December 1, 1996 in Nation/World

Everyone Knew; No One Talked Doctor Fondled Patients For 3 Decades

Barry Siegel Los Angeles Times
 

First of two parts

“Rexburg physician retires,” proclaimed the front-page headline in the Idaho Falls Post Register. “Withers prescribes rest, relaxation after 30-year career.”

It was May 1, 1995. Above the headline, a large photo displayed a beaming Dr. LaVar Withers, stethoscope to his ears, caring for one last patient. Below the headline, an article offered a fond eulogy to this “popular physician.”

“It’s time to stop and smell the flowers,” went the doctor’s parting quote. “I’ve had a great life, had a lot of fun, met a lot of nice people.”

Withers, 58 at the time, said something else: “I have no regrets, wouldn’t change a thing.”

It was this last comment that most stirred so many here in southeastern Idaho. In home after home that Monday afternoon, people stared wide-eyed at their newspaper.

The chairman of the Idaho State Board of Medicine was dumbstruck. How could LaVar sit for such a tribute, wondered Dr. Donald Bjornson. What a blunder.

All over eastern Idaho, hands reached for phones. It had finally begun: the end, albeit slow and reluctant, to an uncommon 32-year-long public silence.

For three decades, women had whispered about Withers’ conduct in examining rooms. Those who didn’t have their own stories to tell about the friendly physician fondling their breasts and genitals knew someone else who did. “The booby doctor,” they called him.

Some had come to him with colds or the flu, others with broken ankles, migraine headaches, ingrown toenails, acne. All told much the same story. Withers’ groping wasn’t the least subtle or ambiguous. At times his gloveless fingers moved into their vaginas. It appeared to some that he particularly enjoyed having third parties in the room, such as a husband or parent.

Although many kept their stories to themselves, a few women told not only friends, but also nurses, lawyers, hospital administrators, police detectives, church officials and other doctors. None responded. It was an open secret - but a secret nonetheless.

Its public disclosure has not proved entirely welcome. Women once too reticent to speak out found themselves being deemed not credible, or not important enough, when they did finally lift their voices. For many months, their complaints met with almost universal denial among those with the power to act.

Even now - after no less than 133 women have registered complaints, after a dozen women rose to testify in court one afternoon last September, after all of Idaho watched Withers get booked into Madison County Jail on the morning of Sept. 12 - a good number in the Rexburg area wish the Withers matter had never been raised.

It isn’t hard to see why: Not just a doctor has been revealed; so too has a community, as well as a way of doing business in the worlds of law and medicine. In sentencing Withers on Sept. 9, Magistrate Judge Keith Walker denounced not just the physician but also all those respectable, prominent citizens who knew about Withers for so long and failed to stop him.

How could this have happened, people here now are regularly asked. Why did so many remain silent for so long?

The questions alone have created rifts and discomfort. They’ve done something else, though. They have brought enlightenment and empowerment to women not accustomed to either. Most of those who rose against Withers are neither prominent nor influential, yet they have prevailed against those who are both.

Such a victory comes with a price in this rural, largely conservative Mormon community. Even some husbands frown. So do certain physicians and bishops and neighbors. This brings the women distress, for without reservation, they still desire to be part of their community.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plays a central role in Rexburg, a town of 15,000 that is home to Ricks College, a church-owned junior college that draws Mormon students from across the country. There is one bar in town, and it sells only beer.

It was to this town that a farm family from nearby Ucon brought their sick 13-year-old daughter on the afternoon of Friday, March 18, 1994. The Rasmussens’ appointment at the Rexburg Medical Center would prove to be a key turning point in the lives of many, not the least Withers.

Lillie Rasmussen, as she will be called in this account, had been suffering recurring pains in her right side. Now, because their regular physician was booked, she and her mother, Laverne, sat in an examining room awaiting LaVar Withers, a doctor they didn’t know.

As a nurse left, Withers walked in and sat down. He was an outgoing Idaho native with an appreciative following of longtime patients, for whom he had delivered 4,000 babies; on his walls hung plaques from Ricks College, Brigham Young University and the Temple University medical school.

First, Withers talked symptoms. The Rasmussens’ account of what followed, told first to police and prosecutors, then in courtroom testimony, most recently in an interview, varies sometimes in the details but not the essence. It is an account Withers has flatly denied, although he would later characterize similar stories as misunderstandings.

“He had me lay down on the examining table,” said Lillie, now 16. “There was no gown, no nurse, no explaining what he was doing. He lifted up my shirt. He was feeling my stomach area, my abdomen. Then he unzipped my pants. He started feeling lower and lower. Pretty much as low as you can get. I don’t know what he was doing down there. I’m thinking, ‘Why is this idiot playing with me?’ I’m thinking, ‘He’s a dirty blink.’

