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Former counselor could still be charged

They called him their big brother.

He bought them matching shirts and toys their mother couldn’t afford. He worked for a candy company in Spokane and drove a pristine, blue ‘78 Mercury.

He was an expert roller skater, a counselor at Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, and, according to Superior Court documents and interviews, a serial child molester.

Yet despite allegations of sexual assault that stretch back more than two decades, Dale A. Stearns, 45, has never been prosecuted in Washington state.

“He has to pay for what he did,” said a 29-year-old Spokane man, one of two siblings who allege that Stearns repeatedly molested them in the 1980s. “If it came down to it, I wouldn’t have a problem going to court. I could look this guy right in the eye and tell people what he did.”

Stearns allegedly molested at least five Spokane children, according to court documents, state reports and interviews. Though Stearns left the state in 1995 amid the allegations, the Spokane County prosecutor said last week that the former Morning Star counselor could be extradited to face criminal charges in the county.

The statute of limitations would typically have expired, but Washington law contains a provision that places the limits on hold if the alleged perpetrator leaves the state.

“It’s possible that he could be tried, but it all depends on the facts of the particular case,” said Ed Hay, a deputy prosecutor. “It’s conceivable to win a case, but things get harder as they age.”

The prosecutor’s office has not received a recommendation for charges from the Spokane Police Department, which investigated allegations of sexual assault in 1995 but did not refer the case to the prosecutor’s office, according to a state report. A police investigator said Friday that he would review the case.

Hay said there is a precedent in Spokane County.

In 1997, the county successfully prosecuted David Allen Monson for the rape of an 18-year-old woman that occurred 17 years earlier. Spokane police issued a warrant in the summer of 1980, but Monson wasn’t extradited until 1994, after he was stopped while crossing from Canada to New York.

The Spokesman-Review reported last Sunday that Morning Star paid one of its former residents an undisclosed amount of money in 2004 to settle a lawsuit alleging Stearns repeatedly molested him in the 1990s. The settlement came to light after allegations of sexual misconduct against Mayor Jim West led to his resignation from Morning Star’s board of directors. In a related case, the resident won a $750,000 judgment against Stearns last September.

In his deposition, the former resident also alleged that the Rev. Joe Weitensteiner, the ranch’s longtime director, used threats to keep the allegations secret after they were brought to his attention in 2003. Through an attorney, Weitensteiner denied threatening the former resident.

In the days after publication of The Spokesman-Review story, others came forward with allegations against Stearns. The siblings alleged that Stearns repeatedly sexually abused them in the early 1980s, when they lived next door to him in a north Spokane neighborhood. A relative of Stearns also reported that he sexually abused her son and her little sister, who was 14 at the time.

“He’s guilty as sin,” the woman said. “He used to bring a couple of (the boys) from the ranch to our house. I was just so busy trying to work and take care of my kids. I could kick myself for not seeing it sooner.”

Russell Van Camp, an attorney for the former Morning Star resident, known in court records as John G. Doe, hired a private investigator who found Stearns working at a Wal-Mart in Kansas. Van Camp interviewed Stearns, who he said expressed no remorse for the alleged abuse.

“(My client) would definitely be interested in testifying in a prosecution,” Van Camp said Friday. “I would hope that they do bring charges.”

Stearns could not be reached for comment. In a brief telephone interview from her home in Kansas, Stearns’ sister denied any knowledge of her brother’s whereabouts. She said she was not aware of the allegations against him in Spokane County or the civil judgment of $750,000 ordered last fall.

A Wal-Mart official in Hutchinson, Kan., confirmed Friday that Stearns was employed as a manager at the store. He was not available for comment, the official said.

In Spokane, Stearns allegedly used his affiliation with nonprofit groups – as well as gifts and roller-skating lessons – to gain the trust of young children, particularly those with no father figure in their lives.

In the early 1980s, he moved into a working-class neighborhood in north Spokane, next door to a single mother who worked long hours to support her three children.

He met the woman’s 9-year-old son in the alley behind the home, playing basketball.

During the course of several months, Stearns took the boy and his sister to movies, bought them video games and taught them to roller skate. As he earned their trust, the visits progressed to sleepovers, the man and his sister said.

“It all started slowly happening,” said the 29-year-old man, who provided his name to The Spokesman-Review but asked not to be identified. “When you’re a kid, you don’t realize it.”

Without their father in their home, both siblings say they were initially happy to have Stearns’ attention.

“At 11 years old, I thought, ‘Wow, this 22-year-old guy is paying attention to us,’ ” said the woman, who still lives in Spokane.

Stearns typically sent one sibling home, or gave them money to play video games, before initiating the abuse, according to the siblings. Both said they did not realize that the other was being molested until years later.

“He’d say things like, ‘This is what people who love each other do,’ ” the woman said. “He’d say, ‘We’re going to get married. I love you.’ “

The abuse continued for three years, punctuated by threats of violence, according to the siblings. They allege that Stearns threatened to kill them if they told anyone about the abuse. The woman said Stearns told her that if she ever became pregnant he would punch her in the stomach until the fetus died.

In 1984, the girl, then 13, told Stearns that the abuse had to end or she would report it to authorities. Within weeks, the family said, he was gone.

Six years later, Stearns volunteered at Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Inland Northwest. The agency matched him with two boys, but discontinued both relationships after concerns were raised that Stearns was spending too much time with the boys. The agency did not receive any allegations of sexual abuse, according to general managing director Don Kaufman.

“We saw some things develop in that match that did not make us feel very comfortable with Dale,” Kaufman said. “We really can’t have Big Brothers with tempers.”

In 1992, Stearns volunteered to work at Morning Star, a well-respected youth center south of Spokane. According to notes from an Oct. 15, 1992, job interview, Stearns struggled with drugs and alcohol in junior high, but “turned it around to become positive, in control of (his) own life.”

He first met the alleged Morning Star victim, then 11, on a roller-skating outing, according to John G. Doe’s deposition.

In the 274-page deposition, Doe stated that Stearns repeatedly abused him at Morning Star in the early 1990s. That abuse allegedly continued daily after Stearns took him in as a foster child in 1994 – a placement agreed to by the state and the boys’ ranch.

In 1995, Stearns moved the boy into an apartment in the home of the mother of the siblings he allegedly molested in the 1980s. When the woman’s daughter learned that Stearns was living in the home with a teenage boy, she at last reported her own alleged abuse to a neighbor, who then told the alleged victim’s mother.

Stearns’ relative, whose son told her Stearns had also abused him, confronted him at the same time. Stearns reportedly stated that he was “just trying to teach the boy.”

Stearns left Washington in 1995, the same year the state’s Division of Children and Family Services revoked his foster care license after investigating a complaint that Stearns had inappropriate sexual contact with two minors.

His foster child, John G. Doe, returned to Morning Star. Now 25 and the father of two boys, he continues to live in Spokane.

Stearns’ alleged victims from the 1980s continue to struggle with their past. The siblings spoke with a reporter last week after reading about the civil case involving Stearns. They both say the abuse has haunted them for more than 20 years.

“I’d just like to have it come back to him,” the 29-year-old man said. “I’ve always waited for this time to come.”

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