Lisa Wall says she will always remember the children, but will never understand what led the parents to such abuses.
Published September 16, 2005
INVERNESS - From her first glance at the Dollar children, sheriff's Detective Lisa Wall knew something wasn't right.
Several looked tiny. The 14-year-old twins appeared to be only 7 or 8. They weighed 36 and 38 pounds.
"When I first saw the children, my first impression was, "Oh my gosh!' " she said Thursday.
The kids told her they were tortured, but it wasn't until she saw a cattle prod pulled from a drawer in the Dollars' Pine Ridge home that she began to understand the horrors involved. It was then she realized the case of John and Linda Dollar would be the one case that would keep the seasoned detective awake at night.
"It blew me away, honestly," she said.
Normally soft spoken and camera shy, Wall sat down with reporters the day after the Dollars pleaded no contest to charges of aggravated child abuse and agreed to serve 15-year prison sentences. She felt compelled to do it.
"Can you tell I'm, like, nervous?" she said moments before the television cameras were turned on.
Wall wasn't a novice to heinous crimes when she was assigned to the case. She has worked in law enforcement for nearly 22 years. Twenty of those years have been spent investigating crimes against children.
But the Dollar case was different. The magnitude of the abuses - the Dollars shocked five of their eight adopted children with a cattle prod, pulled out their toenails with pliers and hit them with hammers - surprised her.
Among the questions she's asked herself:
How could such awful abuses escape notice for so long? Is this an isolated case or are other children in the community facing torture, too?
And, most puzzling of all, when and why did the Dollars change from caring parents to cruel ones?
Wall said she felt obligated to speak out Thursday to explain why the Dollars were offered a deal that gave them each only 15 years in prison. If convicted on all counts at trial, they each would have faced 150 years.
"Would I have liked to see them get 150 years?" she said. "Absolutely."
The decision was made for the children, she said.
The Dollar children, who range in age from 13 to 17, are in therapy. Several are in a residential treatment program outside of the county, while others are in foster care. Some have stopped using "Dollar" as their last name, she said.
"They're doing pretty well," she said. "They're growing. The children look absolutely wonderful."
But the kids still feel somehow responsible for the pain their parents inflicted, she said.
She credited the Dollars' oldest adopted daughter, Shanda Rae Shelton, 26, with providing comfort and support to her siblings. Shelton moved out of the Dollar home a few years ago. She now has a child of her own and battled in court to be able to visit her brothers and sisters.
The kids were scheduled to testify privately, with a videotape of the testimony showed later to the jury. The Dollars' defense attorney, Charles Vaughn, was fighting that arrangement.
Wall said she worried Vaughn might win, forcing the children to face their parents. Even if the kids could testify by videotape, she worried about the impact of having to relive the abuses.
"These children need to move on with their lives," she said.
One thing she still doesn't understand is what went wrong in the Dollar home. From the Dollars' explanation, she said, it seems they twisted biblical principles to justify torture.
"I think in their mind they were following the Bible," Wall said.
Several acquaintances of the Dollars' have described them as deeply religious.
In 1999, the couple opened a private Christian school called Mountain View Christian Academy in Strawberry Plains, Tenn. They attended the nearby Mount Harmony Baptist Church, where several of the children were baptized.
But shortly after opening the school, the Dollars left the church. They believed the world would end at the year 2000 and became angry when Pastor Bruce Martin refused to agree, he said.
After that point, details on the inner workings of the family are sketchy. But at their sentencing, the Dollars said they tried to follow God's principles in teaching the children.
"We are sorry that the children are hurt," John Dollar said. "We are firm believers in the God almighty ... because of those principles we were led to do certain things."
It's possible no one will ever understand what went wrong, Wall said.
"I think, genuinely, in their own strange way, (the Dollars) do love these children," she said.
Now the case is resolved, she's hoping the community can begin to heal from the trauma of the Dollar case as well as the slaying of Jessica Lunsford.
She's also hoping for healing for herself. She plans to keep in touch with the Dollar children, to make sure they're doing well.
Whatever happens, she said, she won't forget them.