Fort Worth Weekly
July 23, 2003
Children of the Damned
Family members of Larry Donihoo can’t forget the hell they say he put them through.
By Gayle Reaves
The word they use is monster. They say it — spit it — again and again to describe the man who they all say abused them physically, sexually, and psychologically for years. But maybe the worst part about it, for these men and women, is the other word some of them use for him — father.
Some of Larry Donihoo’s daughters and former stepsons and stepdaughters have not seen him for many years. Most have tried not to think about him for all those years, even as they have lived out the aftermath of what they say he did and seen it twist and scar their own lives or their siblings’ or their mothers’.
But then they learned that the Fort Worth man was in jail in Tarrant County for allegedly abusing two more girls, two more victims in a horrific chain that his family members say stretches back 40 years. The news ripped the scabs off those old wounds — off the memories of beatings and rape and sexual torture. He has been married at least six times, and his ex-wives and daughters accuse him of molesting children in at least three of those marriages. Two of his ex-wives and relatives of a third wife said he beat them severely during those relationships.
Word of his arrest prompted one of his daughters, Angela, to tell her own children for the first time about what had happened to her as a young girl.
“I’ve never told my children about any of this” until she learned of the new charges from Fort Worth Weekly, she said, her voice running over with emotion. Most of those who spoke asked that their names not be used or that only their first names be used in this story. Although some of them are still battling psychological problems, they have, for the most part, gone on to build good lives among friends and neighbors who aren’t aware of the violence that happened 20 or 30 or 40 years ago in Texas.
Larry Celeston Donihoo, 60, has been charged with one count of fondling a child younger than 17 and four counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, actions allegedly committed against two young relatives of his current wife who have lived with the couple for more than a decade. Donihoo has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Tiffany Lewis, declined to answer questions or allow Donihoo to be interviewed for this story.
In his letters to his wife, however, Donihoo has alternately claimed to love the girls he’s accused of abusing and railed against them. “I’m in jail because of [those] girls,” he wrote, and instructed her to tell the girls they needed to change their story or he would no longer financially support them.
He said repeatedly in the letters that the girls’ accusations are false. But he also wrote, “I’m sorry [the girls] had to go this far, but maybe I needed a wake-up call.” And in another letter: that one of the girls “was the one who put my hand on her and showed me what she wanted.”
Donihoo’s case is but one of what seems a growing avalanche of child sexual abuse cases across Texas. In Tarrant County alone, prosecutors are handling cases of an alleged serial pedophile who has been accused of molesting the sons of upper-crust Fort Worth for 40 years, an American Airlines pilot charged with luring girls to his backyard pool and assaulting them, and many others. Madeline McClure of Dallas, a psychotherapist who has gone from treating severely abused children to advocating for them, said such cases are increasing “geometrically.” Most pedophiles, she said, have dozens, even hundreds, of victims — and many of those victims go on to become abusers themselves. The growing willingness of victims to come forward has also helped swell the numbers of reported cases.
Seeking justice through the courts for such abuse can be a painful — and sometimes fruitless — prospect. For those who are wrongly accused, such prosecution is another kind of nightmare. For victims and their families, enduring a criminal trial or civil lawsuit can be catharsis and vindication, or it can be a form of being abused anew. Even when he brings their abusers to justice, said Mitch Poe, head of the crimes against children unit in the Tarrant County D.A.’s office, most such victims just “want to put the justice system and me behind them.”
Donihoo’s grown children and former stepchildren are horrified that he has been accused of molesting yet another set of young sisters. Their own families, they said, were so traumatized and powerless when their abuse happened that surviving and escaping it — not seeking prosecution — was their main priority.
This time, several of them said, they will do whatever they can to make sure he is stopped. Two have already given statements to police, and his daughter Angela called Fort Worth police on Friday to offer her help. “I do not want that scum hurting another baby,” she said. “I want to come to that trial and do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Donihoo, who weighs more than 350 pounds, has been in Tarrant County jail since March. In his letters he alternately berates his wife and pledges his love to her. He recounts his chats with guards, Bible discussions with another inmate, and “sitting in Wanda,” the motorized chair to which his numerous health problems have confined him. He seems to see his past closing in on him. “I had planned on us sitting down when I was out of here and telling you everything, as I wanted a new life with no dark past,” he wrote. “There are so many things in all our lives that if you stir up the pot, things come up.”
He complains bitterly of jail, but then describes it as being “like on vacation” — three squares a day, a quiet room, and a nurse to look after his health. In fact, he said, “I’m sitting here eating pig skins and summer sausage.”
