Police knew in 2003 of molesting by Bucks tattoo artist

Walter Meyerle , arrested in 2011, convicted in Aug.
Walter Meyerle , arrested in 2011, convicted in Aug.
Posted: October 19, 2012

One girl was just 10 when Bucks County tattoo artist Walter Meyerle sexually assaulted her for the first time.

Two of his victims were 14; one was 16; a fifth, 17.

The abuse occurred after 2003 and went on for months - in the case of a Croydon teen, more than a year - culminating in Meyerle's arrest in 2011.

It did not have to be.

Based on testimony at his child-sex-abuse trial, on court records, and on interviews, Meyerle might have been stopped before those young girls were molested - if a Bensalem Township police detective had aggressively pursued three cases reported in 2003.

Meyerle went uncharged until a second detective uncovered the old cases while investigating yet another complaint filed against the tattoo artist in 2010.

"A number of victims were failed miserably by law enforcement," county Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Schorn said in August during Meyerle's trial in County Court.

She declined to elaborate after Meyerle, now 36, was found guilty of abusing the five victims and 10 other young girls, boys, and teens going back to 1997. Meyerle faces a lifetime in prison when he is sentenced later this year, though his lawyers have said they planned to appeal the verdict.

"There were some mistakes made, it's regretful," acknowledged Fred Harran, head of the Bensalem Township Police Department. "There was some mishandling of the cases by the original detective."

Detective Jennifer Cannon was disciplined and is still on the force, Harran said. He declined to elaborate.

The mother of the Croydon teen who was abused by Meyerle starting in 2009 said she was "not happy" when she learned during the trial about the mishandled 2003 complaints.

"That would have saved a lot of these kids having to suffer the way they did, and having to go through the trial," she said last week.

None of Meyerle's 15 victims or their parents took the stand during the nonjury trial, but several sat in the gallery as Schorn read their accounts. The victims and parents who had filed complaints were identified in court, but The Inquirer is withholding their names because of the nature of the crimes. Only the mother of the Croydon teenager agreed to discuss the case.

The complaints filed in 2003 focused on two half-sisters and a cousin who were molested by Meyerle from 1997 to 2002, according to court records. The sisters were 4 and 14 when they were first assaulted; their cousin, 7.

Bensalem Detective Chris McMullin, one of the lead officers in the Meyerle investigation, found those complaints while investigating allegations made in July 2010 by the mother of yet another prepubescent girl, according to testimony and court records.

In one of the complaints, dated Aug. 3, 2003, a Bensalem woman said Meyerle abused her two daughters from 2000 to 2002 while they lived at the Top of the Ridge Trailer Park.

The mother told Officer Joan Wisniewski that she had known Meyerle since he was 11 and "considered him 'family,' " adding that he often slept at her home.

One of the girls, 9, said Meyerle touched her inappropriately "lots of times."

The girl's half-sister, 16, said she and Meyerle "had sexual relations seven or eight times" between December 2000 and August 2002, according to Wisniewski's report.

After taking the initial reports, Wisniewski appropriately turned the cases over to Cannon, Harran said.

Cannon's reports of her interviews with the girls were brief, with few details.

The younger girl "would not answer any of my questions," but later supplied an account she wrote while undergoing therapy with the Network of Victim Assistance, the detective wrote.

Cannon's report about the teenager consisted of eight lines - a sharp contrast to the two-page report McMullin wrote after reinterviewing the young woman on March 21, 2011.

McMullin's report included such details as the types of sexual assaults and the locations.

"She remembers this incident vividly," McMullin wrote about the first assault, "because it was when she lost her virginity."

A separate complaint for the sisters' 10-year-old cousin was filed Nov. 18, 2003. Wisniewski and Cannon both interviewed the cousin.

The cousin, her brother, and their mother lived at the trailer park in the summer of 2001. Meyerle lived in a neighboring trailer and would babysit the two children, sleeping on their bedroom floor when he stayed the night.

