On the day before a judge would determine Darren L. Paden’s fate, almost no one would say a word.
Not in the tiny, one gas station town of Dearborn they wouldn’t.
Fewer than 500 people live in this Platte County hamlet of crisscrossing family lines and where church ties and friendships date back generations.
At the Café, the older women who gather at the back of the restaurant kept their thoughts to themselves about how one of their own, Paden, 52 — the former chief of the volunteer fire department, a father of seven, known as a good man throughout town — had been charged in 2013 with repeatedly sexually abusing a child for at least a decade. In August, he pleaded guilty.
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At the library, questions about how the case split the town were greeted with polite reticence. At the fertilizer store, no comment.
“In a small community, everybody’s family,” offered one Café customer, not willing to give her name or much else, except a polite smile. “It hurts everyone.”
But at about 11:30 a.m. Friday, that reserve broke somewhat inside a Platte County courtroom when Circuit Court Presiding Judge James Van Amburg sentenced Paden to 50 years in prison on two counts of first-degree statutory sodomy for abusing the girl at least 200 to 300 times over a decade, starting before she turned 5 years old. Paden’s adult son, Anthony L. Paden, 25, also has been charged with abuse, but his case remains pending.
Onlookers packed the courtroom. Paden’s father, Jim Paden, wiped away tears with a handkerchief at the sight of his son in handcuffs and clad in an orange jail garb.
“I’m begging for your mercy,” Jim Paden pleaded with the judge prior to sentencing. “I would like to hold and hug him before I die.”
The victim wiped away tears when the sentence was announced. Paden showed no emotion and did not speak. His family members hugged each other and sobbed, but still declined comment after the sentence.
For two years, tension over the case has frayed allegiances in Dearborn.
On one side there has been Paden, backed by a contingent of supporters that has included family, church elders, the former bank president and other prominent residents.
On the other side was the victim, now 18, who said this week that although she has received some strong words of support, she largely has been ostracized and even been declared a liar by some in the community where she also has lived her entire life. All she did was tell — and much of the community turned its back on her.
“I know there are a lot of people who support me,” she said this week in a personal interview in Platte City. But what she has experienced most is the chill from “the people who refuse to believe me…”
“I called a lady about a house she was renting,” the victim continued, “and I told her my name, and she said, ‘What’s your name again?’ and I told her and she said ‘I don’t want to rent to you’ and then hung up on me.”
Some townspeople have shunned or turned away from her.
“Before this, there were people who would come up and talk to me and have conversations with me,” she said. “Now they won’t even look at me or talk to me.”
Her mother believes her, the victim said.
In a prepared statement, Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd called the lack of support for the victim “deeply troubling,” especially considering that Paden confessed within a couple of hours of being questioned. It “breaks my heart,” he said.
“There are certainly a few good people in the community who have offered their support to this young victim. It is shocking, however, that many continue to support a defendant whose guilt was never truly in doubt. If it takes a village to raise a child, what is a child to do when the village turns its back and supports a confessed child molester?”
Since September, about 16 letters have been filed with the court by Paden’s relatives, church members and friends of Darren Paden’s parents, who are held in high regard in the community. Jim Paden, and his wife, Esther, have a farm in the community.
All the letters asked the judge to show leniency.
“I did that (wrote a letter) in support of his family because they are pretty devastated over this whole thing,” said Sheila Goodlet, an aunt to Darren Paden and sister to Jim Paden. “I just wanted there to be some hope in a hopeless situation.… I also want the judge to be aware that Darren has had a lot of good, positive things in his life, too.”
Nearly every letter talked about Paden’s work with the Air National Guard and fire department.
“He went overseas during the Gulf War and served in mobile hospitals to help wounded soldiers,” wrote his uncle, Stephen Goodlet.
Paden’s great-aunt, Dixie Wilson, talked of her great-nephew’s service as a junior deacon at the local New Market Christian Church. “I could go on and on,” she wrote, “but would just be repeating that he is a good man!”
In a telephone interview, Wilson asserted, “My opinion is, most people don’t believe it happened.
“Are you for a child molester? Absolutely not,” said Wilson, 82. “But I don’t think we’re talking about a child molester.”
She and other parishioners at the New Market Christian Church, she said, have held prayer circles on his account.
Letter writers recalled how Paden saved his father’s life when a cow nearly stomped him to death in a field, after the elder Paden came between the cow and her calf.
“Darren is one of the most admirable people I know,” friend Adele Brightwell wrote. “…He holds fast to his morals…”
Former bank president Jerry Hagg wrote of Paden’s contribution to the community.
New Market Church trustee Gene Blankenship wrote that “Only God, Darren and (the victim) know what truly happened. I feel Darren may have admitted to things he did not do after hours of interrogation and all the pressure to admit guilt.”
Others, like supporter Darla Hall Emmedorfer, appealed to the judge to take Darren’s good deeds into consideration in deciding the severity of his sentence.
“I truly believe that Darren has already suffered extensively for his actions by being kept away from his young children and his home life, and by not being able to provide for this family,” Emmendorfer wrote. “Because of the significant difficulties that will face his innocent family, I would ask you, Judge Van Amburg, to grant Darren a sentence of probation or at least the lowest possible sentence.”
At the sentencing, Paden’s defense attorney, John P. O’Connor, called eight witnesses, including Paden’s ex-wife, a niece, a son, a daughter and both parents. Each pleaded for leniency.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Myles Perry displayed a large photo of the victim when she was 5 years old and said the defendant “unleashed a monster that has devoured every beautiful thing in her life,” and robbed her of the will to live.
Van Amburg delivered the sentence without comment.
It was only because of a middle school presentation that educated students on “inappropriate touch” and the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse that the victim understood what was happening to her and came forward.
At sentencing, the young woman, with quavering voice and tears in her eyes, read a lengthy statement recounting what she described as the “horror” of the abuse, but also its consequences, including thoughts of suicide and cutting herself during high school.
“I know many people think, ‘There is no way he could do this,’ or ‘He was too good of a man to have done something like this,’ ” she said. “Nobody knows what happens behind closed doors.”
The last two years, she said, created such stress and depression that she left work for three months.
“I couldn’t face the world,” she said. “And I couldn’t face this town that made me feel like I was unwanted by everyone.”
Near the end of her statement, she raised a question regarding those who supported Paden, believing him and not her.
“To say you support someone who had done this sort of thing makes me wonder how some would react if a son/daughter told you they were a victim of these behaviors,” she said. “Would you sign a petition then? Would you write letters of support?”
The horror of what happened will affect her the rest of her life, she testified.
“Never will I stop having flashbacks and nightmares, and never will I be able to have a normal relationship with anyone, because I am too far from being normal again.”
Wilson, Paden’s great-aunt, said that no matter the outcome of the sentencing hearing, she believed her community would not remain divided.
“Our community is one that we deeply believe in God and we’re not going to buckle under anything,” Wilson said. “We’re not going to let it destroy all of us. We’re going to keep doing our good works and doing what we believe and rely on each other.”
She reiterated of the crime, “I don’t believe it happened,” she said. “But, if it did, I feel sorry for the girl.”