Illustration by Pat Kinsella
As John Wilson cooked dinner for his family in March 2010, an eerie silence filled their cozy Plantation home. Usually around 6 p.m. on a school day, the place was bustling. Four kids were asking about dinner or playing videogames. John, a mild-mannered musician with salt-and-pepper hair and rimless glasses, figured his 4-year-old son and 10-year-old stepson were just watching TV on the couch. Hours earlier, his other stepson — a withdrawn, six-foot-tall, 200-pound seventh-grader named Brian — had been sent to his bedroom.
John looked around for his only daughter, 4-year-old Evie. She was nowhere to be seen. He patrolled the house, searching for the bashful little girl with blond bangs, and paused when he reached the hallway that led toward the children's bedrooms. The second door on the right, Brian's room, was slightly ajar. John could hear Evie's faint, high-pitched cries: "Stop it! Please, it hurts!"
John barged in. Brian was kneeling over Evie on the bed. The preschooler was naked from the waist down, and her chubby thighs were spread open like a toy doll's. Between them, Brian had inserted the dull wooden end of a meat skewer. John snapped and knocked Brian aside.
"What are you doing?!" he screamed.
The rest of the Wilson family, including John's wife Cindy, came running.
"This is a major unreported crime. We have reached the level where it warrants public outcry."
That was just the beginning of a drama that would continue for years and blow apart the family, whose real names New Times is withholding. Every day, kids like Evie are sexually abused by other children. It happens at home, school, and summer camp, in locker rooms, buses, and basements. Nationally, older and more powerful youngsters are perpetrators in 40 percent of child sexual abuse cases. In Florida, the numbers have nearly doubled in the past two years, from 5,885 in the 2013-2014 fiscal year to 10,717 in 2015-2016. In the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the state tallied 707 cases in Miami-Dade and 671 Broward.
"It's an epidemic," says James DePelisi, president of the Broward County Crime Commission. "On the first day of school, parents always tell their children to 'Play nice with others' when they really should be telling them 'Don't go anywhere alone' and 'Don't let anyone touch you.' "
No one knows what to do in the immediate aftermath of a child's rape, especially when the perpetrator is a juvenile. It becomes even more complicated when they are siblings. Parents have to weigh the best interests of both abuser and victim. Sometimes a child must grow up under the same roof as the rapist.
The day after the incident in Brian's bedroom, John took Evie to the hospital for treatment. There were no apparent injuries, and she eventually recovered, at least physically. Cindy reported her son to authorities. He was treated and eventually released. Today the parents have split, but the two kids — now ages 19 and 10 — live under the same roof, separated only by a maze of door alarms and stern warnings.
"[Their mother] still believes they were just playing doctor," John Wilson says. "I saw the look on his face. It was cold like Manson or an evil, deranged serial killer. It's not a matter of if he will re-offend, but when."
The case is described in hundreds of pages of documents obtained by New Times. Over the past six years, the Wilsons have attended countless meetings with the Florida Department of Child and Family Services, Plantation Police investigators, Broward County judges, and scores of South Florida's leading child counselors and psychiatrists. At the heart of the case is the treatment and rehabilitation of juvenile sex offenders. It's clear that too few cases are reported and that improper treatment could mean future attacks. Without clear-cut protocols and oversight, families — specifically, children — can be terribly wounded.
"If that attack hadn't happened, we'd still be together as a family," John says. "But I just can't let this go or pretend it didn't happen. There's no question in my mind that [my former stepson Brian] is far more deviant than anyone can imagine."
Tracking child sexual abuse is tricky. Reporting rules vary by state, so there are no official national numbers. In a 2003 Psychology, Public Policy, and Law article, researchers estimated that only 38 percent of child victims disclose their abuse. When they do, 40 percent tell a friend rather than a parent or teacher. It's also easy for adults to dismiss what happened as a game of "doctor." Though Chapter 39 of the Florida Statutes mandates that any person who suspects child abuse must report it, most news of it never reaches authorities.
