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Ranch accused of abuse

Boys’ home allowed mistreatment for years, say residents, records

Fifteen-year-old Timothy Donald Everts swore he would never go back to Morning Star Boys’ Ranch.

He alleged that he was physically and sexually abused in the months he spent at the boys’ home south of Spokane, according to his friends and family. When he ran away from the ranch in late 1977, bruises and welts covered his backside, his sister and two close friends told The Spokesman-Review.

For weeks, Everts hid out in his friend Devin Bennett’s basement and told her a secret that he made her swear not to tell: At Morning Star, a Catholic priest named Patrick O’Donnell forced Everts to perform oral sex on him.

“He was so ashamed,” Bennett said in an interview this month, naming O’Donnell as Everts’ abuser for the first time. “He felt like he should have been able to defend himself.”

In its nearly half-century of operation, Morning Star Boys’ Ranch repeatedly allowed the physical and sexual abuse of boys in its care, according to records from the Department of Social and Health Services, court documents, and interviews with former counselors and residents.

The physical abuse allegedly came directly from the top – the ranch’s revered director since 1966, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner.

According to a 1978 Child Protective Services report, Weitensteiner admitted to striking a boy in the face and pulling a 4-inch clump of hair from the back of his head. State officials refused to make the report public in 1978, but recently released it in response to a request from The Spokesman-Review.

Weitensteiner, a 73-year-old Catholic priest, was in town but unavailable for interviews last week, according to Morning Star officials.

Dan Kuhlmann, the ranch’s assistant director, defended Weitensteiner.

“Father has always had the best interest of the boys at heart,” said Kuhlmann, who joined the ranch in 1974. “Whatever actions he took, there was a reason for the action.”

Kuhlmann said he saw bruises on some boys in the 1970s as a result of “hacks” – a corporal punishment administered with a 2- to 3-foot board. He did not remember specific dates or incidents. He did not believe the paddling constituted physical abuse. In the aftermath of the 1978 investigation, Morning Star agreed to make changes to its discipline policy, and it has since banned corporal punishment.

“I feel very confident today that our organization is a quality organization with staff who really want to make a difference,” Kuhlmann said.

Bernard O. Nelson, the state’s regional administrator in 1978, said he did not recall why the state took no action against Weitensteiner.

“In hindsight, if we looked at it today, he’d be out of there,” said Nelson, who still serves on Spokane’s Human Services Advisory Board. “You have to look at it in the context of 30 years ago.”

In the 1970s, the state’s administrative rules allowed corporal punishment that did not “bruise or harm” a child.

Timmy Everts told his friend Bennett that officials at the ranch knew about the beatings that left bruises on his body but had done nothing to stop it – an allegation ranch officials denied last week. Everts told Bennett that he would die before he would ever return to the ranch.

On Jan. 25, 1978, when police arrived at his family’s home in north central Spokane to return him to the ranch, Everts made good on his threat. He put a rifle to his head and shot himself in his sister”s bedroom.

Everts’ death marked a tragic moment for the ranch. Yet it passed with surprisingly little scrutiny.

Dan Dennis, a 42-year-old former Morning Star resident, said Weitensteiner spoke with the boys in the ranch cafeteria after Everts’ death.

Dennis said Weitensteiner told the boys that “Timmy Everts made allegations that there was molestation going on up here. But it didn’t happen. Forget about it.”

Neither the Spokane Police Department, which responded to Everts’ suicide, nor the state agency charged with licensing Morning Star can find documents that show Everts’ allegations were investigated. An official with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which had jurisdiction over the ranch, said a computer search indicated the department had not investigated any allegation against O’Donnell in 1978.

“It is a failure by those social service agencies that have a duty to monitor the safety of those kids,” said Tim Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney who is preparing lawsuits for two former Morning Star boys who say they were sexually abused at the ranch in the 1960s. “I think it is outrageous.”

‘Everyone else is doing it’

By the 1970s, Morning Star was one of the Northwest’s most notable homes for boys. Founded by the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, the boys’ ranch has gained renown for counseling and caring for nearly 1,300 troubled boys, ages 10 to 18. In the 1970s as many as 50 boys lived at the ranch; today it has 18 boys.

This spring, all four high school seniors at the ranch graduated and are headed to college, spokeswoman P.J. Watters said.

Father Joe Weitensteiner, who joined the ranch in 1957, shortly after it opened, established an impeccable reputation. A former butcher, interior decorator, Boy Scout leader, and clothing salesman, Weitensteiner was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1966, the same year he became Morning Star’s director.

