In 1976, a teenager named Michael Phillip Smith lived in the home of a convicted child molester.
The arrangement had the blessing of two juvenile probation officers and a judge, as well as the consent of Spokane County’s juvenile court system.
Gerald “Jerry” Duane Allen, then a 40-year-old truck driver, proved to be a poor choice for a father figure.
In 1961, he had been convicted of molesting an 11-year-old boy. Two years later, he pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent liberties with a 10-year-old boy.
In the spring of 1963, in a court-ordered evaluation to determine whether he was a sexual psychopath, Allen confessed to a psychiatrist that he had repeatedly molested boys.
“I need help,” Allen told the psychiatrist, according to Spokane County Superior Court documents.
A little more than a decade later, Michael Smith landed in Allen’s home in north Spokane. For years, the boy was routinely bound, sodomized and gang-raped, he said.
Allen died in 1993. Smith, a 43-year-old poet and ex-convict who served six years for the 1988 death of a toddler, was released from prison the year after Allen’s death.
He had questions but few answers: Who placed him with a child molester? What record of his life in the child welfare system existed? How had that fateful decision affected the next 30 years of his life?
Those answers would prove difficult to find.
Smith stumbled over an open secret of state government: Each year, Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services destroys thousands of pages of private records about the children once in its care.
Smith’s case underscores the personal importance of those government records, which are often the only documents for children raised in a child welfare system that can be both bewildering and frightening.
Critics argue that the little-known policy can effectively erase the agency’s official record of a foster child’s life. Further, it can prevent reunions with former caretakers or siblings, and hinder both criminal and civil cases.
When Smith requested his state file earlier this year, a state official could find no trace of Michael Smith or Jerry Allen.
But Smith had a lead.
The life of Michael
Raised by his mother after his father died of alcoholism, Michael Smith grew up in a modest home in Hillyard. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the neighborhood known as “Dogtown” was a smudge of steel train tracks, low-slung taverns and rows of homes for railroad workers.
By his own admission, Smith had a penchant for trouble: He stole $2.50 and a pack of cigarettes from a teacher; he picked $14 from another purse, according to juvenile court records.
His mother, Dorothy, worked as a cabinetmaker for $3 an hour. Michael and his brothers overwhelmed her, and the maze of courts, counselors and paperwork confused her.
“They told me very little,” said Dorothy, 79, who broke down in tears as she discussed her involvement with the state. “When you’re a single parent and you try to buck the system, all you get is spit on. I was a person. I was a mother doing the best I could.”
Dorothy Smith doesn’t remember which state agency removed the boys from her home. But she remembers clearly when the state garnished her wages just prior to Thanksgiving in the late 1970s.
“The day before Thanksgiving, they took my whole damn check,” she said. “They left me with no money.”
Dorothy Smith couldn’t remember which agency seized her paycheck, but when Michael Smith searched the juvenile archives of Spokane County Superior Court, he found an answer.
In a document filed Nov. 13, 1978, the state’s Department of Social and Health Services billed his mother $800.20 for the foster care of Michael Smith and his brother.
At private boys home, few answers
In the winter of 1973, a juvenile court judge sent Michael to Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, a venerable boys home south of Spokane. The hearing was attended by Smith, his mother, a Morning Star counselor and a social worker from Washington’s children’s agency.
Photographs show a smiling, freckled 10-year-old with a tuft of thick black hair.
At Morning Star, the boy’s behavior quickly led him to run afoul of Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, the home’s longtime director, Smith said.
One night, after Smith heisted several rolls of quarters and treated himself and several other boys to an afternoon of pinball, the priest came into his room at Flannery House, a dormitory at Morning Star.
“He said, ‘I heard you were busy today,’ ” Smith remembered. “I rolled a shoulder to him. He grabbed the sheets and yanked them, and I went flying. He ripped my underwear off, and then he hit me (in the face) with his fist.”