“Then he went under my shirt, started playing around there. He’s talking to my mom as he’s groping. He asks me, ‘Did you ever have breast cancer?’ I say, ‘No, I’m only 13.’

“He sits me up, stands behind me, puts his arm around me, on my chest. I’m trying to use my arm to scoot his hand back. Somehow it never works. He’s still talking to my mom. He finally relaxes his hand, so I relax. Then he moves his hand back, squeezes hard, gets a better grip. Later he slaps my butt, squeezes it. I was totally amazed. I didn’t know what to do. It was scary.”

Driving home, mother and daughter struggled silently with their thoughts.

“I knew what had happened,” Lillie said. “I thought Mom did too, so I didn’t say anything.”

It is unclear just what Laverne Rasmussen knew then. Her hesitancy would later form one of the reasons why some lawyers came to regard the Rasmussens as less than ideal witnesses.

“What I saw I couldn’t believe,” she said recently. “I didn’t think I was seeing it. I thought his hands sure looked low. But I didn’t realize until later when Lillie told me. I did see him messing with her breasts. I just didn’t know what to think. Doctors have to do things; you have to let a doctor do what he does. I was so fixed on finding out what was wrong with my girl. Part of me knew what was going on; part of me didn’t want to recognize it.”

The Rasmussens, as did many of those who eventually rose to complain about Withers, were troubled, not just by the doctor’s groping, but also by what it implied. They felt he had exhibited utter disregard for them; they felt he had taken part of their dignity.

Laverne Rasmussen dialed the home number of their regular physician, Dr. Jud Miller, who had been too busy to see them the day before. Her account of this call - offered in an interview and courtroom testimony - echoed that of others who said they talked to Miller regarding Withers.

Miller’s wife answered the phone, according to Laverne. When told something “inappropriate” had happened with Withers, Laverne recalled the doctor’s wife asking, “Oh, was it a breast exam?” On the phone a moment later, Laverne remembered Jud Miller saying, “We know Dr. Withers has a problem. We want to help him, and help you too.”

This would not be the only instance where the Rasmussens gained a sense that others already knew about Withers. Two days later at the Rexburg police station, after Lillie gave a detailed statement to detective Bart Smith and a county caseworker, the caseworker checked twice to make sure the tape recorder was turned off. Then she said: “This has happened to me too. I got a breast exam from Dr. Withers.”

So, it turned out, had a volunteer who listened to Lillie’s story days later at the Rape Response and Crime Victim Center in Idaho Falls. “Me too,” Sandy Brinton offered after Lillie finished talking.

It had happened 20 years ago, when Brinton was 16. She’d never told anyone; she’d felt confused, humiliated, dirty. Now she realized she wasn’t alone.

Smith, it turned out, had a considerable file on Withers. There’d been a number of informal reports, but no one had been willing to sign a formal complaint. Until the Rasmussens, that is. They signed.

In such a small rural town, certain Rexburg citizens explain, we all know one another.

Among those who knew Withers and his family was the local Madison County prosecutor. Sid Brown belonged to the same Mormon Church ward as Withers, and had once been among his patients. So when the police passed the Rasmussen family’s complaint to him in early April, Brown quickly declared a conflict of interest, and handed the matter to Steve Clark, a deputy prosecutor in adjoining Jefferson County.

After studying the Rasmussens’ complaint, he decided to black out all the names and send it to another doctor for advice. What he heard back was unequivocal: This doctor’s conduct doesn’t seem justified.

Then Clark started learning about Withers’ reputation. The Rexburg police told him about their file. The caseworker at Lillie Rasmussen’s interview shared her experience. Sandy Brinton at the rape center provided a written statement.

By mid-September, he’d decided there were too many such allegations to ignore. He wrote to Withers’ attorney, declaring his intent to file a complaint.

This lawyer sent back what Clark would later call “a nasty letter.” It harshly questioned the reliability of Clark’s witnesses and the ethics of a prosecutor bringing charges amid so much doubt.

Clark still believed that charges should be filed or that Withers should quit, he advised the doctor’s attorney in early October. But “perhaps my judgment is erroneous.” He would, therefore, without waiving possible criminal charges, forward the case file to the Idaho Board of Medicine.

It remains unclear what the board did with the file Clark handed it that October. It can be said that none of the victims named in the file was contacted by the board. Nevertheless, the board managed to reach a judgment within two months.

