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February 05, 2005

Fla. Couple Accused of Child Abuse Caught

February 5, 2005 [Associated Press]
By Mike Branom

INVERNESS, Fla. (AP) - A Florida couple have been captured in Utah after being accused of starving five adopted children and yanking some of their toenails out with pliers, officials said Friday.

John and Linda Dollar were picked up by two deputies around 7:30 p.m. EST south of Blanding in southeastern Utah, according to the San Juan County (Utah) Sheriff's Department. They were being held in county jail on Florida warrants of felony aggravated child abuse.

The couple were easily tracked because they continued using their cell phones in Utah, Citrus County sheriff's Capt. Jim Cernich said.

The Dollar family included seven adopted children between the ages of 12 and 17. Five of the children have told investigators they were tortured by the couple, subjected to electric shocks, beatings with hammers and having their toenails yanked out with pliers.

Deputies who raided their central Florida home Friday found an electric cattle prod, sticks, belts and a vise that were allegedly used in the torture, Cernich said. Authorities said the abused five had physical injuries supporting their claims and were so severely malnourished that they weighed no more than elementary school children.

"They looked like the photos that we've seen of Auschwitz," said Citrus sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney, describing 14-year-old twins, one weighing 36 pounds, the other 38 pounds.

In the past two years, the Dollars have moved their family to at least three different homes in the Tampa area after living in Tennessee, secluding themselves behind fences and in piney groves, keeping a low-profile. The children were homeschooled and rarely played with others on the block or enjoyed the family's pool.

"Who has seven kids and the kids never go out and play?" asked Dawn Crescimone, who lived near the family in suburban Tampa two years ago.

If the allegations are true, Linda Dollar may have been acting on an abusive past. She wrote in a Department of Children & Families application in 1995 that she left home at age 16 because of her alcoholic father, who was "verbally and physically (not sexually) abusive." She also wrote that her first marriage ended because of "abuse." She gave no other details.

The comments were included in 164 pages of documents from when the Dollars applied to become foster parents in 1995. The department released them Friday.

The case has puzzled neighbors and the allegations of torture against the Dollars has drawn outrage from state officials.

"I hope they find them and I hope that they put them away for a long, long time," Gov. Jeb Bush told reporters Friday following an appearance in Hialeah. "It's disgusting."

The family had lived in Beverly Hills, about 85 miles north of Tampa, since August. John Dollar, 58, is a commercial real estate appraiser and his 51-year-old wife taught the children at home. The Dollars' large, single-story grey stucco home is surrounded by a thick pine forest on three sides. They bought the 3,800-square-foot home with a pool, spa and a three-car garage in July for $275,000.

"This is an area that you just wouldn't expect something like this to happen. You just don't hear of things like this here," said Nancy Reyes, 64, who lives in the exclusive subdivision called Ridge Estates.

DCF began investigating the couple when a 16-year-old boy living in their home was rushed to the hospital on Jan. 21 with severe injuries after one of the other children called for an ambulance. The family included three girls, ages 12, 13 and 17; three 14-year-old boys, two of them twins, and the 16-year-old boy.

The five told of being forced to sleep in a closet in the Dollars' bedroom because the couple accused them of stealing food and misbehaving, Tierney said.

The other two children were favored by the Dollars and were physically uninjured, Tierney said. All seven are in the custody of the Department of Children & Families.

"They are safe and they are doing as well as can be expected given the circumstances," said DCF spokesman Bill D'Aiuto.

Tennessee Department of Children's Services officials said Friday they hadn't investigated the Dollars while they lived in this state.

The children are not the Dollars' biological children, Florida officials said, declining to explain the nature of their relationship, citing the privacy concerns.

Bush said the couple adopted the children in the 1990s. DCF officials said the adoption records were sealed, but there were no other prior abuse reports involving the family in Florida.

DCF officials said the Dollars had been licensed as foster parents in Hillsborough County from March 1995 to October 1995. Documents show the family was no longer in Florida's foster care system when they moved out of the state.

The nomadic family has shuffled between Tennessee and Florida in recent years, records show.

Crescimone, who was a neighbor of the Dollars when they lived in Lithia, said the family had moved two years ago and had only stayed at the house for a few months. The children never came outside, and when the family left without posting a "For Sale" sign, it added to the mystery.

"They never used the pool. They never came out and played. I also had a funny feeling that it just wasn't something right," Crescimone said.

In Delrico, where the Dollars lived before moving to Beverly Hills, 77-year-old Delmar Rhoden said the family put up a tall white plastic fence surrounding the backyard after they moved in. His wife frequently chatted with Mrs. Dollar but they rarely saw the children.

"They seemed like normal people. My wife talked to her quite a bit. The kids didn't come out of the house hardly at all," Rhoden said, describing the children as very well-mannered.

When they moved to Beverly Hills, they stayed in a quiet subdivision where the nearest neighbor's home is more than a 100 yards away and a sign proclaimed it a "Crime Free Neighborhood."

A woman who lived nearby, who declined to give her name, said the family first appeared at the house in August but six U-Haul trucks dropped off belongings over a period of two months.

Posted by Nancy at February 5, 2005 05:52 PM

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