A child sex abuser evaded justice in Kenya. Then an ‘ordinary woman’ took matters into her own hands.
By Max Bearak And Rael Ombuor
February 04, 2021
|Daisy Chelagat, 25, stands outside her home with her child. Her son James Kipkirui died in the custody of the Dow Family Children's Home when he was 9 months old.|
|The main building of the former Dow Family Children's Home, where Gregory Dow carried out acts of sexual abuse. He pleaded guilty to four charges of illicit sexual conduct and was sentenced Thursday.|
|A repossession notice hangs in a window at the former Dow Family Children's Home. |
|Davis Bett, 45, looks at a photo of himself with Dow during his time working at the Dow Family Children's Home.|
|The shallow grave where James Kipkirui was buried after his death under unusual circumstances at the Dow Family Children's Home.|
|Sharon, 16, outside the home where she lives with her mother and siblings. She was taken to the Dow Family Children's Home when she was 7, but ran away at 12. She said she spoke to the FBI during its investigation and describes her time at the orphanage as "horrible and disgusting." Sharon and her mother agreed for her to be photographed on the condition that only her first name be used to identify her.|
NAIROBI — Some coincidences are impossible to ignore.
Margaret Ruto, a Pennsylvania nurse in her mid-30s, thought she was returning to the rolling green hills of Kenya’s tea-growing region to care for her ailing mother-in-law.
Instead, a fluke of fate awaited her: A man who lived just 10 minutes from her home in the United States had opened an orphanage not 10 minutes from her ancestral village in Kenya — and children were saying they had been sexually abused there.
It was the summer of 2018, and she found the village in uproar. Two girls, 12 and 14, had recently escaped and shared horror stories of sexual abuse at the hands of the orphanage’s director, Gregory Dow.
Ruto was led to a rumpled patch of earth behind the orphanage. Former employees said a 9-month-old boy buried there had died a few years earlier after choking on something while he’d been left unsupervised.
Standing over the grave, she felt dizzy. It was a moment that would divide her life into a before and an after: a transformation from an “ordinary woman” into a detective.
Dow, whom she would spend the next year chasing, had already fled back to Pennsylvania after members of the community confronted him and alerted authorities. Kenyan police say they missed catching him at the airport by just a few hours.
Locals told Ruto they feared that this entitled, White foreigner claiming to be a devout Christian was going to evade justice.
“I was meant to know about this,” she remembered thinking. “And I was meant to do something about it.”
Turmoil lay ahead that Ruto, a dual U.S.-Kenyan citizen, could scarcely have imagined: sleuthing on two continents, constantly looking over her shoulder, working through the trauma of child sex abuse survivors, and sobbing uncontrollably in her car, all while compiling a shocking investigation that would eventually make it into the hands of FBI agents, splash across the front pages of every Kenyan newspaper and dramatically alter Kenya’s child services policies.
The only hint of her involvement until now has been an official acknowledgment that the FBI was “acting on a tip.”
After agreeing to a plea deal, Gregory Dow, now 61, was sentenced Thursday in a U.S. federal court to 188 months in prison on four counts of “engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places.” Dow will be nearly 80 years old if he makes it to the end of his sentence.
Dow’s plea deal acknowledges guilt on all charges brought against him. His attorneys did not make Dow available to respond to the allegations of deaths at the orphanage, saying only that he had never publicly addressed those claims. A special clause in the U.S. penal code allows for prosecution of child abuse cases committed by Americans overseas.
During the sentencing hearing Thursday, Dow apologized “for the pain that I’ve caused.” Judge Edward G. Smith called him “a missionary from hell.”
Ruto is coming forward with her story because she — and the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office that prosecuted Dow — hope it will inspire similar sleuthing instincts in others.
I allowed my daughter to take her children to the White man because of poverty. I do not think any person in this village can ever give their children out to a White man again.
Lucia Langat, James’s grandmother
“Ultimately, Ms. Ruto’s information found its way to a team of dedicated FBI agents, who … gathered the evidence required to charge Dow and hold him accountable for the monstrous abuse he perpetrated on his victims,” William M. McSwain, the U.S. attorney at the time in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “This case is a textbook example of the ways in which the public can assist law enforcement in bringing sexual predators like Dow, and other criminals, to justice.”
Separately, Kenyan police exhumed and autopsied the body of the 9-month-old, James Kipkirui, as part of an ongoing investigation into the circumstances of his death, according to Johansen Oduor, the government’s chief forensic pathologist.
Three summers ago, Ruto made a silent, solemn promise that nothing would stop her — not corrupt authorities in Kenya and not sticky-slow bureaucracy in the United States — from pursuing justice for the children at the orphanage.
“I’m just an ordinary woman, a nurse, a mother,” she recalled recently. “I had no idea what I was getting into.”
‘Will someone believe me?’
Kenya has a vast array of missionary-run institutions, including nursing homes, schools and orphanages. Often, impoverished families avoid extra financial burden by sending their children and elderly to live at these charitable institutions.
When the Dow Family Children’s Home opened in 2008, foreigners were not required to submit to background checks. It is possible that no one in Kenya was aware Dow had been a registered sex offender in the United States until 2006.
Dow’s case was the latest abuse scandal linked to White missionaries in Kenya. In 2016, for instance, a 21-year-old Oklahoma man named Matthew Durham was sentenced in a U.S. federal court to 40 years in prison for molesting eight children at a Nairobi orphanage. Years earlier, a prominent Italian Catholic priest was accused of molesting boys in his care, and while Kenyan authorities dropped charges for a lack of evidence, suspicion still lingers.
At least 83 children ages 9 months to 18 years lived in Dow’s home before it was closed in 2017, after two girls escaped and their parents filed cases with the police.
