COVER STORY | Isthmus 2007

Predators at work

 

 

Greg Ledbetter and Angela Kalscheur were hired to nurture Dane County’s most vulnerable teens. Instead, they molested them.

 

By Jason Shepard

 

In 1998, when Walden Homes hired Gregory Ledbetter as a counselor for troubled boys at Spring House, a group foster home funded by Dane County taxpayers, he was already an experienced sexual predator.

 

Ledbetter had moved to Madison less than a year before, after escaping 43 charges of sexually molesting boys at a group home in Indiana. His new job afforded him fresh opportunities, to which he took prompt advantage, as “Henry” would soon find out.

 

Henry (a pseudonym, like all juvenile names in this article), was 15 when he ended up at Spring House, on Madison’s near east side, in 1999. “Almost every night,” Henry later told police, he went to Ledbetter’s apartment, where they would “smoke marijuana, play video games and watch porno movies.”

 

Ledbetter manipulated Henry into sexual acts, as he had with many other boys before and after, according to hundreds of pages of police and court records reviewed by Isthmus. Sometimes Ledbetter would perform oral sex on the boys; other times it was anal sex. A camcorder next to Ledbetter’s bed recorded the encounters.

 

Then Ledbetter would return his victims to Spring House, where he was paid to make meals, lead group discussions and serve as a positive role model for boys who’ve been abandoned and suffer from emotional and behavioral problems.

 

Ledbetter, 39, was convicted last year of molesting several Spring House residents, among other victims. His crimes were so heinous that a Dane County judge sentenced him to life in prison, rejecting Ledbetter’s offer to be castrated.

 

Strikingly, Ledbetter is not the only sexual predator hired in recent years by Walden Homes to support and nurture some of Dane County’s most vulnerable teenagers. Angela Kalscheur, 26, faces more than 40 years in prison on charges related to sexual acts with four boys at Spring House. She has admitted to the crimes and will likely strike a plea bargain to avoid trial, now set for Feb. 7.

 

Both cases highlight breakdowns in a system that is supposed to provide care for kids in government custody. Background checks obviously failed, since Walden hired Ledbetter despite a dangerous and troubled past. And staff supervision was so poor that both counselors were able to prey on multiple youths over many months.

 

The cases also reveal insufficient oversight of private facilities that operate with public money. Even after the fact, county and state officials failed to aggressively investigate how such crimes could have happened. Walden has not been required to make policy changes regarding hiring or staffing. And elected officials with oversight responsibilities were kept in the dark.

 

County officials stress the assurances they’ve received from state regulators that Walden is in compliance with licensing rules.

 

“We have nothing to hide,” says Lynn Green, Dane County’s director of human services. “I am going to stand behind the work we’ve done in this situation 100 percent.”

 

Adds Bob Lee, administrator for the Dane County’s division of children, youth and family services: “We feel as badly or more badly than anyone that some kids did not have good experiences there. But the totality of the agency’s experiences with Walden Homes is what’s most important to us.”

 

That may not be good enough for local elected officials. County Supv. David Worzala, chair of the county’s Health and Human Needs Committee, was “astounded” to learn of the abuse from Isthmus last week. County Supv. Barb Vedder, the committee’s vice chair, also professed ignorance: “I am surprised we weren’t told about this.” (Charges in both cases drew media attention, but some accounts did not mention Spring House by name.)

 

This week Worzala launched an investigation into oversight of Walden Homes, which continues to annually receive about a million dollars in county funding.

"My conclusion is it’s outrageous that this has occurred in group home in Dane County,” says Worzala. “These kids are in our care. They’re vulnerable, and we need to provide a safe environment.”

 

Where is the oversight?

 

Worzala, a member of the Dane County Board since 2004, doesn’t like to criticize county government. He uses the word “we” when referring to it, and says he’s a “big fan” of Green and her department.

 

But Worzala is at a loss to explain why he first learned of these incidents from a reporter. “I don’t know what to say. However, I will say this: Now I know about it, and it will be addressed.”

 

Worzala plans to call officials from Dane County and the state Department of Health and Family Services to account for their actions before his committee.

