A teenager missing for more than a year surfaced on the Internet this week, showing up in YouTube videos and calling on Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo to prosecute his father for sexual abuse.
Damon Moelter says he is hiding from his father and from the law. Though The Herald generally does not identify alleged sex crime victims, it is making an exception in this case because the boy identifies himself in the widely viewed videos.
The videos are a heartbreaking plea from an articulate teenager on his 16th birthday, directly accusing his father, Eric Moelter, of repeated sexual abuse over four years and begging Monterey County courts to do something about it.
Much of the alleged abuse occurred in San Diego County, where the Moelters live. An appeals court ruling holds that there was insufficient evidence of abuse and has upheld a San Diego court's decision to award full parental custody to Eric Moelter.
Damon alleges the abuse first occurred in Monterey County while visiting his grandmother.
"I ran away a year ago and have my own attorney now, but two months ago a (San Diego County) judge refused to hear anything about my abuse and gave full custody to my father again," says Damon in one video. "I want a complete investigation of the sexual assaults and my father charged in Monterey County, where the abuse first occurred, because I don't trust the people in San Diego anymore."
Asked in a telephone interview why he chose to reach out to Flippo via the Internet, Damon said, "It was a lot out of desperation, because all of the powerful officials in San Diego County have done something to cover up my case."
Because he is in hiding, he said, he isn't willing to just walk into Flippo's office or even use video conference software such as Skype.
<stong>Investigator assigned </strong>
What emerges after a review of Damon's court records and other documents is a convoluted tale of sexual abuse allegations, a long and bitter custody battle gone into overdrive and, as in many family law cases, a saga in which the rest of us will likely never know the full truth.
What is clear is that Damon is wrapped up in a situation most would call tragic.
"We received information on this when the young man went viral (on the Internet)," Flippo said Wednesday. "We've never talked to the young man, but saw the video on YouTube."
Of the five videos posted, the most popular one was viewed about 700 times by late Wednesday.
Flippo said his office assigned its child sex abuse investigator, Christina Gunther, to look into Damon's allegations, and has made attempts to try to reach Damon through his attorney.
Flippo said he notified the Monterey County Sheriff's Office to be ready to interview Damon, because that agency would most likely have jurisdiction over any criminal case.
Sheriff's deputies, Flippo said, will be "more than happy to talk to him. He should contact Monterey County law enforcement immediately."
Damon said he is trying to figure out a safe way to do that.
Without a protective order against his father, he said, "I wouldn't go there in person if they have a pot of gold waiting there for me."
<stong>Court blames mother</strong>
Damon said he was 6 years old when he first spoke to police in San Diego about alleged abuse from his father, but no charges were filed.
"I disclosed many more times after that and they never did another investigation," he said.
He said the abuse started during a visit to Monterey County when his father took him and his brothers to see their grandmother, who lived here.
A sealed videotaped interview he gave when he was 11 or 12 years old to a doctor at San Diego's Chadwick Center contains the most detailed account of the alleged abuse, Damon said, and he hopes Monterey County can order it unsealed.
An appeals court ruling, however, holds the Chadwick Center — which bills itself as "one of the largest hospital-based child advocacy and trauma treatment centers in the nation" — found insufficient evidence of abuse, a finding Damon disagrees with.
Calls from The Herald to a phone listed to Eric Moelter went unanswered Wednesday.
A website in Moelter's name said Damon's brothers are living with him and doing well, a claim Damon said is likely true, acknowledging that his brothers now support their father.
"It is heartbreaking," Moelter's website reads, that Damon "is once again being kept from his family, school, all of his friends and activities, proper medical care and his right to be a free citizen. He is, once again, a missing child."
A copy of the 2010 appeals court ruling on Moelter's website blasts Damon's mother, Cindy Dumas, for "ongoing and relentless hostility."
"The record demonstrates there is no credible evidence that Father sexually molested Damon," the ruling states. "Moreover, Damon's former preference to not live with Father is unpersuasive. This preference was the result of Mother exerting undue influence over Damon during his period of abduction and her ongoing promotion of the idea that Father sexually molested him."
The court said Damon suffered "psychological impairment," in that he believed his father molested him.
"Mother remains steadfast in her desire to personify Father as a child molester. In addition to contacting the children in violation of court orders, Mother also continued to publish details about the case and vilify Father on the Internet," the ruling stated. "The trial court did not err by finding Mother is not an appropriate caretaker of Damon."
Damon says the court made factual mistakes.
"It's downright fraudulent in several places," he said, disagreeing with a statement that nearly 20 experts found insufficient evidence to back up Dumas' charge of sexual abuse.
The ruling notes several occasions when Damon said he would like to move back with his father, although Damon now says that is because he and his brothers "were sent to a psychologist that sort of changed our minds about it."
This isn't the first time Damon has been in hiding.
In late 2004, after a San Diego court said his father could have shared custody, Dumas disappeared with the children for more than three years. A warrant was issued for her arrest as a suspected kidnapper and the boys and their mother spent those years moving around the country.
Moelter's website surmises Damon may have been staying with an underground organization of so-called "protective parents" — parents who take their children on the run after refusing to obey orders to turn them over to the ex-spouses they say abused them.
Several such networks are known to exist nationally, and are described as a sort of underground railroad for those fleeing from abuse, whether real or imagined.
One famous case of standing up to family law courts made international news in the late 1980s when plastic surgeon Elizabeth Morgan spent more than a year in jail on contempt charges after she refused to comply with a court order remanding her daughter to her father.
That father, like Eric Moelter, has maintained his innocence and was never criminally charged with abuse.
Dumas finally brought the children out of hiding after officials agreed not to charge her with kidnapping.
But after he was ordered to live full time with his father, Damon says he ran away on his own and has not been staying with his mother, which would be a violation of the court's orders.
<stong>Looking for 'normal'</strong>
He has been on the lam for more than a year and won't say where he is staying.
This time around is different, he says. He is estranged from his siblings and has gone through all the classic stages of grieving, feeling "the loss of my friends, my life, everything."
He stopped going to school, but studied pre-calculus and history on a website for awhile. Now he watches a lot of TV. One favorite show is the edgy BBC series "Sherlock."
If his life ever settles into something resembling "normal," he said, "what would be next would be going back to school, becoming a writer and living happily ever after."
He has already written four books of fiction, he said, and is working on a fifth. His specialty is young adult crime thrillers.
He said if the courts don't grant him the right to live with his mother, he will just keep hiding until he turns 18.
"I still don't have any friends or anything," he said. "I just have to be in hiding."