Gonzaga Prep inducted him into its Hall of Fame, and in 1978, he was appointed as the Northwest representative to a national accreditation board for group homes.

But even though Morning Star gained recognition, state documents and court files, as well as interviews with former residents and counselors, portray a facility that allowed the physical and sexual abuse of boys.

After a story in The Spokesman-Review last month, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office opened a criminal investigation into a former Morning Star counselor who allegedly molested a boy at the ranch in the 1990s.

While numerous men credit the ranch with turning around their lives, Weitensteiner leveled discipline that injured several boys, according to interviews and the 1978 state records.

Many years later, some former staffers and residents are still reluctant to publicly criticize the ranch. Several people spoke with The Spokesman-Review only on the condition of anonymity. They said they fear angering Weitensteiner or getting pulled into a dispute with the ranch, the state or the diocese. They provided their names to the newspaper, which verified that the former residents and employees were in fact at Morning Star.

In the 1978 state investigation, Weitensteiner and another staffer, Ron Mulvey, now a deputy with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, each admitted to striking a boy in the face at the ranch, according to the state report. Mulvey was not at work Friday and did not return a phone message left at his home.

The mother of one of the boys said a ring worn by Weitensteiner left cuts on her son’s face, according to the report.

The investigation fell to two departments at the Department of Social and Health Services. A Child Protective Services investigator said that Weitensteiner and Mulvey each admitted to striking a boy, but she did not find evidence of physical abuse.

The CPS worker sent her report to DSHS licensing specialist David Perkins.

In a memorandum to his superiors, Perkins, interpreting a new state policy that was soon to be adopted, wrote that “neither the present administrator or the staff person involved in this incident can be employed by the facility.”

Yet state officials quickly retreated from that recommendation. The agency concluded that the investigation found “questionable discipline practices,” but insufficient evidence of “extreme physical abuse which would warrant prosecution,” according to the state documents.

Weitensteiner was allowed to remain as director, and was not disciplined by the state agency, according to the records.

Morning Star placed Mulvey on unpaid leave for three days; Perkins and his supervisor had recommended six months’ probation. The Sheriff’s Office determined there was “not sufficient evidence for criminal action,” according to the 1978 state report. One year later, Mulvey joined the Sheriff’s Office as a deputy.

The state investigation came just months after the suicide of Timmy Everts, yet it made no mention of his death or his allegations.

A former state social worker, who investigated child abuse throughout the 1970s, reviewed the state report during an interview with the newspaper.

“If you are spanking hard enough to leave a bruise or using a belt, that becomes more than discipline,” said the former social worker, who asked not to be identified. “If all this really went on, that’s unusual. It’s hard to believe it happened.”

Former staff members and residents said Weitensteiner’s violent discipline often left marks.

One former staffer, a 65-year-old retired small-business owner in Spokane, said he watched, horrified, as Weitensteiner swung a two-by-four at a boy as he walked away from him in the 1960s. The blow knocked the boy to the ground.

“I’m surprised he didn’t break the kid’s back,” said the Spokane man, who asked not to be identified. “My feeling about Weitensteiner was he looked for excuses to hit the children.”

Another former staffer at the ranch said he saw Weitensteiner punch a boy in the face in the late 1970s. The man said he had seen “a couple horrendous black eyes from Father Joe, over silly things, like giggling in Mass.

“Father Joe smacked the kids around quite a bit,” he said. “I think we were all pretty appalled with it. If everyone else is doing it, and your boss is doing it, then it must be all right.” The former employee also said he was afraid of Weitensteiner and asked not to be identified.

Kuhlmann said he never witnessed any abuse by Weitensteiner.

“I’ve allowed him to take my kids on outings,” Kuhlmann said. “I trust him.”

Other former residents defended the priest and Morning Star.

“I can tell you categorically that I never saw such abuse or was even in a compromising situation,” said Pete Ayers, a resident in the 1970s who is now an attorney in Austin, Texas. “(Morning Star) was instrumental in preventing me from spiraling down into oblivion.”

‘It’s Timmy’

Don Everts had trouble handling his son. After Timmy got in a fight in 1977, the state recommended placement at Morning Star and agreed to pay for Everts’ care at the ranch. Morning Star also took in private-pay boys.

“I thought it’d do him some good,” said Don Everts, now 66.

Small but rebellious, the junior high wrestler had a defiant personality. On at least two occasions, he ran away from the boys’ ranch, one of nearly two dozen runaways from Morning Star between July 1977 and March 1978, according to newspaper archives.

Tammy Pawley, 42, remembered the bruises on her brother, as did two other close friends.

Fearing that his family would send him back to Morning Star, Everts stayed in the basement of the Bennett family home, in the same north central Spokane neighborhood where his family lived.

Bennett said Everts told her that the ranch’s director and others had beaten him. She believed the director’s name was “Father Joe.” Kuhlmann said he was unaware of Everts’ allegations.

“The second time was the worst,” said Bennett, who was two years older than Everts and a close friend. “He had whip marks on his butt. He told me he was being abused. All I cared about was getting him out of there.”

Everts told Bennett that O’Donnell, a pedophile who has since admitted molesting more than a dozen boys, forced him to perform oral sex at Morning Star.

Morning Star officials said O’Donnell was never at the ranch in any official capacity, but verified that he visited the ranch in the 1970s.

O’Donnell’s attorney could not be reached for comment. O’Donnell has repeatedly denied requests for media interviews.

In a 2004 deposition in a civil lawsuit against O’Donnell and the diocese, O’Donnell said that he did “evaluations” at the ranch over the course of several months, and that he took boys from the Spokane Diocese to Morning Star to play basketball. He also stated that in the early to mid-1980s, Catholic Bishop Lawrence Welsh instructed him to cease consulting with Morning Star.

Carol Clausen, another close friend of Everts, said he told her he had been beaten and molested at the ranch, but she could not recall names of the alleged abusers.

“He said there was no way in hell he was ever going back there because the people who ran the place were molesting him,” Clausen said. “He said that there was nobody that believed him. He wasn’t going to let it happen to him again.”

Shortly after Everts’ brothers picked him up, Bennett heard sirens pulsing through her neighborhood. As she sprinted toward the Everts’ home, she said to herself, “It’s Timmy.”

‘Cops weren’t interested’

Police found Everts lying on the floor of his sister’s bedroom, a shell casing near him. On his body, an officer found a suicide note and a business card of “Sheriff’s detective O’dell,” according to the police incident report. Danny O’Dell investigated sex crimes for the Sheriff’s Office.

Mike Busby, records manager for the Spokane Police Department, said this month he cannot locate Everts’ suicide note or O’Dell’s card – both of which are referenced in the three-page police report. Busby refused to release a section of the police report that included a statement from the suicide note, citing an exemption in the Washington public records law that covers commission of a crime by a juvenile. Busby said he could not find evidence that the department investigated Everts’ claims.

Everts’ family said they never received a copy of the suicide note.

O’Dell, who has retired from the department and lives in the Spokane area, declined to comment on why Everts had his business card.

“I don’t want to talk to anyone without the county attorney there,” O’Dell said.

At the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, an official said he could not find any reference to a 1978 investigation into O’Donnell.

“I told the police officers what was going on,” Bennett said. “The cops weren’t interested. They thought Timmy was a hoodlum.”

The state’s Department of Social and Health Services, which licensed Morning Star to care for boys, said this spring it can find no evidence that its employees investigated Everts’ death, or the allegations he made – despite newspaper coverage of his death at the time.

“Why it wasn’t (investigated), I don’t recall,” said Nelson, the retired regional administrator. “I would think that it should have been.”

After Everts’ death, Weitensteiner produced three pages of handwritten regulations on Morning Star’s disciplinary policy, according to a newspaper article from March 31, 1978. Some had been scratched out and written over, the article said.

The regulations did not satisfy Everts’ family and friends.

“I realize he was there because he was in trouble, and discipline is part of it,” Bennett said. “But these guys, you’re supposed to be there for the good of the boys, not hurting them for the rest of their lives. He was a little rebel, but he was a kid.”

Sexual abuse allegations surface

Kosnoff, a Seattle attorney who specializes in sexual abuse cases, said three former Morning Star residents contacted him about alleged molestation at the ranch that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s. He is preparing civil claims for two of the men against Morning Star.

One man alleged that O’Donnell sexually assaulted him at Morning Star in the late 1960s. Kosnoff said O’Donnell apparently used the ranch to prey on boys.

“He just kept going back to the well,” Kosnoff said.

In 1982, a Catholic parishioner named Rita Flynn said she learned O’Donnell was working at Morning Star. At that point, O’Donnell had already been sent to Seattle for sexual deviancy counseling.

Flynn, who was aware of previous allegations of sexual abuse against the priest, called the ranch and asked for an appointment with O’Donnell, according to her 2003 deposition in a civil lawsuit against the Spokane Diocese. The lawsuit was brought by alleged victims of O’Donnell, not by Flynn, now 79.

“The woman at the switchboard said, ‘I’m sorry, he is not here today. I can give you an appointment with him on Thursday,’ ” Flynn stated in her deposition.

Flynn contacted United Way and told the agency that “there is a pedophile priest there,” according to her deposition. Morning Star is not a United Way agency, but the public can earmark donations to the ranch through United Way.

Flynn said the United Way person then handed the phone to a “Detective Corky of the Spokane Police Department.” The only “Corky” in Spokane law enforcement at the time apparently was Edmund “Corky” Braune, who worked for the Sheriff’s Office.

Braune served on Morning Star’s board of directors in 1982 and continues to serve today. He said he did not recall the phone conversation with Flynn.

“I never remember a call naming Patrick O’Donnell,” Braune said last week.

Just minutes after the phone call ended, Flynn said she received a call from a parishioner who was doing public relations work for the chancery, asking why she did not first inform church leaders before going to law enforcement, according to the deposition.

In his deposition, O’Donnell said he was instructed to stop consulting with Morning Star some time after Flynn’s telephone call.

Other allegations against the ranch surfaced.

In the 1990s, at least one resident preyed on another boy at the ranch, forcing him to perform sexual acts, according to a 1994 sheriff’s report and a Spokane County Superior Court lawsuit against Morning Star. Because identifying information was redacted from the sheriff’s report, it is unclear if the report and the lawsuit refer to the same events.

In the sheriff’s report, a Morning Star employee said that a resident forced another boy to fondle him as they rode in a van with two other people. The perpetrator admitted the abuse, according to the report. The report did not name the other people in the van, who were apparently not aware of the abuse.

The report stated there may have been as many as five incidents of sexual abuse from 1993 to 1994, including an assault during a supervised Morning Star camping trip.

Last fall, Morning Star paid a former resident an undisclosed amount of money to settle a civil lawsuit that alleged a counselor had repeatedly sexually assaulted him. The former resident, identified in court documents as “John G. Doe,” also alleged another boy made him perform oral sex at the ranch and on a Morning Star outing, according to his 2004 deposition.

Doe said the counselor, Dale A. Stearns, began molesting him at Morning Star in the 1990s and continued when they moved in together in 1994, in a foster placement agreed to by Morning Star and DSHS.

Stearns was never prosecuted in Washington, but the Sheriff’s Office recently interviewed several people after The Spokesman-Review identified other alleged victims of Stearns in Spokane. Stearns is now in Kansas.

John G. Doe said in his deposition that Weitensteiner used threats to keep the allegations of abuse secret after they were brought to his attention in 2003.

The former resident said after he told Weitensteiner about the alleged abuse by Stearns, the priest told him that he knew another former resident “in the Mob or connected to the Mob, and if anybody messed with the ranch that he would handle it.”

An attorney for Morning Star denied last month that Weitensteiner ever threatened the former resident.

‘One hell of a temper’

The allegations of physical abuse at Morning Star exceeded the 15-year life span of Timmy Everts.

When the former employee from the 1960s was asked why he didn’t report the abuse to law enforcement, including an incident when he saw a staffer hit a boy in the face with a wooden paddle, he said: “Today if you did something like that, I could take the kid to the police and file a report. Forty years ago, nothing would have happened. Nobody would have believed me.”

A 54-year-old man who lived at the ranch in the 1960s said he learned to avoid Weitensteiner.

“Any little excuse would set him off,” said the man, a day laborer in Spokane. “I got my ass beat a time or two. I was black and blue from the back of my knees up to my butt.”

Dennis, a Morning Star resident in the 1970s, said he was one of the bigger boys at the ranch and that he was never beaten. But he said he remembers a smaller boy with two black eyes who said that Weitensteiner had hit him.

“I know that the guy is a priest, but I also know he had one hell of a temper,” said Dennis, a college student in Spokane. “You didn’t want to get that guy pissed at you. I saw the results of his physicality.”

Kuhlmann, the ranch’s assistant director, said, “Father may have a temper. As far as striking out and hitting them, no.”

The former counselor who allegedly witnessed physical abuse in the 1970s – and continues to work in the social service field – said he was shocked by Weitensteiner’s discipline.

“Those kids’ butts would be black and blue,” the man said. “I’m not just talking about a little bruise.”

He said he was conflicted about speaking with the newspaper because he had “devoted a portion of my life to that place.

“I used to think the world of Father Joe,” he said. “I look back on it now, he was creepy. It hurt me.”

Dennis said that he also felt conflicted discussing the abuse publicly because he believes that Morning Star and Weitensteiner helped him.

“Without Father Joe, I probably would have spent my life in prison,” Dennis said.

But he stood by his account.

“I’d like to see all the facts come out and let people decide,” he said.

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