Smith said he fled naked down a flight of stairs, pursued by Weitensteiner. He hid in a laundry room and locked the door as the priest knocked on it.
“He started giggling and said, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to tear your underwear off,’ ” Smith said. “Then he went and got me another pair.”
The black eye allegedly lasted for weeks, and Smith said he wasn’t allowed to visit his mother until it healed.
The 74-year-old priest, who went on medical leave last summer amid allegations of physical abuse, strenuously denied Smith’s account.
“People can just say these things; then the newspaper prints them, and what can you do?” Weitensteiner said in a written statement. “This is absolutely not true.”
In documents filed in Spokane County Superior Court late last year, two former residents accused the priest of molesting them. Weitensteiner vigorously denied the allegations and passed a polygraph test, according to the boys home.
Weitensteiner, a priest celebrated by many former residents, retired on May 1. The same month, the city’s Association of Realtors named him its Citizen of the Year.
First a friend, then a perpetrator
In the year that Michael Smith spent at Morning Star, Gerald Duane Allen slowly befriended Dorothy Smith and her son. The twice-convicted child molester began to visit Michael at the boys home, gaining his trust by ridiculing Weitensteiner, Smith said.
In January 1975, Morning Star discharged Smith. The 12-year-old boy crawled into Allen’s Plymouth Fury, where his mother was waiting, he said. Allen dropped Dorothy at her Hillyard home; then he took Smith home with him.
During the years that followed, Allen repeatedly bound and raped him, Smith said. On several occasions, Allen placed him in the trunk of his car, drove him to a remote hotel and watched as other men gang-raped him.
Other times, wrestling matches would morph into sexual encounters. Smith remembers being placed in a closet after a prolonged assault by several men. He heard the men worrying that the boy would speak.
Moments later, one of the men opened the closet and pointed a shotgun in Smith’s face. The man pulled the trigger, Smith said, but the chamber was empty. “I was riding down the blunt edge of a razor blade,” he said. “If I would have advertised what was happening to me, (Allen) would have flipped it over and cut me in half.”
Bellevue attorney Tim Kosnoff, who reviewed Smith’s file but is not acting as his lawyer, said Smith’s story represents the failures of a child welfare system tasked with protecting the boy.
“It’s so inept that it almost begs the question of whether it’s intentional,” Kosnoff said. “Even by the standards of the 1970s, it seems extraordinary. How hard was it to go down and check your own courthouse records on Gerald Allen?”
A clear history of trouble
In Superior Court documents, Gerald “Jerry” Allen’s troubles were plainly evident. In June 1963, after Allen had been charged with molesting a 10-year-old boy, he was sent to Eastern State Hospital, the region’s psychiatric hospital.
In a psychiatric review, Dr. R.H. Southcombe noted Allen’s “repetitive behavior with three or four different boys.”
Allen, Southcombe wrote, “could be considered a sexual psychopath,” and he was later ordered to spend one year at the hospital, according to Spokane County Superior Court documents.
Though doctors were unable to conclusively determine whether Allen was a sexual psychopath, there was little doubt he was a risk to young boys, according to public documents.
Allen’s “immaturity and inability to relate with his peers tends to make him seek out younger boys for the gratification of his homosexual desires,” an Eastern State Hospital physician wrote in 1963.
Without successful treatment, the doctor wrote, “further sexual acting out would be a definite possibility.”
For Michael Smith, Jerry Allen became the only father he knew.
His brother, John Arthur Smith, remembers arriving at Allen’s house to find the truck driver naked in bed with Michael. A boy himself, John Smith quickly left the room, he said.
“A part of me loved him,” Michael Smith said, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. “Is that weird? I had to, or I would have expired. How would I survive if I didn’t take the object of what was killing me and turn it into love? There is no other path out of abuse than love.”
Besides, he said, “how do you kill a pedophile when you’re a little kid?”