“On December 8, 1994, I spoke with the medical board,” Clark wrote four days later to Patricia Day Hartwell, director of the Rape Response Center. “It is the board’s conclusion that Dr. Withers did nothing wrong.”

The first woman to come forward with a story about Withers probably did so almost 32 years ago, in late 1964 or early 1965. Carol Hannah was 24 then, and fighting a bad cold. She visited Withers at his office, then in Blackfoot, Idaho. “He fondled my breasts, he ran his hand up my leg to my crotch area,” she recalled in testimony and recently, in an interview. “I knew it was wrong. I was petrified, in total shock. But it was confusing. I was young and thought doctors did no wrong.”

Patients and nurses who submitted complaints to Madison Memorial Hospital found no more encouraging a reception.

In late September 1992, a parent wrote the hospital’s executive director, Keith Steiner, to report that Withers, without a nurse present, had examined her daughter’s breasts and pelvic area when she went to the emergency room after being hit in the head by a volleyball. Steiner wrote back, saying he’d received “an absolute denial” from Withers. “I will say that I have not had any indication of this type of behavior from the doctor,” he added. “He is greatly respected in our community.”

Two months later, the hospital found it harder to ignore an incident report filed by one of its own nurses, who thought Withers “was very handsy” when she came to the emergency room with a back injury. A note on the bottom of this nurse’s report indicates “policy developed and taken to medical staff in Feb (1993).”

This policy, hospital personnel would later tell a special prosecutor, instructed nurses not to leave Withers alone with a female patient.

The respect accorded doctors and the protective insulation of self-policed medical communities form some of the reasons offered now for the extended reticence regarding Withers. So too does the relatively lower station of those who visited his examining rooms. Withers was friendly, likable and established, one woman observed, while “most of his victims were just poor Idaho folks.”

But in early 1995, a month after the state medical board declined to act against him, a woman unlike most of the others raised her voice. If there is one moment that truly marks the start of Withers’ downfall, it is the day Tee Andrew appeared in his examining room at the Rexburg Medical Center.

Andrew, 53 then, was an artist who’d taught landscape painting for 20 years, both at Ricks College and in her Rexburg shop. For 12 years at Idaho Falls High School, she’d also taught community education classes and led self-esteem workshops. A convert to the Mormon Church, she’d been given the highest honors and positions that it affords women. She was married to an accountant, and had three sons.

“Dr. Withers chose the wrong woman this time,” Andrew observed recently. “He made a dreadful mistake.”

On Monday, Jan. 9, 1995, Andrew was suffering from yet another migraine. Her longtime family physician, Jud Miller, was no longer in general practice, so Andrew had been given an appointment with Withers. She knew something about his reputation, but wasn’t expecting a problem. Her husband, after all, was in the exam room too.

Andrew has offered her account of what followed in interviews, written statements and courtroom testimony. Withers, she said, pulled up her sweatshirt and put a stethoscope on the top of each breast. As he did so, his expression began to change. He now looked terribly sober, his face drawn, his cheeks shaking. He straightened up, let go of the stethoscope, looked over at her husband, and started talking to him. As he spoke, he put his hands under her sweatshirt and cupped her left breast, taking it in his hand, pulling it toward him, then flattening it against her chest.

After Withers left, Andrew sat up and turned to her husband. “Honey, the doctor just felt me up.”

Where others assumed they alone had been molested by Withers, Andrew sensed she wasn’t his only victim. He did it so smoothly, she reasoned, without drawing attention to himself. He did it with her husband sitting right there, as if he felt certain that his conduct wouldn’t be questioned.

When Andrew called the Idaho Board of Medicine three days later, she first asked if the board had any sexual-abuse complaints against Withers. She could hear the board’s investigator tapping on a computer keyboard. At medical boards across the country, such computers yield only reports of formal actions taken, so it was no surprise that this one apparently did not know of special prosecutor Clark’s recently disregarded file. “No,” the investigator replied, “nothing on Withers.”

That day, Andrew gave the board something. First on the phone, then in a formal, five-page written complaint.

Later, she also started talking to other women.

One contact led to another; the stories multiplied.

Write letters, Andrew urged each woman she spoke to. Speak out. File formal complaints with the medical board.

Withers apparently tried to defuse matters. According to Dr. Donald Bjornson, chairman of the state medical board, Withers’ lawyers called the board to say the doctor was going to retire.

On April 30, 1995, he did just that. It is possible Withers’ travails might have ended if he’d simply taken down his shingle and slipped away. He didn’t, however. He made himself available to a Post Register reporter bent on writing a flattering farewell profile.

Coming next: Courtroom confrontation.


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