A Time of Trial : Man, 34, Accused in Molestation Case Loses His Children and His Life

Times Staff Writer

He showed a disdain for convention early on. As soon as he learned to walk, he ran instead. "He never stopped running," his mother said. "He did everything in high speed."

At 24, Steven Bingley had parlayed savings from a childhood newspaper route into a $300,000-a-year business buying and refurbishing rundown homes and apartments in Pasadena and selling the properties for tidy profits. Then, just as suddenly, he decided to semi-retire at 32.

But his success--and its attendant big cars, fine antiques and frequent vacations to Mexico--never seemed enough for him. He had an insatiable craving for attention, family and friends said, and he tried to satisfy this need by shocking people with obscene language and behavior. His hero was Lenny Bruce, and like the late comedian whose vulgar irreverence appalled a 1950s America, Steven Bingley knew few of the limitations of good taste.

It was a side of him that even his common-law wife, Dana, she had never begun to explore until an afternoon last December when her husband was arrested and charged with five felony counts of molesting their three children, charges that grew out of complaints by relatives over his foul language and lewd behavior.

That day, the children were removed from their Altadena home by county authorities and placed in protective custody. In the four-months that followed, Bingley, 34, suffered an emotional breakdown as he defended himself against the accusations, first in criminal court and then in juvenile court, his wife said.

On April 11, the last of the five felony counts was dropped in criminal court because of insufficient evidence and Bingley was found guilty of only a misdemeanor charge of lewd conduct. But the dropping of the felony charges would not hasten the return of his children, because the juvenile court in an independent finding ruled that the children needed several months of counseling before they could return home.

One week later, Steven Bingley was dead, the victim of what police suspect was an overdose of prescription pills.

"My husband emotionally died Dec. 5, the day the children were taken from us," Dana Bingley said. "His soul left his body. He used to cry at night and tell me, 'Dana, I don't think my soul can ever get back into my body. I don't think I can ever walk like a man again.'

"He wasn't a strong man. He needed people to like him. That was the reason for all the dirty jokes," she said. "When he was cleared of those horrendous charges, the stigma stuck. I don't think he killed himself intentionally, but the last four months were a nightmare. The system broke down. I blame the system for Steven's death."

Dana Bingley has filed a $15-million claim against the county alleging that it wrongfully prosecuted her husband, wrongfully seized her children and continues to prevent her from exercising parental control. The Office of County Counsel has denied the claim, saying it fails to establish liability on the part of the county.

Dana Bingley now has six months in which to file a suit. Despite Steven Bingley's death, the children remain in protective custody.

The Bingley case, and the public fight of a mother for the return of her children, raises questions beyond the complexities and paradoxes of one man, Bingley's attorney said.

Terrence Bennett, the lawyer, says the case reveals an overzealousness on the part of county authorities in investigating and prosecuting allegations of child sexual abuse.

He said allegations that Bingley molested his two daughters and son--ages 7, 6, and 5, respectivley--created a dynamic of their own in which police and social workers conducted an investigation that ignored contradictory evidence.

But a sheriff's detective who investigated the case and a deputy district attorney who prosecuted Bingley said the investigation was thorough and that the decision to charge Bingley was made only after the 6-year-old consistently related stories of sodomy, oral copulation and intercourse with her father. They remain convinced that Bingley molested his two daughters.

"I don't think you could plant all that in a child's head if you wanted to," Deputy Dist. Atty. Jane Blissert said, referring to details of the girl's account.

Court records show that Bingley was arrested eight days after a medical examination of the children revealed no sign of molestation. In addition, the county's Department of Children's Services apparently ignored its guidelines when it failed to interview Steven and Dana Bingley throughout the course of its investigation. Bingley's attorney said that had investigators talked to the Bingleys before the children were removed from the home, they would have learned that the allegations by Bingley's relatives stemmed from a longstanding family feud.

The only aspect of the case on which the two sides agree is that their respective versions are contrary. The case remains puzzling because social workers from the Department of Children's Services, judges, sheriff's deputies and psychologists refuse to discuss its specifics, citing the need for confidentiality in juvenile matters.

"The only thing we know for certain is that this had become a family feud and the children were caught in the middle," said Dr. Edward Conolley, a psychologist appointed by the court to examine the Bingleys before Steven Bingley went to trial. "Should the children have been kept in the home while counseled? I can't answer that except to say that the system always errs on the side of overreacting.

"They would rather detain 10 children who didn't need it than to allow one child who wasn't detained to be later injured or abused."

Steven Bingley set a frantic pace in the way he mowed a lawn or painted a house or set out across the country in search of a certain antique grandfather clock for his wife.

"Steven lived life three times as fast as the normal person," said his mother, Barbara Bingley. "It was like he was trying to fit it all in."

