Guilty until proven innocent!
by Barbara Karkabi
In August and September of 1978, four
counselors at the Family Connection, an
emergency shelter for youth in crisis,
were arrested and accused of sexually
abusing several children who had stayed
at the shelter. Their ordeal lasted almost a
full year, before they were found innocent of all charges.
One of the counselors was a 31-year-
old women named Sue Jean Bennett.
Bennett's case stands out from the other
three because it was her cause that rallied
the lesbian community. The male homosexual community was almost totally indifferent to the plight of the three men.
On the afternoon of August 28, 1978
Bennett was moving to a new apartment.
She had just taken her roommate to work
and had gone home to pack a few remaining belongings.
"I looked out the window and saw
several police cars, but didn't think too
much about it because they were always
in the neighborhood," she says. "But, all
of a sudden there they were, knocking at
the door and presenting me with a warrant which said I had sexually abused a
child at the Connection."
None of the officers involved were able to comment on any allegations made
by the four defendants, under their lawyers' instructions.
Officers Yarborough, Freeman and Mayes and the City of Houston are currently
being sued by James Bond in a federal civil rights case.
According to the suit, Bond alleges that he was deprived of his privileges and
constitutional rights by the officers.
D. Reid Walker, lawyer for the three police officers, said that an answer had
been filed denying the charges and stating that Yarborough, Freeman and Mayes
had acted in good faith as police officers.
the sewer and back," Bennett recalls.
"They did everything possible to humiliate me."
When it became apparent that Bennett
would not confess any charge, she was
sent for a strip search, booked and placed
in a cell with three other women. She was
still dressed in her halter top and running
After three hours in jail, Bennett was
allowed her first phone call. She called
Jim Horwitz, a lawyer friend, and found
out that other friends were trying to raise
bail for her.
Later on that evening, a matron
"I just felt like I had been on a trip to the
sewer and back. They did everything possible to
There were no specifics on the warrant,
Bennett adds, and she was never read her
rights. In fact, she says, it was months before she knew the state's actual charges
The officers who presented Bennett
with the warrant were three Houston police officers from the Juvenile Division,
Sexual Exploitation Detail — Officers
Ralph Yarborough, Johnny Freeman, and
When Bennett asked Freeman if he
had the legal right to search her home
without a search warrant she said he replied, "Sit down and shut up or I'll treat
you like a man and knock you down."
"I wasn't really frightened," Bennett
says. "But I was in a total state of shock.
It's very difficult for me to dislike anyone,
but I really felt that those officers, especially Freeman, were cold, calculating and
Bennett was dressed in a pair of running shorts and a halter top and had no
change of clothes at her apartment. She
was never given the opportunity to go
back to change her clothes.
"It was terribly humiliating because I
had to parade around in front of all those
men in the jail," she says, "and besides
that it was terribly cold in both the city
and county jails."
At the city jail, Mayes questioned
Bennett and attempted to get her to confess, even though Bennett says she was
still not sure of her crime.
"He kept trying to be friendly and
would repeat the statement that he had
nothing against homosexuals," she recalls.
"I just told him I didn't know what he
was talking about. I also told him to look
at the child who had made the accusation
and examine her record. She was known
for distorting the truth."
After searching Bennett's purse, Mayes
pulled out a photograph of a woman and
commented on how "good-looking" the
woman was. She claims he said "I wouldn't mind having a piece of that."
"I just felt like I had been on a trip to
brought warmer clothes to her cell. Ben-
net says she had to undress and hand her
clothes through the bars before she could
receive the new clothes. At midnight, she
was transferred to the county jail.
Meanwhile, Bennett's friends learned
of her arrest when the 6 p.m. news broadcast her photograph across the city and
announced that 31-year-old Sue Jean
Bennett, a Family Connection counselor,
was in jail on a felony charge of sexual
abuse of a child.
Within one hour, Bennett's friends began to gather at a house in Montrose.
Each person dropped cash on the coffee
table and sat down to discuss the arrest.
Bond was set at $5,000 and $750 in
cash was needed for bail. By 9 p.m. that
night The Sue Bennett Fund had been organized to raise bail and legal defense
funds. By midnight there was $750 on
the coffee table and at 4 a.m. Bennett
was released from the county jail.