The search for records
Though state officials can find no foster records pertaining to Allen or Smith, there is other evidence that he served as a foster parent. Juvenile court records repeatedly refer to Allen as a foster parent.
In 1981, after being found guilty of second-degree arson and first-degree possession of stolen property, Allen cited his foster work.
“When he had a foster home license and a boy living with him, he absolutely refused to accept any of the money offered to him by the State of Washington for foster home care and paid all the expenses himself,” his attorney wrote.
But other documentation was scarce.
This spring, Smith requested all files related to the 13 months he lived at Morning Star. In response, the ranch provided him with six pages that contained little information.
The file contained no information on where or to whom Smith was discharged when he left the boys ranch.
“What’s powerful about this is the omission,” Smith said, holding up the papers. “This is 13 months of my life. Six pages!”
Morning Star said the state requires only that the home maintain records for seven years; the boys home said its record-retention policy exceeds state requirements.
On the last page of the Morning Star file, Smith found a 1989 newspaper clipping accompanied by a boyhood photo of himself. The news article reported on the death of a 2-year-old girl.
Her name was Amber VanCour.
The path to the penitentiary
By his teenage years, Smith came to rely on rock ‘n’ roll and marijuana to survive. He turned to small-scale robberies to support his drug use, and during one burglary a hobby shop owner shot him in the leg.
One night in 1979 or 1980, Smith exploded in rage. In his late teens he savagely attacked Allen, beating the trucker unconscious, he said.
“I was going to tear it out of my life with pliers,” Smith said. “It was stopping it right then. I beat him almost to death, and the state was going to try me. I wish they would have because everything would have come out.”
Allen spent nine days in the hospital but refused to press charges, Smith said.
Smith’s troubles came to a head in April 1988.
That spring, police arrested Smith after his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter fell into a coma. Smith said Amber VanCour fell from a plastic teeter-totter, according to newspaper reports. Unlikely, the county prosecutor’s office said.
The girl died 17 months later.
Smith said that after a night of partying he was left to baby-sit Amber and her sister. He said he drifted in and out of sleep.
“The truth is, I don’t know what happened to Amber,” Smith said. “But I can tell you this: I have never touched a child in anger.”
Smith pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter but continued to proclaim his innocence. A judge sentenced him to nine years in prison. He served six.
“The penitentiary is such a … epilogue to this,” he said.
In prison, Smith delved into poetry, favoring the works of Charles Bukowski and Robinson Jeffers.
He found that his own words connected with others. He gave readings in front of hundreds of people. He received grants and published several short books of poetry, as well as longer fiction. His poetry books included “Scrapbook of Atrocities,” “Look at Me When I Kill You,” and “Dirty Shirt.”
In the poem, “Rael,” he wrote,
Love is the kid
with the chalk
the kid riding life
into joy, a drive
End of the paper trail
On a sweltering July afternoon this year, Smith drove his white van to the Spokane County archives to retrieve a file.
In a plain manila folder, he found 59 pages recording the deliberations of the county’s juvenile court in the case of Michael Smith and his two brothers.
He read the file, and then, visibly shaken, walked outside to smoke a cigarette.
“I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “This is the culmination of decades for me.”
In the absence of any records from DSHS, the slim file contains the only official documentation of Smith’s care.
On page 20 of the file, Smith found his proof. The document is dated Nov. 16, 1976 - about one year after Smith said he began living with Allen.
Brought forward by a probation officer and signed by a judge, the document entrusts the care of Michael Phillip Smith to the county’s Juvenile Court Services.
In its last line, the document orders his immediate placement in the home of family friend Gerald “Jerry” Allen.
“They handed me over to Jerry Allen, a pedophile,” Smith said, spitting on the ground.
The file answered some questions but left many unresolved: Why had no one looked at Allen’s background? Had a social worker or probation officer ever visited the home in north Spokane? How many other boys lived with Allen?
For Michael Smith - poet, ex-convict, foster child - any hope of further answers vanished years ago.