By Fred Dickey August 19, 2013
Journalists like to think we travel the smoothly paved highway of truth, but we’re often surprised at the unmapped routes it can take and the unlit side roads that we chance upon.
Last Monday, I profiled a man named Claude Edwards. It was a gentle look at a 59-year-old bird expert who is nearing total blindness and struggling to keep doing his life’s work, the work he loves. Now that he can’t see birds, he can only identify them by their sounds.
He is an ornithologist of repute who has a series of trails named after him at the Anstine-Audubon Nature Preserve in Vista.
It was a soft story of human striving.
In it, Edwards made an almost-accusation that during the two-plus years since blindness forced him to the birding sidelines, his friendships had dried up and past companions disappeared. Not a pretty picture of some in birding circles.
The morning my column appeared, emails of sympathy, good wishes and support flowed into my inbox.
Deanne Collins wrote to Edwards, “I wish you well and keep hearing the loving sounds of the birds you know so much about.”
Charlene Butler wrote, “Many, many years ago I took a couple of birding tours with (Edwards). He was wonderful.”
The Audubon Society posted on Facebook, “This is a lovely piece in the U-T San Diego about a longtime Audubon Society friend, Claude Edwards. … Even while losing his eyesight, so far this year Claude has identified 239 bird species, almost all by ear.”
But then …. But then …
One email reached out and hit me with a club. It said Edwards was a convicted child molester, that his estrangement from other birders was due to his conviction and not his failing eyesight.
I researched the accusation on Megan’s List. It was true. Claude Edwards was convicted of “lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14.” It gave no other details.
My first inclination was to brush aside the whole affair as not pertinent to my column. But I soon found out that Edwards’ sexual molestation conviction was already a matter of controversy — and punishment — among leaders and activists of local birding and naturalist communities. It had already gone public, beyond me and my story.
I also realized that with the exposure given by Megan’s List and an angrier public, how people on the list are treated is indeed a broader issue.
I remember having asked Edwards at the end of my interview with him: “Is there anything else you want to tell me or that I should know?” He answered no, and that was that.
That “no” answer merited another conversation with Claude Edwards.
I first turned to Edwards’ main antagonist — or as Edwards sees it, his tormentor. Douglas Aguillard, 50, is a prominent birder from National City who has made it a mission to make Edwards persona non grata in the birding community.
Aguillard emailed that my column was a “pity” piece that allowed Edwards to say the birding community had abandoned him. “It was not because of his (approaching blindness), but because he is a child molester.
“I’m sorry, but yes, I hate him, as I do any child molesters or rapists. Myself (sic) and others will not let him escape his so-called past.
“He is a sick monster. I expect that you will do the right thing and tell the public the truth about (him).”
Aguillard and Edwards go back a long way. Aguillard said, “I’ve known Claude since I was about 12, and I can honestly say he never (tried) anything with me. The first time I met him, my father pointed him out. He goes, ‘You know, he’s different.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He goes, ‘Well, he’s a homosexual.’ ”
When did you find out about his conviction?
“About seven or eight years ago, perhaps longer.”
Do you know the details of his offense?
Do you know when it happened?
Do you know what his penalty was?
“No, I don’t.”
Aguillard said once he found out about the conviction, he started informing other birders. He said major naturalist organizations also heard about it and fired Edwards or let him know he was no longer welcome.
Aguillard took his cause to the San Diego Audubon Society. He reported Edwards’ offense to president Peter Thomas in 2010. Thomas responded that the conviction was in the past and Edwards had since comported himself cleanly.
Aguillard said he told Thomas, ‘It doesn’t matter. He’s a convicted child molester. He doesn’t need to be around kids.’ I guess more phone calls were made, and eventually the (organization) let Claude go.”
Do you know if Edwards was guiding children without adult supervision?
“No, I don’t. I highly doubt that. There aren’t too many kids that are into birding. It’s usually kids tagging along with their parents.”
Do you feel sorry for him?
“Not at all.”
If you talked to Claude, what would you say?
“I don’t talk to Claude. I just don’t. My honest opinion is, child molesters, rapists and murderers should all be put on death row. I don’t tolerate anyone hurting kids.”
Claude Edwards knows what is coming. He is sitting at a dinette table in the Normal Heights bungalow he shares with his domestic partner. He is staring straight ahead into the kitchen. Though I am sitting at 90 degrees to him, he doesn’t look at me. It doesn’t matter. I’d only be a soft-focus outline to this near-blind man.
His child molestation conviction, already a public issue among leaders of birding and naturalist groups, is about to be broadened to a nightmarish scale.
The muscles in his arms are ribbed with tension. His lower jaw is trembling — no, shivering — like a naked man’s in winter. The man is trapped in purgatory. I feel like a peeping Tom, peering into someone’s stripped soul.
To do this is not why I became a journalist.
Before I start my questions, Edwards speaks softly, as though to himself. “I’ve had nightmares about this. I knew it would happen someday.”
I tell him that Megan’s List offers few details, and I’d like to know more about the incident — crime, actually.
He said it happened at an overnight nature camp in May 1977. He does the math for emphasis — 36 years ago. He was 23. One morning, Edwards said, he walked by a boy sleeping in a bunk and fondled his genitals, skin to skin. He said nothing happened beyond a brief touching.
He was arrested and spent one night in jail. Court records show that months later he pleaded guilty, was fined $600, given a suspended 20-day jail term and put on three years of probation. He also was examined by a court-chosen psychiatrist and found not to be “a mentally disordered sex offender.”