 

“These are horrific cases,” he says. “The system’s broken. We need to look at it. Clearly county and state oversight needs to be reviewed and discussed. We need to do something to make sure this never happens again.”

 

Walden Homes LTD is a nonprofit corporation that continues to run three group homes in Dane County: Coventry Group Home on the north side, and Horizon House and Thoreau House on the isthmus.

 

Dane County taxpayers have paid Walden $4.7 million over the past five years to care for children ordered into its group foster homes. A tax filing for 2004 shows county taxpayers, at $910,882 that year, were by far Walden’s largest source of income; next in line was the state Department of Corrections, at $44,550. The money went in part to Walden’s long-time director, George Nestler, who received a salary of about $90,000.

 

Nestler did not return repeated calls seeking comment on this article.

 

According to the tax filing, Walden Homes aims to provide “a stable, highly supervised group foster home environment” for adolescents. But that’s hardly what it did for nearly a dozen of Dane County’s most troubled teens, who were victimized by these two counselors.

 

Indeed, records suggest that Spring House, 511 S. Ingersoll St., was a deeply troubled operation. Police were called to the group home 151 times since 2000, many often in response to neighbor concerns. Police logs reviewed by Isthmus show complaints about disturbances, thefts, damaged property, liquor law violations and general juvenile complaints. Other calls involved battery, drugs and an overdose.

 

“There were police over there all the time,” says Scott Thornton, who lives nearby. Neighbors also complained to state regulators about lax supervision.

But the decision to close Spring House in June of 2006 purportedly had nothing to do with child molestation or complaints from neighbors. Rather, Walden told the state it wanted “to make better use of our resources.” Agrees Dane County’s Green, “It was purely a financial decision on their need to fill beds.”

 

To date, the only penalty imposed on Walden Homes has been a $1,000 state fine in the Kalscheur case, which Walden initially appealed but later paid. 

 

From Indiana to Wisconsin

 

On Oct. 15, 2005, after being tipped off by a neighbor that Ledbetter, then 38, was having sex with a 16-year-old boy, Madison police executed a search warrant on his apartment. They discovered a jackpot of evidence in his bedroom: 150 videotapes stashed in a locked dresser drawer and safe. The tapes, spanning more than a decade, were meticulously labeled with the boys’ names, ages and dates.

 

In letters and testimony to Dane County Judge Dan Moeser, Ledbetter and his parents traced his predatory pedophilia to his troubled childhood. They said Ledbetter had a sexual relationship with an older man when he was a teen. And, when he was around 17, his best friend committed suicide with Ledbetter’s shotgun after announcing that he was gay and being rejected by his family.

 

“He gave me an ultimatum about him killing himself and I didn’t stop him,” Ledbetter wrote. “I carry that guilt with me for the rest of my life.”

 

“Greg was never the same after that,” his parents wrote. Following his own suicide attempt around this time, Ledbetter was committed to a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., where his sister lived, but was released after a few months when the insurance money ran out. “We regret to this day not keeping him institutionalized.”

 

Court records say Ledbetter graduated from Purdue University with an education and fine arts degree and worked as a student teacher in an elementary school. At about age 26, he began working at the Cary Home for Children in Lafayette, Indiana. He was there for two years.

 

In January 1996, prosecutors charged Ledbetter with 43 counts of child seduction based on allegations from two group home residents.

 

According to Indiana police reports obtained by Isthmus, one boy said he had dozens of sexual encounters with Ledbetter between December 1993 and May 1995, when he was 16 and 17. It began with oral sex at Ledbetter’s parents’ house and escalated to anal intercourse, with the use of marijuana almost always preceding the sex. A second group home boy, 17 at the time, reported having at least 35 sexual encounters with Ledbetter.

 

Indiana newspapers reported that the allegations against Ledbetter were the second sexual allegations against Cary Home staffers in two years, and local politicians called for the firing of the home’s director.

 

The arrest also captured local headlines because Jerry Ledbetter, Greg’s father, was a city councilman who supported a local ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. The family said Ledbetter was arrested in retaliation for his father’s progressive politics, and spent $19,000 in legal fees fighting the charges.

 

In January 1997, prosecutors dropped the charges after Ledbetter’s defense attorney secured an affidavit from one of the boys, saying he made up the allegations.

