

Mayhem in Manitou

In the months immediately prior to Aaren Dunn's death, police calls citing violent and irrational behavior by Robert Dunn began pouring into the Manitou Springs Police Department.

On May 1, Sgt. Mary Jo Smith responded to a call from Daryl Spencer, a nearby neighbor and the grandmother of one of Nadine Dunn's closest friends.

"I had to put her up on the kitchen counter, she was shaking and crying so hard," said Spencer. "At first I couldn't understand what she was trying to say. She said, 'Our dad is going to kill us.'" Spencer went on to describe Nadine as a little girl who was usually "extremely composed ... so much so that I worry about her."

Sgt. Smith's report includes Nadine's assertion that, on some occasions, the Dunn girls had been made by their father to take their shirts off to eat dinner. Nadine complained of unsanitary conditions at home, of flies and dirty dishes. Sgt. Smith contacted the counselor at Manitou Springs Elementary, where the girls attended school, to inquire if the school had received any similar complaints. The respondent said yes, and that she was going to notify the Department of Human Services, requesting that the case on the Dunns be reopened.

The next day, May 2, another Manitou Springs police officer responded to a call, this time by a child who reported she feared for the safety of her friends, Nadine and Aaren Dunn, who were not being allowed to leave their house. When the friend came by to visit that day, according to the police report, "she stated she could hear her friends crying and yelling inside the residence."

The officer, along with Sgt. Smith, contacted the Dunn girls by phone and were told their father was across the street at Manitou Liquors. (Dunn was owner and manager of that business for 13 years.)

Mr. Dunn met the officers at the house and invited them in to take a look. It was noted that the place was "extremely cluttered" and that dirty dishes were lying about. Sgt. Smith related her concerns of abuse to the girls, to which Mr. Dunn replied by asking his daughters "when was the last time they received a spanking." When they said, in front of the officers, that it had been about a year ago, Mr. Dunn then proceeded to tell the officers that the girls wanted to "live with their mother, Jennifer Dunn," and because of this, "his daughters are trying to make him look like a bad father." The police advised Mr. Dunn to improve the cleanliness of his home and he agreed.

On May 26, Manitou police received another complaint from a friend of the Dunn girls who called from a pay phone. The caller said she was afraid her friend was being hurt by her father, Robert Dunn. The investigating officer, Lt. Jerry Johnson, responded to the call, visited the Dunn home and concluded that, although Nadine Dunn claimed her father hit her that morning, there were no corroborating marks and that it apeared the girl "would rather live with her mother and has enlisted the aid of her friends to make complaints against her father."

In nearly illegible, often undated reports, Department of Human Services workers indicate that each of these calls received a follow-up by the department. In a report following the May 1 complaint, a DHS case worker relates her conversation with Nadine Dunn in which the girl said: "Dad loved me as a baby, but doesn't now."

The report goes on to state that after Nadine's friend called the police, "Dad demanded to know who called -- shook fist in her face." On that same day, Nadine told the case worker that once "a long, long time ago," her father tried to suffocate Aaren, and that her father "goes into rages."

A DHS account date May 31, 2000, relates a report by a staff member at Manitou Elementary School, stating that Aaren Dunn had told school personnel, "she wants Dad to stop hitting." The informant expressed concerns about the children and asked that the case be kept open. She went on to say that the "last time DHS [was] out, [the] child got blamed by Dad."

But about halfway through, this report, like Ann Beckerman's, takes a turn and begins raising suspicions about the involvement of Jennifer Dunn in the children's complaints, especially Nadine's.

The case worker says that Nadine Dunn, also interviewed on that day, "worried Dad may kill her as she has heard what some child abusers have done ..." The case worker's clear assumption is that the suggestion of child abuse was planted by Nadine's mother.

Both girls, on this day, stated that they could talk to their mother about things, and that they would prefer living with her. When pressed to explain why, the report says, the girls said they didn't know.

The case worker concludes: "... Mom really dysfunctional ... Mom bi-polar and really needs to take meds ..." Elsewhere in the DHS record, on at least two occasions, Jennifer Dunn is negatively characterized for her flat affect, including during the days immediately following Aaren's death. In notes added to the DHS record on June 26, CASA workers complained that Jennifer Dunn "had so many meetings she did not have time for [her] kids."

Jennifer Dunn contends that following the Dependency and Neglect charge involving her older sons, she spent four years trying to take control of her personal problems and trying to protect her daughters from abuse and neglect. "I knew that I was powerless to stop the evil that this man was going to unleash on my daughters," she said. "But I told Nadine, 'You have to tell Ms. Jones (a Manitou Springs Elementary School employee) if things are happening to you.'"

On June 7, less than three weeks before the day Robert Dunn killed Aaren, a DHS report was filed that recommended closing the case.

The social worker states: "Sgt. Johnson said that the only calls they (the Manitou Springs Police Dept.) have received on the family has (sic) been from children. Sgt. J. elaborated that no adults have called on concerns about Nadine and Aaren. Sgt. J. said that he thinks Nadine and a couple of other children in the neighborhood have gotten together on plan to call [the police]. Sgt. J. used the word 'conspiracy.'"

The report concludes with a recommendation of counseling for Nadine for which Robert Dunn, apparently, offered his verbal consent.

Not guilty by reason of insanity

When Robert Dunn was first taken into Emergency Protective Custody at the state mental hospital in Pueblo, and for several weeks afterward, he was characterized by Dr. David Johnson as "extremely psychotic."

Over the next two months, Dr. Johnson reviewed the Manitou Springs Police Department reports, the CBI agent report, an interview conducted with Nadine Dunn following the murder, the DHS report, various toxicology reports, Dunn's records from a former hospitalization in the 1970s (for substance abuse), and interviews with employees from Manitou Liquors.

