Jurors in the Morning Star Boys’ Ranch trial began deliberations Tuesday afternoon after opposing attorneys tried to define the case as all about accountability or all about profit.
“This case is about years and years of a gross violation of the public trust that continues today,” said Daniel Fasy, attorney for Kenneth Putnam, who is suing the group home for troubled boys where he was a resident in 1988 and ’89.
“What does Mr. Putnam want?” asked Morning Star attorney Jim King. “Well, he wants monetary compensation.”
Putnam, 34, says the ranch’s director at the time, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner, and counselor Doyle Gillum, now deceased, molested him. His is the first of 19 lawsuits against the ranch scheduled for trial in Spokane County Superior Court.
To support Putnam’s case that the ranch knew or should have known about ongoing abuses, Fasy cited the testimony of five witnesses who said they, too, were abused at the ranch.
One of the witnesses, Michael Clarke, who claims to have been abused on 15 to 20 occasions while a resident of the ranch in 1961 and ’62, said Weitensteiner gave him $2,000 in 2006 to buy his silence.
In his closing arguments, King weighed the credibility of the accusers – particularly Clarke, who has a criminal history that includes counterfeiting and theft – against that of Weitensteiner, who has served the community for 50 years.
“Father Weitensteiner may be many things, but I think you will have to agree he is not an unintelligent man,” King said, asking the jurors whether they can really believe the priest would pay hush money to Clarke in a public place in front of a witness.
Fasy pointed to the testimony of plaintiff’s witness Douglas Poppen, an expert in group homes for boys, who said he was “shocked and appalled” by the standard of care at Morning Star, particularly its methods of corporal discipline. Fasy asked the jury to consider why Morning Star attorneys did not bring their own expert witness to counter that testimony.
“Where is their Doug Poppen?” Fasy asked.
In his closing argument, King responded, “Exhibit 388 is my Mr. Poppen,” referring to a state audit of the boys ranch at the time Putnam was a resident. The licensors found no deficiencies and credited the ranch for its recreational and social programs for residents.
King asked the jurors to consider how many times they themselves have been alone with one or two children and to consider how vulnerable they could be to false accusations.
He also cited the testimony of Jeff Benz, who was on Weitensteiner’s boat the day Putnam claims to have been abused. Benz testified in a deposition read during the trial that he saw no evidence of inappropriate behavior.
“Thankfully, there is a witness independent of Weitensteiner and Putnam,” King said.
In his rebuttal, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, Tim Kosnoff, called Morning Star’s defense a “classic case” in which “you abuse children and then when they end up in prison or abusing drugs, you blame them.”
What Putnam really wants, Kosnoff told the jurors, “you don’t have the power to give … to be made to feel like he is not garbage.”