"I guess that's what I remember the
most out of the whole experience." Bennett says, "It's really hard to get a positive experience out of being in jail but I
think I did. The way the lesbian community supported me and came up with those
funds really meant a lot to me."
with HPD has been strained in the past.
"I believed they felt we harbored runaways," she says, "and they often looked
askance at us because we were not the
usual social workers, and that's true."
The Family Connection is an emergency shelter and residential treatment program that has provided services to more
than 2,000 children since its founding in
1970, Bennett says.
It was founded by eight people from
the Montrose community who realized
the severity of the runaway problem and
the dangers for a child on the street.
According to Carl Boaz, director of
the Connection, the home was founded
on the principle that runaway children
could work out their problems with a
mediator. Staff members functioned as
mediators. They listened to both sides of
the argument and encouraged parents and
children to try to reach a compromise.
For the first six months, all workers at
the home received no pay except for free
food which was supplied by donations
from local churches. After that, Boaz says,
a large donation from a local business
made it possible for the staff to receive
$30 a week for their work.
Soon, professional volunteers from the
Texas Research Institute for Mental Sciences began training the staff in individual, group, family and drug counseling.
The girl had been asked to leave because, according to Bennett, who was her
counselor, she was extremely disruptive
and hostile. The decision to ask her to
leave was a staff decision, Bennett says.
In the girl's statement to JP Officer
Maggie Hineman, she claimed that Bennett had taken her to gay bars and had
given her gay books. Juvenile Judge Criss
Cole instructed Hineman to take a formal
Later, in Bennett's trial, Hineman
would testify that the girl did not claim
any sexual indecency or abuse by Bennett
in this statement or in any conversation
that Hineman had with her.
Later that year, Boaz was called to juvenile probation and told about the accusations made by the girl. Boaz says that
the administrator did not believe the statements but he warned him that "one never
knows where something like this might
"In July, another administrator named
Jack Murray called me and asked what I
had done about Bennett and if I still had
'gay' people on the staff," Boaz recalls.
"When I told him we did, he said this
might be a problem for the Connection."
One week later, Boaz says, juvenile
probation caseworkers received a memo
telling them not to place children at the
Connection. The caseworker who told
Boaz said no reason was given, but it was
probably because some of the staff were
According to Officer Freeman's testimony during Bennett's trial, police began
an investigation of Family Connection after a phone call from Frank Salzhandler,
a former employee.
Bennett says that Salzhandler, a transient who claimed to be from New Orleans
by way of California, was hired by the
Connection because he had experience
"None of us had examining trials, and we
were indicted before we had a chance. I was treated from the first moment as if I were guilty and
would begin paying for it now."
In 1971 the home was licensed as an
emergency shelter by the Texas Department of Public Welfare. In 1976, the
home received a Child Placing Agency
and Foster Group Home License.
Bennett says she feels the police started investigating the Connection because
of two separate incidents. One involved a
child at the home and another former
worker, Frank Salzhandler.
In the spring of 1978, a 15-year-old
"I felt like the jury knew I was a homosexual
woman, but it didn't matter to them. There were
several women on the jury that didn't shudder at
the word 'homosexual'. I think they realized that
you would have to look far before you find abuse of
a child by a lesbian.1
Bennett says that it is hard to know all
the motivating forces behind Family Connection's investigation by HPD. She does
admit that the Connection's relationship
girl who had stayed at the home for two
months earlier in the year, made some
statements about Bennett to a juvenile
"Both (counselor) Richard Kellogg
and I voted against his hiring, so he was
placed on the staff for a probationary
period," Bennett says. "But it was a staff
decision to let him go after four weeks."
Among other things, Salzhandler made
sexual advances to female staff members
and when rejected, accused all the women
of being lesbians, Bennett says.
After he had been fired by FC, Salzhandler wrote an "expose" of the Connection and took it to the police, social
services agencies and the media. He took
the story to the Houston Post and the
University of Houston Daily Cougar, but
neither of them would pick the story up.
However, Freeman began an investigation of FC and Yarborough re-interviewed the girl who had previously made
the statements about Bennett.
After a two-hour interview, the girl
gave Yarborough a one-page statement
accusing Bennett of sexually abusing her
on March 19, 1978, at the FC home.
Later, during Bennett's trial, the girl
explained she told the police more the
second time because the "police could see
there was more to the story." It was the
girl's second statement, according to the
police, which led to Bennett's first arrest