Larry Donihoo was a handsome 18-year-old sailor, tall and curly-haired, when his first bride-to-be met him in 1962. He was her best friend’s brother. “I opened the door, took a look at him, and my heart went to my toes,” she said. “He asked me to marry him the first night we went out.”
Linda was 17, living with her parents in Dallas but not getting along with them. She broke up with another young man she’d been dating and accepted Donihoo’s proposal. “I was very naïve,” she said. “I was a little girl.”
The newlyweds moved to Arizona, where Donihoo was stationed at a naval air base. It took all of three weeks for Linda to learn she’d made a mistake.
The only people Linda knew in Arizona were her husband’s friends from the base. When several of them were over for a party one night, Donihoo “took me off into the bedroom and basically raped me,” she said. “When I wouldn’t respond, he bit me in my private parts so his friends could hear me scream.”
There were no such things as battered women’s shelters in 1962, and, if there had been, Linda probably wouldn’t have known how to find them. “What happened in your home was private, and in the military it was worse,” she said, especially since they moved several times during their four-year marriage. She didn’t think people would believe her if she had told them what went on because, in between the rounds of violence, Donihoo could be charming. “People would meet him and swear he was God on earth,” she said. “He went to church on Sunday after partying and beating his wife the night before.”
The beatings started in earnest, Linda said, when her first child, a daughter, was born, in 1963, and got worse after the birth of her second daughter, Celena. “He hurt me internally several times,” Linda said. The beatings, she said, seemed to come from her husband’s sense of sexual inadequacy. Not content with beatings and forced sex, she said, he raped her with objects — household things that she couldn’t stand to look at afterward. Every time she’d work up her courage to leave him, she’d find out she was pregnant. Every time, he claimed the baby wasn’t his — until it was to his advantage.
She was pregnant with their third child, a son, Linda said, when her husband kicked her in the stomach so hard that she feared for the baby. “I left about a week later,” she said, “I took the girls and went home.” A few weeks after their son, Larry Jr., was born, his father shipped out for Vietnam.
When her son was four months old, he became very ill, and doctors feared he might not survive. Donihoo, who had not acknowledged the boy was his for weeks after he was born, used the illness to get out of Vietnam on a hardship basis.
He came to Dallas and went to the hospital. Then he went to Linda’s home, she said, and gave her the worst beating she’d endured. “He didn’t care if he left marks. He broke a big wooden rocker on me, blacked both my eyes, and busted my lips. He held me down and sat on me. At the time I weighed about 98 pounds.” She still carries reminders of that beating, including a ripped ear. She said it ended only when a friend’s husband from across the street came over and convinced Donihoo to quit.
Linda got a divorce and married the young man whom she’d dated before Donihoo. As for Donihoo, he seemed to have a new wife every time she took the kids to him for a visit — all of them were “young girls,” Linda said. She remembers five or six different women, but court records make reference to only two marriages during that time, neither of which lasted a year.
Then Linda got pregnant one last time and got sick. She had to spend a lot of time in bed, and finally her doctor told her she had to find someone else to take care of her kids until the new baby arrived.
She took them to Larry — he’d always been a good father to them, and she never thought his venom extended to them. She didn’t know about the statistics that show that a large percentage of people who abuse their spouses also abuse their children. He used the occasion, she said, to beat her one last time — then pulled out a $20 bill and told her to buy herself a nice maternity outfit. And then he used his kids as a way to get out of the Navy altogether. She’d asked him to take care of them for six months. Instead, he took them and left, and Linda didn’t see them again for years. By that time, it was too late to protect them from a long nightmare of their own.
Celena still gets sick at the thought of chocolate ice cream.
“When I was 12, I went to a St. Patrick’s Day dance,” she said. Her father picked her up afterward, “and we went to get ice cream.” As they drove home, she said, he told her that, when she got ready for bed, just to wear her nightgown. “But I wore my pants,” she said. And when he came in and tried to molest her later in the night, she said, she started screaming. “He said, ‘Why are you having such a fit? You always let me do this before.’ He said that when I was five, he’d bring candy home, and I’d let him.”
Celena’s father never beat her. In fact, she was Daddy’s favorite. She was such a favorite that she still has nightmares about him 30 years later, about the years when her father, stepmother, stepbrothers and, soon, her half-sisters shared a long hell in Leander, north of Austin.
