Elsie Oscarson case summary, by Mark Pendergrast
On Dec. 3, 2004, I went to Courtroom 2A of the Chittenden County District Court in Burlington, Vermont, to attend a re-sentencing hearing for Elsie Oscarson, who had been convicted (falsely, I believe) of sexually abusing her two sons, Joey and Jesse, and had been sentenced to two concurrent sentences of 35 years to life. One of the convictions was then thrown out by the Vermont Supreme Court because one of the sons (Jesse) was not available to testify at the trial. This re-sentencing hearing was pretty much a foregone conclusion, since Judge Edward Cashman, who had presided and sentenced her in the original trial, was presiding. All he did was reaffirm the original sentence.
But there was something quite noteworthy and emotional about the hearing. Elsie Oscarson, born in 1961, has had eight children by three different men. While living in Tennessee in 1990, she and her partner were accused of grotesque sexual abuse, including animal sacrifice, and her three children were taken away from her. She was not prosecuted, but she lost custody of her children. She moved back to Vermont when her children were in foster care.
At the Dec. 2004 hearing, one of these older children testified. She and her adoptive mother had been flown from the state of Georgia to Vermont for this testimony (all at the expense of Vermont taxpayers). She is now 22 years old, a nursing student who works at a Cracker Barrel store in the state of Georgia. You could see the resemblance between the two women. Like her biological mother, Keri Edwards is somewhat fragile-looking, with pale skin and an aquiline nose. Elsie named her Jill, but she now goes by Keri Edwards.
Keri got up on the stand at the hearing and asked the judge to give her biological mother, Elsie Oscarson, the most severe sentence possible. She said that when she was seven or eight, Elsie and her partner Hugh "Butch" Roberts had forced her and her siblings to play "Ring Around the Rosie," in which they would choose different children to sexually abuse. They would force them to perform oral sex on the adults and on each other. Elsie and Butch would stick objects into their vaginas and anuses. They also stuck objects into the anus of a pet dog or cat – she apparently could not remember which type of pet they had. Keri said that years after Elsie had lost her children and moved to Vermont, Keri had learned that Elsie had come back to Georgia to stalk her and her brother, Joshua (now called John). That made her need extensive counseling again. (I gather she had a great deal of counseling years ago, when she was removed from her mother.)
Keri Edwards was a compelling witness, who spoke with assurance. The defense attorney did not cross-examine her. Her biological mother, Elsie Oscarson, did not speak during the entire proceedings. She was shackled heavily in chains, double wrapped around her body, her wrists tightly chained together.
Afterwards, I gave my card to Keri and her adoptive mother, Lisa Edwards, and said that I was a writer interested in this case, and I would like to talk to Keri. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I hope so.
Later that afternoon, from the lawyer’s office, I was able to have a phone conversation with Elsie Oscarson, who was being held in Vermont before she was shipped out of state again to continue her imprisonment in Framingham, Massachusetts. She said that her daughter, whom she continues to call Jill, clearly believed what she was saying, but that none of it was true. For instance, she did not even own a pet during that time in Tennessee.
I first met Elsie Oscarson in 2001, after I read an article in the Burlington Free Press about her sentencing. Judge Cashman had called her crime "heinous" and had sentenced her to a minimum of 35 years in prison, with the possibility of life in prison if she were not considered rehabilitated through sex offender treatment. I had followed the case somewhat in the papers, but this really got my attention. The sentence seemed so harsh – much worse than for many murders. Elsie was being held in the Chittenden County Correctional Center, not far from where I live, so I went to visit her.
I visited her many times and heard her side of the story in great detail, but I was never allowed to take any notes. The prison refused to allow me to bring in a notepad or, as I would have preferred, my laptop. (I sued through the ACLU over this, since the superintendent had allowed other Vermont journalists to interview prisoners and take notes, but the lawyer assigned by the ACLU eventually decided not to press the case.) But I compiled a large file of material, from court records and from material Elsie had collected and given to her sister Janice. I spoke to Janice and corresponded with another sister, Karen, as well. I met with Dr. George Brown, a pediatrician who is convinced of Elsie’s innocence. And I interviewed the two day care providers to whom the children in Vermont initially "disclosed," and who were at the heart of the case.
I have tried for years now to get a Vermont journalist interested in writing about this case, but I have failed.
Here is a summary of the case.