 

Eight years later, Madison police would discover what Indiana police did not: videotapes of Ledbetter having sex with at least three boys from the Indiana group home.

 

From Spring House to prison

 

By 1998, Ledbetter had moved to Madison and was looking for a job. The Spring House group home had just opened, and it was hiring. Ledbetter’s first day was April 20, 1998.

 

Ledbetter had already spent at least five years preying on vulnerable boys in Indiana. Over the next 22 months, he was given regular access to troubled boys in Dane County’s care. He made the most of it.

 

Police reports and a detailed criminal complaint relate the accounts of several group home victims, including “Billy,” who was 14 when the abuse began.

“The situation has made things hard for me,” he told a detective. “You know, it was hard to go on with my life.”

 

Henry, mentioned above, told police he once complained that Ledbetter would openly tell the boys in his care that he “loved to suck cock.” Henry said Ledbetter let the residents “smoke dope and go wherever they wanted,” for which he “expected something in return.” Henry also said Ledbetter once showed him a .45 caliber handgun.

 

“Jeff,” who was 16 when he engaged in sexual encounters with Ledbetter at Spring House, told police he “felt obliged to do this with the defendant since the defendant was making their life at the group home fun.”

 

In February 2000, Ledbetter left Spring House. Over the next five years, records show he met other boys through his jobs at a Walgreen’s, a Blockbuster video store, a Marcus movie theater, and a store in South Towne Mall.

 

One of these was a 16-year-old who, his mother told police, had brain damage stemming from childhood abuse and suffered from learning disabilities, cancer and cerebral palsy. Court documents offer a particularly disturbing summary of one videotaped encounter. The boy, who appeared to “act more like an 8-year-old than his own age,” expressed “random thoughts regarding eating at Old Country Buffet and video games and his mother and his curly hair” during unprotected anal intercourse with Ledbetter.

 

Yet another boy told police that Ledbetter handcuffed him and used duct tape on his mouth before anally penetrating him.

 

It’s not clear from court documents and police reports how many boys Ledbetter molested during his eight years in Madison. Ultimately, Dane County prosecutors charged him with 92 counts of child sexual assault, enticement and sexploitation, relating to 10 boys.

 

In July 2006, Ledbetter was convicted following a plea agreement; he received a 90-year prison sentence. Under the state’s truth-in-sentencing law, he won’t be eligible for parole until he is 129 years old.

 

“I am viewed more as someone who was over punished and denied the right of rehabilitation as a sex offender,” Ledbetter wrote to Judge Moeser in October from prison in Waupun. He now spends his days playing classical music on a piano, painting and drawing in his cell, and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

 

‘There’s things I need’

 

Angela Kalscheur graduated from Mankato State University in Minnesota in 2004 with a degree in criminal justice, records show. She interned at a center for juvenile sex offenders before Walden Homes hired her in November 2004 to work at Spring House.

 

Like Ledbetter, Kalscheur worked the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift as an assistant counselor at Spring House. Her duties included preparing meals, supervising homework and leading group talks. And while she and Ledbetter likely never met, Kalscheur used many of the same strategies to entice boys into satisfying her sexual desires.

 

According to a criminal complaint, “Nick,” then 15, arrived at the group home in March 2005 and quickly learned that Kalscheur was having sex with several boys; he later told police this was “common knowledge.” Nick said he didn’t report Kalscheur because he used this information as leverage to extend his curfew and get an allowance without doing the work. Once he walked in on Kalscheur having intercourse with “Joe,” and was invited to participate.

 

Joe told police that within a week of arriving at Spring House in the spring of 2005, when he was 17, Kalscheur told him something to the effect of, “There’s things I need,” then hugged him and put his hand down her pants. Joe estimated that he and Kalscheur had sexual contact about 35 times, including twice at her house.

 

A third boy, “Damon,” told police that Kalscheur performed oral sex on him about five times, starting on his 16th birthday. He said he knew other residents were having sex with Kalscheur, and that she asked him not to tell because she could lose her job.

 

“Just keep giving me head,” Damon said he told her, “and you won’t need to worry about it.”

