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Two suburban housemates turned in a neighbor who had fondled their dogs. They wound up in the kennel.
The design of Ansel Terrace makes it a world unto itself. A cul-de-sac nestled inside a new Germantown subdivision filled with red-brick town houses, it boasts a private playground and swimming pool. On a hot August afternoon, the driveways are mostly empty and the street is silent, save for the sound of children splashing in the pool.
Until this May, Jeffrey Bruette lived in this quiet, child-oriented community with his best friend, Brian Kuehn. Like Bruette, Kuehn worked as a computer consultant for Hughes Network Systems. As openly gay men with no children, they stuck out a little. But in many other ways, they were no different from their professional, mostly upper-middle-class neighbors.
Ansel Terrace, like most streets, has its share of troubled families. Bruette had befriended a neighbor from one such family, a 17-year-old who sometimes walked Bruette’s golden retriever and German shepherd. Once in a while, Bruette would take Aaron—not his real name—to lunch at the McDonald’s by the strip mall a few blocks away. And when school administrators at Northwest High School, just outside Ansel Terrace, threatened to expel the boy two years ago for truancy, Bruette pleaded with them to let Aaron stay. His efforts were for naught. The teen dropped out a week later.
Soon, Aaron became a frequent visitor to Bruette’s house. He played with Bruette’s dogs, watched Bruette’s television, or used one of Bruette’s two computers. Bruette saw his house as a haven for Aaron. And Aaron, by all accounts, came to look up to his neighbor—as his mom puts it—”like an older brother.”
But toward the end of January 1999, Bruette says, he began to become suspicious of his young friend. Aaron seemed startled each time Bruette—often working in his home office upstairs while Aaron hung out in the basement—came down into the room. Bruette and Kuehn both had expensive equipment lying around. Could Aaron be stealing?
Bruette says he decided to test his suspicions by setting up a small camera that he’d picked up at a technology trade show—a “nanny cam”—in the basement. Intended to let parents monitor baby sitters, such devices transmit live images to screens elsewhere. They also record them on tape.
On the evening of the day he installed the camera, a Friday, Bruette flipped on his monitor while Aaron was over. He says he couldn’t believe what he saw. Aaron wasn’t stealing. According to an Aug. 12 indictment statement and a civil suit against county officials later filed by Bruette and Kuehn, Aaron was having sex with the dogs.
Aaron “proceeded to masturbate the male shepard [sic], Sparky. He then removed his pants and attempted to have Sparky mount him, sexually. Sparky was uncooperative. [Aaron] then layed [sic] on top of the female golden retriever, Abby, until he ejaculated on her. He wiped her off with a paper towel and returned to the main level to watch TV,” Bruette would later describe the incident in a statement to Montgomery County Police.
According to the indictment and the lawsuit, Bruette and Kuehn, who was in the room with Bruette, watched in utter shock. At this point, some people would have run down to the basement, but Bruette says they were so flustered that they let the boy leave without saying a word to him about what they had seen.
By the time Aaron dropped by again on Saturday, Bruette and Kuehn still hadn’t figured out what to do. They say they tried to act as if nothing had happened. The next day, Bruette says, they flipped the hidden camera on again when Aaron descended into the basement. Friday’s events, they hoped, were just a one-time aberration. But Bruette says he saw more of the same.
“It was very surreal. It was something I might have heard or read about, but while I was watching the television, I kept thinking, ‘This was my basement!’” says Bruette. “What I felt wasn’t anger. It was more, ‘This is weird. What am I going to do now?’”
What Bruette did next—or didn’t do—led to his arrest a few months later on five counts of child abuse and child pornography. All of the charges but one were later dropped. But not before his neighbors panicked, Hughes fired him, and his 19-inch television disappeared during a police search. (Hughes officials did not return phone calls.) Earlier this month, Bruette and Kuehn filed their federal civil lawsuit against two Montgomery County Police Department detectives, the police department, an assistant state attorney, the county, and the county executive. They are seeking $8 million in damages.
It took a while for Bruette and Kuehn to turn their shock into action. During February 1999, they went away to Palm Springs, Calif., for a funeral, and then on to L.A., San Diego, Houston, and Miami for business. In the meantime, they turned to friends and co-workers for guidance. The consensus was that the pair should talk to Aaron or his parents, or go to the authorities. But they were reluctant to go to Aaron’s parents. Bruette says that Aaron had complained that his father, a convicted thief with a history of drug abuse, was unstable. The whole neighborhood was aware of Aaron’s family’s problems—which was one reason Bruette had gone out of his way to befriend the teen in the first place.