Elsie Oscarson is the seventh of eight children of Alice and Cecil Oscarson. She was born in 1961. Her father worked in the tooling department at IBM in Essex Junction, Vermont, and her mother was once a telephone operator. Both parents were alcoholics and both are now deceased. In order, their children are: Paul, Donald, Karen, Janice, Kevin, Frank, Elsie, and Gail.
When Elsie was a teenager, she began a relationship with Mike Savo, a "wild kid," according to Janice Oscarson. She would sneak out her bedroom window to see him. She became pregnant by him when she was 18 years old, and her parents sent her to the Lund Home, a local facility for unwed teen mothers. In 1981, she had Joshua, her first child, followed by Jill, who was also fathered by Mike Savo, who made no attempt to support her. She lived on welfare in her own apartment.
As an overview, Elsie eventually had eight children by three men, in this order: Joshua (born March 7, 1981), Jill (born July 30, 1982), Jamie (born April 11, 1989), Joey (born Sept. 15, 1990), Jesse (born Sept. 29, 1991), Brittany, (born July 12, 1993), Brandon (born Oct. 20, 1996), and Brandi (born March 27, 1998).
Elsie’s older sister Janice was close to her in those early years of motherhood. "Her oldest is three weeks older than my oldest," Janice recalls. "I thought she was a better mother than me – more patient. She would sit and read to them, play with them. But her apartment was a mess. Elsie always loved kids, but she was too stupid to go on birth control. She was good with her kids, but too lenient."
Elsie then met Hugh "Butch" Roberts, and became pregnant again, with Jamie. With Butch and the three children, Elsie moved to Florida, back to Vermont, and then to Tennessee.
Hugh Roberts’ mother lived in Tennessee. According to Elsie, in 1990, Jill told her that Hugh Roberts had tried to molest her. Believing this, Elsie turned Hugh in to the Tennessee Department of Social Services (DSS). The charges against Hugh were dropped because Jill said that Hugh’s mother had prompted her to say that, and that it wasn’t true.
But the children were subsequently removed from their home anyway, because DSS investigators found that their apartment (in the top of a garage) was unsafe, since it had no windows and only one exit. They moved to an unfinished cabin, which had inadequate wiring. The children were then removed. It is not clear how the subsequent sex abuse allegations arose, whether through foster parents or DSS personnel. However they arose, in March 1990, the Tennessee DSS accused both Elsie and Hugh of grotesque sexual abuse, although official charges were never made. Unfortunately, I do not have access to those records. The closest I come is a 1996 affidavit by Linda Carey, a Vermont police officer, which has this in it:
The Vermont Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services received a report on 10/27/93 from Virginia Senore of the Chattanooga Tennessee Department of Child Protection Services stating that Elsie Oscarson and Hugh Roberts…lost custody of their three children…for neglect. "After the children were placed they disclosed ‘horrendous abuse’ by both Hugh and Elsie – stated ‘it’s some of the worse we have on record.’ – involved intercourse, use of masks, abuse by mutiple parties – said Hugh would bring in his ‘motorcycle gang friends.’ Children are extremely damaged – totally out of control, particularly around Halloween due to type of abuse used….Guardian Ad Litem, Karen Broadway Petosa, of Tennessee concludes, ‘Based on the children’s statements…Elsie had participated in the abuse and watched as the children were abused."
There are other anecdotal accounts that indicate classic satanic ritual abuse accusations, involving animal sacrifice, worship of the devil, and the like. I heard this from the Vermont day care workers (later in this narrative) and from Janice Oscarson, Elsie’s sister, who heard it from Elsie, who saw some of the documents but does not have copies.
I believe that this Tennessee case, and how it came about, is crucial to understanding how Elsie Oscarson came to be accused the second time in Vermont. Bearing in mind that in 1990, the satanic ritual abuse scare was at its height, and that there has never been any evidence that such accusations had any basis in reality, it is very unlikely that the accusations against Elsie and Hugh were true. Ideally, we could find out how many times and by whom these children were interviewed, and we could find all of the records of the case.
Jump to July 1995. Suzanne Dupont, who ran the Field of Dreams Day Care, and her employee, Jennifer Dawson, had been complaining to Vermont Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS) for months that Joey and Jesse, then 4 and 3 years old, and Brittany, 1 (all of whom began attending day care there in November 1994), were being neglected and should be removed from Elsie Oscarson’s home. Her boyfriend of the time was Tony Mayette. Finally, that August, the children were removed and were given as foster children to Dupont and Dawson (each took a child).
