Doctor ordered detained on child porn charges


A sign is seen on the door of the office of pediatrician Robert P. Dickey, who was charged with possesion of child pornography. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

To the families who knew him through the years in Southeast Washington, Robert Dickey was a caring and accessible pediatrician who dedicated decades to the wellness of thousands of children from the District’s poorest wards.

But this week, some of those families are reeling from the news that Dickey, 73, is in jail, under arrest for allegedly possessing child pornography on his office computer. And they are dealing with fear and uncertainty over whether their children might have been victims, too.

Federal authorities investigating the case said there is no indication that Dickey abused his patients or had pornography involving any of them. On Thursday, Dickey made his first appearance in U.S. District Court in Washington, where Magistrate Judge Alan Kay ordered him detained until May 23 to give prosecutors more time to analyze seized computer equipment.

The FBI said they searched Dickey’s office and arrested him Wednesday after the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tracked an Internet download to his computer.

According to a criminal complaint, the FBI found 14 images of child pornography on the computer, and agents found Dickey looking at some of the pictures when they raided his home office overlooking Fort Dupont Park in Southeast.

Parents who have taken their children to Dickey’s practice over the years said they were upset by the allegations and worried that there might be more to the case. One woman, who declined to be identified, said her 19-year-old son is “now thinking back and asking himself, ‘Did something else happen?’ ”

Eric Coleman, 43, the father of a 5-year-old patient of Dickey’s, went to the federal courthouse to watch the proceedings because he was worried that the doctor might be released.

“I’m glad he’s still in jail,” Coleman said after the hearing. “I’m saddened by what happened,” he added, noting that he had not yet told his child.

Along the placid, meandering street where Dickey lived and worked, neighbors reacted to the case with horror. Those related to patients said they had not told their children. Many said they felt betrayed by yet another institution responsible for caring for the most vulnerable.

“It’s the church, teachers, coaches,” said Kenneth Barnes, 58, a neighbor who counts six nieces and nephews among Dickey’s patients. “Now a doctor. Who can you trust anymore?”

Barnes said that only one of his nieces was still a patient of Dickey’s at the time of the arrest and that she never raised suspicions about his behavior. Barnes said he chatted with the doctor nearly every day as their paths crossed during their morning routines: Barnes walking his pit bull, Mimi, and Dickey riding his bike before seeing patients.

Barnes recalled that the day before the arrest, Dickey had told him how to relieve his allergic reactions to pollen. “I mean, who doesn’t want a doctor for a neighbor?” he said.

During Thursday’s hearing in federal court, Dickey, wearing a tan, short-sleeve shirt, sat hunched over a table. Guarded by deputy U.S. marshals, Dickey took off his glasses to put on a headset so he could hear better, and he responded to the judge’s questions with one- and two-word answers.

Outside the courtroom, Dickey’s wife, Michelle Dickey, and his attorney declined to comment. A relative led Michelle Dickey away without acknowledging the cluster of reporters and camera crews.

For a time, Dickey was one of the few pediatricians with practices east of the Anacostia River. His patients sometimes referred to him affectionately as “Dickey Doctor.”

“It was Dr. Dickey or nobody,” said Barnes, the neighbor. “We’re talking 30 years of service to a community that desperately needed doctors to treat black people.”

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, stressed that the two charges filed against Dickey allege only that he downloaded and possessed child pornography. The charges carry penalties of five to 20 years in prison.

Lindsay Godwin, a spokeswoman with the FBI’s Washington Field Office, said she could not comment on whether parents are calling with concerns or possible leads.

Dickey received a master’s degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1962. Then he worked as an engineer for the CIA, according to a Washington Post profile published in 1978. He graduated from the University of Minnesota’s medical school in 1970, according to that state’s Board of Medical Practices. His medical license is valid in the District through December 2014.

The Post’s profile described Dickey as a doctor revered for his generosity. He charged less to those who earned less, and his patients appreciated his long-standing commitment to a part of the city that was largely neglected.

More doctors and clinics do business now in wards 7 and 8 than when Dickey opened his practice in Anacostia in the late 1970s. But a comprehensive study by the D.C. Department of Health in 2011 concluded that health care in those areas still lags behind what is available in more-affluent parts of Washington. Department spokeswoman Najma Roberts said efforts are underway to change that.

Demand for Dickey’s services did not wane as conditions improved and he got older. He remained an institution. His patients became parents, and they, in turn, sent their children to him.

Barnes described the flow of patients on a typical weekday. Shortly after 7 a.m., cars would line both sides of the street, and parents would tow their children inside to see the doctor.

On Thursday, people were still coming, but this time, it was to claim medical files so they could change doctors.

Dickey’s large red-brick home was sealed, and a sign on the side door leading to his exam rooms read, “Office closed.” A note urged people to fax requests for medical records; the answering machine was full, and nobody came to the door.

A woman pulled up in a minivan driven by her husband and jotted down the fax number. She has five children, some grown and some, including 4-year-old twins, who were seeing Dickey before his arrest.

“My children loved him,” said the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous to protect her children. “Whenever my boy bangs or bruises something, he says to me, ‘Get Dickey Doctor.’ ”

Parents said Dickey answered his phone 24 hours a day and talked them through countless sleepless nights with sick children.

The woman in the minivan said Dickey guided her over the telephone as she reset her daughter’s dislocated shoulder, making the trip to the hospital easier.

Now, the woman said, “I feel sick to my stomach.”

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