Getting Dad

A vengeful son would do anything to ruin his father's name. Prosecutors didn't need the help.

child molestation Strongsville father-son feuds
Detective Brian Sloan worked plenty of sex-crimes cases in his five years with Strongsville police. Enough to believe the sobbing girl next to him was telling the truth.

Sloan and a rape counselor listened quietly as 16-year-old Colleen recounted that hot summer night at a carnival six months before. She remembered every detail -- the taste of elephant ears, the sticky summer air, the feel of the old man's rough hand sliding slowly between her legs.

It'd taken Colleen six months -- and her friends beside her -- to gather the courage to walk into the police station. Her mother sat next to her, hearing many of the details for the first time. Things like this weren't supposed to happen to girls like Colleen -- girls who come from the land of pristine cul-de-sacs and subdivisions with names that evoke the English countryside. The dirt Colleen felt on her couldn't be buffed out like a spot on the berber.

Susan, her mother, knew she was dating a boy named Jeffrey, and that he lived with his father, prominent lawyer Dan Roth, whose face once graced TV ads and yellow-pages spreads. Colleen and Jeffrey even discussed hooking their parents up on a date, since both had been through divorces.

But now Susan realized there were a few details her daughter had conveniently left out. Like the fact that Jeffrey was 35 years old. And that his 59-year-old father, the man accused of fondling her baby girl, was more interested in Colleen than Susan.

Yet it takes more than a detective's instinct to bring charges. Dan Roth was a well-regarded lawyer, after all.

A week later, Sloan decided to have Colleen place a recorded call to Dan. Maybe the girl could coax an admission.

She chatted nervously with the low voice on the other end of the line. But what happened next surprised the detective. Dan had some words for the young girl, but it wouldn't be a confession. She was a "pawn," he barked, a tool his son was using to get revenge after a bitter falling-out.

Sloan had walked into what he thought was a typical sex-crime case. But he now found himself in the midst of an uncivil war between father and son.

Jeffrey was as much a failure as the marriage that produced him. His mother, Leslie, the first of Dan Roth's wives, married his dad while he was a teacher at John Adams High preparing to go to law school.

But the life of a young lawyer leaves little time for family. In 1974, Dan was immersed in the biggest case of his life: defending National Guardsmen involved in the Kent State shootings. The national media set up camp outside his office. Meanwhile, just across the street, another case demanded even more attention from Dan. Leslie had divorced him on grounds of gross neglect of duty. It'd been a clean break, as far as divorces go. Unfortunately, the kids wouldn't have the luxury of such a smooth ride.

Jeffrey was four years old when his mother packed him, his older brother Bruce, and his little sister Julie, and moved out. The nighttime screaming and yelling that would reverberate through the walls of their bedrooms was silenced. But it was just the beginning of the dysfunction in the kids' lives.

Jeffrey and his siblings became a part of their mother's overnight bag, claimed Dan in divorce filings, accompanying her on sleepovers at the homes of whatever guy she happened to be sharing a bed with.

It was clear Mom was in over her head. When Jeffrey was nine, Leslie became the second one to bail on him, sending him to live with his grandmother in California. But Jeffrey wasn't going peacefully.

They figured that out the day Grandma's garage caught fire. Jeffrey had started it. The kid had been shuffled around so many times that no one noticed he was becoming mentally unhinged. Leslie had him institutionalized at Bellefaire, a home for disturbed children in Shaker Heights.

While his first family was crumbling, Dan was busy starting anew. When a change in the law allowed lawyers to advertise, Dan teamed up with brothers Anthony and Basil Russo to open storefront offices in shopping malls from Great Lakes to Parmatown. They milked the new regulations for all they were worth, making Dan's baby face as recognizable as Dick Goddard's. And the money rolled in.

Dan's private life was blossoming as well. He'd fallen in love with his secretary, Enza, a petite 23-year-old. They married, and Enza gave Dan two new babies. In return, he gave her a life his career afforded -- a BMW and a home in Pepper Pike. When the kids got old enough, Dan -- an amateur pilot -- flew his family to vacations in Florida and the Bahamas on his twin-engine plane. Things were suburban-perfect.

