One weekend morning last May, I ordered a cup of coffee and sat down at a table to wait for my interviewees to arrive at the coffee shop. Yolanda Mah walked in, accompanied by a tall, chestnut-haired woman I'll call Jessica, which isn't her real name. They both smiled and Yolanda hugged me.
Yolanda had reached out to the Independent saying she needed to talk to someone about her ex-boyfriend, whom I'll call Jeff—also not his real name. Jeff had been arrested by Missoula police and charged with raping children. One of those children, now a teen, was Jeff's and Jessica's daughter. The Independent is disguising Jeff's and Jessica's real names to preserve the victim's privacy.
Over the next hour and a half, Yolanda and Jessica told me what it was like to find out that someone you know and trust has been molesting children. And they were furious with how Jeff's case had been handled by the justice system. Yolanda—mother to a child by another man—told me that while she dated Jeff, she came to suspect he was a pedophile, and reported him to police more than six months before he was arrested. Yolanda had seen recent headlines about other cases in which convicted child molesters received short or deferred sentences. Jeff initially pleaded not guilty, but by the time I met them, the women had both been told by the county attorney's office to expect a change of plea. Yolanda was afraid that the prosecutor's office was going to allow Jeff to make a plea deal instead of going to trial. Jessica said she wanted to see Jeff go to prison for the rest of his life for what he did to their child, who is identified as "Jane Doe 2" in court documents.
Both women had questions, and they wanted me to help them find answers. Why wasn't Jeff arrested sooner? Was Jeff going to be allowed to go free? Who could be held responsible for this child's suffering, and her mother's?
"Why? Why, why, why, why?" Yolanda asked.
Ever since, I have been seeking some understanding of why Jeff's case played out the way it did, trying to find answers to the questions that haunt Jessica and Yolanda. I didn't find any tidy answers or obvious solutions. But the story of this crime can illuminate how such devastating abuse can take place in everyday circumstances, how hard it is to secure satisfying convictions for even the most heinous acts, and how an almost impossible compassion may be the only helpful response to tragedy.
Why wasn't he arrested sooner?
Yolanda, an outgoing social worker and single mom, met Jeff on a dating website. He told her he was a single dad. They sometimes exchanged flirtatious, explicit texts late at night. Transcripts of the texts were later entered into the court record of a custody hearing for Jessica's daughter, Jane.
In his text messages from the summer of 2015, Jeff cajoled Yolanda to share "taboo" fantasies.
"How about you tell me something dirty nasty taboo?"
He explained that he liked to watch incest porn. He described fantasies of their children walking in on them while having sex. He asked Yolanda to describe erotic scenes including little girls.
"Oh. I don't find that sexy at all love and it is hard for me to even say that," Yolanda responded.
"I know but its just dirty talk [sic]. Not ever going to happen. Just a thought that could if we were not the way we r. K like... I mean if we weren't moral parents," he writes.
The text transcripts show Yolanda trying to steer the conversation away from Jeff's incest fantasies, but he keeps circling back to them.
"I know that stuff turns you on but I am really uncomfortable with that shit. It is just so fucked up to me," Yolanda responded.
Yolanda told me that she kept talking to Jeff, trying to see if he would confess to a crime. His texts grew increasingly graphic, describing Jane and other young girls in sexual situations with him. He texted about a fantasy of 10-year-old girls at a birthday party sleepover seducing him.
Yolanda, whose job requires her to report suspicions of abuse, says she had no qualms about breaking up with Jeff and taking her concerns to Child and Family Services and the police in September 2015. She felt sure that the texts were enough to get him arrested.
But she struggled with how to reach out to Jane's mom.
"I didn't know what to do, because I was like, this will tear these fucking lives apart," Yolanda says. She recounts this chronology during our second meeting, months after the first, around Christmas time. "O Holy Night" plays from overhead speakers. Beside her, Jessica sips a latte. An energetic, talkative woman in her late 20s, she wears carefully applied shimmery eyeshadow. She smiles at Yolanda.
"And I say, thank you for ruining our lives, because it had to happen," Jessica says. Then, to me: "I wouldn't have my kid right now. Before I met Yolanda, I started to take [Jane] to therapy. I was like, my kid is going to kill herself, and I don't know what's going on."
Jessica began dating Jeff when they were both teens. He got her pregnant when she was 16 and they broke up. She raised their daughter, Jane, alone until the girl was 2 years old. Suddenly, she says, Jeff reappeared in their lives, wanting to be a father. He signed an agreement that he would pay child support and help take care of Jane. (Jeff has at least one other child with another woman, who has previously filed demands for child support and custody, according to court records.)
Looking back, Jessica suspects that Jeff probably started abusing the girl soon after he came back into their lives. In elementary school, Jane exhibited major depressive and suicidal behavior, and threw tantrums in grocery stores and Walmart. She also showed physical symptoms of emotional trauma, including headaches, stomach aches and insomnia.
Before Yolanda came to her with the texts, Jessica says, she was desperately trying to understand what was causing her daughter's symptoms. Jane had not, at that point, told her mother about the abuse.
"We were seriously driving around Kalispell to get her to a pediatric neurologist just because she's getting all these migraines," Jessica says. "Every sign was there. I'm treating it, I'm trying to get it taken care of, and I'm kind of mad at the medical world for not being, like, 'Hey, we've seen this before.'"
While Jessica grappled with the revelation, Yolanda tried to get the attention of the authorities. Armed with the text messages, Yolanda thought she had clear-cut evidence for Jeff's proclivities. She says she repeatedly called the Missoula Police Department and Child and Family Services in September 2015 with her concerns. She remembers sitting in her car in a parking lot, dialing the CFS hotline every morning before she went into work. "Apparently when I reported 50 million times, they didn't care," Yolanda says. "Nobody called me back. Not one phone call back from them."
Yolanda isn't the first person to encounter little help from Montana Child and Family Services. Across the state, CFS agencies report being inundated, primarily with cases related to parental methamphetamine or heroin abuse. CFS is overseen by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services. In an emailed statement, DPHHS spokesman Jon Ebelt says calls to CFS go through an "intake specialist" who determines if follow-up is warranted. In 2016, the CFS hotline answered 35,226 calls, resulting in 9,154 investigations.
- illustration by Kou Moua
- Before Yolanda came to her with the texts, Jessica says, she was desperately trying to understand what was causing her daughter’s symptoms. Jane had not, at that point, told her mother about the abuse.
According to state statistics, only 30 percent of child abuse investigation paperwork was completed in a timely manner in 2015. That's down from 80 percent in 2010. A state report released in December 2016 found that from 2015 to 2016, 14 Montana children died within a year of abuse reports being filed. Representatives from the governor-appointed Protect Montana Kids Commission have told several media outlets that there's a "very wide, systemic problem" with CFS' effectiveness.
In a December 2015 custody hearing, Jessica asked a judge to bar Jeff from unsupervised contact with Jane. She submitted transcripts of Yolanda's text messages and included lengthy written testimony expressing her fears about Jeff's behavior. In response, the court granted the order and limited Jeff's access to the girl, though he and his parents were allowed to spend six hours with her on Christmas Day 2015. The judge expressed concern about Jeff's text fantasies and ordered a follow-up investigation by police. Jessica took Jane to the First Step Children's Advocacy Center, which conducts interviews of sexual assault victims in conjunction with the Missoula Police Department, among other services. A detective was present for the interview, according to court documents. Jessica says she wasn't allowed to be in the room.