The younger a child, the more probable the perpetrator is also a minor. A third of abusers are family members. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, juveniles are offenders in 43 percent of child sexual abuse cases involving victims under the age of 6. Unlike adult sex offenders, minors are more likely to strike in groups — often at school. And they assault younger victims. Research shows that boys commit 93 percent of these offenses.
Child-on-child sexual abuse tends to happen at the home of the victim or perpetrator when no one else is around. Kids living with both biological parents are at much lower risk. Children in foster homes are ten times likelier to be abused. Those who reside with single parents and their live-in partners are even more vulnerable.
7 year old commits suicide
In Florida, 7-year-old Gabriel Myers' suicide was a wakeup call for the state's treatment of child-on-child sexual abuse. In April 2009, the adorable second-grader with twinkly hazel eyes and a wide, toothless grin was found with a shower hose wrapped around his neck in Margate. Gabriel had been acting up and touching other children sexually. He had been prescribed psychotropic medication and treated by psychiatrists. Ten months earlier, he had been abused by a 12-year-old and introduced to pornography by an adult relative.
Less than a week after Gabriel's death, a work group of the state's leading experts, including Sewell, formed. They later found "little evidence that [Gabriel's] child-on-child sexual abuse issues were effectively managed by any of those affected."
"We certainly talk about stranger danger or the evil stepfather, but we fail to recognize that child-on-child sexual abuse can be an innocent abuse," Sewell says. 'The trauma of such abuse is still pretty significant."
Gabriel's death brought awareness and indicated flaws in the system. The number of reported child-on-child abuse cases in Florida has increased the past seven years. That's not necessarily bad news, though, Sewell says. "More numbers doesn't necessarily mean a crime is occurring more but that it is definitely getting more publicity and recognition."
Most experts agree that prison and sex offender registries aren't the appropriate places for juvenile sex offenders. In 2010, a confused, baby-faced 14-year-old named Bobby Martinez grabbed a 10-year-old girl on her way to school in Belle Glade. He raped and then urinated on her. Martinez pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery on and kidnapping of a child under 12. Prosecutors requested a 40-year prison sentence. Dr. Sheila Rapa, a leading child psychiatrist in Broward, argued in court that juvenile sex offenders can be cured. If Bobby sat in jail without treatment for his sexual behavior problems, she said, those problems would become permanent. The judge sentenced Bobby to 25 years.
"A lot of adolescents will offend one time and will never go on to offend again," says Rapa, now a clinical and forensic psychologist at Chrysalis Health in Fort Lauderdale. "They don't have sexual patterns yet, and we don't usually see deviant sexual arousal."
Therapy for juvenile sex offenders typically includes one to three hours of counseling per week for one or two years. If treated, juvenile sex offenders have a low risk of re-offending — anywhere from 2 to 10 percent depending upon the study. Unlike adult sexual offenders, most juveniles are not aroused by prepubescent bodies.
"I think the perception is that a juvenile sex offender will definitely go on to be an adult offender," Rapa says, "but the research just doesn't bear that out."
Experts such as Sewell and DePelisi have called for more laws to ensure that all children with sexual behavior problems complete the therapy recommended by their health-care providers. Currently, there is no state mandate to hold parents or children in contempt if they cease attending treatment.
"When kids need help, we need to make sure they're getting help," Sewell says. "That means holding parents accountable and following through."
In the case of John and Cindy Wilson's family, there wasn't much accountability.
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
John Wilson pulled up to Cindy Johnson's canal-front home on a winding street in Plantation and immediately wanted to turn around. It was November 2004, and after flirting online, they had scheduled a first date. John was 45 and living in a cramped apartment on Fort Lauderdale Beach. It was his first date in more than a year. Cindy was 17 years younger, blond, beautiful, and working for a medical billing company, earning more money than John.
He recalls he had a bad gut feeling but chalked it up to first-date jitters.