Bingley was born and raised in Altadena, the third of five boys. "He had middle childitis," said a longtime family friend, Shirley Duszynski. "He had to be the center of attention."

He was 19 years old when he made his first venture into real estate. Putting down as little as possible, he bought a $32,000 fourplex in Pasadena with money saved from a newspaper route and odd jobs doing yard work and rehabbing.

In no time, he refurbished the complex and sold it for $44,000. He would repeat the formula again and again in Pasadena and Altadena and Sierra Madre, established communities where a paucity of new housing made it especially profitable to refurbish.

"He just kept pyramiding up from there," Dana said. "I can't tell you how many homes he bought, rehabbed and sold. When I met him he was 25 years old and making $300,000 a year."

Even his detractors admired Bingley's talent for turning a quick profit in the uncertain world of real estate speculation. He could transform a good-sized home in a matter of days, working around the clock at a pace that would do a crew of three men proud.

"He was the best rehabber in the business. He was very creative," said Dorothy Henry, a real estate agent who is Dana Bingley's mother and Steven's principal accuser.

"He'd take a place that was absolutely the dumps and I'd say to myself, 'Well, Steve's finally going to get buried on this one,"' said Richard Duszynski, a longtime friend. "Then he'd fix it up literally overnight and make it look like a million dollars. He had a magic touch. Everything he touched turned to gold."

Bingley, who had been unhappily married at 20, had been divorced for two years when he met Dana, the youngest of four children, in 1975. He told Dana soon after they met that he did not want to marry again. "Steve felt and I agreed that a piece of paper didn't make a marriage. We were husband and wife to each other. We had the bond, 10 years together and three children."

Bingley had an impulsive, childlike nature that revealed itself early in the couple's relationship. On their first date, Bingley had planned dinner at a quiet restaurant in Pasadena but changed his mind and ended up taking Dana to Las Vegas for the weekend. A few weeks later, Dana tagged along as Bingley shopped for a chandelier for one of his homes. At his urging, they left the fixture store in mid search, drove to Mexico and vacationed for a week. "He didn't even let me go home to pack," Dana recalled.

If he was impetuous, his friends said, Bingley was also shy and insecure at heart. He would mask his uncertainty with an insolent and showy front. "He loved drinking those big Polynesian drinks, the ones made of pineapple with an orchid hanging out the side," said close friend Richard Mansfield. "I think he ordered them because they were so expensive.

"Steve was the kind of guy who wanted shrimp scampi but ordered steak and lobster instead because it was the most expensive item on the menu," Mansfield said. "Steve had to have the biggest and the best. If you bought a Cadillac, Steve went out and bought a Cadillac Biarritz. If you went out and bought an expensive couch, he would buy a nicer, antique one."

But friends said the core of Bingley's engima was how he squandered his reputation as a first-rate businessman with public displays of vulgarity. Some of his closest friends were reluctant to introduce him to others because of his foul mouth and unkempt appearance. He weighed 240 pounds with a paunch and delighted in mimicking pregnant woman. And he had a penchant for tattered Hawaiian shirts and loose-fitting pants that always seemed to drop below his tailbone.

"Steve was slovenly and crude," said Bennett, his attorney and friend. "He would say shocking and outrageous things. What upset people was that he would say these things in front of the children. He had no respect for himself or for others."

Bennett said Bingley would do things to tweak people he thought were prudes, such as scratching his crotch in public. "Steve loved to shock people," Bennett said. "It wasn't done to satisfy his sexual proclivities. But his behavior opened him up to those kinds of charges. It made him vulnerable during this time of ours."

Richard Duszynski, who made several cross-country trips with Bingley to buy antiques, said he often admonished him not to swear in front of the children. Bingley responded that his children had become inured to it. "He couldn't help himself. He was like a Lenny Bruce. If things were quiet, he had to fill in the void. He was like a little kid crying for help."

Dana accepted her husband's behavior in the belief their children no longer paid attention to him. "'Oh, Daddy's silly' they would say. We accepted him for what he was, and we didn't think too much of it," Dana said.

Ultimately, his friends also chose to overlook the vulgar side of Bingley, focusing instead on the Bingley who was a soft touch for a loan or who spent entire days and nights in hospital rooms where comforted two dying friends.

"He was a crazy guy with a big heart," Mansfield said. "He couldn't stand being alone. His place was a gathering spot and as you got up to leave he would say, 'Just five more minutes, five more minutes. But after his children were taken away, he made a complete turnaround in personality. He didn't joke. He didn't gag. He just kept telling us how much he loved us all."

Dana Bingley was baking Christmas cookies last Dec. 5 when she walked down to the corner bus stop and discovered that her two daughters had never boarded the school bus home that afternoon. She quickly telephoned an office worker at Altadena Elementary, who told her that sheriff's deputies had taken the children into protective custody.