Then there was Jeffrey.

The kid was only 13, but to Enza, he already seemed destined for a life stamping license plates. He'd steal anything, even small bills tucked inside a card Enza's grandmother sent. Jeffrey didn't fit in the rosy picture she had imagined for her family.

"He's very manipulative," she says. "I truly believe Jeffrey is dangerous."

As Jeffrey moved into adulthood, the only part of him that seemed to mature was his criminal record. Yet he wasn't the smartest crook. When he was 23, Jeffrey was charged with grand theft. It was the perfect couch-potato crime -- if his ultimate goal was getting caught. He'd failed to return almost $1,000 in video games and movies to Blockbuster. A Cuyahoga County judge gave him probation.

But a few years later, he was back in trouble, this time for writing bogus checks for fake prescriptions. He'd developed a mean addiction. But once again, Jeffrey got a break from the judge. And once again, Dad opened the door to him.

Enza, meanwhile, was starting to tire of the worthless pile of bones sleeping on her couch.

When Jeffrey was in his early 30s, he came to visit for a week. The week turned into a month, then a year. Days were spent lounging around, canoodling with his girlfriend, and playing video games. He's one of the reasons, says Enza, that her marriage hit the rocks after 23 years.

Tensions came to a head one night in 2004. Enza found herself on the ground, her head ringing, a sharp pain in her arm. An argument had gotten out of control. Dan was standing over her. He'd grabbed a laptop computer, slamming it into her stomach. Within minutes, police lights flooded through the windows.

Dan was charged with domestic violence. The case wound through the courts for two years before finally being dismissed. But it was clear the marriage was done. A court order forced Dan out of the house. With nowhere to go, he checked into a hotel off the freeway.

His body was the next thing to fail. One day while leaving work, Dan took a step and heard a "pop" in his knee. The muscle had torn right off the bone like meat from a turkey leg. He fell to the ground, writhing in pain. The injury put Dan in a wheelchair and forced him to take disability leave from work. He spent most of his days rolling around his hotel room and surfing the internet.

With his oldest son Bruce working as a doctor out west and his daughter Julie living in Pennsylvania, Dan had to do for himself. Then one day an instant message popped up on his computer. Jeffrey wanted to visit. A week later he was standing on the doorstep.

They lived together for almost a year, a couple of bachelors with nothing to do. When he wasn't out tramping or bumming around, Jeffrey would help his dad get around, wheeling him to the grocery store and to court for divorce hearings. Father and son actually got along -- for a while, at least.

Like most girls her age, Colleen was addicted to the internet. One of her favorite sites was, where you can view photos of single men and women around the country, and rate them on a "hotness" scale from 1 to 10.

The site was better for laughs than actually hooking up. But one day, as Colleen scanned through the pictures of guys with oiled chests, gangster poses, and ripped jeans, she came across Prince Charming. Those baby-blue eyes, those little chipmunk dimples, and that pearly white smile made you just want to hug him. In her eyes, Jeffrey Roth was a perfect 10.

There seemed to be no harm in chatting flirtatiously with a man old enough to be her father. It was just innocent online banter. But the instant messages turned into phone calls, sometimes lasting hours.

Eventually, another voice joined the conversations -- Jeffrey's dad.

Sometimes when Colleen would call, Jeffrey would put her on speakerphone and let Dad talk as well. Dan says he had no idea she was a child, and even if she was, it was just innocent small talk. What else was he supposed to do cooped up all day? "I was just bored, just making nonsense conversation," he says.

Yet for lovebirds Colleen and Jeffrey, it started to seem silly playing phone games, when they lived only a few miles apart. In the spring of 2005, the two made plans to meet at the Macaroni Grill near Colleen's house in Strongsville. When Colleen showed up, she saw two men sitting in the booth. Dan Roth was picking up the check.