 

Kalscheur, the complaint says, regularly gave the boys alcohol and cigarettes. She also drove them to a location on the south side, where they bought marijuana. The boys would get high as Kalscheur returned to the group home.

 

In June 2005, another Spring House counselor had a chance meeting with a former resident, who told of sexual encounters with Kalscheur when he was at the home. The counselor reported the allegations to Walden Homes’ director Nestler, who, as required by law, reported the allegation to Dane County officials.

 

Kalscheur continued to work at Spring House for the next month, and was fired on July 27 on a matter unrelated to sexual abuse, county officials say.

 

On May 25, 2006, Madison police detective Dave Gouran spoke with Kalscheur at her home. After initially denying any wrongdoing, Kalscheur eventually admitted to having sexual contact with Joe, Nick and Damon, as well as other boys from the group home.

 

Kalscheur’s attorney, Eric Schulenburg, expects to reach a plea agreement in the near future, and will argue at sentencing that her crimes don’t merit prison.

 

“To send her to prison is a crime, and there’s no need to make this two crimes,” says Schulenburg, adding that he has trouble viewing the 16- and 17-year-old boys in this case as victims.

 

Is anyone to blame?

 

The unprecedented abuse at Spring House – county officials can’t remember another substantiated molestation case at a group home going back decades – has local politicians worried.

 

"Clearly, two makes a pattern,” says Supv. Worzala. “The Ledbetter case is frightening. You’re talking about border hopping of predators. It’s unacceptable.”

 

But Dane County’s Bob Lee says that after learning of misconduct, local officials “did what was required” and took “appropriate action.” These actions included interviewing group home residents and attending Spring House staff meetings.

 

Regulating group homes, county officials stress, is the state’s responsibility.

 

“The state is required to license and monitor. The onus is on them,” says Marykay Wills, the county’s mental health and alternative care manager. “The state assured us that Walden did what they were supposed to do.”

 

But state officials and records provided to Isthmus undercut many of these claims and suggest that county officials either aren’t being forthcoming, or remain in the dark about the state’s apparently grave concerns about Walden Homes, both before and after these molestation cases came to light.

 

"It is very likely that we would have taken the steps to revoke the license at Spring House if they had not voluntarily closed," says Stephanie Marquis, spokesperson for the Department of Health and Family Services.

 

State officials accused Walden Homes of a “lack of cooperation with the department in its attempt to thoroughly investigate the allegations,” according to a letter sent to Walden dated Oct. 25, 2006, written after Isthmus began making inquiries into the state and county’s handling of the matter.

 

That letter, and a follow-up (see this story at TheDailyPage.com), allege that Walden staff members were told by a Walden supervisor and in a written memo not to cooperate with investigators. The letters criticized Walden’s management and accused Walden supervisors of overlooking complaints from other staff about Kalscheur’s behavior.

 

County officials are also apparently clueless as to the rules regarding background checks. Lee explains Ledbetter’s hire by saying “the state does not require out-of-state background checks. Now should they? Maybe. But they don’t.”

 

Marquis contradicts this, saying state law does indeed require out-of-state criminal background checks for any state in which an applicant may have lived in the past three years, information he or she is required to provide.

 

How Ledbetter passed his background check after being charged with 43 counts of child molestation at his last group home job may never be known. When state regulators sought to review Walden’s records, they discovered that “all terminated staff files and discharged resident files” from Spring House had been destroyed by Walden’s director in December 2005. The destruction of these files occurred in the middle of police investigations into both the Ledbetter and Kalsheur cases.

 

State officials fined Walden $1,000 in the Kalscheur case, which Walden initially appealed. Walden dropped its appeal after it closed Spring House and moved its residents to Thoreau House, around the corner at 1102 Spaight St., where Walden Homes is headquartered.

 

Walden Homes continues to reap county contracts for its three other group foster homes, into which troubled teens are regularly ordered. In 2006, Walden received $986,766 in county funding. Lynn Green, the county’s human services director, thinks the relationship is working well.

 

“Walden has a long history of providing very good group home services in Dane County,” she says. “They were one of the early group homes, and George Nestler has been with them 20-plus years. Hundreds if not thousands of Dane County kids have received excellent services from the Walden Homes system.”