In the meantime, the Tennessee authorities took it upon themselves to let Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS) in Vermont know about the Tennessee accusations. Now SRS notified the day care owner about the Tennessee allegations, apparently in some detail. Until then, the day care workers, Suzanne Dupont and Jennifer Dawson, thought that Elsie was a loving mother but that her children were wild and neglected. Now it occurred to them that Elsie and Tony may have been molesting the children as well.
While in Dupont’s custody, on Aug. 15, 1995, Jesse, the three-year-old, had diarrhea and complained that his "bumbum" hurt, and Dupont said that he said, "Mommy hurts my bumbum, she throws a hammer at it. Mommy hurts my peepee. She pinches it and bites it and pulls it. It hurts my peepee and bumbum."
Dupont then told Dawson about this, and she soon elicited similar stories from Joey. Both Jesse and Joey also said (all of this is hearsay from the day care workers) that "Tony puts his peepee in my bum bum."
That, basically, is the case. I have affidavits from Dupont, Dawson, and Policewoman Linda Carey from August and September 1995. Because Brittany was too young to talk, charges involving her were never filed. For inexplicable reasons, charges were never filed against Tony, the boyfriend, and he never testified either.
In one of the early case files I have (not signed, but I believe it is by Linda Carey), there is a report of an interview with Joey, which says:
Joey is an intelligent five-year-old male child [he turned five shortly after the allegations arose]. He can identify colors and count. He understands the difference between truth and lie, although at times he can be observed to have a smirking facial expression, answers incorrectly, and states "kidding." He is highly energetic and difficult to keep on track with answering questions when he would clearly rather play with toys.
It is really unfortunate that these sessions were not videotaped. The interview notes about Jesse, Joey’s younger three-year-old brother, read:
In speaking with Jesse we were able to determine that Jesse does not know colors. He knows his name and stated his age is three. He was unable to count, counting fingers 1…2…4. He is able to readily distinguish between truth and lie. Jesse clearly stated that "Mom sucked on pee…pulled it. She drinks from pee. Hit pee with a hammer." He stated this happened many times. He was in his bedroom with Brittany, his younger sister. Jesse stated that his "pee" is "where go toilet."
Dr. Joseph Hagan, a pediatrician, examined the children a month after the allegations arose. He found "the genitalia and rectum were completely normal." Nonetheless, Hagan concluded: "In summary, none of the Oscarson children show any physical findings consistent with sexual misuse. All of them have worrisome stories, most notably Jesse’s. Given the story as I have heard it, I have little doubt that Jesse was subjected to sexual misuse and I have almost equal concern concerning his siblings, Joey and Brittany."
The children were also interviewed on Aug. 30, 1995, by Lee Rosen, a psychologist who was at the time a doctoral candidate at the University of Vermont. When Rosen asked what made Joey mad or sad, he reportedly responded, "Mommy licks my peepee," pointing to his penis. This seems highly unlikely, unless Joey had already been well rehearsed. Rosen concluded: "Children are capable of giving reliable, truthful accounts of their experiences. However, it is also the case that young children can be led to making false statements. With this in mind, I cannot be completely sure that Joey is reporting accurately about his mother’s behavior. Nonetheless, it seems implausible that Joey would manufacture these stories without some pressure from someone. And if anything, he seems to have experienced pressure from his mother to keep these things secret. Therefore, it seems likely that he experienced some form of sexual abuse from his mother."
Elsie Oscarson has consistently maintained her innocence. Over the years before her 2001 trial – a convoluted series of legal maneuvers involving several different lawyers and judges – she turned down plea agreements that would have let her go free for time served. She has refused to take part in sex offender treatment because that would involve admitting guilt. She will, therefore, probably never be parolled, even after the mandatory 35 years she is serving.
I do not know what Elsie’s IQ is. I suspect that it is rather low. Yet she is cogent and tells the same story every time I have talked to her. Indeed, she seems to be one of the most straight-forward, honest people I have met. For instance, she told me (and the judge) in a matter-of-fact way about how she took a gun to a parking lot and waited for an SRS employee to come out so that she could shoot her. (Background: After the allegations arose, Elsie had two more children, both of whom were taken by the state at birth. Elsie was going to shoot the woman who did this but changed her mind.)
