Some stories never die. When I woke up last Saturday, September 30, and saw the front page story in the New York Times about the Florida congressman accused of hitting on the teenaged Washington pages, I couldn’t help but think of my old friend, Ken Wooden.
I met Wooden in the late 1970s, when he headed a Princeton-based nonprofit called the National Coalition for Children’s Justice. Wooden was in the news because he had gone to the scene of the Rev. Jim Jones’ mass suicides in Guyana and had determined that the “suicides” were really murders of innocent children. Jones, in his manipulative wisdom, had directed his followers to give the cyanide-laced Koolade to their children first. With the kids dying in front of them, the adults had no choice but to follow through with their own suicides.
I interviewed Wooden at his home in Yardley for People magazine. The photo that ran with the story showed Wooden inspecting a warehouse full of tiny coffins at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware — the remains of the hundreds of children killed in the carnage.
At that time I had also reported on the disappearance of Etan Patz, the five-year-old who disappeared from his Soho neighborhood while walking one short block from his home to the school bus stop. Then I interviewed the friends and family of the young boys accused of murdering the so called “junk food professor,” the Florida professor who had charted the nutritional values of fast food. His killers were victims in their own way, as well, lured into the world of child prostitution and into the company of the professor, who had been a customer.
Shortly after the People story ran on Wooden, he encouraged me to join him in some investigative reporting of child sexual abuse and missing children.
One rumor that Wooden wanted to explore: That congressmen were hitting on the teenaged pages who served as virtually unpaid gofers in the halls of the Senate and House. To get closer to the scene, I wrangled a freelance assignment from one of the national Sunday newspaper supplements on the page system, and how it gave kids from across the country an insider’s view of government at work. I spent a few days in Washington interviewing pages — always throwing in some open-ended questions at the end concerning my other agenda, the exploitation of children.
I found smoke in the form of a self-published memoir by a page who alleged that he had been sexually harassed by his government superiors. Though Wooden and I believed it, the smoke still wasn’t fire. And what editor would publish material like that about respected elected officials? We would be accused of a witch hunt. “Who are Wooden and Rein going after next,” you could imagine some skeptical editor asking, “Catholic priests?”
We went off in other directions. Wooden eventually moved to Vermont, where he now runs another child protection group, Child Lures Prevention (www.childluresprevention.com). When I saw the Times story about Congressman Mark Foley (R-Florida), I E-mailed Wooden, and got this reply:
“Hello Rich: Funny, I was thinking of you and the ‘tip’ we had about the House pages . . . We did try.” Attached to the E-mail was a link to the video clip from CBS, which featured him last Wednesday, September 27. In the small world department, the taping was done on the Princeton campus, where CBS and Wooden made the point that, when it comes to manipulating and exploiting young people, brains are no defense against a clever con man.
Out on Prospect Avenue and on University Place, with a CBS camera rolling in the background, Wooden acted out the classic ruses of child molesters through the ages. First he pretended to be a casting agent for a modeling agency, inviting the best and the brightest of our college crop into his van for a “sound check.” One by one they hopped in.
Then he posed as a sheriff’s deputy, investigating a series of crimes, and invited students into his van to watch a surveillance tape. One by one they hopped in, without even asking for any identification or the flash of a badge. (Later, carrying out the ruse among criminal justice students at John Jay College in New York, Wooden posed as a producer of a reality TV show, and asked students to play a role, provided they would get in the van and allow their hands to be bound by duct tape. It gave him chills, he said later, reminding him of bodies that have found exactly that way.)
Wooden ended the Princeton taping by putting his arm in a sling, and asked the future senators and CEOs to help him load packages into his spacious van. The young and oh so bright Princetonians happily lugged the load to Wooden’s van.
But who would ever concoct such a story, just to lure a pretty young thing into his clutches? As Wooden noted in the CBS report, the arm-in-sling ruse was one of the ploys used by Ted Bundy, the legendary serial killer. Overall only about one in four college kids managed to resist Wooden’s lures. Some stories never die.