Not long after Donihoo took over care of Celena, her sister, and Larry Jr., he found yet another prospective wife. Carolyn — not her real name — was a single mom raising three boys. (A 12-year-old daughter lived with her dad, and an older daughter, Becky, and a fourth son were already grown.) It was a pattern Donihoo would follow through the years: marrying women with young children and, in at least one case, a woman still a child herself, 16 years old to his 35.
McClure, the psychotherapist, said that many child molesters follow a similar pattern. “They find a way to marry single moms under a lot of stress, with children who need a father figure, a friend. It’s part of the grooming process,” she said — conditioning children, and in some cases their mothers, to accept a molester’s advances.
Carolyn and Larry met, Becky said, when Donihoo was “going door to door in Oak Cliff supposedly wanting to start Bible studies with people. My mom had such a love of the Bible … she thought this was the right type of person to have a relationship with.”
Becky said Donihoo’s inappropriate behavior with Carolyn’s children began even before they were married. When Becky’s 12-year-old sister was at her mom’s house alone, she said, Donihoo came over and began to come on to the young girl. “He scared her so bad she slept with a butcher knife under her pillow,” Becky said. “She was hysterical. Larry told my mom that [the younger sister] had totally misunderstood, that he was just trying to get to know her. Mom believed him rather than my sister.” Later on, Becky said, when she was living near her mom and Larry, he called her late one night asking if he could come over, telling her he had always been attracted to her.
“I said, ‘You son of a bitch, if I could get away with killing you, I would.’” But then she was so terrified that he would come after her that she ran to her car and left to spend the night with one of her friends. “I was scared to death,” she said.
Donihoo told Carolyn that his ex-wife had abandoned their children, Becky said. When Linda tried to get the children back, he moved his new family to Austin and then Leander. Linda did show up in Leander, but Donihoo told her he’d have her arrested if she came to the house. He had told Celena her name was Sherry. Years later, when she was reunited with her mother, Linda, she didn’t know why her mom kept calling her Celena.
In Leander, Carolyn and Larry had two kids of their own — Angela and a younger sister. Five of the people who lived in that house have told basically the same horrific story to the Weekly: that for the eight years or so that the marriage lasted, it was a living hell for the children, presided over by Donihoo. “If Satan had a henchman on earth,” one of Carolyn’s sons said, “he was it.”
They tell of Donihoo beating the boys, from the time they were toddlers, until the blood ran down their legs, of breaking one boy’s arm when he was only about 18 months old, and of choking another until he passed out. Larry Jr., Donihoo’s own son, was physically abused perhaps the worst, his siblings and step-siblings said. And Celena and her sister were raped “several times a week,” one of their half-brothers said — an account that Angela backs up. “We all had one really big room us kids slept in,” one of Carolyn’s sons said. “He would basically come in there and rape them in the middle of the night.” Carolyn worked nights, often at two jobs, and for years did not know most of what Donihoo was doing to the children.
“I spent my teen years,” her son said, “trying to figure out how to kill him.”
Celena didn’t suffer the beatings that she saw going on all around her. Her siblings said she was saved for other terrors. While she was the one who got the “extra candy,” her older sister and Larry Jr. were excluded from family activities, not allowed to talk to other family members, made to sit in the very back of the family station wagon. “They were made to eat in their rooms, a bowl of beans pushed under the door,” Celena said. “Larry Jr. got beaten all the time.” If he wet his bed, “they’d make him wear diapers out in the yard.”
When Celena was 12, neither she nor Angela could take what was happening anymore. Both said they made sure that Angela witnessed Donihoo molesting Celena. And then they went together to tell Carolyn, to make sure they would be believed. Finally, Celena was sent back to her mother, and not long afterward Donihoo left Leander. All three of Linda’s children reunited with her.
All of the former children from that household who were interviewed told about Donihoo beating the boys, sexually abusing Celena and her older sister, and trying to molest Angela.
But it is hard to admit to anyone — to yourself or your family even, much less a stranger calling long distance — that you yourself have been sexually abused. Yes, you might say, it happened to my sister, but not to me. And so the list of Donihoo’s sexual molestation victims in that household varies according to who is telling.
Angela, for instance, said at first that she herself was “not quite a victim.” But, she said a little later, “As a child you know when someone is being really filthy with you. … There are things, stuff that happened … he snuck me out in the middle of the night … there are things my mind won’t let me remember.”
Like Angela, Celena has blocked out many of her memories of growing up. Like her mom and Carolyn, she thought until a few years ago that people would think she was making up the horrors she could remember. “Who would believe this?” she said. And in fact, when the young girls Donihoo is now charged with molesting made their outcry, they had trouble getting their own mother to believe them. “We can’t believe [the girl] because sometimes she lies to us,” her mother said, and added that it seemed unlikely because of Donihoo’s poor health. He has breathing difficulties and can’t walk far.