"I'll admit, she looked young," says Dan of the tall yet timid girl who showed up for dinner. But he maintains he didn't know she was that young.

As Colleen's story goes, it was months later, on July 20, when she sent Jeffrey an instant message, telling him she'd be at the Strongsville Home Days carnival that night. The message she got back was from Dan. Jeffrey wasn't home, Dan said. But he was thinking about going himself.

Colleen thought nothing of it. She gave him her cell-phone number and told him to call when he arrived.

At the carnival that night, Dan gave her a hug and bought her an elephant ear, Colleen told police. He asked if she'd like to ride the Ferris wheel. As the car climbed toward the top of the ride, Colleen could see out over the whole festival -- laughing kids with cotton candy, blinking lights, families with strollers, and babies with ice cream-smeared faces. Just then she felt a hand sliding down onto her crotch, she told police.

Colleen put her arms between her legs to block Dan. But he kept tugging, trying to get them out of the way. "I'll scream!" Colleen warned.

The pawing stopped. Suddenly, they were back down on the ground. Colleen called a friend to come get her and left in a hurry.

At least that's the way Colleen said it happened, and Sloan had no reason to doubt her. But if he was going to convince a jury that the old guy was a perv, he'd need to start from scratch. Aside from the domestic violence charge, Dan's record was clean.

Two weeks after the detective heard Colleen's story, a fax arrived at Strongsville PD. It was from Jeffrey and contained a police report from Willoughby.

In August 2005, Dan had called Willoughby cops to report a burglary at his apartment. Everything of value was gone -- traveler's checks, cash, a diamond ring, a Rolex. But the crime was no mystery. The thief was Dan's girlfriend, he told the police.

Amber Smalley was a 23-year-old nursing student and single mom, whom Dan had met through his son. The cops tracked Smalley down at her apartment in Painesville, expecting to find over $50,000 in missing valuables. Instead, they found a bizarre twist to the story.

Smalley was embarrassed to admit that she had been Dan's hired "companion" for some time. She was no hooker, she clarified, just an occasional dinner date for a lonely guy looking for a pretty face and some conversation. But the night before, a frisky Dan had decided to change the terms of their arrangement, she said.

Dan pleaded with Smalley to spend the night. She grudgingly agreed, and the two began watching TV on Dan's bed. Then she felt his hands surfing over her skin. Smalley pushed him away. Dan went berserk, she told police.

He jumped up and started pacing. "This isn't fair," he whined belligerently. Smalley was just about to start toward the door when she saw something that made her freeze, something shiny and silver on the dresser -- a gun, she told police. Scared, she coaxed Dan back to bed and cuddled up to him until he fell asleep. Then she grabbed her bag and left.

Willoughby cops believed Smalley. The officer who wrote the report even speculated that Dan had fabricated the theft to hide assets related to his pending divorce from Enza. "This theft could be conveniently beneficial to him," wrote Patrolman Stephen Alemagno.

But Dan wouldn't give up. He told the cops he suspected Jeffrey of being in on the deal. Though his son was out of town when the burglary occurred, Dan was sure Jeffrey had arranged with Smalley to split the profits. Still, the cops weren't buying. The case was closed.

The Willoughby incident made Sloan more confident in his teenage victim. But a few weeks later, he started getting faxes from Dan. By the looks of the documents -- which included strings of e-mails sent by Jeffrey -- it seemed someone was taking the detective for a ride.

Jeffrey apparently didn't appreciate his father accusing him of theft. That much is obvious from an e-mail he sent Dan in September 2005. "I will dedicate my time to destroying you," it read.

Had Jeffrey been as unmotivated when it came to revenge as he was when looking for a job, Dan would have had nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, his son had finally discovered his passion: He had his finger on a little red button that could ruin his father's life.

"I have a 16-year-old girl willing to testify that you went to a carnival with her and on some ride you tried to molest her," Jeffrey e-mailed.

