Not all sexual abuse allegations against Oregon prison nurse made it to local prosecutors

  • Conrad Wilson
  • February 22, 2023
  • Oregon Public Broadcasting

Several women at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility who made allegations of sexual abuse to detectives never had their accounts considered by local prosecutors, raising questions about how seriously authorities took the case

Editor’s note: This story contains detailed descriptions of rape allegations and other sexual abuse.

Connie Wilson opened her eyes around 6 a.m. It was July 10, 2017, and the unairconditioned dorm was already uncomfortable. Overheated and depressed, she laid on her bunk inside the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, uninterested in moving.

Wilson’s father had died weeks earlier and she was in prison for the third time, unable to see him before he passed.

That morning, she was scheduled for an X-ray at the prison’s infirmary. Wilson told prison staff she never made the appointment, but they told her she’d have to cancel it in person. So, Wilson climbed out of bed, threw on her jeans, and walked to the medical unit to reschedule.

When she arrived, Nurse Tony, as she knew him, called to her from inside a triage room. The two had met during one of Wilson’s previous prison sentences. Tony Klein, now 38, had been sympathetic after Wilson’s father died, she said later. She trusted him and told police he had “treated her like a ‘human.’”

“He kind of talked to us like we were regular people because the rest of them — a lot of the CO’s [corrections officers] and staff would treat us like we were scum,” Wilson later told OPB. “He was kind.”

But that may have all been an act, she thought later. That day, when she arrived to cancel the appointment, Klein asked Wilson if she had an existing problem with her knee or hip. Wilson said yes, so he urged her to keep the appointment and began the exam. Klein then asked Wilson to pull her pants up over her knee so he could evaluate her. The prison jeans were too tight. So Klein told Wilson to slip her pants down.

It took her nearly a year to report what happened next.

“Why the delay — Because of fear + retaliation and I didn’t have a clue how to handle this or even who to talk to,” Wilson wrote to prison staff on June 4, 2018. “Who was safe with this fragile situation.”

On handwritten grievance forms, Wilson alleged Klein sexually assaulted her during the exam the previous summer.

As it turned out, Wilson was not the only, or even the first, woman at the prison to accuse Klein of sexual assault. At least 27 women have accused him of sexual assault or harassment, OPB has reported.

But the attorneys at the Washington County District Attorney’s office, who are responsible for prosecuting crimes in the women’s prison, did not see at least half a dozen sexual abuse allegations against Klein.

State police conducted the interviews and records show they sent them on, but local prosecutors say they never received them. A spokesperson for the Washington County District Attorney’s office confirmed that Wilson’s is among the interviews prosecutors never saw.

“In a case as big as this one with as many potential victims as there are, it’s bewildering that anything could go missing, let alone interviews with victims, or witnesses or anything that would tend to establish these crimes had occurred,” Julie Abbate, a former deputy chief with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice who now works with Just Detention, a nonprofit that seeks to end sexual abuse in detention.

Women at Coffee Creek believe their accusations were treated with less urgency by local law enforcement because they were women convicted of crimes. That is a pattern that repeats across the country, as thousands of substantiated cases of sexual abuse go unpunished.

Nationally, there were 2,229 substantiated incidents of staff sexually assaulting or harassing people in custody between 2016 and 2018, according to a U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report released in January. That means investigators determined the incidents occurred. Prison employees were arrested in about one-third of the cases brought against them. But just 6% of cases led to a legal punishment like a guilty plea, a conviction or even a fine.

“You can’t be more mistreated in a prison than being raped by staff,” Abbate said. “There’s nothing more egregious than sexual abuse of someone when they’re in custody. And there’s no excuse.”

And yet, Klein has never been tried in state court to determine whether he’s guilty of the more than two dozen accusations against him. Instead, the state appears to have failed — first to protect the incarcerated women from alleged abuse by a state employee and then to make sure local prosecutors had all the evidence needed to hold him accountable. With no charges against him, Klein continued to work as a nurse for roughly four years after Wilson and the other women leveled their accusations.

Building a case

Most of the time, detectives build a case by collecting evidence, and prosecutors review the case before they decide whether to file criminal charges. Typically, detectives continue to share information as the case develops, especially if more evidence is turned up after a decision not to charge. It’s also common for prosecutors to ask police for more evidence. There’s supposed to be a back and forth.

This case was different. Records show there was little, if any, communication between investigators and prosecutors after the first stack of Oregon State Police interviews with alleged victims was turned over in March 2018. That summer, local prosecutors decided not to bring criminal charges against Klein. Explaining their decision, Washington County prosecutors noted a lack of DNA evidence and conflicting accounts about Klein’s anatomy from women who say Klein assaulted them. They also write that a few other women say Klein was set up.

