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Police doubted teen was groped

Jodi Rimmer (left) hugs her longtime friend Adrienne Stranere, who stood by her when she reported being molested by Stephen B. Batoff in 1990. (Charles Fox / Inquirer Staff Photographer)
Last of three parts

By Craig R. McCoy,
Mark Fazlollah
and Michael Matza
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

When she turned 16, Jodi Rimmer developed an "attitude." She fought with her parents, lost her lifelong love of sports, and let her grades tumble.

Her mother and father took her to see a therapist.

Behind a locked door at his Northeast Philadelphia office, Stephen B. Batoff, Ph.D., molested the Bucks County teenager, according to testimony. He unzipped her jeans and groped her. He rubbed her hand across his crotch.

Source doc Read the incident report
Rimmer told all this to a police investigator in 1990. He didn't believe her. The sex-crimes unit classified the case as "unfounded" - rejecting the girl's allegation as groundless.

Prosecutors say Batoff, whose doctorate was from an unaccredited university, went on to force sexual advances on five other women - four patients and his receptionist.

Batoff was finally arrested in 1996 - six years after Rimmer's complaint was disbelieved. He was charged with molesting another 16-year-old patient.

In September, midway through his trial, Batoff pleaded no contest to indecent assault in the 1996 case. Last month, he was sentenced to up to four years in prison. Rimmer's testimony, by demonstrating a pattern of abusive behavior, helped prompt Batoff's plea.

Over the last two decades, hundreds of women have had their sexual-assault complaints dismissed by Philadelphia police as groundless. Rimmer's story vividly illustrates the damage that can result when that judgment is made in error.

Though she is pleased to see him behind bars, Rimmer, now 26, says she still bears scars from what happened nine years earlier - when, as a teenager, she mustered the courage to tell her story to police and was not believed.

"You just have to deal with the fact that they didn't believe you. Why, you don't know," said Rimmer. "You look at authority now and it's hard to trust them again - or feel that they're going to trust you."

Last year, the sex-crimes unit "unfounded" 18 percent of the rape complaints it received - the highest rate among the nation's 10 largest cities. The rejection rate for other sexual-assault cases was equally high. The "unfounded" rate has dropped by half this year as pressure has mounted for accurate statistics.

Dismissing complaints as "unfounded" was one of several ways the Philadelphia rape squad coped with a heavy workload and made its statistics look impressive during the 1980s and 1990s. Once a complaint is deemed "unfounded," investigators do not have to deal with it further. Nor does it show up in crime numbers.

Department regulations have always set a high standard for "unfounding" a case. It should be done only if investigation finds the victim's story to be "totally groundless."

The investigator who handled Rimmer's case in 1990 said he had decided her story was untrue because her parents said they did not believe her and because the girl's account varied slightly in two interviews.

The investigator's report cites just one example of how Rimmer's story changed: She initially said Batoff touched her breast directly and later said that he did so through her bra.

The judge who presided at Batoff's trial said Rimmer's experience made it easy to understand why victims of sexual assault often do not report the crimes to police.

"Clearly, cases of this kind are made much more difficult because victims do not come forward," Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes said at sentencing. "They do not come forward because they are very likely not to be believed."

 

In 1990, Stephen B. Batoff had been a licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania for 11 years.

His business was thriving. One of his lawyers said Batoff was making $400,000 a year just five years after he began practicing. He "worked extensively with thousands of adolescents," Batoff once said in court.

One of them was Jodi Rimmer. Her therapy took place over four weeks in October 1990. He charged $110 per session. Each week, her parents drove Rimmer from their home in Chalfont to Batoff's office on Bustleton Avenue in the city's Somerton section.

According to court testimony, Batoff, then 38, steadily escalated his sexual interactions with Rimmer. At the end of the first session, he gave the girl a tight hug, rubbing her buttocks. He explained that he liked to begin and end sessions with hugs.

In later sessions, the hugging continued, sometimes accompanied by a quick kiss on the lips. In conversation, Batoff pressed Rimmer repeatedly for details about any sexual encounters with her boyfriend.

Twice, Batoff placed the slight Rimmer on his lap and unzipped her jeans to feel her thighs, brushing his hand across her underwear. Once, he took her hand and moved it atop his pants over his penis.

Rimmer was confused and thought what was happening was wrong, but she was unable to stop it.

"He never really forced her to do anything, but since he was the doctor, she thought he was doing everything for a reason, to help her," a police report states.

Finally, Rimmer told her parents. The next morning, on Oct. 31, 1990, they drove her to the sex-crimes unit.

The case was assigned to Elliott M. Feldman, then 45, an investigator with the unit since it was established in 1981.

Feldman, now retired, declined to discuss the case with The Inquirer. So did retired Lt. James Mooney, the supervisor who approved Feldman's decision to classify Rimmer's complaint as "unfounded."