Bruette and Kuehn resolved to speak to Aaron alone as soon as they got back to town. They next saw Aaron in early March. The first thing Bruette said to him was “We need to talk.”
Bruette tried to coax a confession out of Aaron, but Aaron played coy about what had been going on. “You, Sparky, and Abby having sex in the basement?” Bruette finally suggested. According to both housemates, Aaron merely replied, “Oh, that.” They told him he needed help and that what he had done was wrong, says Bruette. (Aaron told police that the two adults “didn’t say it was wrong.”)
“Can I use your computer now?” Aaron asked, once the conversation had wound down. The housemates let him. But when he was done using the machine, which sits upstairs, Aaron left the house for what would be the last time. After that, Bruette says, the teen stopped dropping by.
The next time the housemates ran into Aaron was at a pet store where, it turned out, he was working. Aaron ignored them. After that, Bruette says, he let the matter drop: “I didn’t know what else to do.”
Bruette found an avenue for action that June while flipping through the Germantown Gazette. The paper made reference to Guide Youth Services, a group that offers counseling to troubled children and youth. Bruette says he thought it was a county agency, so he called and described Aaron’s behavior to a counselor. The counselor told him that the boy’s actions indicated that he might have been a victim of sexual abuse. She also told Bruette there was nothing her group could do without a referral from the police or the boy’s parents.
The next day, says Bruette, Aaron’s sister, then 15, came by Bruette’s place to ask for a ride to a friend’s house. Worried that Aaron might have been sexually abused, Bruette asked her to have her mother call him right away. When the girl—whose name is being withheld to protect her identity—pressed him about why he needed to talk to her mother, Bruette says, he told her about her brother’s behavior.
To Bruette’s surprise, he says, the girl was unfazed. In fact, she told him that she had seen her brother do the same thing to an aunt’s dog, and went on to tell a story that troubled Bruette even more. Within hours, Bruette and Kuehn were at the Germantown police station to turn the tape over to authorities.
A couple of weeks into the police investigation, Bruette took a seat on a couch inside a Wheaton police station interrogation room. Detective Errol Birch, an investigator with the Montgomery County Police Department’s Family Services Division, questioned him about the video. Another detective, Donald Inman, took notes from a nearby armchair. The police were sympathetic at first, and Bruette assumed they were trying to help him help Aaron.
But when Birch asked Bruette whether he’d had sex with the teen, it became clear to Bruette that the investigators had a different agenda—and that he himself was being accused of a sex crime.
“He was in my face yelling, ‘You know something is going on between you and [Aaron]!’ I told him, ‘No! I never touched him!’” Bruette says. “I asked him, ‘Do I need to get a lawyer?’”
On Aug. 12, 1999, the police charged Bruette and Kuehn with four felonies, punishable by up to 15 years in prison: child abuse, production of child pornography, possession of porn “depicting an individual under 16 years of age,” and child-porn distribution. They also charged him with one count of “contributing to the conditions of a child in need of supervision and assistance,” a misdemeanor carrying up to three years in prison. (Police most commonly use the last charge in cases involving neglected children.)
Birch applied for an arrest warrant for the housemates. They turned themselves in to the police on Aug. 16 and were promptly locked up. They wound up spending the night in the Montgomery County Detention Center.
Aaron, meanwhile, had insisted to Birch that Bruette had never touched him, according to Birch’s notes from his interview. Aaron also fully admitted that he had tried to have sex with Bruette’s dogs. Aaron told Birch that, just as Bruette and Kuehn had had no idea what he was doing, he had had no idea that they had put a camera in the basement. Aaron, who told police that he lost his virginity at age 10, also told Birch that he had engaged in other troubling sexual behavior.
The fact that Aaron had a history of sexually inappropriate behavior figured less prominently in Birch’s charging documents than the fact that Bruette was gay. On the first page, Birch noted that Bruette had gone to Aaron’s mother and told her “that he was a homosexual and that his partner also resided at the residence.” Bruette and Kuehn say that they are not a couple.
Birch went on to report that Aaron had told him he had had sex with the dogs because “he wanted to know what it was like to be homosexual.”
Bruette’s case, in fact, is not the first time Birch seems to have found adult sexual misconduct where it wasn’t. Last February, Birch conducted the initial interviews with eight middle school students who accused their gym teacher of sexually touching some of them. He continued to believe the girls even after he and other investigators began to find holes in their stories.