The second stack of interviews, which included Wilson’s account, wasn’t sent to prosecutors until January of 2019. But there was no communication between the state police and the county prosecutors about this additional evidence. To this day, the prosecutors in the Washington County DA’s office say they never received it.

“If we had received additional reports, we would have re-evaluated our 2018 charging decision to determine whether criminal charges could be filed,” Stephen Mayer, a now former spokesperson for the Washington County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement last year.

But they didn’t. Klein never faced local charges. Instead, he resigned from the state prison system in early 2018 and got a new job at one of Legacy Health’s hospitals in the Portland area.

Initially, the Oregon Nursing Board moved in June 2019 to revoke Klein’s license because he lied to the board about having been under investigation. But by June 2020, the board agreed to let Klein keep practicing and issued a $2,500 fine and reprimand instead. In its decision, the board notes that Washington County prosecutors did not file charges because their case lacked evidence.

Last March, attorneys at the U.S. Department of Justice did what local prosecutors have not. They charged him. Federal prosecutors unsealed a 25-count indictment, charging Klein with sexually assaulting 12 women at Coffee Creek. Federal prosecutors alleged Klein deprived the women of their right to not face cruel and unusual punishment, a protection afforded under the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

FBI agents and federal prosecutors used the Oregon State Police investigation to inform their investigation, according to a statement announcing the indictment. That includes some of the interviews local prosecutors never saw. Wilson said she spoke to the FBI about her assault and has continued to receive updates about the federal criminal case. Another woman who spoke to OPB had a similar story.

Through his attorney, Klein declined to comment. He pleaded not guilty and is out of custody on pretrial supervision. Klein is scheduled to go to trial in July. After he was indicted by the Justice Department, Legacy fired him. He no longer has an active nursing license.

The first reports of sexual abuse at Oregon’s only women’s prison

Oregon State Police began investigating Klein on Nov. 16, 2017, when called to the prison by Coffee Creek Correctional Facility officials.

By the following March, detectives had interviewed at least 10 women at the prison who had come forward with allegations of sexual assault and harassment. One told police Klein tried to kiss her and later, in an infirmary closet: “Klein came up behind her, pulled her pants down and performed oral sex on her,” the state police report reads. Another said that during a medical appointment, “Klein moved her hand touching his penis through his pants and asked her what she knew about it.”

A few other women told state police something very different: that Klein was being set up by women making up allegations of assault so they could receive a financial settlement from the state. After investigating this angle, state police indicated in their report it was hard to say if Klein was being set up because “it was all rumors.”

As part of their investigation, the state police detectives also obtained a search warrant to collect a DNA sample from Klein. They compared his DNA against a pair of underwear one of Klein’s accusers said she wore when Klein allegedly penetrated her during a medical appointment. The state crime lab did not find Klein’s DNA on the underwear.

Detectives delivered a case file to the Washington County District Attorney’s Office on March 2, 2018.

That report served as the foundation for the local prosecutors’ decision to not charge Klein. Rayney Meisel, the deputy district attorney who reviewed the investigation, did not take the case to a grand jury.

“We will not proceed with charges at this time,” Meisel writes in an Aug. 27, 2018, memo. “When taken as a whole, the allegations are unsupportable. While it may be true that some of these inmates did, in fact, engage in sexual activity with the Defendant, the information we have is too unreliable to present to a jury.”

Any sexual contact between people in custody and prison staff is a criminal offense, according to Oregon law. The power dynamic makes it impossible for people in custody to consent. Local prosecutors also worried that the rumors Klein was being set up would provide him with a strong defense.

“It appears clear that there would be a great deal of evidence to support the defense that these allegations were false attempts at extorting money from the Department of Corrections,” Meisel writes.

That memo marked the end of the case for the Washington County District Attorney’s Office. But it wasn’t the end of the accusations against Klein.

More women come forward

In the five months between when Oregon State Police sent their initial report to local prosecutors and when prosecutors decided not to charge Klein, the police continued to interview women at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

In all, detectives took eight supplemental reports between April 5 and Aug. 22, 2018. Six women made allegations of sexual abuse and harassment.

Included in those interviews, there was Wilson’s account of how Klein assaulted her with his hands while her pants were down. Another woman said Klein cupped her breasts under her bra while he listened through a stethoscope. Another woman told police Klein forced his penis on her mouth while she was recovering from surgery. A fourth said Klein assaulted her during appointments related to her cancer treatment.