Rimmer's memories of her experience with the sex-crimes unit are not positive. She described Feldman as remote and noncommittal and said he rushed her through her account.

"He had not one interest in what I was saying," said Rimmer, now a bookkeeper living in Montgomery County. "He didn't pay attention." She recalled staring at the floor as she talked to Feldman. "I was isolated. I was embarrassed. I was scared. I felt alone."

A few days later, at Feldman's request, Rimmer brought a high school friend, Adrienne Stranere, then 16, to the Rimmer home so the officer could interview her there. Rimmer had confided in Stranere about what Batoff was doing - and Stranere had accompanied her to one session as a kind of guardian.

In a recent interview, Stranere, now 25, said Feldman was perfunctory in his questioning. He acted as if "he would rather be somewhere else," she said. "It seemed like he didn't care."

Feldman's final interview in the case was with Batoff, who came to the sex-crimes unit accompanied by a lawyer. According to Feldman's investigative report, Batoff said he was willing to take a polygraph exam. Police never took him up on the offer.

Batoff denied everything.

He told police that doctor-patient confidentiality forbade him to say much about Rimmer - but that he could say that her accusations were part of the psychological problems for which he was treating her.

A few days later, on Nov. 18, 1990, Feldman turned in his report to his supervisors. He wrote that Rimmer's mother, Dorothy Rimmer, told him that "both she and her husband feel that Jodi made up the story to get attention and that what she reported really never happened."

In a recent interview, Rimmer's father, Byron, 56, said he and his wife had come to doubt their daughter only after Feldman did.

"We wouldn't have taken her to Philly if we didn't believe her," said the father, chief of surveying for Toll Bros. builders. "After the police said certain things, my wife said, 'Maybe she isn't telling the truth.'

"They're the professionals. We believe the police. That's what we were told - you have to believe what the police say. So we went along with them. It turns out we shouldn't have."

 

In "unfounding" Rimmer's allegation, Feldman's report suggests that he was faced with what lawyers call a "swearing contest" - conflicting accounts of something that went on behind a closed door.

He had to choose between the word of a 16-year-old girl and that of a respected psychologist.

Court records could have supplied Feldman and his bosses with reason to question Batoff's honesty. A former patient had sued Batoff in 1984 for malpractice, contending that his counseling was unprofessional - and that he kept hugging her in a way that had sexual overtones.

At an arbitration hearing, a standard pretrial step in civil cases, an expert testifying on behalf of the former patient called the hugging "highly inappropriate and unethical."

Batoff denied doing it.

Court records show that the arbitration panel found in favor of the woman and awarded her $2,500. Batoff said later that he wanted to appeal but that his insurer thought it more cost-effective to pay up.

At the time of Rimmer's complaint, Batoff had been under investigation for two years by the state Psychology Board, which oversees the licensing of therapists.

On Nov. 19, 1990- a day after the rape squad "unfounded" Rimmer's allegation - the board voted to authorize disciplinary action against Batoff on unrelated grounds. A formal complaint issued in January 1991 said, among other things, that Batoff had flunked his doctoral exam at the University of Pennsylvania and, shortly afterward, had obtained a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Southwest University, an unaccredited institution then located in Phoenix.

The board's complaint has not resulted in any sanctions. Nine years later, the matter remains tied up in the courts.

Once her allegation was rejected, Rimmer says, she struggled to put the experience behind her. She continued living with her family in Bucks County, finished high school, and attended community college. Her rebellious streak faded. But the Batoff episode was an explosive subject in the family. Everyone avoided mentioning it.

Privately, Rimmer worried about whom he might harm next.

"Every day, you know that he's out there, that's he probably doing it to someone else," she said.

 

In 1996, another Bucks County family in crisis turned to Stephen Batoff for help.

The mother was struggling with multiple sclerosis and was often bedridden. That meant her 16-year-old daughter had to stay home after school to tend to her mother and younger brother. The daughter wanted to go out with her friends. The result was arguments every day. Her grades were falling. Counselors at her high school would find her crying in the halls.

Once the Bensalem teenager was under Batoff's care, according to court testimony and police records, Batoff began a pattern of sexual misbehavior.

It began with hugs. The hugs got longer. He sometimes kissed the top of her head. He told her she was "gorgeous."

It moved to a fixation on sex. He once asked her to close her eyes, imagine being a prostitute, and tell him what she was thinking.

At one session, the victim testified, Batoff gave her $10 for pocket money and cautioned her not to tell anyone.

At the end of a session Sept. 16, 1996, with the door locked, Batoff began hugging her when she got up to leave. His hands slipped under her shirt and he rubbed her back. Awkwardly, the young woman turned away. He pulled her toward him, rubbing her stomach below the navel. He was groaning.

The teenager broke away, bewildered. She said nothing to Batoff.

"I was embarrassed. I didn't know, I didn't know what to do," she testified. "So, I just wanted to act like I was fine. I was scared of what he might do or say if I said anything."