When Cindy opened the double doors, those anxieties melted away. The 28-year-old was bubbly and fun and looked like Charlize Theron. The chemistry was instant, John says. They laughed for hours at dinner and chatted all night on the phone when he went home. John moved in two days later. "It was a whirlwind," he says.
John had moved to South Florida when he was a teenager. He came from a warm, tight-knit Catholic family in New Jersey. He was shy and retreated into his music. Cindy grew up in upstate New York and had two boys from a previous relationship in her early 20s. The kids' dad was out of the picture.
The Wilsons' story is outlined in six years of Plantation Police reports, a lengthy DCF report, family court records, hospital files, and a 27-page psychosexual evaluation recorded in 2011 from psychologists at Juliana Gerena, Psy.D., P.A. & Associates, a Coral Springs clinical mental health provider. John was interviewed multiple times for this story. Cindy spoke to New Times twice but then stopped for fear that her "words would be used against [her]."
At first, John says, he adored Cindy and her boys. When he met them in 2004, he says 5-year-old Will was soft-spoken and skinny, and 7-year-old Brian was dark-haired, taller, and overweight. Will was reserved, and Brian was a loud kid who fought for his mother's attention. Both boys welcomed John. They hugged him and called him Dad. John says he loved them as if they were his own. He would help them with homework and take them to movies. "Outwardly, it was wholesome and cookie-cutter," John says, "a beautiful family atmosphere."
Within six months, Cindy was pregnant with fraternal twins: a boy and a girl. John was thrilled.
Soon they agreed to wed, and on November 30, 2005, she waddled into a local notary nine months pregnant. The twins, Evie and Tommy, were born six days later.
John didn't want to miss a feeding or a diaper change but sensed his wife and stepsons felt sidelined. "The strain came from me wanting to be around the twins so much," he says. "[Cindy] would want to go out, but I'd want to stay at home with the babies."
The two boys resented their twin half-siblings, John says. Brian and Will would cartwheel over the babies in their walkers. It seemed harmless and normal at first, but over time, John says, Brian's behavior spiraled from sibling rivalry to something more sinister.
When Evie was a year old, Brian dislocated her elbow while playing ring-around-the-rosy, DCF would later report. In 2006, 8-year-old Brian gained weight, and classmates began to tease him. After school, he destroyed toys and stabbed a piece of cardboard with a knife in his room. He later told a psychologist that he'd have nightmares about death three or four times per week. One day, his mother discovered he had carved "my death can come in many ways" into his armoire. His extremities were covered in scabs, which he would pick until they bled.
Around this time, a classmate showed Brian pornography, according to a psychologist's report. He became obsessed. Every night in his room, he would spend two hours watching. John says he would argue with Brian about it. His parent noticed he was lying more. He stopped closing the bathroom door when he would pee, John says. "It was almost like he wanted his brothers and sister to see him."
In 2008, Brian and his younger brother Will would play a game in which they flashed their genitals at each other. They also would decapitate lizards. Cindy sent the boys to a therapist. Brian admitted he thought it was "cool to see the headless bodies wiggle around." Their psychologist explained that Brian wasn't simply strong-willed: He was suffering from depression and oppositional-defiant disorder.
The diagnosis explained Brian's bad behavior. At Seminole Middle School in Plantation, he was "name-calling, pushing, hitting, throwing things, spitting on students, and making obscene gestures and bullying" other students, Plantation Police later noted. One day in summer 2008, John and Cindy caught Brian masturbating in front of 2-year-old Evie in the bathroom. She was naked.
The parents didn't call police or DCF. John says he reprimanded Brian almost daily. Cindy would later explain to cops that Brian and Will often helped take care of the younger twins, changing diapers and wiping them when they used the toilet. She didn't condone Brian's actions — which certainly would have occasioned arrest if he were an adult — but explained that mental illness runs in the family. She said Brian's aberrant behavior was escalating. Every time his parents questioned him about this behavior, Brian had an excuse. (When he urinated in public, he told his parents he did it because "he had to go," a police report states.)
