Either Morning Star Boys’ Ranch management turned a blind eye to decades of child sexual abuse or it is being persecuted by discreditable former residents looking to make a buck.
Those were the strategies outlined by legal adversaries in the first of 19 lawsuits against the facility in opening remarks to jurors Tuesday in Spokane County Superior Court.
“A group home for troubled boys has a responsibility to use reasonable care to protect boys from harm,” said Tim Kosnoff, attorney for plaintiff Kenneth Putnam, who claims to have been abused by ranch employees, including its former director, the Rev. Joseph Weitensteiner.
“Management knew because they were doing it themselves,” Kosnoff said.
He portrayed Morning Star as a nonprofit dictatorship under Weitensteiner, who became director in 1966 after his alcoholic predecessor, the Rev. Marvin Lavoy, now deceased, stepped down.
Kosnoff described Weitensteiner as a “Jekyll and Hyde” character who could be charismatic and warm one moment and explosive and violent the next.
Morning Star’s attorney, Jim King, set out to discredit Putnam and four other plaintiffs whose trials are scheduled to begin in Judge Kathleen O’Connor’s courtroom in the coming months.
“It’s Mr. Putnam that brings us here,” King said. “He wants money.”
Putnam, who was born in 1975, was sent to the south Spokane home for boys as a ward of the court in 1988 because of drug use and bad behavior in school.
Despite constant oversight of a state case worker and a legal advocate, Putnam “never said one word” about sex abuse at the time, King said. Since leaving the ranch, “he has spent more than half of his life in jails or prisons” because of criminal acts fueled by drug dependence.
Kosnoff described his client as angry, depressed and restless – feelings he said were caused by post-traumatic stress.
He did not deny Putnam had problems going into Morning Star, but “abuse greatly complicated and aggravated those problems.”
But the crux of Kosnoff’s case is that generations of boys were abused by administrators, employees, other residents and pedophiles from the community who took boys out for overnight outings.
To make his point, Kosnoff on Tuesday brought in three former Morning Star residents who are suing the ranch.
William Call, born in 1946, testified he was sexually abused by then-counselor Weitensteiner in 1961 and 1962.
Call said the priest threatened retribution if he said anything. When Call mustered the courage to tell Lavoy, he said, the director then began abusing him as well.
“I was afraid nobody would believe me,” Call said, his voice cracking.
Under cross-examination by King, Call revealed that he was born Michael Lewis Call and he enlisted in the Army in 1963 but was court-martialed within two years for larceny and going absent without leave. A few years later he re-enlisted using his younger brother William’s identity. It was a lie that he attempted to perpetuate even under deposition in 2006 after filing a lawsuit against Morning Star. He has since legally changed his name to William.
Next on the stand was Stephanie Miller, who was born Carl Smith but underwent a sex change operation. Miller testified that a counselor whose name she cannot remember demanded oral sex. When she refused, she said, the counselor burned her with his cigarette; she bears the scar on her chest today.
When Miller told Weitensteiner of the alleged abuse, she said, “He told me to keep my mouth shut because he didn’t want me screwing up the program.”
King presented evidence that Miller told a health care provider in 1989 that she didn’t know how she had been scarred.
Tuesday’s final witness was William Knapton, who was born in 1956. He lived at Morning Star from 1964 to 1968.
Knapton described how counselors, angry that he and three or four other boys would not stay in their beds, placed irises in their rectums with Vaseline and photographed them.
He said the photo was widely shown at the ranch and that Weitensteiner did nothing to discipline the counselors.
“I was humiliated and embarrassed,” Knapton said, adding that he was afraid that the kids at school would see the photo.
Knapton also said he saw Weitensteiner break a plate over the head of one boy who would not eat his vegetables and bust through his office door while locked in a violent fray with another boy.
Such events scared Knapton so much he wanted to escape, he said. But under King’s questioning, Knapton acknowledged that he “liked and respected” the priest he and the other boys called Father Joe.
Knapton also said he had taken methadone for 20 years through the Spokane Regional Health District program after he had become addicted to codeine and that he was a recovering alcoholic.
Under cross-examination by King, Knapton said that some of the happiest years of his life were spent at Morning Star. But when Kosnoff redirected questioning, Knapton also recounted being sexually abused by an older boy at the ranch.
Trial continues today with testimony from Weitensteiner and another former resident who accuses Morning Star Boys’ Ranch of abuse.