The Norman Transcript

October 31, 2013

Psychologist says it’s possible that witness filled in memory gaps with fabricated events

By Jessica Bruha
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Testimony continued Wednesday with heavy analysis and questioning of one girl’s allegations of child sex abuse against former OU professor Dwain Pellebon.

The girl’s allegations against Pellebon are the most serious in the case with three counts of child sex abuse. The other six charges allege that Pellebon touched several different girls in a lewd or lascivious manner.

The girl, 15 at the time of disclosure, has confirmed mental disabilities. In this case, her disclosure of sexual abuse is being analyzed to determine whether the alleged sex abuse actually occurred or whether it was confabulated as a result of her mental disabilities.

Local psychologist Dr. Raymond Henry McCaffrey Jr., who led testimony Wednesday, described confabulation as fabricating information to fill in gaps in memory.

McCaffrey evaluated the girl in 2009 per requirement by the girl’s school to see if she needed to continue with special education classes, which she did, he said.

He reported that the girl’s overall cognitive function is closer to that of a 7- or 8-year-old child. He noted that the girl confabulated twice during the two-hour evaluation.

McCaffrey said her confabulations were easy to identify because they were events that would not likely happen. For example, she talked about a pony who came to have lunch with her at school in the cafeteria.

He said if he had confronted her about the story of the pony, he was not sure if she would’ve said the story wasn’t true.

The psychologist also testified that sometimes a person might confabulate because they want to engage with someone socially, please people and make a connection with people.

“I thought that she was a youngster you’d want to be quite careful with because she was susceptible to outside influences,” said Dr. Phillip Esplin, another defense witness who testified Wednesday. Esplin has researched, authored books and testified in many child sex abuse cases for more than 20 years.

McCaffrey testified that sometimes confabulation comes from actual experiences, whether it’s from movies or things they’ve heard or seen.

Typically with confabulation, the person couldn’t sustain the lie because they would confuse the confabulated details, he said.

Esplin said when important events in a child’s life occur, they think back on them, relive them; that helps consolidate the memory and keep it intact.

During the forensic interview, the girl reported she reflected a lot about the incidents, such as how to tell someone, how to come up with a solution, expressing worries about what would happen to Pellebon or Pellebon being offended if she told.

However, she also said she felt safe at home, Esplin testified.

He said children ages 6-10 are less likely to confabulate, but the risk of confabulation increases with adolescents, the child’s interest in sex and if the child has been exposed to sexually toned material.

Since the girl’s cognitive age is between 7 and 9, defense attorney David Smith asked whether the girl’s hormones would still be the same as a 15-year-old’s. Esplin replied, “yes.”

Descriptions of the girl’s behavior from other parents indicated she had poor physical boundaries, Esplin said.

For example, when she would sit on another male’s lap and she would open her legs. However, it’s hard to tell what her motivation was or if she had sexual intent, he said.

Esplin expressed several concerns with the girl’s forensic interview when she disclosed she had been sexually abused. The girl clearly responded about two incidents in Pellebon’s bedroom but later discussed a third incident in his shower that was confusing, he said.

She wasn’t sure if she was asleep or woke up as the alleged abuse was occurring, he said, adding that an altered state of consciousness makes it harder to firmly establish that something actually happened.

Esplin said he couldn’t tell if she was using knowledge from other events and incorporating that into an incident.

The witness also testified that the girl’s description of events was unusual because she just described basic information without much detail.

The topic of a child disclosing sexual abuse to a stranger during their first interview also was discussed.

Esplin agreed that children are less likely to disclose in that situation if they have not disclosed to another authority figure such as a parent, which the girl had not done.

However, children do vary, and forensic interviewers do a pretty good job of extracting information from children, he said.

The act of grooming also was heavily discussed in regard to Pellebon’s actions toward the girls he allegedly sexually abused. Esplin described grooming as progressive in nature, beginning at a certain point and progressing to sexual acts.

Several testified that Pellebon gave gifts to the girls, gave a great deal of attention to them, kept their secrets, was friends with their parents and was described as touchy or affectionate.

Some hugs, kisses and gifts progressed to Pellebon allegedly getting into bed with a child and stroking her body from head to toe, which Esplin agreed could be actions of sexual intent.

Also having a sexually toned conversation with a child, such as a sex-ed talk, while stroking the stomach of a child, which Pellebon allegedly did, Esplin agreed is a sexually toned situation.

On the other hand, during a grooming process, the abuser would typically want to desensitize a child by touching them and make them aware of that progression, he testified.

It wouldn’t be typical to touch the child while they were asleep and touch them on their side, avoiding private parts, he said.

He also said you could expect someone who sexually abuses a child to view child pornography.

During Pellebon’s interview with police, he was unresponsive to a question police asked about his ex-wife finding something on a computer that she wasn’t comfortable with.

Esplin said typically in pedophilia, a person will lose interest in the individual once the child becomes pubescent. It’s unusual to maintain the relationship because the person could come forward later in life about incidents that occurred, he said.

Pellebon kept in contact with several females he had known since they were children, remaining affectionate with them through their adult lives. Several of those women testified Tuesday.

One also testified Wednesday who, like other witnesses, met Pellebon when she was a child. They met on a military base in Las Vegas where Pellebon served in the United States Air Force and volunteered a lot of time to youth activities.

The woman testified that she had been sexually abused twice as a child before she met Pellebon, around the age of 12, and she never felt weird or creeped out by Pellebon’s affectionate manner and described it as “very genuine.”

Another woman who testified Wednesday met Pellebon at church, where he was a parishioner and she was the pastor’s wife in Wisconsin.

She said Pellebon also gave her kisses on the cheek and hugged her and was involved in her children’s lives.