Cindy told police her son was physical — not violent. John says they hoped therapy would help, but Brian continued picking fights. A Plantation school district counselor later told police Brian had defecated in a school water fountain. On February 5, 2010, Brian was suspended from seventh grade for peeing into a drum in band class. Two weeks later, he was suspended again, after urinating outside on school property in front of other students.
According to a psychosexual evaluation from Juliana Gerena, Psy.D., P.A. & Associates, Brian's therapy stopped in part because he admitted to "faking" his progress "and pretend[ing] that he learned something" — and also because his family didn't have the funds. By March 2010, Brian, then age 12, called his stepdad a "queer" and a "faggot" almost every night. John and Cindy were out of treatment options.
After school on March 2, 2010, Brian and John argued about pornography. Brian went to his room. To get back at his stepdad, a psychologist would later learn, Brian fantasized about hurting John's favorite thing: 4-year-old Evie. That evening around 6 p.m., Brian attacked her with the skewer.
"He was leaning into her, and his shoulders were hunched up," John recalls. "Imagine Jack the Ripper. [Evie] had tears in her eyes. She was in pain and begging for mercy."
Doctors treated Evie at Memorial Hospital Miramar the following afternoon. She had a gash on her left knee — believed to be the result of John smacking the skewer out of Brian's hand. Doctors couldn't tell if her hymen had been broken but noted no vaginal bleeding. Vaginal and anal exams came back clear. A child protective investigator with the Broward Sheriff's Office took statements from John and doctors and then left.
When John returned home with Evie, cops were there. So was the child protective investigator.
"When I called police on my son, I didn't know what would happen," Cindy says. "It was fear of the unknown."
Evie told her mother that Brian "put the stick in [her] hole," according to the investigators. Because of Brian's size, his parents said they could no longer control him and that he was a threat to the other children.
During his interview with police, Brian lied. He said that Evie sometimes had rashes and that he was treating one when John came in. He told the officer that "he was just being a big brother." Brian denied there was a skewer and claimed Evie's scratches came from the metal corner of his bed frame.
The then-12-year-old agreed to commit himself to the hospital for observation and treatment. He was sent to Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood and transferred a few days later to Fort Lauderdale Hospital, a private mental health facility on Las Olas Boulevard.
John and Cindy took Evie to the Nancy Cotterman Sexual Assault Treatment Center in Fort Lauderdale, where a trained female case coordinator interviewed her. Just 4 years old, Evie struggled. She said, "Daddy and Mommy saw [Brian] touch her booty, and Daddy told him he couldn't touch her there anymore," according to a police record of the visit. On a diagram, she identified her vagina as her "snowflake" but said Brian never touched her there. First she said he had touched her "booty with his hand with her clothes on" once. Later she admitted it had occurred twice. Then she said he had put the skewer on her belly button. According to the report of the March 10, 2010 interview, the little girl then placed her hand over her mouth and explained that Brian would do that to her to keep her from telling. She said this happened not only in Brian's bedroom but also in the family room.
A week later, doctors prescribed Zoloft and Risperdal to Brian for depression, conduct disorder, and impulse control disorder. Hospital staff referred him to SandyPines Residential Treatment Center, a facility for children with behavioral problems, in Palm Beach County. Staff told police they "felt deeper issues" were involved.
This wasn't enough for John. He wanted justice, which to him meant adult criminal charges filed against Brian for aggravated sexual battery and kidnapping. Plantation Police reported that he called many times asking for an update.
Two months later, in May 2010, the Broward State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the 12-year-old. They believed the case was weak: The parents had reported it a day after the assault. John's view of the alleged penetration was blocked. Evie did not repeat to investigators or counselors what she had told her parents. And Brian denied penetrating Evie with the skewer, which was never recovered or tested. Doctors noted that Evie's only physical injury was a scratch on her knee. Plantation Police closed the case May 3, 2010, and stated, "No further action will be taken by this agency."
