May 15, 2005 in City

Ranch paid man to settle abuse suit

Staff writer
 
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Morning Star Boys’ Ranch paid one of its former residents an undisclosed amount of money last fall to settle a lawsuit involving sexual abuse allegations from the 1990s.

The alleged abuse by a ranch counselor, and an accusation that the Rev. Joe Weitensteiner used threats to keep the allegations secret after they were brought to his attention in 2003, is detailed in a Spokane County Superior Court deposition obtained by The Spokesman-Review. Weitensteiner, longtime director of the home for troubled boys, disputes threatening the former resident.

Now 25, the former resident – identified only as “John G. Doe” in court documents – also won a $750,000 settlement against the former counselor, Dale A. Stearns.

The settlement disclosure comes after a tumultuous week for Morning Star officials, who denied a report last week that Jim West, now Spokane’s embattled mayor, and a former sheriff’s deputy removed boys from the ranch for day outings and camping trips in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

West, who served on Morning Star’s board of directors for 12 years, resigned this month amid allegations that he sexually abused two boys in the late ‘70s when he was a Boy Scout leader and deputy sheriff. West has resisted calls to resign as Spokane mayor and denied the abuse allegations as “flat lies.” However, he acknowledges having relationships with men he met through a gay Web site.

In the Morning Star lawsuit, the former resident claims he told Weitensteiner in 2003 that Stearns repeatedly molested him when he was at the ranch from ages 11 to 13.

“He (Weitensteiner) said there was a boy (who) used to go to the ranch who was … in the Mob or connected to the Mob, and if anybody messed with the ranch that he would handle it,” the man said in a previously undisclosed March 31, 2004, deposition obtained by the newspaper.

The former resident could not be reached for comment.

Greg Arpin, an attorney who represented Morning Star in the case, denied Friday that Weitensteiner, the longtime director of Morning Star, ever threatened the man.

“Father Joe did not make any threats to him,” Arpin said. “Father Joe wouldn’t do that.”

Morning Star quietly agreed to a confidential but substantial settlement with the man last fall, according to an attorney for John G. Doe.

“I can tell you we are very satisfied,” attorney Russell Van Camp said Friday. He said he was “deeply, deeply distressed and offended with how (Morning Star) treated my client.”

On Friday, Weitensteiner declined to discuss the 2004 settlement when contacted by The Spokesman-Review. He said he planned to hold a press conference this week.

“I will sit down and, so help me God, answer everything as truthfully as I can,” Weitensteiner said. “I want to be upfront with you. I want to answer every question.”

Weitensteiner held a news conference last week to report that he had reviewed stacks of spiral log books at the ranch but found no evidence that West or deceased Deputy David Hahn took boys from the ranch on outings.

Morning Star declined a request by The Spokesman-Review to examine the log books.

“Father Joe reviewed the log books and didn’t find anything,” spokeswoman P.J. Watters said. “I certainly don’t doubt Father Joe for a minute.”

Set on a sprawling 225-acre ranch in southeastern Spokane, Morning Star has provided shelter and counseling to nearly 1,300 troubled boys since it opened in 1956. Weitensteiner, who served as the ranch’s first counselor, is widely known as “Father Joe.”

In a 274-page deposition, the former resident says that Stearns, a counselor employed by Morning Star, repeatedly sexually abused him during a three-year period – first at the ranch and then later when Stearns took him as a foster child. The alleged abuse ended in 1995, when Stearns left the state after a relative accused him of sexual abuse, according to the deposition.

In the summer of 2003, the former resident returned to Morning Star and met with Weitensteiner, who loaned him $200. The man allegedly told Weitensteiner that Stearns had repeatedly molested him at the ranch. Arpin denied that the man told Weitensteiner about the abuse.

According to the deposition, the man said Weitensteiner “told me if anybody ever messed with the ranch he would kill them or he would have them (killed).”

When an attorney for Morning Star asked if Weitensteiner threatened “to do something unlawful to you,” the man responded: “I don’t know if it was to me, to Dale. I took it was toward me.”

Arpin denied that Weitensteiner ever threatened the man.

“I remember a time (Stearns) took me down to the darkroom,” the former resident said in his deposition. “He had locked the door behind him, and he had some negatives and he had lotion and he rubbed it in my butt, and he told me he was doing it because he loved me.”

The man alleged that another boy made him perform oral sex at the ranch and on a Morning Star outing, according to the deposition. The former resident said the incident was reported to a staffer, who talked with the boys.

It is unclear whether the alleged assault was criminally investigated. In the deposition, an attorney for Morning Star appears to suggest that the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office investigated the incident, and that the other boy was removed from the ranch.

Stearns allegedly told the former resident that he previously molested someone and that Morning Star was aware of the abuse, according to the deposition.

Arpin said the ranch conducted a background check on Stearns. Arpin said Morning Star officials did not learn of the allegations against Stearns until shortly before the lawsuit was filed in 2003.

Stearns received a state foster-care license, and Morning Star and the Department of Social and Health Services agreed to place the alleged victim in Stearns’ home in 1994.

The man said Stearns sexually assaulted him “every single day” during the year he spent in Stearns’ care, according to the deposition. The man said he was an honor student at Garry Middle School during the time, but his grades plummeted as the abuse dragged on.

He said he was “scared to death” of Stearns.

Asked in the deposition why he agreed to the foster placement with Stearns, the man said he was searching for a “father figure.”

In 1995, a family member accused Stearns of molesting him, and Stearns fled the state, according to the deposition. After Stearns left, the former resident briefly returned to Morning Star, where he allegedly told staffers about the abuse.

Stearns has never been prosecuted in Washington state, according to court records. He could not be reached for comment.

Last year, Van Camp hired a private investigator who located Stearns living in Kansas, and Van Camp read him the accusations against him.

“He said things like, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ ” Van Camp said. “He said things like, society shouldn’t judge him. He was the perfect human predator.”

Van Camp said Stearns has not paid the $750,000.

The former resident also alleged that Vern Hare, a current Morning Star board member, said he warned the ranch that Stearns was molesting boys in the early to mid-1990s. Hare could not be reached for comment.

On Friday, Mike Tornquist, administrator of the state’s Division of Licensed Resources, said his agency was unaware of the lawsuit or the allegations made by John G. Doe.

As a licensed facility, Morning Star is required to report allegations of child abuse and neglect to state investigators.

“We haven’t seen anything like that in our file,” said Kathy Spears, spokeswoman from the state’s Children’s Administration. “If there was something involving Morning Star, we are certainly going to look at it. We will investigate.”

The alleged victim has since married and has two sons. In his deposition, he said he continues to struggle with depression and anger.

According to the deposition, the former resident stated in an earlier interrogatory that, “I cannot do steady work or stay in school because of depression and anger problems. I cannot go to counseling because it hurts to relive my childhood, and I don’t go to church because it is hard to believe in God after what happened at the ranch.”

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