BEVERLY HILLS, Fla. - When John and Linda Dollar were seeking to adopt more children a decade ago, social workers regarded them as model parents — well-to-do, well-meaning folks who raised their five children with love. Now the couple stand accused of monstrous acts against five of their eight children, who told investigators they were starved, shocked with a cattle prod, beaten with a hammer and had toenails yanked out with pliers.
John and Linda Dollar
Their emaciated bodies were compared by police to victims of Nazi concentration camps.
"This is probably the worst that I've seen," Citrus County Sheriff's Capt. Jim Cernich said. "Hitting their feet with rubber mallets and canes. Making them sleep in a closet."
John, 57, and Linda Dollar, 51, were arrested in Utah two weeks ago after authorities tracked their cell phone records. They were brought back to Florida to face aggravated child abuse charges.
The couple fled Florida ahead of a hearing with the Department of Children & Families, which put the children, ages 12 to 17, in foster care after the allegations surfaced.
The couple appeared briefly in court Sunday in Lecanto, where a judge denied them bail. Their attorney, Charles Vaughn, said they had been unaware of the charges against them and were returning to Florida when they were arrested.
He said the pair would defend themselves against the allegations and intend to tell their side of the story. "They're taking the case very seriously. They're tired, and they're fighting off a cold," Vaughn said Sunday after meeting with the Dollars after the court appearance.
Authorities discovered the alleged abuse Jan. 21, when the Dollars' 16-year-old son — weighing less than 60 pounds — was taken to the hospital with a head wound and red marks on his neck.
Well-educated and religious, the Dollars seemed to have the best of intentions in a 1995 state application to add to their brood of five adopted children by taking in three more.
"Adoption provided my wife and I the opportunity to extend our love to children we were not fortunate enough to have on our own," John Dollar said in the application. "We both found God sending us children who needed us and we needed them."
The Dollars live in a spacious home about 70 miles north of Tampa, drive a luxury SUV and own an upscale mobile home. He is a commercial real estate appraiser and she is a former businesswoman with a master's degree in education.
Any signs of abuse remained hidden because the couple moved frequently and their children were home-schooled. Neighbors said they never saw the children play outside.
After the 16-year-old was hospitalized this year, investigators found a cattle prod, a pair of pliers and what appear to be toenails in the home, which they say corroborate what the children told detectives.
"It's a tragedy, and I wish there was something we could've done sooner," DCF spokesman Bill D'Aiuto said. "But if we don't know about it, or if the school system doesn't know about it, or if a neighbor doesn't know about it ... there's nothing that us or law enforcement or anyone else can do to protect these children."
The agency has been rocked by a series of high-profile scandals, including the 2001 disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, who was placed in the care of a woman with a lengthy criminal record. The girl's disappearance went unnoticed until April 2002 because caseworkers did not make required checks on her.
State welfare workers stopped monitoring the Dollars after the former Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, the agency that preceded the troubled DCF, determined a decade ago the couple would make suitable parents.
In six months of home visits, background checks and interviews for the foster parent application, records show Linda Dollar revealed her own stories of abuse. She recounted being verbally and physically abused as a child and said her first marriage ended because her husband abused her, the documents said.
Caseworkers also had concerns the Dollars believed in spanking as a last-resort form of punishment. John Dollar had grown up on a farm where he said his father would spank the children "after giving us several opportunities to straighten up."
But he softened the stance in writing: "Never should a spanking physically harm or hurt a child. No other form of physical discipline is known to be acceptable by me."
That aside, caseworkers noted the Dollars seemed to be raising wonderful children — including Shanda, then 15, who had been adopted as an infant by Linda Dollar in a previous marriage.
Shanda wrote in a questionnaire provided by a social worker about how she loved children and was understanding like her mom and liked country music and pickup trucks like her dad.
This past week, Shanda Rae Shelton — now 25, married and out of the home — was denied visitation to her siblings after social workers said she participated in some of the abuse.
Shelton admitted she locked her brothers and sisters in closets and bathrooms as punishment, but she said she did so under threats of violence.
"John and Linda were overwhelmed," Shelton said. "That's no excuse. I can't say why they did what they did."
Associated Press writer Vickie Chachere in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.
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