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Saturday, August 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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At child rape trial, victims take stand against physician

Craig Morgenstern, a former emergency room doctor at the Spokane VA Medical Center, was arrested in 2014 and charged in Stevens County with child rape. (Courtesy the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office)
Craig Morgenstern, a former emergency room doctor at the Spokane VA Medical Center, was arrested in 2014 and charged in Stevens County with child rape. (Courtesy the Stevens County Sheriff’s Office)

Dr. Craig Morgenstern led a secret life as a reckless child molester who made sex videos of himself with young boys he had drugged with prescription sedatives, federal prosecutors told jurors Monday.

But the children weren’t his only victims. He betrayed neighbors. He betrayed his professional oath. And he betrayed those closest to him – assaulting the three sons of a man who years ago had Morgenstern stand beside him as his best man, witnesses told jurors Monday, the fifth day of the trial.

The panel – narrowed to eight women and four men – began deliberating the 35-count federal child sex and pornography case late Monday and could reach a verdict on Tuesday.

Morgenstern, through his attorney Bryan Whitaker, is arguing that federal prosecutors erred by bringing the former Veterans Affairs emergency room doctor to trial in Eastern Washington.

Many of the alleged sex crimes happened in Mississippi with a boy, now 21, whose father befriended Morgenstern while Morgenstern was stationed at Naval Air Station Meridian in Mississippi. Morgenstern would take the boy on trips to Tennessee, where days of arcade-game playing and water-park fun would turn into hotel room pornography sessions with the unconscious boy, prosecutors say.

On some trips there was a second 14-year-old boy brought along. One of the victims testified Monday and said that Morgenstern supplied them with alcohol and marijuana.

In other charges, Morgenstern is accused of abusing children at Triple Play Family Fun Park in Hayden.

Whitaker didn’t argue against the evidence that Morgenstern molested children, made videos and had about 1 million images of child pornography on his multiple computers and back-up drives. He did say there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest the doctor drugged the boys with benzodiazepines.

Whitaker asked the jury in his closing argument to find Morgenstern not guilty because of what he said are commonly referred to as “technicalities” but are an important check on government power.

In this case, Whitaker said, Morgenstern should be tried in Mississippi, Tennessee and North Idaho – not the Eastern District of Washington.

Those venue technicalities, Whitaker said, are the U.S. Constitution and federal rules governing the rights of criminal defendants on where they are to be tried for crimes.

“The rules are there to make sure our government doesn’t run roughshod over us,” he said.

Whitaker asked jurors to find Morgenstern not guilty by rejecting the urge to “not let him get away with it.”

Prosecutors said the evidence is clear that Morgenstern used his Eastern Washington home as a base to plan his crimes, accumulate sedatives, curate his pornography and commit some of the sexual acts.

Some of the toughest testimony came from the father of three boys whom Morgenstern is accused of assaulting and taking pictures of at the Triple Play amusement park and hotel in Hayden.

Morgenstern and the man, who has not been named to protect the identity of his sons, became college buddies 25 years ago. They remained close, working in tandem as Boy Scouts counselors. Morgenstern, always single, became a regular guest of the father’s extended family at their cabin along the Pend Oreille River and a condominium at the Schweitzer Mountain ski resort.

The man testified that he and his wife considered Morgenstern their “fourth child.” The doctor would take the boys to movies and give rides in his sports cars. He would tend to their maladies. He even taught the oldest son how to drive a stick-shift car.

“We moved through life together,” he told jurors. “There were never any red flags.”

Jurors also heard from the boy, then 13, who escaped from Morgenstern’s home in the middle of an October night after allegedly awaking to find Morgenstern molesting him and making videos of the assault.

U.S. District Judge William Nielsen cleared the courtroom for the boy’s testimony.

Afterward the boy’s parents described him as a “champ” for facing Morgenstern and telling jurors his story.

“He is brave and I am so proud,” said his mother, who added that her family has sought counseling through Lutheran Community Services to help cope with the trauma. “We’re not through it yet. This wasn’t supposed to be part of our family’s trajectory.”

She also testified Monday about her unease about Morgenstern. They lived on the same cul-de-sac and he was often hanging around, befriending them and having an interest in their son’s accomplishments. She said Morgenstern was persistent and wanted to be a mentor.

She also testified Monday about her maternal instinct. At first she let her son only be with him if there were other boys around.

Her son didn’t report anything weird. Then Morgenstern moved to a $470,000 home along the shore of Long Lake. He had the home outfitted with arcade games and toys. He had an Airsoft toy rifle range. He invited the boy for a sleepover to play games, eat junk food and watch scary movies. She told jurors she reluctantly agreed.

Then she testified about the terror of that 2:30 a.m. phone call in October 2014. A couple had her son in their home and wanted her to come quickly. They explained the boy’s description of the attack. She and her husband sped to Nine Mile Falls.

In an interview outside the courtroom following her testimony, she said Morgenstern let down many people.

“He abused my son. He abused his privilege as an adult trusted with children. He abused his medical training and his oath. He abused his friendships.”

If convicted, Morgenstern faces the possibility of life in prison.

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