He would show his father that he wasn't playing games. Three days later, another e-mail arrived in the in-box of Jean Panter-Graham, a probation officer at Shaker Heights Municipal Court, where Dan's domestic-violence case was being heard. Jeffrey knew that Judge K.J. Montgomery had angered Dan by ordering him to surrender his prized gun collection as part of a temporary protective order. By the sound of the e-mail, supposedly written by Dan, it had been a good idea.

"It will be [Judge Montgomery] that will be punished," it read. "I'm sure the Republicans in Columbus would love to get her off the bench."

But when Pepper Pike Police Sergeant Joe Mariola looked into the threats, it became obvious that Dan couldn't have sent the message. The e-mail had come from a computer in Georgia owned by Leslie, Dan's ex-wife. Jeffrey had been crashing there at the time and had access to his father's e-mail password.

Despite his suspicions, Mariola couldn't prove Jeff had tried to railroad his father. "I could never put a person behind the keyboard," he says.

But just as Dan was putting out the fire his son had set, another was starting. One day a card arrived in the mail from Nordstrom in Beachwood, thanking Dan for his $2,100 in purchases in the previous week. The only problem: Dan didn't shop at Nordstrom. He rushed to the store, where a clerk described Jeffrey as the shopper. He'd even needed help carrying all the merchandise to his car, the clerk said.

Dan checked with the credit-card company, only to learn that his son had been on a shopping rampage. Jeffrey had managed to run up $11,000 in charges. The kid had even changed the card's billing address to a vacant building downtown so his father would never see the statement.

On December 2, 2005, a Cuyahoga County grand jury charged Jeffrey with credit-card theft. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but he'd fled the state.

Ten days later, Jeffrey came through on his threats. Colleen walked into the Strongsville police station to say that Dan tried to molest her.

Colleen's cell-phone records showed conversations with Jeffrey lasting hours. She'd fallen hard for the man she'd only met once at the Macaroni Grill.

"Baby, I just want you to know how much I love you," she wrote in one e-mail. "I am willing to do anything to prove that."

And she did. At Jeffrey's urging, Colleen wrote her story down in a letter to Plain Dealer reporter Leila Atassi and even let Jeffrey look it over before sending it.

To Detective Sloan, it now looked as if Colleen and Jeffrey were scheming behind his back. When police confiscated Colleen's computer to analyze it for evidence, a paranoid Jeffrey even e-mailed a forensic computer analyst in Texas to find out whether instant messages could be retrieved from the hard drive.

The couple took to communicating like spies. "I REALLY need to talk to you about something," Colleen wrote in one e-mail. "I am not going to type out the question here . . . they have my passwords and could possibly read it."

Whatever happened on the Ferris wheel that night, Jeffrey's involvement was quickly blowing any chance Sloan had for a solid case.

"There's no denying that Jeffrey Roth wanted his dad to get in trouble," says Sloan. "The fact that [Colleen]'s interested in this 35-year-old and his history just takes away from her credibility."

Yet Sloan kept going back to his gut, back to that scared little girl on the couch, who had to tell her mom how a guy old enough to be her grandpa had put his hand there. He also believed Dan was lying when he claimed to be unaware that Colleen was just 16. After meeting Colleen at the Macaroni Grill, Dan e-mailed her mom to congratulate her on her daughter's good report card from Strongsville High. (Dan denies writing it.)

"There was doubt there in the investigation, when the background on Jeff Roth was done," says Sloan. "But then, at that point, you go back to your case and your victim, and you go back to Dan Roth. And I believe it did happen."

A grand jury agreed. In August of last year, Dan was charged with two felony counts of attempted gross sexual imposition.

Pervert lawyer busted!

The story of the Ferris wheel-fondling attorney couldn't be any better suited for local television news. "Pretty serious charges, if they're true," prodded Action News reporter Paul Orlousky, as he nudged a microphone into Dan's face.

In the courtroom, Dan looked like a hostage awaiting his beheading. The color was gone from his face. But when the judge called him up from the crowd of crackheads and punks to enter his plea, Dan stood firm. "Not guilty," he said.

