San Jose Mercury News

January 5, 1990
Section: Front
Edition: Morning Final
Page: 1A
LINDA GOLDSTON, Mercury News Staff Writer

Gary Hambright, a Southern Baptist minister who was accused of molesting dozens of children at the Presidio of San Francisco, has died of AIDS.

Hambright's death has rekindled fears among the parents of more than 60 children, who said they must now deal with the threat of AIDS in addition to problems stemming from the sexual abuse.

"Nothing anyone could say would come close to what we have been through and what we must now face for our children," said one mother.

Hambright, 36, a former teacher at the U.S. Army's Child Development Center at the Presidio, died Nov. 8 in Yakima, Wash., where his family lives.

Charges were filed twice and dropped both times against Hambright. He maintained his innocence throughout the controversial case, which began in November 1986 with allegations that a 3-year-old boy had been molested at the Presidio's day care center.

A former civilian employee of the center, Hambright apparently tried to keep his illness secret. When questioned by the Mercury News last spring, he denied he was ill and said, "I'm going to have to refer you to my attorneys on that." His death certificate, which was filed in Washington state, lists acquired immune deficiency syndrome as the cause of death. The time between onset of the disease and death was listed as "years."

It is not the first time that parents involved in the case have worried that their children may have been exposed to the AIDS virus. Shortly after the case broke, one boy's preliminary test came back positive. But further tests revealed that the child did not have the disease and the issue was dropped.

Last spring, Army officials recommended that children be tested for the AIDS virus, citing a "rumor" that a suspect in the case had the disease. "We tested every kid that was brought in," said Presidio spokesman Bob Mahoney. "That was done worldwide because the victims and their families were all dispersed."

Army won't discuss tests

Officials have said confidentiality laws prevent them from discussing either the number of children tested or the results of those tests. Mahoney said Thursday that it would be "inappropriate" to comment on Hambright's death.

Geoff Hansen and Nanci Clarence, the federal public defenders who represented Hambright, said they "both genuinely regret the news of Gary's death. We're deeply sorry that he spent the last years of his life fighting baseless charges."

U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello made the decision not to prosecute the case in 1988 after a federal judge dismissed the second set of charges because they were too vague. Russoniello's decision later drew sharp criticism from a congressional subcommittee. He could not be reached Thursday for comment.

In addition to allegations of sexual abuse at the Presidio, three arson fires were set at the day care center and five children were diagnosed with chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease.

Since the case began, parents have accused authorities of attempting to cover up the allegations of abuse, including the number of victims. Parents have maintained that more than 60 children were abused. One FBI document said as many as 102 children may have been victimized. The Army has refused to say how many cases were reported.

Parents have filed more than $60 million in claims against the Army in connection with the case, alleging that negligence led to the sexual abuse of their children. The claims are still pending.

Returned to die

Hambright returned to his native Washington to die, according to one of his sisters.

''He wanted to be home where we could care for him," said Carolyn Tatro of Yakima. "We loved him very much and we wanted to be together."

Before being hired at the Presidio day care center, Hambright had worked as a substitute teacher in several San Francisco high schools. Before that, he was active in youth and church groups in Yakima.

The Rev. J.D. Passmore, who presided at the funeral, said Hambright had planned his own service, including a statement that he wrote for an obituary. ''Through my illness, I have received so much love from the churches and health care agencies in helping me with my cancer . . ." said a portion of the statement. "I am now with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I hope that you also know the Lord Jesus Christ. I came into this world not alone and because of your help, I did not leave alone."