Based on those reports, on interviews with Mr. Dunn and on the corroboration of two other state psychiatrists, Dr. Johnson concluded that "Mr. Dunn's psychotic symptoms seemed authentic." His diagnosis: bi-polar disorder with psychotic features.

On Dec. 26, Dr. Johnson testified before Division V El Paso County Court Judge Larry Schwartz, Public Defender Deborah Grohs, deputy District Attorneys Geoff Heim and John Newsome, and a handful of onlookers, in support of Mr. Dunn's plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.

On the possibility of malingering (basically, faking psychotic symptoms), Dr. Johnson testified that Mr. Dunn's particularly grisly method of killing his daughter matched other cases he had seen of defendants who believed they had "killed the devil." As for possible motive, perhaps covering up evidence of sexual abuse against his daughters as had been suggested by Dunn's former wife, Johnson concluded there was "no substantial evidence to support that."

Johnson went on to testify that on the day of the offense, Dunn made his daughters undress and would not let them go to the bathroom, but this behavior was presented as evidence of his psychotic break, not of sexually aberrant behavior.

Not mentioned by Dr. Johnson was a section of Dunn's interview with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation on the day of the murder, where amidst explanations of how he had killed the devil which had entered Aaren Dunn's body, Robert Dunn admitted that he too removed his clothes that day.

"We all had our clothes off," he said. "We were having a good old time." Dunn explained that he wanted the girls to be naked to get over "bad" feelings they had gotten, allegedly from Jennifer Dunn and her common-law husband, Dale Abernathey. In the same interview, Dunn characterized Jennifer as a "dysfunctional wife ... either crazy or an alcoholic or both ... worse than bipolar."

None of this testimony was raised as evidence at the hearing.

"Your honor," concluded deputy D.A. Newsome, "in all candor, the people have no evidence of sanity."

Judge Schwartz, who called the crime a "horrendous, horrible tragedy, in many respects beyond description," cited the statutory burden of the prosecution to disprove insanity and concluded that "except for some lay evidence that may have been disclosed should there have been a trial, indicating certain opinions about Mr. Dunn," there was no evidence of sanity. Schwartz declared Dunn NGRI.

Never mentioned in court was a telephone conversation that took place the hour before the murder between Mr. Dunn and the girls' therapist, Kathy Varrone.

Because Mr. Dunn had failed to take the girls to their court-ordered therapy session with Varrone earlier in the day, the therapist, at about 4 p.m. on June 26, called the Dunn household.

Aaren answered with Nadine standing next to her. According to DHS notes compiled after the murder, one of the girls told Varrone their Dad had said "there was a murderer on the loose." According to the report, Robert Dunn then got on the line and, presumably sounding normal, agreed that he would bring the girls to therapy "same time next week." The girls told Varrone "Dad doesn't want us to go out." The therapist made a note to talk to Dunn about not scaring the kids to control their behavior. An hour later, Aaren was dead.

Following the handing down of the judge's ruling, Dale Abernathey read aloud a statement by Jennifer Dunn, reiterating her attempts to report Robert Dunn to DHS and specifiying her suspicions about him.

But public defender Grohs got the last word, objecting strongly to the statement, indicating that the "relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Dunn was a big custody battle," and declaring "all allegations made to DHS [by Ms. Dunn] were found to be unfounded."

"The bigger tragedy," Grohs said, "would be to think this man does not love his daughters. He loves them very much."

One week later, from the mental hospital in Pueblo, Robert Dunn tried to demonstrate that love by sending a Christmas card to his surviving daughter, Nadine Dunn, addressed to her mother's home.

Nothing to lose

On Jan. 4, 2001, Jennifer Dunn was granted a stay in the proceedings of her civil complaint filed in U.S. District Court, pending acquisition of an attorney. As of this date, no legal counsel has stepped forward.

Ms. Dunn believes a Supreme Court ruling from 1989, DeShaney vs. Winnebago Cy., is the major hindrance in pursuing legal action against the various agents of the state she accuses of failing to protect her daughters, causing irreparable harm.

The petitioner in DeShaney was a young boy (via his Guardian Ad Litem) beaten so severly by his father after repeated reports to Winnebago County Department of Social Services in Wisconsin, that he was rendered permanently severely mentally retarded.

The lawsuit charged that the respondents, by failing to intervene to protect him, had deprived the boy of his "liberty interest in bodily integrity," thereby his rights under the 14th Amendment's Due Process clause.

In a split decision, U.S. Supreme Court justices ruled for the respondent. "A state's failure to protect an individual against private violence does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause," the summary read. "The Clause is phrased as a limitation on the State's power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security; while it forbids the State itself to deprive individuals of life, liberty and property without due process of law, its language cannot fairly be read to impose an affirmative obligation on the State to ensure that those interests do not come to harm through other means."

In August of 2000, despite stated reservations by El Paso County DHS workers who questioned whether Nadine should remain with her mother, the court granted Jennifer sole and permanent parental responsibility for her surviving daughter. Ironically, the ruling was handed down by District X Judge Douglas Anderson, the same judge who, in November of 1999, had granted primary custody of the Dunn girls to their father, Robert.

"We've been in this battle for years," said Ms. Dunn in a recent interview. "The only thing that makes any sense is to believe we're safe now.

"I have a satisfied mind. I have nothing to lose by continuing to tell the story -- I've already lost my daughter. And I don't need to defend myself. All I was doing was the job of defying people who abuse kids.

"No matter what happens in the legal outcome, should there be one, they will never silence me because I'm gonna live to be a very healthy and very vocal old lady.

"The truth will be repeated," said Jennifer Dunn. "So help us God."

* Fred Stone is a pseudonym, used to protect the source's identity per 12-step guidelines. For more information on sexual addiction recovery call 573-7992.


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