But DCF was still concerned. In July 2010, the agency accused John and Cindy of negligence. The couple fought to keep their parental rights, and in November 2010, a Broward family court judge sided with them.
At SandyPines, Brian attended individual therapy sessions and studied a guide that distinguished between proper and improper behavior. Every week, John says, he and Cindy would drive up to visit Brian and meet with the staff. Though the eldest son claimed he was feeling better, John didn't buy it.
"That place was like Disney — a resort and not a treatment facility," John says. "There were full-size swimming pools, barbecues, and ice cream."
Whereas John could be harsh and uncooperative with Brian and his therapists, Cindy never stopped believing her son could be saved. "When a child is acting out, you have to connect them, figure out what is going on, and help them become an upstanding citizen," Cindy says. "It's not about choosing one child over the other."
In November 2010, Brian was transferred to Libra Boys North, a group home for troubled young men, in West Palm Beach. There, he met with therapists in a less controlled setting. Staff noted he made sexual gestures toward younger boys. Once, he was caught rubbing a videogame controller on his genitals and telling others to look.
John, Cindy, and Brian argued at their weekly sessions. The family had downsized from a four-bedroom home in Plantation to a trailer in Davie. The therapist recommended John and Cindy attend couples counseling. They never did. Instead, the two grew to resent each other and slept in separate beds. Cindy filed for divorce in February 2011.
Three months later, John says, he joined the family on an outpatient trip with Brian to Olive Garden. It was the first time John had seen Evie and Brian together since the rape. He claims he had to stop Brian from tickling Evie's stomach. "It was disgusting the way he was just ogling her," John says. "He wanted to carry her and have her sit on his lap." John quit participating in family therapy sessions after that. He gave up on Brian, but Cindy didn't. She began attending the sessions alone.
Brian told therapists it was strange to be around Evie again. In the 2011 psychosexual evaluation, he reported "urges to perpetrate against his sister on one occasion following his visit with her." He also admitted that the March 2010 rape wasn't the only time he had abused his little sister. He had molested and assaulted her on five occasions. Though she cried and begged him to stop, Brian told the therapist, he wouldn't listen. (Reports don't describe the nature of the other attacks, only that they happened in his bedroom.)
One therapist wrote that Brian "admitted he did not want to stop experiencing sexual thoughts about his sister and that if he were not caught, he would have continued sexually assaulting his sister."
The admission seemed like a breakthrough. With John no longer at the sessions, Brian finally opened up to his mom. One day in 2011, he revealed what might have been the root of his problem: Brian was a victim of child sexual abuse too.
Illustration by Pat Kinsella
When Brian was a toddler, Cindy told therapists, he was always in trouble at daycare. The chubby tyke was taunting other kids until they hit him, she said. Though Brian never struck back, he was sent home two to three times a week for being disruptive and once for exposing himself to another child.
In the therapy sessions a decade later, 14-year-old Brian revealed he had been experiencing "nightmares and flashbacks involving the owner of the daycare putting his penis in my mouth," the psychosexual evaluation states. At first, it didn't make sense. Then Cindy learned the daycare owner had been arrested for molesting boys when Brian was enrolled. (Brian denied having an actual memory of the abuse, only flashbacks, the psychosexual evaluation states. It was not reported to authorities.)
Psychologists believe some juvenile sex offenders act out past abuse, so Brian's realization could also explain his deviant behavior. Coupled with familial instability and exposure at a young age to pornography, it seemed the boy had become sexually confused. He also told therapists he had been sexually abused two other times: When Brian was 6 years old, a stranger allegedly squeezed his genitals in a pool. And when he was in third grade, an older student had forced him to perform oral sex in a school bathroom.
It was summer 2011, and Brian told therapists the abuse made him feel "like scum." He said he was focusing on "getting the family to recover, still trying to figure out why [he] did it, and learning to control [his] anger," the psychosexual evaluation states. He admitted to "behaving selfishly" and claimed he felt "remorseful for hurting his family."
