Probe: Hospital official tried to cover up abuse

Apr 26, 2012, 10:58 PM

Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) – The chief investigator of a state-run hospital in Montana encouraged a mentally disabled woman to recant her accusation that a staffer sexually assaulted her, officials have found.

The investigator, Keith Reeder, also discouraged another Montana Developmental Center employee from taking the woman to a hospital or taking any action that would bring the attention of outside law enforcement, an investigative report into the 2010 allegations said.

Two years later, the hospital staffer, Allen Whetstone, is serving a five-year prison term after pleading guilty to sexual assault. Reeder still works for the hospital for the developmentally disabled after state health officials cleared him of wrongdoing.

“I never covered up anything,” Reeder said Thursday in a brief interview.

Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesman Jon Ebelt said his agency conducted its own probe in 2010 that found Reeder “complied with department policy and conducted himself in a professional manner.”

Jefferson County Attorney Matt Johnson said his office examined whether Reeder could be charged with not reporting a sexual assault, but he was uncertain there was enough evidence against him and hoped the health department would address those personnel issues in some way.

“I would have to say I’m not sure if they were addressed adequately or not,” Johnson said.

In May 2010, a 29-year-old patient at the hospital told an employee that Whetstone assaulted her when they were alone in a secluded room, according to the investigative report.

Whetstone, who was her work supervisor, gave the patient a bag of Skittles and told her to keep silent or he would get in trouble. The patient told another hospital employee, and the report ended up with Reeder, the hospital’s chief investigator and client protection specialist.

Reeder met briefly with the patient before he told Leigh Ann Holmes, a qualified mental retardation professional, that the woman had recanted the allegation.

Later, the woman told a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy that Reeder told her to take back the story and said that if she was lying, she would be moved to a special locked-down part of the campus. She became worried that her request to move into group housing would be denied and she also worried about the fate of Whetstone, whom she had called her friend.

“She said Reeder told her to change her story because Whetstone could get into a lot of trouble and maybe even lose his job,” the investigative report said.

Reeder was placed on administrative leave while the health department looked into the allegations against him.

Holmes told investigators that Reeder discouraged her from driving the woman to a Helena hospital, saying the rape examination would be too traumatic for her. He also discouraged her from taking any other action that would bring the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office into the investigation, according to the report.

Investigators said Reeder had rejected previous allegations of sexual abuse against Whetstone in 2006 and 2008 as being inconclusive. At one point, Reeder was warned not to interview any more possible victims before forensic interviewers spoke to them or it “would be considered obstruction of a criminal investigation.”

Reeder told the health department’s external investigator that he never threatened the woman with any disciplinary action and that she had willingly recanted her statement.

That investigator, Dale Tunnell of the Montana Department of Corrections, concluded that Reeder conducted himself professionally and recommended he be returned to full-duty status as soon as possible.

Department of Justice investigators said they found a total of five possible victims at the hospital who said they had been sexually assaulted, including four who implicated Whetstone and a fifth who implicated a second employee.

The report noted that other patients are not able to communicate as well “and, if something similar happened to them, they would be unable to tell.”

Whetstone pleaded guilty last June to one count of sexual assault and received a 10-year prison sentence with five years suspended. It is not clear whether the second suspect is still working for the hospital.

After the investigation was completed, the agency turned the report over to the Jefferson County attorney and the Department of Public Health and Human Services to act upon, Department of Justice spokesman John Doran said.

Johnson said the plea deal was in the best interest of the families of the possible victims, who did not want their relatives to testify. Sufficient evidence could not be found to prosecute the second employee, he said.

The investigative report was made public after Disability Rights Montana, an advocacy group, sued the Department of Justice for its release. The Independent Record newspaper of Helena first reported details from the report.

Ebelt said progress has been made at the center over the past two years. There is a new superintendent, a new clinical director and a new quality management director, plus a redesign of the system used to ensure protection of the patients.

“These protections are in place and we are confident MDC is on the right path,” Ebelt said in the statement.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Probe: Hospital official tried to cover up abuse