“They stuck to their guns,” Birch told the Washington Post in March. “They seemed credible.” When one of the kids told the truth, the rest confessed. Four have been found guilty of fabricating allegations against the teacher. Three others are still awaiting trial.
Before Bruette and Kuehn turned themselves in to police, they had received nothing but support from their supervisor at Hughes. But after getting out of jail, Bruette learned that company officials had canceled the firm’s contract with them. A co-worker, he says, told him that the reason was that Birch had called the personnel office. “[Birch] told me that he would see to it that [Bruette’s] job knew what he had done,” recalls Aaron’s mother.
According to Montgomery County Police Department spokesperson William O’Toole, it is not department policy to notify employers when an employee has been arrested and charged with a sex crime. Birch did not return calls seeking comment. The county attorney’s office is representing the police department in Bruette and Kuehn’s suit and would not comment on pending litigation.
Adding insult to injury, the police searched the duo’s house while they were in prison and took a number of items as possible evidence, including the 19-inch TV and videotapes, such as the movie Batman and Abbott and Costello episodes. Most of the items were later returned, with the exception of the television, which police told Bruette was “missing.”
This past Feb. 17, Bruette stood in front of Circuit Court Judge DeLawrence Beard in Rockville awaiting his fate. The state had dropped all charges against Kuehn and all charges against Bruette, save one. Bruette agreed to plead guilty to the charge of contributing to the conditions of a child in need of assistance.
Prosecutors had insisted that Bruette plead guilty to the misdemeanor charge because he hadn’t gone to the police immediately. The statute defines a child in need of assistance as one who is under 18 years of age and “is not receiving ordinary and proper care and attention,” and whose “parents, guardian, or custodian are unable or unwilling to give proper care and attention to the child and the child’s problems.”
“He failed to get this kid help,” Assistant State’s Attorney Alex Foster told the Montgomery Journal. “A reasonable person should have known he needed help.” (The state’s attorney’s office, the public prosecutor in Maryland, would not comment for this article, citing the pending civil suit.)
The state had a point: Bruette says he didn’t want to go to police initially because he didn’t want to get the boy in legal trouble. But he could have anonymously reported his concerns or turned over the tape to county social services. Guide Youth Services, which Bruette contacted in June, is not a county agency. Counselors there, however, could have referred him to a 24-hour hot line run by the county’s Child Protective Services agency. Bruette says they did not. (Guide Youth officials would not comment on the case, even though they aren’t named in the suit.)
“It appears from the record that this would not have even resulted in a criminal charge had you taken the same action sooner, but you didn’t, and so your responsibility in that connection as an adult—you fell somewhat short,” Beard said at the sentencing. He gave Bruette six months’ probation and told him that he would reconsider the sentence if Bruette asked him to do so in a few months. In July, Beard reduced Bruette’s sentence to “probation before judgment,” which meant that Bruette still had to complete his probation, but his conviction would be taken off his record.
Aaron was charged as a juvenile with “unnatural and perverted sex acts” and arrested by Birch on Aug. 13, 1999, according to the arrest report and a Montgomery Journal account. His trial is set for this September.
Bruette and Kuehn don’t come around Ansel Terrace much anymore. After finally finding new computer consulting jobs in May, they moved to Bensalem, Pa. Bruette plans to sell the Ansel Terrace residence. But Aaron’s family still lives on the street.
“That man has ruined my son’s life,” says Aaron’s mother, smoking a cigarette in front of her house on a recent Wednesday afternoon. She says Aaron is now working and is not looking forward to his court date. “He’d like to forget all that crap that happened. He’s ashamed and embarrassed. He wants to go into the service and get his GED and better himself, and all this is holding him back.”
By the time the state’s attorney dropped the charges against Kuehn and the more serious charges against Bruette, the neighbors were largely on Bruette’s side. “I don’t think people put a lot of blame on Jeff,” says Marilyn Balcombe, the outgoing president of the homeowners association. But she still holds Bruette partially responsible for the whole mess. “I blame Jeff for making bad decisions. He should have turned over that tape to police right away,” she says.
Bruette insists that he did the best he could in difficult and unusual circumstances. “I absolutely agree that from Day One, [Aaron] needed help. I sought the advice of co-workers and friends. After I addressed [Aaron] directly, I didn’t know where to go next. Guide Youth did nothing. I got a hands-off attitude from them. If anyone had investigated, he would have denied it. The real proof is the videotape, the very piece of evidence that blew up in my face.” CP