On two nights, the girl "woke to find that the covers were off of her, and she had the weird feeling that someone was rubbing her inner thighs and touching her lips," Wisniewski reported.

On the second night, she awoke to see Meyerle near her, "and he quickly lay back onto the floor when she moved," Wisniewski wrote.

The complaint was referred to Cannon, who wrote, "Based on information received at this time, there is no evidence of criminal conduct. (only feeling or thought someone had touched her inner thigh and lips.)"

McMullin reinterviewed the victim and produced a more-detailed report, dated April 19, 2011.

One month later, Meyerle was charged with 195 counts of sexually abusing 14 children and teenagers, including the three whom McMullin had reinterviewed.

Cannon's mistake was failing to check her department's records, which would have turned up a complaint against Meyerle filed in 1998, District Attorney David Heckler said.

"There is no way you can defend an individual who has the responsibility to investigate these cases for not getting the job done," he said.

Harran declined to discuss the discipline Cannon received for mishandling the 2003 cases, calling it a personnel matter. He did say that Cannon no longer handled special-victims cases.

Cannon did not respond to e-mail requests for comment. In a phone conversation, her husband, who also is a Bensalem police officer, referred all questions to Harran. Harran said that Cannon was aware she was being named in this story, that he had advised her against commenting, and that she would not have a comment.

Wisniewski "followed the correct procedure" in the cases, Harran said. Once a case is referred to a detective, "the patrol officer has no more contact with it unless it goes to court."

When a detective gets a case, a supervisor also should follow up on it, Harran said. Cannon's supervisor "thought the cases were being followed up on," he said.

That supervisor was not disciplined in connection with the three cases, said Harran, who has led the department since 2006. He declined to name the supervisor, who is still on the force.

In the years since those cases were reported, the county has formed multidisciplinary teams and a Children's Advocacy Center to investigate such cases, Heckler said.

"It's much less likely that this kind of thing is going to happen," he said.

Police procedure in child-sex-abuse investigations has changed with the creation of the Bucks advocacy center in 2009, director Leslie Slingsby said.

"Today, officers are trained to not conduct a full interview," she said, "just [to collect] the minimal facts, and to forward the case to a detective, who calls me."

The advocacy center - one of more than 800 such centers across the country - then contacts the victim's family and schedules an interview. It assembles a team consisting of the detective, a Children and Youth Services worker, an assistant district attorney, a victim advocate from the center, a forensic interviewer, and sometimes a doctor and mental-health professional.

The county's 46 police departments have committed to reporting all child-sex-abuse cases, Slingsby said, "even when it's decided there's not enough evidence for criminal charges."

An officer who does not report a complaint to the center "would be breaking protocol," she said.

The center, which handles about 350 complaints a year, and its team approach "closes some of the gaps" that sex-abuse cases can fall into, she said.

"I can't ensure that charges would have been filed immediately" if the center had existed for the 2003 cases, Slingsby said. "But the approach would be much different."

Meyerle ultimately was caught because the Croydon teen and her mother reported him, and Bristol Township Detective Greg Biedler teamed up with Bensalem's McMullin to build one case into 15.

The teen told police she had sex with Meyerle in exchange for a star-shaped tattoo, according to testimony. She was 14 at the time.

They had sex at least four times and phone sex more than 50 times before the teen's aunt saw the tattoo and recognized Meyerle's work, according to testimony.

The mother and teen immediately reported Meyerle to Bristol Township police Feb. 3, 2011.

He was arrested six weeks later.

The girl, now 17, underwent a year of therapy and "is doing very well," focusing on her 11th-grade schoolwork, her mother said.

"She is doing better, knowing she did the right thing coming forward, that he's going to pay for what he did."

Contact Bill Reed

at 215-801-2964 or wreed@philly.com, or follow

on Twitter @breedbucks.

Read his blog, "BucksInq,"

at www.philly.com/bucksinq.

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