A conversation with a sheriff's deputy was even more blunt. Bingley learned that the two girls had been detained after allegations of sexual abuse were made against her husband. She was told to take her 5-year-old son to the sheriff's substation in Altadena immediately or risk arrest.

One week later, Steven and Dana Bingley were arrested and held on $35,000 bail each. Steven was charged with five felony counts and one misdemeanor, including unlawful sexual intercourse, sodomy and oral copulation. Dana was charged with a felony count of threatening to intimidate a potential court witness and one misdemeanor count of child endangerment.

"Steve Bingley's mouth had finally caught up with him," Bennett said. "He handed his accusers a knife with his bizarre behavior and they stuck it in him."

From the outset, Dana said, the source of the allegations was never in doubt. She said her mother, Dorothy Henry, had long disapproved of Steven and the fact that the couple never married. An angry call to her mother shortly after the children were detained was the basis of the intimidation charge against Dana. The prosecutor later dropped it and the misdemeanor charge.

Henry testified at a Jan. 7 preliminary hearing in Pasadena Municipal Court that she telephoned the Department of Children's Services out of a concern for her grandchildren. Henry said in an interview that she confronted her daughter several times about Steven Bingley's vulgar language and behavior and had recommended that he seek counseling.

"I never hated Steve but I disapproved of him greatly, the way he treated the children" Henry said. "We could be talking about a serious matter like repairing a roof and Steve would contain himself for maybe two minutes before saying something crude.

"Sex was a constant topic, and he didn't use discretion in front of the children. It was exasperating."

Henry said she had no knowledge of sexual abuse and that her complaints to social workers concerned only Bingley's language. But her sister, Thelma Wasserman, who lived with the Bingleys for nine months last year, testified that she witnessed Steven fondling his two daughters in the living room on two occasions. Wasserman also testified that a sexually explicit photograph of Steven Bingley nude was displayed prominently in the home.

"I've seen him do and say some very lewd things," Wasserman said in an interview. "He would tell the girls things like 'I want to have your baby."'

Bennett said because the complaints by Henry and later by Wasserman did not include allegations of sexual intercourse or sodomy, county authorities acted improperly in detaining the children without first interviewing the Bingleys. Soon after the children were removed from their home, they began relating stories of sexual abuse, and the case against Steven Bingley grew more serious, court records show.

Bennett said interviews with the Bingleys, their friends and neighbors and school personnel would have provided investigators with a profile of Steven Bingley and a necessary context in which to interpret the children's stories. "This would have helped authorities understand how the Bingley children could be exposed to sexual concepts without being sexually abused," Bennett said.

In addition, Bennett said, a thorough investigation would have revealed that Henry and Wasserman were less than objective sources regarding Bingley. Just two weeks earlier, in November, Bingley had asked Wasserman to move out of his home after a disagreement over her babysitting duties. This further alienated Dana from her side of family, Bennett said.

"How can you call this a full investigation when investigators completely ignored one side?" Bennett said. "They took the children away even though none of the accusers ever reported that they witnessed any sexual acts. The children hadn't confided to the accusers nor to their teachers, neighbors or anyone. How this got elevated from a dirty-mouth allegation to a child sexual abuse case, that can only be explained by Children's Services. They were the people who had access to the children."

Mary Hayes, a spokesperson for the Department of Children's Services, said agency guidelines require interviews with parents in all cases that are deemed non-emergencies. "The only instances in which we would take a child without talking to the parents are those cases where the sexual abuse is clear cut and the children are in immediate danger," Hayes said.

When told by a reporter that the complaints against Bingley did not include sexual intercourse or sodomy, Hayes refused to speculate on why the children were nonetheless detained without an interview of the parents. "We are bound by confidentiality. I can't discuss any specifics of the case," she said.

Reports subpoenaed by Bennett from the sheriff's department and Children's Services offer insight into the course of the investigation and how the children's accounts of sexual abuse grew more detailed as time went on.

In a Dec. 5 sheriff's report, investigators said both girls related stories that their father had touched their private parts and forced them to touch his private parts. The girls also said they saw their father fondle their younger brother.

The first mention of sexual intercourse came five days later in a Dec. 10 report by the sheriff's department special child abuse team. Detectives wrote that the 6-year-old Bingley girl told them that her father had engaged in sexual intercourse and sodomy with her. The girl told detectives that she sometimes experienced bleeding from her vagina. These allegations formed the basis of the five felony charges against Bingley.

Bennett said the girl's accounts contradicted a Dec. 5 medical examination by Dr. Joseph Oliver, a gynecologist and emergency room physician at Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. Oliver examined and questioned the two girls and found no evidence of molestation, court records show.

