BREAKING: Abuse Allegations Against Judge John Bowman Cap a History of Conflict With Ex-Foster Son

Update: Details of the sex abuse allegations from a police report.

Original post, 1/24 5:30 p.m.: In December, 18-year-old Charles Harper was arrested on charges of stalking his ex-foster father, John Bowman. Bowman is a circuit court judge in Broward County and presided over hundreds of adoption cases before bringing Harper into his own home.

Now, a month after his arrest, Harper has made detailed allegations to New Times of sexual abuse by the judge during his first few years in the house. He has not substantiated the claims except for corresponding stories from his mother and sister.

Harper told New Times that he was going to give a statement to Plantation police today alleging abuse by

Bowman. [Update 1/25: Here is a police report of that statement.]

The back story shows Judge Bowman mixing his judicial work with his personal life, both in his decision to bring Harper into his home after the court took away Harper's mother's parental rights, and in his subsequent marriage to a former assistant attorney general who advocated for children in his court.

Harper and his family have aired some serious allegations against Bowman, including abuse. The accounts provided to New Times by Harper and Bowman are sharply divergent. 

When asked about the abuse allegations, Bowman told New Times, "If you publish that, I will sue you into the ground." He flatly denies the claims of abuse. "That's sort of outrageous, of course, and crazy," he says. "He never said that before.... This is a first [from him]. In all this time, this is a first." 

"I'm not going to be slandered by a dirtbag," he adds, referring to Harper.

Harper, his mother, Debby, and his half-brother, Joseph Gibbs, 26, say they appeared in Broward family court around 2001 or 2002, when Charles was 9 years old. They say a judge terminated Danielle's parental rights, barring her from seeing her children because she was living with an abusive boyfriend.

Bowman says that the injunction barring contact between Debby and her children already existed when he became involved with Charles Harper's case: "When I took that case over, her rights had long since been terminated," Bowman says, explaining that he was presiding over routine six-month reviews of Harper's foster-care situation.

State records show that Bowman's wife-to-be, Claudette Vanni, was working in Bowman's dependency court from September 2001 to September 2003, but she was never assigned to Harper's case. The Harper family is unable to provide exact dates, and the records are currently under seal.

The story of how Harper ended up in Bowman's care is unclear on both sides. Harper doesn't remember much of it, and Debby didn't hear from him after her rights were terminated. Bowman says that while in foster care, Harper "started writing to me. He had all these therapists, and they encouraged him to write." Apparently Bowman, while only seeing Harper briefly once every six months, was enough of a figure in his life to inspire such contact.

Harper says Bowman sent him to an Eckerd Camp for at-risk kids in northern Florida, and paid the staff to take him on a trip to the zoo during Christmas break. "The judge was the only person I knew when I was in Eckerd," he says. "I would write to him asking for things, when I needed new boots, etc. He'd send them to me. Then he started inviting me to visit his house.... When I was 11, he took me into his home. It was just me and him in the house."

"He seemed to be a good kid," says Bowman. "When you're a caring person you sort of get sucked into that kind of thing." Harper was the only child that Bowman took into his home.

Debby Harper claims that about a year after Bowman ordered her not to see her kids, she learned through an acquaintance that he had begun to take care of her son. "When I first found out, I was furious," says Danielle. "I immediately contacted Channel 7 News... but they didn't do a story because the [custody] records were sealed."

"The judge kind of just took my brother home like a pet," says Joseph Gibbs.

Bowman claims he was a victim of the 11-year-old child even then. "He came to me and said, 'Aren't I smart? I got a judge to take me in,'" says Bowman. "He wanted to use that power to get back with his family. He was trying to manipulate us."

Harper describes an atmosphere of lax supervision when the judge wasn't around, especially after he married Claudette. When Claudette was home, Harper says, "she sat in her room 24/7. I have driven her car [without her permission], and she didn't even notice."

While things were getting violent in their household, the Bowmans were preparing to adopt Harper. "We were one or two weeks away from the final adoption," says the judge. "He was threatening us constantly, but we always forgave him for everything."

Bowman claims that Harper told him, "I want you to adopt me because I'm going to kill you and take your inheritance."

Harper counters: "That was not true. I didn't want them to adopt me. I said, 'If I turn 18 and you guys ditch me like every other family does, then I won't have any money....' I'm not that stupid. I know that if you kill your parents you don't get their inheritance."

Bowman says that Harper's treatment of Claudette was particularly vicious. "He threatened her with a condom, threatened her sexually," he says. "He threatened all of us on multiple occasions."

Harper says, "Before they kicked me out of the house, [they tried to] make me look bad. I've never threatened [Claudette]. Plus, why would I want someone that old when I was a teenager?"

In addition to the allegations of threats and violence, Bowman says Harper was racking up a criminal history, and had multiple felony arrests. These records are sealed due to Harper's juvenile status at the time.

Soon, they did kick him out. "Claudette came to the door with a bag of clothes one day, and said, 'You're on your way,'" recalls Harper.

Harper went to live in a juvenile group home at age 16. When he was 17 he was in his third group home, which he says was infested with rats and cockroaches. Although he was legally prevented from contacting his mother at the time, he called her in distress. "You need to help me get out of here," she says he told her. "This place is infested with dead rats."

Harper is now living in Miami on house arrest, pending charges from the state attorney's office related to the stalking arrest. No probable cause has yet been found.

Update 1/25: We've just heard that Harper was sent to jail this morning on charges of violating his house arrest. More details to come.

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph