Few court cases have so challenged the Spokane community’s faith in a revered institution as the Morning Star Boys’ Ranch lawsuits, the first of which goes to trial this week.
It has been more than four years since two former residents of the home for troubled boys accused ranch employees of sexual and physical abuse.
There are now 19 plaintiffs who claim that the ranch, which opened in 1956, for decades was “managed, staffed and run by and for pedophiles and other sadistic sexual predators of boys,” according to court documents.
The first trial – that of alleged victim Kenneth Putnam, who was sent to Morning Star as a ward of the court in 1986 – begins Monday.
“The history of Morning Star is going to be presented in this trial,” as generations of abuse victims “finally get their day in court,” said Timothy Kosnoff, the attorney whose Seattle firm is representing Putnam and 14 other plaintiffs.
For its part, Morning Star will have its chance to clear its name, which supporters and its former director say have been sullied by allegations they vehemently deny.
Many of the accusers name the ranch’s former directors – the Revs. Marvin Lavoy, who died in 1994, and Joseph Weitensteiner, who retired in 2006 – as their abusers.
Others say Morning Star administrators permitted known sexual predators such as defrocked priest and admitted pedophile Patrick O’Donnell to take boys “to other locations where they would sodomize and molest them,” according to court records.
Morning Star Boys’ Ranch officials declined, through their executive director Richard Petersen, to be interviewed for this story.
They say the nonprofit organization has provided a safe environment for more than 1,300 boys with behavioral problems for more than 50 years. The state continues to place boys in the care of the ranch, which today has about 11 residents.
In July 2008, ranch spokeswoman Jenn Kantz told the newspaper that the allegations “go against the very core of what Morning Star was founded on.”
Attorneys for the ranch have shown no signs that they would consider a settlement, in contrast to the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, which in 2007 settled with 180 plaintiffs claiming to have been sexually abused by priests. The $48 million diocesan settlement also came with an apology from Bishop William Skylstad.
“In the diocesan cases, the bishop’s apology made a difference (to victims),” said Spokane attorney Doug Spruance, whose client, Joseph S. Matherly, has filed claims against both the diocese and the ranch. “There has been none of that in Morning Star.”
Instead, the ranch’s attorneys have successfully moved to have the lawsuits split into separate trials that stretch into 2011 in Spokane County Superior Judge Kathleen O’Connor’s courtroom.
Nevertheless, attorneys for the plaintiffs will attempt to present jurors with the cumulative weight of the numerous accusations against the ranch.
“We will be bringing other victims in to testify,” Kosnoff said.
Defense attorneys, on the other hand, will contrast the community’s regard for Weitensteiner with the credibility of the plaintiffs, many of whom have criminal records or histories of substance abuse.
“Did he (Kosnoff) tell you how many of his clients are felons?” Jim King, lead attorney for the ranch, asked a Spokesman-Review reporter in February 2008.
“We intend to try the cases and let a jury decide on the credibility of Father Weitensteiner,” King told the newspaper. “These cases are going to involve the credibility of the accuser and the accused.”
King has said that Weitensteiner has passed a polygraph test in which he denied the sexual abuse allegations.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys say the abuse their clients suffered as boys is largely responsible for the men they became and that their testimony will be excruciating.
Putnam alleges that when he was 12 or 13 years old, Weitensteiner took him on an overnight boating trip on Lake Coeur d’Alene, during which the priest molested him. Putnam also claims in his lawsuit that he was bound in his bed at the ranch and molested by a counselor. When he complained to another counselor about the incident, nothing was done.
Putnam has a criminal history dating to 1988 that includes felony theft, burglary, assault and drug convictions.
Should a jury find in his favor, Putnam’s legal battle with the ranch may not be over.
His attorneys discovered in November, too late to amend Putnam’s complaint, that the ranch has transferred the bulk of its assets, including $12 million in securities and property assessed at nearly $3.5 million, to the nonprofit Morning Star Foundation.
Since learning of the transfers, Kosnoff’s firm has filed a separate lawsuit under the state Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act alleging a “massive conspiracy to defraud the plaintiffs.”
The directors of Morning Star Boys’ Ranch and Morning Star Foundation denied the transfers were made to defraud potential creditors.
“It was transparent and done with the advice of legal counsel,” Petersen said.
Attorneys for other Morning Star plaintiffs said they still have time to amend their complaints and intend to include the foundation as a defendant. The lawsuits seek unspecified judgments for damages to the plaintiffs, including the cost of treating their emotional injuries.
In addition to the 19 cases scheduled to be tried in O’Connor’s court, two other former Morning Star Boys’ Ranch residents, brothers Michael and Matthew Smith, have named the ranch in their separate lawsuits against the state of Washington and Spokane County.
Michael Smith says that while he was a ward of the state he was released from the ranch into the custody of a convicted child sex offender who molested him for years. His brother claims to have been sexually abused by the same pedophile, Gerald “Jerry” Allen, who is now dead.
The Smiths’ cases, which are likely to be merged, are scheduled for trial in August in Judge Tari Eitzen’s courtroom.