He was 5 years old, a blue-eyed blond with a lively imagination. "A crack-up," his mother calls him. He told stories about bugs that were big enough to eat the Statue of Liberty and telephones oozing with slime.
One day, at his grandmother's urging, he told her about something he said his parents had "taught" him. She took the boy and his younger brother to the Frederick County Department of Social Services and told investigators the children had been sexually abused.
What followed over the next six months included a police raid on the parents' home, allegations of sex abuse against 14 family members, three different foster homes for the boys, exhaustive psychiatric examinations, the loss of a family business and nearly $65,000 in legal fees and other costs.
Ultimately, a Circuit Court judge ruled the parents had not abused the children. No charges were brought against the 12 other family members the boy eventually implicated, including the grandmother.
The judge dismissed the case, returned the boys home and told county social workers to leave the family alone.
But, to DSS, the children are still victims. The agency carries the case as "indicated," in records that are never expunged. Indirectly, the parents remain accused.
"They're not bound by the judge's decision, they make an independent determination," said the parents' attorney, Steven D. Kupferberg of Rockville. "Their position is that, as long as it's kept confidential, it's OK. That's in theory. But in practice these records are disseminated. By court subpoena, by word of mouth."
The parents challenged the records in an administrative law hearing Wednesday, but the hearing examiner said he had no jurisdiction. The parents' only alternative is a constitutional appeal.
Tapped out financially and emotionally, the parents are weary of the fight. At the same time, they want other parents to benefit from what they learned.
"The only thing you can do is maintain your innocence -- absolutely, forever," the father said.
DSS cannot, by law, speak about specific cases. However, asked about his agency's timeliness in dealing with such cases, a supervisor said investigations usually are completed within 60 days. Court hearings prolong the process, he said.
The grandmother declined requests, made through an intermediary, to discuss her role. She and her daughter do not have a good relationship, her daughter says, and the grandmother is suing for visitation rights with her grandchildren.
But the parents -- who first contacted The Evening Sun last summer -- want to talk about how their family was almost destroyed because a 5-year-old boy decided to play with a tube of toothpaste.
This is their account, supported where possible by transcripts and records. Pseudonyms for family members have been used to protect the children's privacy.
On May 30, 1990, 5-year-old Colin was in the bathroom at the home of his grandmother, Alice. He took a tube of toothpaste and squeezed it on his penis. His grandmother walked in.
"Who taught you to do that?" she asked.
Colin told her the name of a playmate. Later, interviews with the friend and his parents would show Colin's friend had been using an ointment for a genital rash at the time.
But the answer apparently did not satisfy Colin's grandmother.
"Did your mom and dad teach you to do that?" she asked him.
Colin's mother, Julie, believes the 5-year-old saw the second question as a chance to escape punishment. "His motive was not to get spanked," Julie says now. He knew his grandmother could not interfere with his mother's rules.
"Yes, they taught me this," he said.
Alice telephoned her daughter and asked to keep the children overnight. It was her husband Jon's birthday, so Julie was delighted by her mother's offer. She drove to Jon's office, where he was working late, with a picnic supper.
Jon and Julie did not know until 12:38 a.m., when the police raided their Frederick tract home, that DSS had obtained an emergency shelter care order for their children.
Colin had been interviewed by a state trooper and a social worker. Whatever he told them -- such interviews are not recorded or videotaped -- apparently convinced them the children had been abused.
"They were almost giddy. They were going to make their name with us," Julie says.
"They thought they had a pornography ring," Jon says. "We were white, middle class, educated -- it was great."
The police, who had a warrant, went straight to a basket by the family room sofa, looking for pornographic magazines Colin reportedly had described. They found only home-decorating magazines.
Finally, an officer took Jon to the squad car and informed him of his rights. Colin and his 2-year-old brother, Brent, were in protective custody.
A judge would have to determine if Colin and Brent were CINA -- children in need of assistance. If he ruled the children were at risk for sexual abuse in their parents' home, they would remain in foster care.