Two women had different stories. One told state police about the rumors that Klein was being set up, while another decided at the last minute she didn’t want to talk to detectives.

The interviews with women making allegations against Klein revealed new evidence that federal law enforcement officials would later find compelling.

And the multiple allegations reveal something of a pattern. In their complaints, many women indicated that Klein made them feel special before assaulting them. Some even said the sexual contact was mutual or refused to call it rape.

One of those women, who spoke to OPB, told state police detectives about two separate incidents in which she alleged Klein assaulted her during medical appointments at the Coffee Creek prison related to her cancer treatment.

“She told us that in about August 2017 she went to ‘medical’ and Klein took her to a ‘side room’ where they talked and flirted,” state police wrote in their report that was based on an April 2018 interview with the woman, whom OPB is identifying as “S” to protect her privacy.

“She explained that the ‘flirting’ was them talking and opening up with each other, like talking about her cancer,” the police report states. “She said they built rapport overtime. She said that Klein said to her ‘you’re still beautiful with one boob.’”

S told state police Klein groped her.

She “told us that she didn’t make him stop,” the detectives state in their written report. “She told us that Klein pulled out his ‘hard’ penis and said ‘what are we going to do about this?’ She told us that she laughed it off.”

During a second appointment about one month later, the woman needed an injection in her abdomen. According to what she told detectives, Klein “put his fingers in her vagina” while she was lying on the exam table. After Klein gave the injection, “she told us Klein bent her over the table and pulled the back of her shorts down,” the report states. The woman told detectives “she never felt like Klein ‘raped’ her and she didn’t try to make him stop. She told us that she felt ‘flattered’ first by Klein and now ‘manipulated.’”

Federal, prison and state investigations reach different conclusions

As part of an internal investigation, the Oregon Department of Corrections Office of Inspector General had a nurse manager review S’s medical files. They confirm Klein saw S once for an appointment related to cancer treatment in August 2017 and another for an injection in September 2017. But investigators said they were unable to “show definitively” if Klein sexually assaulted S.

Or anyone else for that matter.

For 26 of the 27 women who reported Klein, the prison’s investigators found their allegations “unsubstantiated.” That means that in 96% of cases, prison officials were unable to determine what happened.

In the only instance where investigators made a determination, they found the allegations were “unfounded.” Yet, the state paid $290,000 to settle a civil lawsuit brought in that case, the largest single amount paid to settle the slew of civil rights litigation brought against Klein and the Department of Corrections.

In all, Oregon has paid $1.87 million to settle 11 civil lawsuits tied to Klein’s behavior, including $150,000 to settle Wilson’s case last March. As part of the settlements, the state admitted no fault.

During the civil litigation, Klein was deposed by the women’s attorneys under oath. Klein denied knowing Wilson or S or having any sexual contact with either of them, forced or otherwise.

“I have never sexually touched Ms. Wilson,” Klein said. “I don’t even really remember who Ms. Wilson is.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has charged Klein with perjury. As part of its criminal case, federal prosecutors say Klein lied under oath about having sexual contact with women at Coffee Creek, “when he knew at that time that, in fact, he had engaged in sexual vaginal intercourse with at least one incarcerated adult while employed with the Oregon Department of Corrections.”

Conflicting stories from Oregon State Police and Washington County prosecutors

Despite concluding their interviews in August 2018, state police records show the agency didn’t send on the new allegations until January 2019. At that point, agency records show the supplemental report went to the Oregon Department of Corrections Office of Inspector General and the Washington County District Attorney’s Office.

Capt. Stephanie Bigman, a spokesperson for the Oregon State Police, told OPB that agency records show on Jan. 9, 2019, detectives sent the original investigation from early 2018, plus the additional material detectives had collected since.

“When you have the kind of information where it might change the case … you repackage the whole case and we send it back down to the district attorney’s office,” Bigman said last year. “And that happens all the time.”

But several officials at the Washington County District Attorney’s office said the agency has no documentation of any additional state police reports regarding Klein or any mention of the women who had brought allegations later in 2018.

“It has come to our attention that OSP intended to send copies of additional reports to the DA’s Office in 2019 via a state records shuttle delivery system, which is not how police agencies normally submit reports to our office,” Mayer, the spokesperson for the Washington County District Attorney’s Office, said in a statement last year. “Unfortunately, those additional OSP reports were never delivered to the DA’s Office and we were not made aware of their existence.”

There is no record of any follow-up from either agency.

The Oregon State Police declined OPB’s request for an interview with then Superintendent Terri Davie and the detectives who worked on the Klein case.

