You'd be surprised how many of them had prior allegations. Nothing happened. You have to wonder what wouldn't have happened to these children if something had been done. And Brittney might still be alive. —Prosecutor Teresa Heinz
BAY MINETTE, Ala. — By most accounts, 19-year-old Brittney Wood was with uncle Donnie Holland the night of May 30, 2012, the last time anyone saw her. Holland — who was under investigation for horrific sex crimes at the time — died from a bullet within days in what was ruled a suicide.
The investigation that followed has publicly unraveled what authorities describe as a dark, twisted tale of perversion in the working-class neighborhoods and piney backwoods of coastal Alabama.
Eight of Woods' adult relatives and three family friends have been charged with dozens of felonies in two counties as the alleged members of an incestuous ring that authorities say shared children for group sex. Holland was the leader, prosecutors say, of what has been described as the largest sex ring ever uncovered in Alabama. Wood was a victim and likely key witness.
"Brittney could have been huge," said prosecutor Teresa Heinz. "She could have corroborated so many things."
Wood is presumed dead, but authorities haven't found a trace of her and no one is charged in her disappearance.
Even without Wood to testify, two of her uncles and an older brother already have pleaded guilty to sex charges, and jurors this month convicted a friend of Holland's of multiple sex charges in the first trial. Others — including the missing teen's mother, Chessie Wood, and two aunts — await trial.
Chessie Wood denies committing any crime, but says some of her closest relatives are guilty of abusing children, including of abusing her daughter.
"There are innocent people in this and there are guilty people in this," Wood, 39, said in an interview. "I don't know how the judicial system is going to figure it all out because they're not the sharpest tools in the shed."
Chessie Wood, accused of having sex with a young female relative, said she had no idea what was going on in the family until after her daughter's disappearance.
"The No. 1 thing here is to find Brittney. The No. 2 thing is to get all these sick (people) off the streets," she said.
Authorities are making plea-bargain offers and getting ready for more trials, but questions persist. Perhaps most troubling, why didn't child welfare workers pursue charges following what prosecutors describe as multiple complaints about sexual abuse within the family going back at least six years?
"You'd be surprised how many of them had prior allegations. Nothing happened," said Heinz, an assistant district attorney in Baldwin County. "You have to wonder what wouldn't have happened to these children if something had been done. And Brittney might still be alive."
The case is so big officials don't know exactly how many kids inside and outside the family might have been victimized; estimates range from 11 to 16 children who were as young as 3 or 4 when they were first molested or made to watch adult relatives during drug-fueled orgies. The children of the suspects have all been placed in foster care or with relatives who weren't involved in the crimes.
Brittney Wood isn't the alleged victim in any of the cases filed so far; each involved other young people, mostly within her family. But the investigation mushroomed only after she was reported missing and her uncle Donnie had died.
Authorities believe group sex and child sexual abuse went on for three generations in two families that merged when Holland married Wendy Wood, Chessie Woods' sister.
"Donnie was the manager. He'd say, 'I've got this child and this adult, come on over,'" said Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Nicki Patterson.
Brittney Wood, meanwhile, led a life that was troubled long before folks on the Alabama coast came to know her smile because of missing persons fliers posted in store windows and shared on social media.
The single mother of a daughter born when she was 17, Wood was molested as a child by a step-grandfather who went to prison for the crime, said Patterson. Before she went missing, Patterson said, Wood was using drugs and had a gun for personal protection while bouncing between relatives' homes; others often cared for her daughter.
A relative reported Holland for allegedly abusing one of the family girls in February 2012, authorities said, and word spread through the clan. Private Facebook messages provided to The Associated Press by Stephanie Hanke, Brittney Wood's stepmother, show that a female relative informed Wood about being raped by three male relatives on May 27, just three days before Wood vanished.
The night of the disappearance, cellphone records and witness accounts indicate Wood left west Mobile with Holland and crossed Mobile Bay into Baldwin County, where Holland was found two days later inside his SUV by his wife and one of her friends. He had been shot in the rear of his head behind an ear, which authorities considered an odd spot for a self-inflicted wound.
Holland was scheduled to be questioned about allegations of sexual abuse the very day he was found in the car on an isolated dirt road.
Wood's cellphone battery was in the vehicle with Holland, but there was no sign of the teen. Her gun was there as well, it was the only gun in the car. Holland never regained consciousness and died several days later.
After Holland died, relatives and police wondered about Wood.
"We didn't even realize she was missing until after they found him shot," said Hanke.
Searches for the teen began and the sex abuse probe picked up, too. Two of Woods's uncles, Dustin Kent and Scott Wood, were arrested within three weeks and later pleaded guilty to rape and sodomy. Aunts and family friends were eventually charged.
This month, family friend Billy Brownlee, 50, was convicted in Baldwin County on charges of sexually abusing a girl in the Holland family when she was about 12. Brownlee claimed Donnie Holland forced him into the acts against his will, but jurors needed only 20 minutes to return a guilty verdict.
Donnie Holland's 35-year-old wife, Wendy, is set for trial in early December in what could be a key prosecution. Court records show she has pleaded not guilty, and Heinz said she shows no interest in a plea agreement.
Still, authorities wonder how child sexual abuse could go on for years between so many people without anyone being charged until 2012. One girl accused an uncle of sexually abusing her as early as 2008, Heinz said, but welfare workers found the complaint unsubstantiated.
"You look at these reports and wonder, 'Why? How did it not go anywhere?'" said Heinz.
Barry Spear, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Human Resources, said privacy statutes prevent the agency from commenting.
"I can't even say whether we're had any involvement with this family at all," Spear said.