But Celena and Linda believe the girls, and Angela and Carolyn and Carolyn’s sons believe. And so does Mitch Poe. He wouldn’t be prosecuting Donihoo if he didn’t. “In this business, children, in the great majority of cases, just do not lie about this sort of thing,” he said. “Very young children simply have no basis of knowledge for saying those things.”
McClure, the Dallas therapist and activist, said studies have shown that in child sex abuse cases, only about 2 to 6 percent of the “outcries” are false. Most of those come in cases where parents are fighting over child custody, McClure said, but even in those cases most children are telling the truth.
The skepticism that attaches to molestation accusations brought to light during a custody battle infuriates the parents whose children have been victims in those situations.
“People who cry wolf when molestation hasn’t happened are making it bad for kids who really are abused,” said Gina (not her real name), a former North Texas resident whose daughter says she was molested by her father. The outcry came in the midst of a custody battle that’s been going on since the girl, now eight, was only about a year old. There will apparently be no prosecution in her daughter’s case, a fact that enrages Gina.
Gina and her husband were married in 1991 and separated five years later. A Tarrant County judge gave them joint custody of their daughter, but said the girl should live with her father, in part because Gina worked night shifts.
In June 2002, Gina said, her daughter told her that her father had molested her at his home in Crowley and at a hotel in San Antonio where they had gone to see a Britney Spears concert. Gina said her daughter’s genital area was swollen and red and the girl was in pain. Her daughter also said her father had shown her pictures of naked young girls on his home computer. Efforts to contact him for comment for this story were unsuccessful.
Since then, various medical and psychological examinations of the girl have concluded that she was abused. But the young girl, who has begun to have serious psychological problems, was confused about exactly where she and her father were when the abuse occurred. And she had become less cooperative with the numerous officials who interviewed her. Though the father was arrested, a Tarrant County grand jury declined to indict him. Gina’s repeated pleas for the case to be presented again were turned down. She said Bexar County prosecutors were even less helpful.
Gina’s case had too many red flags, particularly the custody battle, and the girl’s memory was shaky, said Bexar County assistant D.A. Michael Hoyle. “Based on the statements of the child and some other things in the file, there was not enough credible evidence that something occurred here in San Antonio,” he said. “If I don’t have enough evidence, I can’t present it to a grand jury.”
Hoyle has seen custody battles bring out the worst in parents. “Have I seen people get kids to lie? Yes,” he said. “Did this happen here? I don’t know. I’m not going to speculate. For me, it’s ‘Do I have enough credible evidence or not?’ I didn’t have enough.”
The girl accompanied her mother to the Weekly’s office in May. She was smiling and talkative until the conversation turned to her father. “I want him to go away,” she said. “I want to stay with Mama. He’s bad.” And then she held up both hands and said she would need all 10 fingers to count the times strangers have questioned her about her father. “I want to go home,” she said. “I don’t want to tell a thousand people.”
A few weeks ago, a court-appointed psychologist recommended that Gina’s ex-husband be given some visitation rights. Gina said her daughter has become hysterical and threatened to kill herself when told she might have to visit her father. So Gina moved to Alaska and took her daughter with her, in violation of court orders. “I’ve done everything I was told to do,” she said. For her and her daughter, “The system failed.”
Poe, who took over the crimes against children unit only a few weeks ago, makes no excuses for cases that are not prosecuted. “If I have doubts [about a defendant’s guilt],” he said, “either I won’t take the case, I recommend a no bill, or I dismiss it.” But because of jurors’ fears that “a young victim might be coached,” he makes it a practice to minimize prosecutors’ interviews with young victims. And, he said, videotaping of interviews and improved procedures among all the agencies that deal with abused children have lessened the chances that young victims will have to tell their stories over and over and that testimony will be tainted.
He brings the young witnesses to a courtroom, he said, and asks them innocuous questions. “I usually only speak with them about the offense one time,” he said. “If I make the decision that a child will be able to communicate [on the witness stand], sometimes I don’t even ask them about the offense before they get on the stand.
“The jury likes that,” he said. “I tell them in my opening statement, ‘You’re going to hear it for the first time, just like I’m going to.’”
Other molestation cases come to light only after all chances of prosecution have run out. Texas law, recognizing that it sometimes takes years for people to come to grips with having been sexually abused, gives such victims up until 10 years after their 18th birthday to make an outcry. After that time, the perpetrators cannot be prosecuted. Fort Worth real estate salesman Wirt Norris, for instance, cannot be prosecuted for most of his alleged molestations of young boys because the cases happened too long ago. As in Angela’s case, many of the men who say they were molested by Norris hid their abuse from their families for years.
