As Christmas approached in 2009, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden’s political future seemed to be following a clearly marked path.
The next year, the U.S. Senate seat long held by his father, Vice President Joe Biden, would be up for grabs. And Beau Biden – a veteran of the war in Iraq, scion of the state’s best-known political family – was all but assured of winning if he ran for the job.
But a horrific case of sexual misconduct by a Delaware doctor caused Biden to change course, unaware of how little time he had to pursue his political ambitions.
On Dec. 16, 2009, police arrested Dr. Earl Bradley, a pediatrician in Lewes, Delaware, on charges of molesting a young patient. When detectives searched Bradley’s office, they discovered a shocking cache of evidence: 13 hours of video that showed the doctor sexually assaulting dozens of little girls, one of them just 3 months old. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed the case last Sunday as part of its Doctors & Sex Abuse series.
In Delaware, the attorney general oversees all felony criminal prosecutions, so just two days after Bradley’s arrest, Biden received a full briefing on the case. He quickly took charge, said Patricia Dailey Lewis, a former deputy attorney general.
Biden instructed her to open a temporary office in Lewes, a small seaside town near the Maryland border, where parents of Bradley’s patients could find out whether the doctor had abused their children. It took six months to identify most of the 86 children on the video (who turned out to be a small fraction of the 1,200 or more Bradley apparently molested between 1994 and 2009).
At the same time, Lewis said in an interview, Biden dropped plans to run for his father’s old Senate seat. The position would be open again someday, he told friends and colleagues.
“Right now,” Biden said at one public forum, “that’s not where I’m called.”
Even as his office prosecuted Bradley, questions arose about how the handling of previous allegations against the physician. Bradley had been accused of sexual misconduct with patients eight times in the 15 years before his arrest, including seven times in Delaware. But at least twice, the attorney general's office declined to prosecute Bradley. And both times, it failed to notify state medical regulators about the allegations, enabling Bradley to continue practicing without restriction.
The questions could have created political complications for Biden, especially considering the raw emotions surrounding Bradley's case. Delaware, after all, has a population slightly smaller than Fulton County's, and because Bradley had so many victims, a large proportion of the state's residents knew or knew of someone involved in the case. But an investigation commissioned by Delaware’s governor found that one of the previous cases began under Biden's predecessor as attorney general. The other took place while Biden was on active military duty in Iraq, the investigation determined.
By all accounts, Biden threw himself into overseeing Bradley's prosecution and assisting the victims' families. For months after Bradley's arrest, Biden spent three to four days a week sitting with parents "who just cried and cried and cried and cried about what happened,” Lewis said.
Biden wouldn’t allow lawyers on his staff who lived in the Lewes area to work on the case. Some had taken their own children to Bradley’s office, and the doctor had treated others at the local hospital.
Eventually, Lewis said, Biden insisted that staff members who worked on Bradley's prosecution see psychologists. He also arranged for group sessions with a crisis-management specialist.
“He started getting scared about what this was doing to us,” Lewis said.
A judge convicted Bradley in 2011 and sentenced him to life in prison with no chance for parole. Bradley, who is now 63, said in a recent letter to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that law-enforcement authorities illegally seized the video evidence used to convict him. Appellate courts have rejected that argument.
Even after he went to prison, Bradley cast a pall over Lewes, largely because of the garishly decorated office he left behind on the town’s coastal highway. Bradley had turned the building into a child’s fantasy: it had a miniature Ferris wheel, a carousel, a movie theater, life-size Disney figures and a faux planetarium, where the doctor turned out the lights to show patients his glow-in-the-dark stars.
Four months after Bradley’s conviction, Biden arranged for a public catharsis – the demolition of Bradley’s office.
Biden and several dozen others, including parents of some of Bradley’s victims, spent the day watching crews knock down and haul away every scrap of the office. When the crews finished, it looked as though the building had never existed.
“I never want to see those buildings again,” Biden said in a video posted by a Delaware newspaper, “and I don’t want anyone who lived through this tragedy, especially the survivors, to ever have to see anything that reminds them of what happened on this property.”
With the Bradley case behind him, Biden could again focus on his political career. He eventually announced he would run for governor in 2016.
That campaign would never happen.
In 2010, Biden had experienced what was described as a mild stroke. Three years later, doctors removed a lesion from his brain. He left the attorney general’s office early in 2015, shortly before he sought treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. He died there on May 30, 2015. He was 46.
His interest in preventing the kind of abuse perpetrated by Bradley inspired the creation of the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children. Patricia Lewis is the foundation’s executive director.
Its mission is to educate children in ways to avoid being victimized. It also promotes laws requiring states to train teachers to recognize signs of child sex abuse.
The foundation’s creation was a fitting tribute, Lewis said.
Biden was “a guy full of serious ideas to make people’s lives better,” she said. “He was never going to give up.”