As a 12-year-old, the only safe space in John Seckar’s life was the library.
He would run away from wherever he was living – a group home, with his abusive mother, or a foster family – and head to the closest library to get lost in books written by Louis L’Amour.
So he was enthusiastic when his state case worker told him about the J Bar D Boys Ranch for boys and its bunk houses, horses and adventure.
“You get to learn the cowboy life,” Seckar remembered being told.
“I was rather excited,” he said. “But the first 24 hours changed all that really fast.”
He arrived to find a “skuzzy” bunk house with a dirty mattress in the basement assigned to him, “and if I remember correctly, there wasn’t even a pillow,” Seckar said.
He awoke that first morning to find everything he had brought with him had been stolen by other residents. Not long after, one of the ranch employees called “open season” on another boy who had been perceived as rebellious, Seckar said.
The other kids punched, kicked, threw their boots and spit at the boy until an employee stopped it.
“I can’t remember a day where I felt safe,” Seckar said.
Now 54, he was among 12 former J Bar D residents who reached a $17 million dollar settlement late last month with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families, who placed the boys at the ranch.
The ranch, which closed in 1984, was one of two operated by Dave Goodwin. After years of complaints, a 1984 Pend Oreille Superior Court inquest found the homes were “disgraceful,” with filthy bunkhouses, improper and inadequate supervision, threats of violence, and a total lack of therapeutic services, according to Spokesman-Review stories a the time.
Goodwin has continued to deny the findings of the investigation.
This new settlement comes nearly a year after Terry Vanbuskirk, another former resident, received a $1.5 million settlement with the state, which has declined to comment.
The new settlement is rare, not only in the amount of money paid, but because the suit involved so many men coming forward to testify openly about being abused.
Men are less likely to disclose sexual assault, according to a review of the literature on male victims of sexual assault published earlier this year. Little research has been done on male victims of sexual assault and their recovery.
“Advocacy and treatment efforts need to continue to be developed and researched, refined, and implemented to address the unique needs of male victims,” the paper’s conclusion reads. “When male victims are viewed as authentic members of the sexual survivor community, treatment and resources tailored to them should increase.”
All 12 plaintiffs testified in the four-week jury trial that was cut short when a settlement was reached ahead of closing arguments.
Lead attorney Darrell Cochran, from Pfau Cochran Vertetis Amala Law, said in an interview he has always been drawn to represent victims in child abuse cases.
He grew up two blocks away from the O.K. Boys Ranch in Olympia. Cochran remembers knowing as early as middle school that his classmates who lived at the ranch were being abused.
When Cochran became an attorney in the 1990s, one of his first cases was on behalf of former residents at the O.K. ranch.
He then heard about J Bar D and that it likely was even worse.
“I had in the back of my mind over the many years that I would love to represent one from J Bar D,” Cochran said.
The trial earlier this month was unique in that it brought together men who hadn’t spoken to each other in decades, or never even knew each other in the first place, who all had similar recollections of the abusive and isolated environment at J Bar D.
At trial, new information came out, including that then-Catholic priest Patrick O’Donnell would come to the ranch with candy and take individual boys out fishing. O’Donnell lost his psychology license and was removed from the church following numerous allegations of pedophilia.
One plaintiff testified that a fellow resident was sexually assaulted by O’Donnell at the ranch and that its director, Jeff Williams, was friendly with the priest.
Kelly McShane ended up at the ranch when he was 14 after years of living with his mother, who struggled with addiction.
When Williams began going over the ranch’s strict rules, McShane made a noise that Williams didn’t like, he said.
Williams responded by throwing him through a window, McShane said.
“I got pretty much a very quick introduction into what J Bar D was going to be like,” McShane said.
The older boys at the ranch were bullies enforcing the edicts of staff members, both McShane and Seckar said.
Both men were sexually assaulted, something they’ve struggled to talk about in their adult lives.
“Sexual beatings or assault, they were weaponized to demand obedience and degrade the weaker individuals,” McShane said. “It was a tool, that’s what they used it as.”
Not only were they assaulted, they witnessed other children being sexually assaulted, subjected to bestialities and masturbation, they said.
“Witnessing things like that – it was just one of the worst experiences of my life,” McShane said.
McShane, who now lives and works near Tacoma, said he joined the lawsuit because he felt that the state had forgotten about the boys who were traumatized at J Bar D. No one was prosecuted for the abuse.
“There had to be justice somehow,” McShane said. “I felt like not only was I abandoned, but other boys were abandoned.”
For Seckar, the experience at the ranch was profoundly lonely. At 5-foot-3 and 150 pounds as an adult and only smaller as a teenager, he was an easy target for the older boys.
“Feeling alone is a very horrid horrible thing,” Seckar said. “To feel so lonely that there’s nobody there to protect you.”
The abuse has affected both men as adults. Seckar turned to drugs to numb his pain but was able to get sober. He now is a frequent attendee and leader at Narcotics Anonymous meetings, where he shares what he lived through, helping others open up and begin to heal.
While McShane says he didn’t let the abuse break him, he has struggled with intimacy both in friendships and romantic relationships.
“I equate intimacy with violence,” he said.
Preparing for trial and testifying in court are some of the first times McShane has shared the totality of what happened to him.
“When I talked about it, I felt free,” McShane said. “A sense of, I’m not carrying this thing on my shoulders no more.”
McShane, Seckar and Cochran all hope the settlement sends a message to the state that this kind of lack of oversight that allowed the abuse to occur is unacceptable.
Both McShane and Seckar encourage other victims of abuse to come forward, share their stories and work toward justice.
“No matter how much time passes, you have to remember that these are things that traumatize people,” McShane said. “I want them to know that accountability is attainable, and try to be strong.”
Cochran usually takes these kinds of cases on contingency, meaning his clients pay nothing in advance, then Cochran receives a fee at the end of the case if he’s successful.
“Every kid that’s taken into a home, whether it’s state custody or not, deserves love, nurturing, protection and guidance,” Seckar said. “Know that you’re not alone; you’re loved, wanted, needed and heard.”