ANTIOCH -- Patricia Rhyne walked through the front door and handed Dale Christiansen the letter she had waited more than four decades to write -- a four-page, handwritten letter detailing her claims of years of childhood molestation. Read it, she told him.
Instead, Christiansen -- then 81 -- reached over and fondled Rhyne's breasts for several seconds before whispering how he would prefer to perform oral sex on her, Rhyne said.
Shaken, she said she told him, "You'll never do that to me again."
In May, a civil jury ordered Christiansen, of Martinez, to pay Rhyne $530,000 for the February 2011 fondling.
In a strange twist of fate, the accusation of re-victimization provided Rhyne a legal window to seek justice for years of abuse. Under California law, too many years had passed for any criminal prosecution of childhood abuse, and the 2011 incident likely was only a misdemeanor. But with the help of an attorney, Rhyne found a way to tell her story to a jury -- and to win a decision that, yes, Christiansen had assaulted her.
"In a weird way, it was almost like a blessing," Rhyne said of the 2011 incident. "It seems weird to say it like that, but it's like it happened for a reason."
Christiansen, who has no criminal record in Contra Costa County, was unavailable for comment because of failing health, his attorney said. That also was why he did not attend the civil trial.
While the May 6 verdict was a triumph for Rhyne, much is still unresolved for her.
"Who I am today, is it because of him? Everything I am is because of him to a certain point, and that's hard," said Rhyne, wiping away tears with a napkin as she sat in her sister's Antioch living room. At 48, Rhyne still struggles with her identity.
Rhyne -- broke, between jobs and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder -- agreed to tell her story to help child abuse victims come forward. Speaking with her "victim advocate" from a Contra Costa nonprofit at her side, Rhyne said she also hopes to end the criminal statute of limitations for child molestation and to become a children's abuse counselor.
In California, sex abuse cases must be pursued within a certain length of time after the offense, a statute of limitations that may vary depending on the severity of the abuse. In contrast, nine states have no such restrictions, while an additional 26 have adjusted deadlines for victims of a certain age or crime. Most California victims of childhood molestation have until they turn 28 to pursue criminal options, and 26 for civil cases.
"I want it to change; I want the next person in line who's ready to do this not to have any barrier," Rhyne said.
Rhyne's mother worked as a cocktail waitress in a Concord bar frequented by Christiansen, and he became a family friend. Her first memory of Christiansen, she said, was when he showed her a pair of panties and a bra. She was 4.
"He was seeing if I would go and tell," Rhyne said.
The youngest of eight half-brothers and sisters, Rhyne grew up poor.
The first abuse, she said, came when Christiansen drove her to his house, promising her food and a chance to play with his horses. He would continue sexually abusing her -- doing everything from kissing to intercourse -- in his car, house, even while he flew with her in his four-seater airplane, she asserted.
Finally, at age 12, her family moved to Iowa. She thought the abuse would stop.
However, Rhyne celebrated her 14th birthday -- with Christiansen -- in the back seat of her mother's car in an Iowa mall parking lot, she said. He had flown out to see her for the occasion.
As he molested her, she said, a nearby tornado warning siren began blaring.
"I just remember wanting him to take me home so I can get in the basement like everyone else," she said.
She ran away and eventually found herself back in Antioch, married with two kids. She divorced her husband in 1983 and, acknowledging to herself that she was a lesbian, met a woman and moved to Susanville. In a class at Lassen Community College, she was assigned to write a journal.
"Is it my fault did I make him want to do this?" she wrote in a 1991 entry.
Her alarming journal posts led her teacher to recommend she tell police, but she said she would have killed herself first. "I just wasn't strong enough," she said.
Like many victims of childhood abuse, Rhyne spent years developing the courage to stand up for herself. It was a difficult process, with many false starts.
"Barbara I love you so very much, and I am sorry, Dale molested me for many years ... these last few years I've been trying to deal with this!" Rhyne wrote to Christiansen's wife on March 15, 1995. "I am sorry I betrayed you all these years, but at first I was (too) young and afraid (and) as time went on ... I became dependent, (and the) more time went on I felt ashamed."
She never mailed the letter.
"For a long time, I protected him," Rhyne said. "For 44 years I didn't want to hurt his family, his kids."
Almost a decade ago, she moved back to Antioch from Washington state. She said she began obsessing about confronting Christiansen, even driving to his house several times, honking her horn, throwing rocks, hoping someone would come outside. No one ever did.
Finally, a girlfriend persuaded Rhyne to write a letter to Christiansen and deliver it, which she did Feb. 2, 2011. In the rambling letter, she demanded $392,375 -- $25 a day since the alleged abuse began.
"Next thing I knew I was no longer that little child who played with her brothers & sisters," she wrote, "who curled up on the couch with her Mommy, not knowing any meaning of sex, but now sitting (there) waiting, for you to pick me up ... "
Christiansen did not read the letter during the confrontation.
"He treated me like he always had," Rhyne said. "Instantly, I just went right back to being a little girl."
But this time, she did something.
After years, a verdict
"I just tried to take control of my life," Rhyne said of her call to attorney Dana Scruggs a few months after the alleged 2011 assault.
"She was believable from the first moment," said Scruggs, who represents many child molestation survivors, but called Rhyne's experience "unique."
"The psychology of child sex abuse and the law have an unequal marriage," Scruggs said. "It's a rare occasion that a child or young adult is prepared to confront their perpetrator."
Rhyne said she mentioned the 2011 fondling incident to her attorney as an afterthought, but it soon became the crux of the case.
She was anxious for most of the monthlong civil trial. It was the first time the public was hearing her deepest secrets.
Christiansen's attorney argued that her letter demanding money was an extortion attempt. Rhyne denied that, but she said she wanted Christiansen to hurt like she did.
On May 6, after deliberating a little more than a day, the jury returned a verdict. Rhyne stared at an electrical outlet on a courtroom wall as 12 Contra Costa County jurors each told the judge they believed Rhyne's story. Christiansen's daughter stormed out of the courtroom, Rhyne said, while his wife sobbed in her seat.
"I felt bad," Rhyne said through tears. "I still feel bad for them.
"They say there comes a point to where you're angry at the person, and I haven't gotten there yet. I've gotten mad, but not enough to hate him."
In response to a request for comment, Christiansen's attorney Jesse Adams released a brief statement saying he has filed a motion for a new trial.
Two days after the verdict, the jury tacked on punitive damages, and Rhyne walked down the long courthouse steps with her attorney. At the bottom, all 12 jurors and the alternates waited for her, applauding.
The foreman, a tall man with a Texas drawl, grabbed her hand, looked her in the eye and said, "We've been waiting for you to show us that smile."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.