Bennett said Oliver's findings should have told authorities that the 6-year-old was lying about being penetrated and then bleeding. "They never chose to confront that contradiction. They just went steamrolling right ahead," Bennett said.

"I can't help but think that the children's stories began to escalate as a result of expectations placed upon them by investigators."

Blissert, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, denied that authorities had any preconceived notions that they sought to validate. She said interviews with the 6-year-old convinced her that the child was telling the truth. "She knew things about sexual matters that 6-year-olds who have not been molested would not know. She was consistent in her testimony."

But ultimately the 6-year-old's story could not be substantiated. The girl testified that she told her great aunt, Wasserman, about being molested and that she saw her father sexually abuse her older sister and younger brother too. In court, the younger sister and brother denied being molested, and Wasserman denied that the 6-year-old confided in her.

On Jan. 8, Pasadena Municipal Court Judge Gary Klausner dismissed all but one of the felony counts against Bingley because of insufficient evidence. Based on the testimony of Wasserman and Henry, Bingley stood trial on one felony count of sexual touching and one misdemeanor count of lewd and immoral behavior in front of children.

On April 11, after a three day trial, Pasadena Superior Court Judge Gilbert C. Alston dropped the last felony count because of insufficient evidence. He found Bingley guilty of the misdemeanor and sentenced him to follow the orders Juvenile Court's dependency court, which oversees all custody matters. Bingley reluctantly agreed not to appeal the finding on the advice of Bennett, who told his client that the case was getting messy with both sides feuding in the court hallways.

His family and friends said Bingley's criminal court victory was tempered by the knowledge that dependency court--in which a judge can find guilt if a preponderence of the evidence runs against the accused--ruled that the children were, at the very least, exposed to sexual concepts. It found that the family needed several months of counseling before the children could return home.

"Steve would alternate between severe elation and severe depression," Bennett said. "The allegations that led to the children being taken away were found not to be true. He had won, but Children's Services and dependency court still wanted him to jump through a bunch of loops and hoops to prove that he was a worthy father."

With the court fight over, Bingley returned to the backyard of his Altadena home to finish a park he had begun building in anticipation of the children's return. But the exoneration came too late for Bingley, his family and friends said. Throughout his four-month ordeal, he had talked of suicide and blamed his loose mouth for the breakup of his family. He was taking tranquilizers at night and mood elevators during the day and drinking more than a quart of vodka in between, Dana said. He had lost more than 50 pounds and suffered an emotional breakdown, she said.

"The trial devastated Steve," Dana said. "His personality was altered. "He'd wake up at nights shaking like a scared child. He'd cry out 'My God, what are they doing to my babies, what are they saying to them, what are they teaching them?"'

"He just flipped out toward the end," Richard Duszynski said. "He would show you things 10 times. He showed me how he remodeled the kitchen in the morning and then took me on the same tour in the afternoon and at night."

"He just couldn't cope with it," said his mother. "He told me, 'Mom, things are never going to be the same. I'll never get my kids back.' And he was right."

The day before his death, Bingley took his wife antique shopping and bought her a $120 vase and a set of collectible salt and pepper shakers. He was in a good mood, Dana said, and he invited a few friends over that night for drinks. As he sat center stage in a hot tub he had built on the patio, Bingley talked animatedly about his plans for transforming the backyard into a park and recreational wonderland. That night, Dana said, was the first time in weeks that her husband slept uninterrupted.

The next morning, Dana said, Bingley refused breakfast and complained of feeling ill. He fell back asleep around 10 a.m. and never awoke. Sheriff's investigators suspect a prescription drug overdose as the cause of death. Preliminary lab tests by the coroner's office reveal the presence of Valium, but a final ruling on the cause of death is not expected for a few weeks. Bingley didn't leave any final notes to his family.

"Steve talked a lot about wanting to die those last few months," Mansfield recalled. "He told me that if he wasn't alive, at least the kids would be back with their mother. Whether he killed himself or not is hard to say. The only way I can make sense of it all is that saying 'The candle that burns the brightest burns the shortest."'

In the front yard of her two-story colonial home at the foot of the San Gabriel mountains, Dana Bingley is flying an American flag at half staff. She said she lowered it the day Steven died and it will remain that way until she regains custody of her children. She has been told by dependency court that it will take at least five more months of counseling before the family can be reunited.

In an attempt to hasten the children's return, Bingley has formed a 30-member chapter of VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Legislation), a nationwide coalition of people contending to have been falsely accused of child abuse. She also has organized pickets of the Pasadena offices of the Department of Children's Services.

Her mother thinks Dana has become bitter, and she wants to reach out.

"The hardest part of this whole ordeal came when Steven died," Dorothy Henry said. "I wanted to be with my daughter. I wanted to reach out to her, to touch her. But I knew she would reject me. Things that have happened can never be healed."

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