Those tip-offs and others led to the arrest of Dow’s wife, Mary Rose, who ran the orphanage with him, on child abuse charges. Dow, however, “managed to escape” to the United States, where he insisted on his and his wife’s innocence, according to Simon Chelugui, Kenya’s minister of labor and social services. Kenyan authorities said that they informed Interpol, the international policing body, of the allegations against Dow, but that he remained free in Pennsylvania, where he continued to deny any wrongdoing.
In an email to his funders and supporters in September 2017, Dow explained his wife’s arrest and his decision to flee Kenya as resulting from “an orchestrated effort by a number of disgruntled youth, dysfunctional family members, a former employee and some family members” who had “fanned a fire of rebellion and hatred over the locals and authorities.”
On her trip back to Kenya, Ruto took stock of the community’s anger. She gained the trust of the abused girls and their parents and took down their gut-wrenching version of events in notepads and videos on her phone.
This case is a textbook example of the ways in which the public can assist law enforcement in bringing sexual predators like Dow, and other criminals, to justice.
William M. McSwain, former U.S. attorney
Twelve- and 14-year-old girls told her about being taken by Mary Rose to a clinic to have “matchsticks” put in their upper arms. Recognizing them as the birth-control implant Norplant, Ruto began to understand the extent of the crimes that the husband and wife who ran the home might have committed.
Kenyan and U.S. investigators would later confirm Ruto’s hunch, with McSwain describing the procedure as a way for Dow to “perpetrate his crimes without fear of impregnating his victims” in a Department of Justice news release on the case.
“The girls would tell me how Dow would take the older ones, a different one each time, and force them to have sex with him,” she said on a trip back to Kenya last year. The girls spoke of being forced to drink alcohol or eat soap if they disobeyed any advances Dow made. Court documents in the U.S. trial against Dow as well as the Kenyan trial for Mary Rose include testimony from girls relaying the same experiences.
Mary Rose was found guilty in January 2018 on four counts of child abuse, but was released after paying a fine of about $500 in lieu of two years’ imprisonment. During the trial, in which she pleaded not guilty, she told a Kenyan court that she took girls to get birth-control implants because they were “promiscuous.” (Mary Rose has since left Kenya. She did not respond to a request for comment, and U.S. law enforcement authorities would not say why she wasn’t charged alongside her husband.)
That same year, from her home just down the road from Dow’s in Pennsylvania, Ruto sought what information she could about him, using his public Facebook page to contact people in his network. She even knocked on Dow’s door, but he didn’t open it. She enlisted a Facebook group called KWITU — Kenyan Women in the United States — to help raise public outcry in Pennsylvania.
When Ruto approached the police in Lancaster, they referred her to the district attorney’s office, which passed her to the State Department and ultimately the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.
“I hit a wall there. Nobody would commit to following it up,” she said. “For the longest time, I wondered, will someone hear me, will someone believe me? Dow had been saying Kenyans are volatile people, jealous people — that people made this all up to try and take his land. I was afraid people were going to believe that.”
After several months of trying, Ruto changed course and took her investigation to the LNP, a newspaper in Lancaster. She believes that is what it took to get U.S. authorities more seriously involved. Just days after the LNP piece published, she got a call from the FBI requesting a meeting. Dow was arrested months later after the FBI concluded its own investigation.
Coping with the trauma
To cooperate with that investigation, Ruto kept her involvement mostly to herself at the request of law enforcement officials.
But locals who live in the area around the orphanage say they knew of her involvement and admired her decision to help instead of just returning home to the United States. In Kenya, it often takes money or status to spur the police to file cases or otherwise pursue justice. She had influence in a way few in the village did.
“If it were not for Maggie’s extreme efforts, everybody and everything would have been in darkness,” said Davis Bett, who used to work as a gardener at the orphanage.
Bett and other employees had confronted Dow about his abusive behavior and also tried to alert local social services officials, but say they were rebuffed.
“At one point, I reached out to the children’s department and one of the officials told me that the home was ‘a small America in the village’ and that I should leave Gregory alone,” Bett said.
Ruto, Bett and others say that, based on their conversations with girls from the home, Dow sexually abused more than the four in whose cases he was convicted. They also say Kenyan authorities have been slow to investigate the deaths of children at the home like 9-month-old James.
Local officials say that James’s body was exhumed and that an autopsy was performed in June 2019. But no cause of death was determined and the body was not returned to his family members, who say they are still waiting for communication from the government.
“I allowed my daughter to take her children to the White man because of poverty,” said Lucia Langat, 50, James’s grandmother. “I do not think any person in this village can ever give their children out to a White man again.”
After the orphanage closed, the children were sent to other homes or back to parents who had left them there as infants and toddlers.
I’m just an ordinary woman, a nurse, a mother. I had no idea what I was getting into.
Since then, Kenya has imposed a moratorium on foreigners opening orphanages, and requires more-stringent background checks to be done during the processing of missionary visas. Locals supported those moves and were pleased that Dow will potentially spend the rest of his life in prison, but they expressed bitterness at being left alone to cope with the trauma.
Dow “deserved a life sentence. These children called him ‘Dad.’ That was a deep betrayal,” said Mary Rotich, Langat’s neighbor. “What can ease the suffering of these families is compensation to make their lives better.”
Ruto, too, is haunted by the cases the FBI was ultimately unable to corroborate. It is part of what spurred her to enroll this year in an online criminal justice course, which she attends in between grueling shifts taking care of coronavirus patients at a Lancaster nursing home.
“It was not just four girls,” Ruto said. “The rest of the victims and their families deserve so much better. You can’t say that justice has been fully done yet.”