There are two other important wrinkles to the case. In 1993, Hugh Roberts was accused and convicted of molesting Janice Oscarson’s (Elsie’s older sister) daughter when she was twelve, and this is almost certainly true. According to Janice, Roberts admitted having put his hand down her pants. He said that she had claimed to have pubic hair, and he bet she didn’t, and he was just checking. It is possible that Roberts also molested Elsie’s daughter, Jill. Recall that it was Elsie’s suspicion that this was the case that began the tragedy in Tennessee.
The other wrinkle involves Elsie "stalking" her older children in Tennessee and Georgia in 1998. She and Hugh Roberts traveled there to find Josh and Jill, since Elsie was convinced that they would vouch for her and would explain that she was a good, loving mother. She wanted them to testify in her Vermont case. She and Roberts were caught, and Elsie was thrown in prison back in Vermont, where she remained until her trial.
I interviewed George Brown, a pediatrician who got to know Elsie Oscarson in 1990, when she came to Parents Anonymous in Vermont. He believes that Elsie is innocent. Elsie wanted him to testify at her trial, but her lawyer did not call him. Brown (who now lives in Kenya) told me:
I’ve done lots of sex abuse exams, and usually I’m on the other side, for the prosecution. I don’t know for sure whether Elsie did it or not. I can tell you, I tend to believe her because she has over and over refused to take a plea, when it was the sensible thing to do. Here’s my impression of her. She was a simple single mom on welfare who really liked small children. I expect she was giving some attention she didn’t get when she was smaller. It’s a typical pattern. She was with people who used her. She was probably pretty naïve. She just didn’t see it. Her kids were not in the best circumstances, somewhat neglected, but she kept getting better. She was very consistent with good medical care. I have seen many mothers more irresponsible than Elsie. She was doing the best she could and was trying to change, I sincerely believe.
There is no question that this is a messy case. Elsie Oscarson appears to have been a loving mother but neglectful and incapable of disciplining her children. It may be a good thing that her children were taken from her. (Note, however, that she was exhausted and ill during the time her children were at the day care. She needed and received open heart surgery soon thereafter.) But I do not think she molested any of her children, and she is serving a potentially life-long sentence for something she did not do. She is now incarcerated in Massachusetts, supposedly because Vermont does not have a sex offender treatment program for women. She reports that her life is often threatened in the Massachusetts prison, where convicted child molesters are not treated well. She has no support system. Her sister Janice, who lives in northern Vermont, can visit only infrequently.
Elsie’s public defender did a terrible job of defending her. He called no defense witnesses. He called no expert witnesses. He decided not to explore the Tennessee allegations, undoubtedly thinking that they were a can of worms that would make things worse. But I believe this was a serious mistake. He should have gotten all of the Tennessee DSS files as part of the discovery process and then used them to show how these false allegations arose in 1990, and how they then led to the false allegations in 1995 in Vermont.
There seems to have been an early tape recording of one of the children, according to one of the police documents I have, relatively soon after the allegations arose, but it was never entered into evidence, and I doubt it still exists. Other than that, none of the multiple interviews with the children were recorded. By the time Joey testified in July 2001, his testimony was meaningless, since six years had elapsed since the allegations had arisen and since he had seen his mother. In other words, he was four years old at the time of the allegations, and when he testified, he was ten. Other than that, the entire case was built on hearsay evidence.
Of Elsie’s siblings, only Janice has been her staunch defender. Her sister Karen believes that Elsie is probably guilty but that she has a "split personality." In other words, she believes that Elsie has multiple personality disorder and that she is so sincere and convincing when maintaining her innocence because she really does believe she is innocent and does not remember what her other "alternate personality" did. I told Karen that MPD was, in my well-considered opinion (I wrote a chapter about it in Victims of Memory) not a real disorder. If Elsie did all these of terrible things, she would remember them quite well.
Put in the perspective of what I now know, the testimony I heard from her daughter Jill (Keri) was very sad indeed. According to Elsie, in 1991 she went to visit her older children in Tennessee when she still had visiting rights, shortly after they had been put in foster care. She could only visit with a social woker present. According to Elsie, Jill said to the social worker, "I don’t know what I’m supposed to say. I know my mother didn’t molest me, but that’s what you say." At that point, the social worker said, "This visit is over" and ushered her out of room.
Now it appears that Jill/Keri has incorporated well-rehearsed "memories" of abuse that never occurred, and she deeply believes that her mother did these things to her.