Florida DCF doesn't have the authority to mandate that children with sexual behavior problems stay in mental health facilities. Though the therapist had written in the psychosexual evaluation that Brian was unready to return home that August, Cindy's signature granted his release.
Years of nasty disagreements followed. Cindy believed that with regular outpatient therapy, the family could move on. John was convinced that reuniting his daughter with her rapist put her at risk. Though Broward Judge John Luzzo had prohibited Brian from going near Evie in 2011, that wasn't good enough. "I can't ever forgive someone who rapes a baby," John says.
The 5-year-old twins were sent to live with John's mother for 30 days. Brian would stay in the trailer in Davie with the rest of the family until they worked out living arrangements.
John panicked. He picked up the twins and fled South Florida. They hid out in North Florida and eventually moved to North Carolina.
Cindy says she was terrified for the twins' safety. She launched a Facebook campaign to find them, offering a $1,100 reward for information leading to their safe return.
Soon a Broward family court judge ordered police to find the children and return them to Cindy's custody (even though the divorce wasn't final). After a nine-month manhunt, the twins were tracked down in North Carolina, and a judge returned them to their mother.
"My babies' lives were in danger," John says. "I had no legal protection. What else was I supposed to do?"
After some negotiations with the court and between John and Cindy, a plan was arranged. John says he stayed with Brian and Will at a house in Dania Beach. Six-year-old Evie and Tommy were placed with their grandmother in Plantation. Cindy traveled between the homes.
"It has been hell," Cindy says. "Too many people don't understand what it's like and what we've been through. It's a hard situation."
A court temporarily granted Cindy full custody of the twins. She registered Evie for therapy. "It's important to get help for the victim child," she says. "It breaks the cycle of abuse."
Soon, Cindy says, Evie forgave her brother. In December 2013, a judge granted Cindy's request to reunite the children for the holidays. "It was my daughter's choice to reconcile the family and at her own pace," Cindy says.
He was outraged. He eventually packed his bags and moved in with his mother in Boca Raton. Representing himself in court, he filed motion after motion in an attempt to separate Brian and Evie. In April 2014, a guardian ad litem assigned by Broward family court said John was a flight risk, stating he would likely kidnap the twins if given the chance. John was devastated. "I lost the only two things that ever meant anything to me," he says, choking on tears. "I'll never accept that it's OK to tell a little girl that her rapist loves her."
Responds Cindy: "He doesn't understand that you can forgive and be forgiven."
The home where Cindy and her four children now live sits on a canal. It has a swimming pool out back. With a manicured green lawn, it looks like all the others on the sleepy Plantation cul-de-sac.
But inside, it's rigged with security cameras, which Cindy uses to monitor her children. Door alarms and sensors ensure they stay in their respective areas. Cindy's mother and niece also live there. Evie, now 10, and 19-year-old Brian are still in therapy and have limited interaction.
"After six years, we're very happy to get back together," Cindy says. "We have survived the test of time, and though we don't condone it, we're not ashamed of what we've been through."
While Cindy is proud of her family's reunion, John is angry. He still hopes to gain custody of the twins. Cindy has a restraining order against John. In April 2015, John called Plantation Police for a "welfare check" after he "advised that there was a child molester living at the residence."
Brian was never placed on the sex offender registry or charged with a crime. A fan of anime and robotics, he told therapists that one day he wants to become a surgeon. He has made two friends his age and works at a nearby McDonald's. He even has a girlfriend. Their cousin adds that "everybody within the home gets along well."
Police officers visited the home in April 2015. In a report, the officer said he had interviewed everyone there and concluded the "family lifestyle and all the children appear to be healthy."
Cindy admits the past six years have been grueling. As a parent, she has felt alone. She went to therapy to manage her guilt and the ongoing legal minefield with her estranged husband.
Evie doesn't want to be reminded of the attacks. "She doesn't want to be known as the little girl who was touched by her brother," Cindy says. "My daughter is not a victim. She's a survivor."