BELLINGHAM - Two years ago, four children came forward and recounted sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of a Whatcom County couple.
All of the charges against their alleged abusers - Robert Leland Palmer, 63, and Joann S. Palmer, 61 - were dropped last week, after deeper investigation turned up contradictions at the roots of the children's stories.
In all, prosecutors had accused the Palmers of 16 crimes of child rape, molestation and complicity to rape and molest children.
One of the older children first told investigators he was abused about eight years ago - when he was a teen under investigation for some sexual misconduct of his own. The other children told investigators he was making it all up, said deputy prosecutor Eric Richey.
But a few years later, after the new charges came to light, the roles were switched: The three younger children now said they were molested, but the older boy said he couldn't remember any abuse, according to prosecutors.
"At different times they said different things," Richey said. "I don't even know what actually happened."
In May 2010, one of the boys told a detective he suspected a sibling had been sexually abused. As for himself, he said at the time, he was never touched in an inappropriate way by the Palmers. But he noted odd punishments for the kids: He was often forced to stand or sit in uncomfortable positions for hours at a time, according to charges filed in Whatcom County Superior Court.
A few months later that boy, too, changed his story. He recalled being forced to perform oral sex on Robert while Joann guarded the door from the other children, according to the charges.
Prosecutors have looked into those claims, among many others, for the past two years. Ultimately, they found too many inconsistencies to proceed.
"There was enough evidence to contradict what they were saying," Richey said. "We didn't think we could prevail at trial."
Last week, prosecutors filed to have the charges dismissed without prejudice, meaning if new evidence comes to light the charges may be filed again.
Robert Palmer is still awaiting trial in a separate felony assault case. He stands accused of pointing a handgun at a disabled man and his son during a confrontation at the Palmer home.