“As you are likely aware, this case is currently being federally prosecuted and is set for trial in July ‘23,” OSP spokesperson Kyle Kennedy stated in response to a list of written questions. “At this time I am limited in what information I can provide.”

Kennedy wrote that reports and evidence are usually sent digitally.

“We rarely use the [Department of Administrative Services] shuttle to deliver to District Attorneys,” he wrote, referring to a state-run courier service that delivers packages and documents between state agencies.

It’s unclear why Oregon State Police used the shuttle instead in this case. OPB asked the Department of Administrative Services for records of deliveries in 2019 between Oregon State Police, Washington County and the Department of Corrections.

“Upon further evaluation I found that Oregon State Police chooses not to use the package tracking system for any mail or packages we pickup for delivery to various locations,” Andrea Chiapella, spokesperson for the Department of Administrative Services, said in a statement. “Therefore we do not have any records of verified deliveries originating from the Oregon State Police.”

When asked why the Oregon State Police don’t use the tracking shuttle’s system feature, Kennedy, the agency’s spokesperson, replied: “We do not have tracking system features.”

But the reports that police records show were sent to the Washington County District Attorney’s Office were also sent to the Oregon Department of Corrections, and that agency received them. Records show they were used as part of the agency’s internal investigation into Klein.

It appears the Oregon State Police only sent the additional allegations against Klein after prison investigators asked for a copy.

Emails between Lindsay Noack, an investigator with the prison’s Office of Inspector General, and Oregon State police detectives reveal that progress on the case had slowed. On Jan. 4, 2019, Noack sent a note asking if detectives could send her the latest “Tony Klein report.” Detective Jace Hall replied: “Yes, with that being said, I was going through my case folder this week and realized I never typed up the inmate [redacted] interview … Sorry for the delay.”

Noack received the additional state police documents on Jan. 14, 2019.

Bigman said part of the problem with sending investigative files to county district attorneys is that state police are dealing with prosecutors across the state, each with their own way of receiving investigations.

“It completely depends on the county,” Bigman said. “Literally every county is different.”

Former Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, who left office in January, said he occasionally received evidence from state police on thumb drives left on his desk with attached Post-It notes detailing a case number or name.

“It’s not the way to do it,” Hummel said. “They were going above and beyond, trying to get me that info. It wasn’t them being unprofessional. They didn’t have confidence that their case management system would get it to us.”

He said there doesn’t seem to be one standard way troopers share reports and evidence.

“When I started practicing law in 1995, in all regards the Oregon State Police was the top law enforcement agency in Oregon,” Hummel wrote in an email. “Due primarily to insufficient investments by the Oregon Legislature, OSP’s case management software technology has not kept pace with the advancements made by most local police departments.”

At the same time, Hummel said if a detective gets additional information on a case, it’s on the officer or law enforcement agency to reach out to prosecutors, especially if a district attorney previously decided there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges.

“It’s their job to recontact the prosecutor and say ‘there’s more information you might be interested in,’” Hummel said.

Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said he was “very happy” the U.S. Department of Justice was ultimately able to file charges against Klein.

“Their charges are based on evidence we in the DA’s office four years ago did not have, and that includes an FBI investigation and deposition testimony,” Barton told OPB. “I know from talking to my contacts in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, they would not have been able to file charges based on the evidence we had.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has repeatedly declined to comment, citing the open federal case. Records indicate the federal investigation into Klein began sometime in 2019, after Klein’s accusers began filing civil lawsuits. That’s when federal agents began going into Coffee Creek to interview women about Klein, prison officials confirmed. FBI agents also reached out to local prosecutors and tried to interview Klein at his home.

‘They failed miserably’

Connie Wilson is out of prison. Despite the money from her settlement, she has struggled to find stability.

She lives with her brothers at her parents’ home near Lincoln City. Sitting in the driveway last spring, her belongings were stored under several large, makeshift sheds, constructed from lumber covered in tarps. Wilson just turned 59 and is dealing with chronic health problems and new legal troubles, including a suspended license. She said she still relives the assault in her mind. And she’s dismayed by what the state’s prison system allowed to happen.

“Why did he have a chance to get to me?” Wilson said. “That shouldn’t happen.”

Wilson said she’s angry — not just at Klein, but at how she was treated in prison. It’s a place, she said, without humanity, without laughter. In an environment so deprived, Klein stood out as someone who seemed to care.

The prison culture made her assault possible, she said, and then the state’s legal system failed to bring the man she says abused her to justice.

“They were supposed to protect me and they didn’t,” Wilson said. “They failed miserably.”

Originally posted here