It was a daily ritual. Lonnie Dutton washed down sedatives with homemade beer and then beat and kicked his four young children with steel-toed boots in a slovenly central Oklahoma mobile home hidden behind oak and wild plum trees.
There, he once forced his two oldest boys to throw darts at their little sister and mother, bellowing: “By God, you throw ‘em hard!” relatives recalled. When his wife cried out, he poured jalapeno juice in her eyes, yelling: “I’ll give you something to cry about!”
Two years ago, Luther Dutton, 61, confronted his only son about the heart-breaking turmoil he could hear from his nearby house. “Lonnie slid back through the timber at night and shot me in the side with a shotgun,” he said.
It was Lonnie Dutton’s own advice that may have gotten the best of him, relatives said. Over and over, he slapped sons Herman, 15, and Druie, 12, hard in the face to drive home a warning: “If anyone ever messes with (sister) Sissy, shoot them behind the ear or in the heart. Kill him!”
On a steaming July 12 afternoon, Sissy, 10, walked to the family tomato patch where the boys were hoeing and muttered: “Daddy was messin’ with me.”
The boys returned to the mobile home and loaded a stolen rifle that Lonnie Dutton had given Herman for Christmas. Dutton, 39, was sleeping on the couch when Herman allegedly aimed the rifle at a point behind his father’s right ear and Druie pulled the trigger.
Now the slight boys with close-cropped hair are charged as juveniles with first-degree murder and conspiracy in a Grady County District Court case that has stunned children’s rights advocates because of the protracted intensity of the alleged abuse and the apparent failure of child-protection workers, law enforcement officers, school officials, relatives or neighbors to stop it.
Dutton terrorized neighbors and relatives throughout this town of 1,500 bedrock conservative churchgoers, who are re-examining memories in search of clues for what they could have done differently. Some relatives suggest that Dutton was acting out physical abuse he suffered as a boy, and that his own children are now paying a heavy price for it.
“Lonnie was a belligerent, obnoxious spiteful person whose only goal seemed to be how many people he could make hate and fear him,” said Dutton’s first cousin, LaHonda Adamson, 41. “His kids should be given Purple Hearts and sent home.”
If convicted, they could be held in a state Department of Human Services’ detention center until they are 18 years old, authorities said. The sentence would include extensive counseling.
As they await the start of their trial Tuesday--the first test of the “battered-child syndrome” defense in Oklahoma--serious concerns have been raised about policies used against child abuse in a state struggling to cope with a record number of investigations this year.
The case underscores a national trend of children pleading not guilty to charges of parricide on grounds that the act was a desperate attempt to survive, much as battered spouses accused of murder have been doing for years.
“If these boys had killed their father 10 years ago, there would not be the outpouring of sympathy they are getting now,” said Paul Mones, a Santa Monica attorney and leading expert in child abuse. “They would have been locked up and the key thrown away.
“The problem in these cases is that the homicide almost always occurs when the adult is not aggressing against the child, unlike battered-spouse incidents, where violence immediately follows the incident.” he said. “For children, the nature and quality of the violence is fundamentally different in the way it affects their consciousness. . . . The kid knows when the parent wakes up the abuse is going to continue.”
In the past year, growing numbers of defendants across the nation have successfully used battered-child syndrome defenses. In Bayou George, Fla., 16-year-old J. D. Barnes Jr. was acquitted in the shooting death of his sleeping father. In Olympia, Wash., 17-year-old Andy Janes recently won the right to a new trial after being convicted of second-degree murder in the shooting death of his stepfather. He has already served four years of a 10-year sentence.
In Maryland, Linda Sue Glazier, 36, who has spent 18 years in prison for conspiring in the shotgun deaths of her parents, is now fighting for clemency on grounds that they sexually and physically abused her. At her 1975 trial, the judge disallowed any evidence that attempted to build a defense around Glazier’s allegations of incest and beatings.
In Los Angeles, Erik Menendez, 22, and his brother, Lyle, 25, are charged with the 1989 shotgun slayings of their parents in the living room of the family’s $4-million Beverly Hills mansion. In that case, defense attorneys argue that both young men were repeatedly molested by their father and that they endured years of mental and physical abuse from both parents.
Now, Rush Springs residents and children’s rights advocates have rallied behind the Dutton boys with money for their defense, expert witnesses, counseling and new clothes for them to wear in court. Blue ribbons of support hang from nearly every telephone pole, fence post and car antenna in the region, known as the watermelon-growing capital of the nation.
Compounding an already complicated case, however, is a bitter legal battle over who should represent the boys: court-appointed public defenders or a private attorney hired by the Dutton family.
The family fears that the court-appointed defense attorneys plan to seek a last-minute plea agreement, which, under Oklahoma law, might preclude the boys from selling movie and book rights to their story but could allow the attorneys to do so.
But public defenders Robert Perrine and James Percival refuse to give up the case, saying that the boy’s mother, Marie Dutton, 35, who divorced her husband three years ago, allegedly subjected her two youngest children, Sissy, and Jake, 8, to group sex and injections of heroin.
Marie Dutton, through her attorney, flatly denied the allegations, which were first raised when Dutton was awarded custody of all four children in 1989 by the same judge who will preside over the criminal trial.