 

Sidebar:

 

Juvenile group homes are ‘tough operations’

 

Statewide, there are 112 group foster homes with space for about 840 children. Most are privately run, funded by county taxpayers, and licensed and regulated by the state Department of Health and Family Services.

 

On average, 57 Dane County children are in group foster homes at any given time, officials say. More than half are sent to facilities in other counties that treat particular problems. The others go to five Dane County facilities, including the three run by Walden Homes.

 

The county pays about $130 a day for each child’s care for in-county placements; out-of-county placements cost more. On average, it costs county taxpayers about $58,000 a year for each kid in a group foster home.

 

These days, group foster home placements are something of a last resort. Over the past two decades, the emphasis has shifted toward providing resources to keep troubled kids in their homes or individual foster family settings.

Kids are ordered by county judges into group foster homes after they’ve been declared delinquent or in need of protection, often because their families or legal guardians have thrown in the towel. Many have emotional problems, run-ins with the law and histories of abuse.

 

Jim Moeser, the veteran administrator of Dane County Juvenile Court, acknowledges that, for some kids, group home placement is a step away from juvenile jail. “These are tough operations,” he says. For kids under 16, the goal is to stabilize them for longer-term settings, such as a foster family or a reunion with their biological family. Older kids are prepared for independence.

 

Residents of juvenile group homes are paired with mentors, undergo tutoring and participate in counseling. All are assigned a county social worker who is their primary resource between the home, outside services and school. Successful homes require sound mentoring, compassionate understanding and tight discipline.

 

“Any time you put six or eight kids with their own emotional difficulties together, you’re going to have challenges,” says Moeser. “But it seems that the challenges have gotten harder over the years.”

 

One challenge is finding qualified, committed staff. Most group home workers are young, and low pay leads to high turnover. Many leave for better jobs in criminal justice, social work and rehabilitative psychology.

 

“Staffing level and quality certainly has been a concern,” says Moeser. “And as kids have gotten tougher, I think that’s even more apparent.”    

 

A Timeline

 

December 1993 – Gregory Ledbetter is hired by Cary Home for Children in Lafayette, Indiana.

 

January 1996 – Ledbetter is charged with 43 counts of child seduction based on allegations from group home boys.

 

January 1997 – Indiana prosecutors drop charges after one accuser recants.

 

March 31, 1998 – Spring House opens at 511 S. Ingersoll St.

 

April 20, 1998 – Ledbetter begins work at Spring House.

 

Feb. 29, 2000 – Ledbetter resigns from Walden Homes.

 

November 2004 – Angela Kalscheur begins work at Spring House.

 

June 27, 2005 – Dane County Health and Human Services receives report of possible sexual assault involving Kalscheur at Spring House. The allegation is reported to the state two days later.

 

July 27, 2005 – Walden Homes fires Kalscheur on matters unrelated to sexual assault.

 

Oct. 15, 2005 – Madison police arrest Ledbetter after a neighbor reports his sexual relationship with 16-year-old.

 

Oct. 19, 2005 – Ledbetter is charged with one of sexual exploitation of a child.

 

Nov. 2, 2005 – Ledbetter is charged with 84 new felony counts after police review 150 videotapes of his sexual encounters.

 

Feb. 1, 2006 – Walden Homes is fined $1,000 by the state after an investigation substantiates abuse in the Kalscheur case.

 

Feb. 23, 2006 – Ledbetter charged with seven more sex crimes, bringing total charges to 92, after additional victims are identified.

 

May 25, 2006 – Kalscheur confesses to a detective that she had sexual contact with several boys at Spring House.

 

June 30, 2006 – Spring House closes, for financial reasons.

 

July 18, 2006 – Ledbetter is sentenced to 100 years in prison and 85 years extended supervision after pleading guilty to 28 charges.

 

 

Sept. 19, 2006 – Kalscheur is charged with 10 counts of child sexual assault.

 

Nov. 10, 2006 – Ledbetter’s sentence is amended because some offenses occurred before the state’s truth-in-sentencing law took effect. His new sentence makes him eligible for parole after 90 years.

 

January 2007 – Dane County’s Health and Human Needs Committee chairman launches an investigation into Walden Homes after being contacted by Isthmus.