He had reason to be scared. Bill Mason put Mike Horn, one of his toughest prosecutors, on the case. He's the guy usually assigned to double-murder and rape cases. Having Horn try to nail a lawyer accused of copping a feel on a carnival ride was like hunting deer with a rocket launcher.

Even worse than the prospect of prison was the humiliation. Dan would be labeled a pervert and paraded through the Justice Center, past the judges and attorneys he'd worked with for 30 years. The way their eyes awkwardly drifted away was the worst punishment.

"He was truly embarrassed by it," says lawyer Don Riemer, who shares office space with Dan. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought Dan would do something even remotely close to what he was charged with."

Yet Dan's experience as a criminal suspect was only just beginning. Shortly after charges were filed, his weekly drug screening -- a condition of his bond -- turned up positive for cocaine. (Dan denies using the drug.) Judge Nancy Russo threw him in jail for two months. The old lawyer with the bad knee and diabetes was given an orange jumpsuit and put in a medical cell alongside gangbangers with bullet wounds bleeding onto the cement floor.

"I still have nightmares about this place," says Dan.

Finally, in June 2007, it was time to find out whether 12 jurors would get the same gut feeling as Sloan had. Dan took the stand to describe that night at the carnival. He admitted meeting Colleen, but said he'd done so only because he'd been in the area visiting an old friend. Yes, they'd ridden the Ferris wheel together, Dan told the jury -- but he was just being friendly to his son's girlfriend. He had no idea she was only 16. And he never touched the girl sexually.

John Luskin, Dan's attorney, did his best to paint Jeffrey as the true villain -- a manipulative con man willing to do anything for revenge. He subpoenaed detectives from Pepper Pike and Beachwood to testify about their dealings with him. Jeffrey, however, couldn't be there to defend himself. He was sitting in a Virginia jail after police tracked him down on the warrant from Cuyahoga County. (He didn't respond to Scene's interview request.)

But the father-son battle seemed distant when Colleen took the stand. The wood-paneled courtroom was silent as she stepped into the witness box. Nervously, she told the same story she told Sloan that day at her home. If it was a performance, then Colleen had a shot at Hollywood.

After three days of trial, on a muggy Friday, Dan sat in the stuffy courtroom waiting. Behind that heavy wooden wall, 12 people off the street were discussing which door Dan would be walking through that night -- the one that led outside, or the one that led downstairs. After two hours, they filed out silently. To Dan, the words seemed to pour out of Judge Russo's mouth as slow as molasses. "Not guilty . . . not guilty." Dan was a free man.

A devastated Horn grabbed his briefcase and stormed out. He's convinced Jeffrey destroyed a perfectly solid case.

"It was just a matter of credibility," says the prosecutor. "Even without [Jeffrey] being there, he was able to cloud the issue."

Dan, meanwhile, was numb. He walked down the steps of the courthouse, climbed into his car, and drove back to his apartment in Willoughby. He opened the front door, tossed the keys on the counter, and passed out.

Today, attorney Dan Roth looks like a man on vacation. His California tan, the gold chain around his neck, and his orange "L.A." T-shirt suggest someone more inclined to be relaxing poolside than preparing briefs.

Maybe that's because Dan appreciates his freedom a bit more these days. He could just as easily be bunking with rapists and crackheads.

He's now working on a big case: rescuing his reputation. People used to recognize him from his TV and phone-book ads. Now they recognize him as the pervert lawyer who tried to do those horrible things to that girl. Action News doesn't do vindicated-pervert stories.

Dan drops a thick sheaf of papers on the table. This is the real story, he tells a reporter -- evidence that he was framed by his vengeful, estranged son.

"If you put all this together, a monkey would know what's going on," he says. "Why could Bill Mason not figure this out?"

But it's nothing that Detective Sloan and Prosecutor Horn haven't seen. And no jury verdict will change their minds.

"He was found not guilty," says Sloan. "But that doesn't mean he's innocent."

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