The Dutton case is one of three parricides during the past year in Oklahoma, a state where social workers are scrambling to keep up with 26,300 reports of child abuse filed as of June 30--2,000 more than in the last fiscal year, state child-welfare officials said.
“Our agency has been suffering from budget problems for several years, and I do think children are suffering as a result,” said Linda Arnold, director of the state’s Children, Youth and Family Services Division.
But groups advocating children’s rights contend that the problem is exacerbated by the Legislature and the state’s judicial and child-welfare systems, which they say have been reluctant to punish abusive parents.
“This is the third case in a year in which a child has killed a parent in this state,” said Dianna Carol of Mothers Against Sexual Abuse in Oklahoma City. “Until we can provide better protection for children, this problem will grow.”
Phyllis Brown Stock, president of Cherish, a children’s rights group, agreed. “In this case, even though the state dropped the ball on these boys, the state has made them wards of the court, and they are being defended and prosecuted by state attorneys. It’s a controlled situation, and that isn’t right,” she said.
During the last nine years, neighbors, teachers and relatives have filed dozens of complaints--many of them anonymously--with state officials concerning Lonnie Dutton’s abuse. Following a pattern displayed by many children raised in extremely dysfunctional families, the Dutton children told social workers that their bruises, black eyes and swollen faces resulted from accidents while playing in the yard or at school.
“When a whole community is being scared by an adult male, you can only imagine the horror and fear of his children, knowing the community had turned its back on them,” said Alabama Supreme Court Associate Justice H. Mark Kennedy, president of the board of directors for the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse.
“When it’s so apparent there is something terribly wrong in the home,” Kennedy said, “I don’t see how the social service agents could have made the decision not to intervene based solely on the children’s denial that anything was wrong.”
DHS officials will neither confirm nor deny anything about the Dutton case or the agency’s handling of it. Grady County Judge Oteka L. Alford has issued a gag order restraining all parties involved, including the boys’ relatives, from discussing the proceedings.
But many people who had contact with the reclusive Duttons say reports of the beatings went nowhere.
Neighbor Karen Caveny said she placed several anonymous calls to the DHS, fearing reprisal from Dutton, a 200-pound unemployed oil-field worker who kept a 9-millimeter pistol tucked in the bib of his overalls. Dutton was suspected for years of rustling cattle, stealing fence posts and setting prairie fires across the region.
“I never gave my name, address or phone number to DHS because I wondered what he might do to me if he found out I called,” said Caveny, who once found Dutton peeping through her window around midnight. “Gosh, the only thing I knew about Marie Dutton was a black-and-blue face with a busted lip, a child in each arm and so pregnant she was wobbling on my doorstep at five in the morning crying: ‘Please help me!’ ”
Now, she said, “this whole town feels guilty because there are people who knew for years these children were being abused, but few took the time to call about it.”
Luther Dutton said his son periodically punched, stabbed and shot him during disputes over the violence. But he said he never alerted authorities because “Lonnie would have killed me and my wife. He was a monster.”
At least three times during the last two years, Dutton put a gun to his mother’s head and then, staring holes into her eyes, croaked: “Momma, don’t interfere with me and my kids or I’ll kill you,” his father said.
Luther Dutton, a retired carpenter, said he and his wife often could not sleep because of the screams of the children and the volleys of gunfire as Dutton staggered through the trees in a wild rage, firing round after round at the mobile home while calling the children every name he could lay his tongue on.
The violence escalated after Dutton’s divorce in 1989, his father said.
“Lonnie’s world shrunk down to those 20 acres, that trailer and those kids,” he said, standing on his front porch and staring vacantly toward the mobile home hidden in the trees. “He’d be drinkin’ and pillin’ up on downers, then take out on the kids what he couldn’t take out on his wife. Herman took most of the heat.”
Relatives say Dutton often ordered Herman and Druie to shoplift, and the boy who stole the fewest items, ranging from fishing worms to canned lobster, was certain to take a beating. Herman, they say, made a point of coming up shorthanded to spare his brother a thrashing.
Although some of the children’s teachers suspected physical and mental abuse at home, they could not prove it. To most school officials, they seemed to be quiet, well-adjusted youngsters.
“Herman never called attention to himself; he was very polite, an all-American boy, except he was walking around with a deep, dark secret,” said Bill Chambers, principal at Rush Springs Middle School. “You hear of children adapting to war zones, well, that’s what happened here.”
Home for the Dutton children was a musty, 80-foot-long mobile home riddled with bullet holes and surrounded by rusting car parts and trash, along with guinea hens, geese and a goat allowed to roam free.
Little has changed inside the mobile home since investigators combed it for evidence. A recipe for “wildcat whiskey” is nailed to a kitchen wall near stacks of canned beans on the floor. A large pan of congealed bacon grease sits on the kitchen stove.
On the floor of the closet where the boys hung their flannel shirts and jeans is a trap door leading to a chamber beneath the mobile home where Dutton hid his home brew. No mattresses are on the bunk bed that Herman and Druie shared.
A half-full can of beer still sits on a coffee table beside the blood-splattered couch where Dutton was sleeping on the day he died.
“I didn’t hate him. Even after what he done to me, I loved him,” said Dutton’s mother, Nancy. “He had some good points, but, I guess, there got to be more bad points that good ones.”
“I believe in the hereafter,” added her husband. “Maybe the good Lord will have mercy on his soul for what he did to his children and those around him.”