Later, her feelings crystallized into a cold, hard anger. "I hate him," she said. "I told him everything. I told him everything I felt."

After that final session, the teenager told her father and mother what had happened. The next day, her father drove her to the sex-crimes unit.

Investigator Steven Ratka listened carefully; the victim's father later applauded his sensitivity.

Even so, Ratka was uncertain that Batoff's touches amounted to a crime. He consulted Mimi Rose, the veteran chief of the District Attorney's sexual assault and family violence unit. Rose authorized Batoff's arrest.

He was charged with indecent assault and endangering the welfare of a child, both misdemeanors.

An initial trial, in Municipal Court in 1997, ended in a conviction. Batoff exercised his right to a new trial in Common Pleas Court.

About that time, Ratka reviewed an old index-card file at the sex-crimes unit's headquarters. He wanted to see whether anyone else had ever brought a complaint against Batoff.

In that well-worn file, he found a card with Batoff's name on it. The accuser was Jodi Rimmer. The case was from 1990. The statute of limitations had expired. 

Rose, the prosecutor, wanted to talk with Rimmer anyway. She instructed the sex-crimes unit to find her. In April 1997, an investigator contacted Rimmer through her mother.

The investigator's words gave Rimmer a chill: Batoff had molested another girl.

"We want to bring you in for questioning to go over everything," the officer said.

Rimmer was conflicted.

"You're thinking, 'Do I want all this to come back?' " she said. "It was really scary. It brings back every feeling that you had back then. The shame, everything."

At the same time, her desire to strike back at Batoff ran deep.

"I told him everything and then for him to do that," she said. "He had a way of taking the innocence in myself and whoever else he did this to and just ripping it away from us."

This time, she said, her experience with the sex-crimes unit was different.

"Take your time . . . remember," Rimmer recalls investigator Crystal Williams saying.

A review of investigators' notes from Rimmer's two visits to the unit - the first in 1990 and the second in 1997 - show that she gave virtually identical accounts each time.

Because of the statute of limitations, police could not charge Batoff with molesting Rimmer. But Rose found a way to get her testimony introduced at Batoff's forthcoming Common Pleas Court trial, where he again faced the charges of molesting the Bensalem teenager.

In an unusual move, Rose asked the judge to let Rimmer testify as a prosecution witness - to show that the fondling of the Bensalem girl was part of a pattern of behavior. The request was granted.

Rimmer would live with the case for more than two years.

A first Common Pleas Court trial, in 1998, ended in a mistrial. The second trial this fall ended in Batoff's no-contest plea - the legal equivalent of a conviction.

The long wait for closure had Rimmer on edge. "It's been like somebody was pulling a scab every time the phone rang from the D.A.," said a roommate, Susan Pond.

Rimmer quit her job as a medical assistant when her employer refused to pay her for the days she was in court.

On the bright side, she met the Bensalem teenager for the first time - outside the 10th-floor courtroom in the Criminal Justice Center.

"I hugged her," Rimmer said. "It was one of those things where you didn't want to let go. Finally, somebody knows how you're feeling - or at least nine-tenths of what you're feeling."

The father of the Bensalem teen called Rimmer "a brave little girl." He said it was unfortunate that police had not believed her in 1990 - and arrested Batoff before he had a chance to molest anyone else.

Prosecutors said there were more victims than Rimmer and the Bensalem teen. At bail and sentencing hearings after Batoff's plea, prosecutors cited four other women they said he had inappropriately touched or fondled - all after Rimmer first made her allegation to police in 1990.

"It's a tragedy," said the father of the Bensalem girl. The 43-year-old executive asked that his family's name not be used.

He said the sex-crimes unit should reexamine its practices. "Maybe it's manpower. Maybe they need to change things."

At trial, Batoff denied the allegations.

Feldman, called by the defense, testified that he had "unfounded" Rimmer's complaint primarily because her parents wanted the case dropped.

Had the Rimmers pushed for more investigation, he said, the sex-crimes unit would have at least taken a formal statement from Batoff - one in which he was read his rights and asked to sign a summary of his remarks. The interview Feldman did conduct with Batoff in 1990 was informal.

"No interview or statement was taken from Dr. Batoff and the job was just - it was just finished at that point in time," Feldman testified. "Based on [the parents'] decision not to want to pursue it, it was not pursued."

Rimmer was composed as she testified that Batoff had molested her much the way he molested the Bensalem teenager. But shebroke down in response to prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith's final question.

Why had she agreed to talk about Batoff when police called her in 1997, seven years after she had been disbelieved?

"Because I had assumed that if they were contacting me, that he had done it again," Rimmer replied, and burst into tears.

Shortly after that, Batoff's defense attorney asked for a halt in the trial. A few hours later, Batoff pleaded no contest.

"It was great that he did it right after my testimony," Rimmer said. "That made me feel, they believed me, people believed me - and he knows it."

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