American Airlines pilot John Stewart Delong of Bedford is scheduled to go to trial in October on four counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child. His alleged victims were girls as young as seven, neighbors or former neighbors lured by his backyard pool parties. Some of the assaults that victims have reported to police happened too long ago to be prosecuted, however.
Defense attorney William Harris said Delong “maintains he is completely innocent” and does not know why the accusations are being made. Harris said Delong’s accusers are the children of friends or lived nearby. “He did know the accusers in the sense that most are neighbors, and others are children of women he knew or children of former friends,” he said.
One neighbor said, “You find out that not all child molesters are people living under bridges, but older, wealthy white men. I guess my biggest prayer is that money doesn’t get him off the hook. I don’t think child molestation cases have been handled very well in the past. I think people who have money are considered ‘do-gooders’ in the community and are more likely to get off.”
The neighbor denied that her own daughter was one of Delong’s accusers. But Bedford police records and court documents identify the girl as one of his earliest known victims.
In Donihoo’s case, most of the men and women who say they were his victims will never get retribution through the courts because their cases happened too long ago. Angela said her mother did bring charges against Donihoo in Austin years ago, but that he received only a “slap on the wrist” — required counseling. However, no such criminal charges could be located against him in Austin or Leander, and an attorney who worked on the case said he believed it was handled as a civil matter.
Celena said that she remembers an attorney calling from Austin shortly after she had come back to Dallas to live with her mother, asking whether Celena would testify against her father. Linda said Celena didn’t want to go through it, and she didn’t want to force her to do so. Celena said a few weeks ago that she wished her mom had made her do it.
“It would have saved other little girls,” she said.
If prosecution can be a long time coming in child sexual molestation cases, recovery can take even longer. It took years for Celena to built back a relationship with her mother. And until she got some counseling about four years ago, she thought she was partly to blame for what her father had done to her, she said.
“Granny (Donihoo’s mother) didn’t believe” that her son could have done what Celena described. Even though the abuse started when she was five, she said, “what he did to me was said to be my fault, because I sat on his lap and wanted to wear tube tops.”
Even after Celena escaped to her mother’s house, her father continued to exert influence over her. He would tell her he was dying, she said, in order to get Celena and her sister to come see him. “I felt I had to be a part of his life, even though I knew what he did was wrong,” she said. “He was my father. I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.” When she was 22, they stayed in the same house as part of a family gathering, “and I woke up to find him fondling my breast,” she said. Donihoo told her, Celena said, that the things he’d done “weren’t wrong, that they were only wrong because society didn’t accept it. He told me, as I held my three-month old son in my arms, that his only regret was that I didn’t have a son by him.”
Celena also bore the deep suspicion that her father was continuing to abuse other girls, she said. She sent him a Father’s Day card four years ago, her last communication with him — and told him it was too bad that the sentiments in it weren’t true. The young girls whom Donihoo is now charged with molesting were already living with Donihoo and his wife. “I begged him, if he was molesting those two girls, not to,” she said.
Angela still hates to admit that Donihoo is her father. “It’s traumatic to know your dad is a monster,” she said. “It’s impossible ever to get over it. In your mind, you keep wondering whether you’re not a monster, too. You have that blood in you.”
Angela and Celina and the others feared that Donihoo was continuing to scar other young women’s lives. Becky recalled that, about 12 years ago, Donihoo wrote to say “that he’d married another woman and she had two pretty little girls. I thought, will that man ever be stopped?”
If the charges are true, he didn’t stop until they put him in jail. One of his ex sons-in-law said Donihoo kept suitcases full of pornographic pictures and videos and that he roamed the adult dating services and “swinger” sites on the web. Another in-law said Donihoo was always inviting people in to watch dirty movies with him, even while the young girls living with his family were traipsing through the room. She said he pinned her in a corner on one occasion, fondled her breasts, and tried to get her to kiss him.
So if and when Donihoo does come to trial, he may find a lot of familiar faces in the courtroom.
“I told myself a long time ago I wasn’t going to be a statistic,” Celena said. “I always told myself, I may not get to see it, but somewhere along the line he’s going to get what’s coming to him. You know what? I’m seeing it. He’ll probably die in jail. My sister and I have always talked about that. We said we would go to his funeral and then we’d dance on his coffin.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Prince and April Kinser.