La Grande Police Department Sgt. Dusty Perry sat in the driver’s seat of his patrol car the first week of July. He had his uniform on, which he hadn’t worn in a while. It was his first week back on patrol, and he was still getting used to some things.

Perry had just completed a three-year stint as a detective for the police force. He was one of only two at the police department, and while he said it was the most rewarding experience in his law-
enforcement career, he was glad to be back on patrol.

On that early July day, he talked about the home projects he’s got planned. He bought an old Volkswagen Beetle for his wife years ago that he wants to fix up. He said he didn’t have the opportunity to work on the car when he worked as a detective.

“We used to have four detectives,” Perry told The Observer. “One for the drug task force, one who focused on adult sex abuse cases and two for everything else.”

A couple years ago, the police department lost a grant that funded a detective to cover domestic violence and adult sex abuse cases. The drug task force detective has since been taken away as well. This leaves the two detectives on the force with the heavy responsibility of covering all investigations, from crimes such as arson and assault to neglect and abuse.

According to LGPD Sgt. Jason Hays, who took over for Perry as the detective, an average of 29 reports of abuse are made to the detective unit each month. Those complaints don’t necessarily lead to investigations, Hays said. However, they all are followed up on. Generally, 70 percent of the investigations revolve around neglect, he said. Fifteen percent involve elder abuse and the other 15 percent are reports of child sex abuse.

Perry said he gradually learned what worked best for him as an investigator during his three years in that role. The first year, he said, he had to get used to managing a wide variety of cases.

“It’s a juggling act with the cases,” Perry said. “You have to set a priority list for them.”

Some of the cases he worked on were about events that happened years ago. While those are important, he said, priority has to be given to investigations into events that just happened.

After that initial first year, he said, he began to trust his decisions more.

“At that point, when you’re getting more cases, you’re pretty vested,” he said. “You develop a passion.”

The child sex abuse cases are what affected Perry the most over the last three years. He said working with the young victims tugs at detectives’ heartstrings. They can’t help but take the work seriously. Perry said after a while he developed his own interview style. He gained more confidence in how to talk to the accused.

Investigating accusations of a sensitive nature requires a special approach to get the truth, he said.

“I think being straight with them is always best,” Perry said. “I don’t want to bluff them.”

The key is to be patient, he said. “Let them talk.”

One of the sex abuse cases Perry worked on involved Jacob Pomerleau, who was found guilty of four counts of first-degree sodomy, two counts of first-degree rape, two counts of sexual abuse, first-degree unlawful sexual penetration and incest in 2017. Pomerleau received 31 years for the guilty verdict.

In the initial interview with Pomerleau, Perry said, the man seemed to want to talk about what he had done.

Michael Jacob Altherr-Miller, another of Perry’s investigations, was found guilty of three counts of first-degree sexual abuse and three counts of third-degree sexual abuse in July. He was sentenced to more than 18 years in prison.

The interviews were very different, Perry said.

Altherr-Miller had been arrested before, the sergeant said, and “it was no big deal to be interviewed by the cops.”

But for Pomerleau, that was likely his first run in with law enforcement.

Altherr-Miller’s approach to the accusations was to deny and discredit the victim, Perry said. He confessed to some things — namely cheating on the victim’s mother — and admitted he had a problem with fidelity, but he denied the serious accusations and directed the questions away from him.

Perry said being a father himself made his experience as a detective even more personal.

“You take these cases home with you,” he said. “You’re always thinking about the cases. What you have to do, who you have to interview. Having kids changes how you view these cases.”

Perry said he couldn’t help but think about what these children have gone through.

“You have it in your mind, and it’s not true, but you think you’re the only person who can help them,” Perry said.

All the key players involved in sex abuse cases — the LGPD, the Department of Human Services, Mt. Emily Safe Center and the District Attorney’s Office — take their responsibility very seriously.

“We all go out of our way to minimize the trauma for these children,” Perry said. “These kids have to start off by telling a stranger about something terrible that happened to them.”

The number of child abuse cases have risen dramatically over the last 10 years, Sgt. Hays said. From 2007 through 2017, the number of reports of child abuse has risen 110 percent, partially due to the increasing number of mandatory reporters — people who are required to report a possible case of abuse — he said.

In 2007, there were seven identified occupations that were mandatory reporters. In 2017, there were 27 occupations. In Altherr-Miller’s case, the victim made a disclosure, which led to two mandatory reporters bringing it to the proper authorities.

Of the 29 cases on average the police department receives for abuse every month, 10 of them generally result in full police investigations. Hays said he’s working on eight cases currently. Two of those cases involve child sex abuse.

Det. Ralph Graffunder, the other LGPD detective, said it’s very rare to have only one victim in a child sex abuse case. The detectives must interview other family members or children the accused would have come into contact with.

The child sex abuse cases are not the only investigations the police are working on, but they take priority over most others.

Perry said when there’s an investigation into a series of crimes — like the recent string of arson in La Grande — the detectives focus their efforts on solving those cases. In the meantime, though, the complaints continue to come in.

“We are dedicated to doing this job,” Perry said. “We keep people accountable. We take it very personally.”