I ask a necessary but lame-sounding question: Why did you do it?
Edwards’ answer is anguished. “I don’t know. … I don’t know why. It was wrong of me. It was abusive. I don’t know why.”
People might be concerned that it indicated a dangerous compulsion.
“I’ve never acted on any.”
But do you have such a compulsion?
“That’s a loaded question. I’m human.”
Most people would answer, “Hell no! Are you crazy?”
“I’ve managed to live for 36 years since that event, and have avoided it happening again. I don’t think that I am oriented or that I am attracted to kids. I don’t think I secretly look for or yearn to be around young people.”
Have you gone to a therapist and asked: “Why did I do that?”
Have you ever led a child or been with a group of children when no other adults are present?
“No, never. In fact, I have expressly avoided being around parks, schools, even family groupings. It makes me nervous to be around kids.”
Edwards said in recent years, as word of his conviction has spread, he has been fired or made unwelcome as a naturalist or ornithologist at the San Diego Audubon Society; Cabrillo National Monument, where he had been associated for 20 years; the San Diego Natural History Museum; and the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve in Poway.
Were you ever deceptive to those organizations about your conviction?
“I never denied it.” But, he adds, “I’m not going to go around telling people I’m a sex offender just because. I’m not going to wear a name tag that says I’m a sex offender.”
Edwards makes his third or fourth apology cum plea: “I have been stained by it. There has not been one day since that I have not regretted it. I’m sorry for it. It has marred my life. I knew it was wrong at the time. It was sinful. I ask forgiveness.”
What would you like the outcome of this to be?
“I want for Doug (Aguillard) to go away. I don’t know why he hates me. I want for people’s opinions to be based on their acquaintance with me. My life and my behavior since is the true me. I’m a good person. I want to live my life in peace and share my knowledge.
“This has been a lifetime sentence.”
The San Diego Audubon Society is the synapse of local birding. It’s home base for about 3,800 birders, many of them first-rank. It is where birders go to commune, network and learn more about a field that attracts followers with the zeal of face-painted Chargers fans.
If a birder finds the Audubon welcome mat jerked up in front of him, there’s really no comparable place to go. He’s in exile.
It’s in that sedate organization that the struggle over Claude Edwards has been waged most tensely.
Peter Thomas is a retired physician living in Tierrasanta. He is a board member of the society, and was president on April 1, 2011, the day the society allegedly slammed the door in Edwards’ face.
Thomas was asked about rumors that the state and national Audubon organizations lobbied against Edwards being allowed to continue in the group.
“That conclusion might be drawn by a rational individual,” he said carefully.
On that same day, he accompanied the society’s executive director, Chris Redfern, to Edwards’ house to discuss his role in the group. To Thomas’ surprise, “(Redfern) told Claude that he was no longer welcome in any capacity, or to participate in any function of San Diego Audubon. I have a distant memory of him saying, ‘I am no longer comfortable with you having anything to do with this organization.’”
While this conversation was happening, Edwards said, a distraught Thomas left the room.
You were president. Did you know that was going to happen?
Did you agree with it?
“No. If I could do it over, I would have said to wait for board approval” before ousting Edwards. Thomas adds, however, that such approval would certainly have been forthcoming.
From that day forward, Edwards was unwelcome at the Audubon Society, Thomas said.
Redfern said of the April 1 meeting that he only asked Edwards to resign as a volunteer.
Do you think Edwards will ever be welcomed back into the San Diego Audubon Society?
Thomas doesn’t hesitate. “No. I don’t think they’re ever going to do that.”
Thomas is obviously troubled by Edwards being grouped with all other sex offenders, regardless of the nature of his crime. He thinks that is “A very fearful attitude on the part of society. It’s the unwillingness to look at specific circumstances. It’s an incredible injustice to the individuals, (and) a disservice to society as a whole.”
Redfern said he sought advice from lawyers and other corporations and nonprofits before he got rid of Edwards. He said many other organizations follow the same sort of better-safe-than-sorry policy toward registered sex offenders.
Thomas concludes: “(Edwards) is a really good human being. … This has caused angst in me, but doctors learn they have to tell the truth.”
Revulsion against sex crimes has created a stonewall of intolerance toward any type of offense, especially perpetrated against children. It is the current criminal-justice mark of Cain. It is long overdue, said the public consensus, and a hardening of our collective heart is often the result.
However, I sense an uneasiness among many that perhaps we should evaluate offenders by the nature and severity of their crimes; that those of less violent crimes, who have no repeat offenses over time, should be eventually — and carefully — allowed to regain a more respected public standing.
In this issue, there seems to be no middle position. The battle lines are parallel and faced off against each other. Which side holds the higher ground?
Is it the aging ornithologist — and child molester — who is dreading the light going out of his eyes, who desperately clings to the hope of sharing his love of birds and earning a living wage from that expertise?
Or is it those who consider him a monster, a man who they think will always be a danger to innocent youths? The strident ones are joined by others, more compassionate, who respect and like Edwards, but who feel the risk to the public does not warrant putting trust in a man who has molested a child.
Should Edwards be welcomed back into the birding community under the strictures that he himself said he abides by? Or, out of caution, should he be kept at arm’s length to protect potential victims?
Which is Claude Edwards: sympathetic birder or untrustworthy pedophile?
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is runner-up Print Journalist of the Year for 2013, an honor from the Los Angeles Press Club. He believes every life is an adventure, and invites your comments and ideas via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2013 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.