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The Klassen story
Breaking through to the public

What is Regina thinking?

In her 1999 book about freeing her wrongly convicted son David, Joyce Milgaard recounts a chilling quote from Saskatchewan prosecutor Serge Kujawa: "It doesn't matter if Milgaard is innocent ... The whole judicial system is at issue — it's worth more than one person." Unfortunately, these hard-hearted words appear to be an accurate description of the Saskatchewan government's current attitude toward the administration of justice.

After years of suffering false accusations of sadistic abuse of their foster children, 12 members of Saskatoon's Klassen family were vindicated this month when a court found they'd been maliciously prosecuted. The presiding judge called the case "a travesty of justice." This is an understatement: The children concerned had publicly recanted their fantastical accusations and the prosecution is said to have ignored exculpatory evidence.

But the innocent family's relief has been short-lived. In a move that has added another layer of insult to the Klassens' injury, the Saskatchewan government is refusing to apologize, and has announced it will back an appeal of the malicious prosecution decision.

Such extraordinary insensitivity to the victims of injustice has become a hallmark of Saskatchewan's government. Although David Milgaard, the aforementioned innocent, was released in 1992 after enduring 22 years of wrongful imprisonment on murder charges, the province didn't commit to negotiating a settlement, or to holding a public inquiry into his case, until 1997. And that inquiry has yet to take place.

Meanwhile, a separate inquiry is underway to determine whether Saskatoon police were involved in the death of an aboriginal 17-year-old found frozen to death in a deserted area in 1990 after last being seen handcuffed and bleeding in the back of a police cruiser. The inquiry was called when similar deaths began to surface.

Given its poor track record for respecting the individual rights of its citizens and keeping the powers of its police and prosecutors in check, the Klassens' exoneration would have been a perfect opportunity for the provincial government and its new Justice Minister, Frank Quennell, to display a fresh commitment to doing the right thing. A simple apology for a decade of wrongfully persecuting the Klassens as pedophiles would have gone a long way.

By instead calling for an appeal that will again haul the wronged Klassen family back into court, Saskatchewan has reaffirmed its reputation as a government more concerned with saving face and its own authority than with the people it is charged to protect.

'I was ready to die' Klassen

One man's fight against horrible - and false - charges

Richard Klassen

Richard Klassen says the malicious prosecution of his family has left him ruined,
physically and emotionally. CREDIT: Gord Waldner, CanWest News Service

SASKATOON - Forty little sleeping pills, bouncing in his pocket. That's all it would have taken, for the anguish of the last 13 years to finally disappear. Had the verdict gone the other way, the wrong way, Richard Klassen was prepared to die.

His hands shake slightly as he lights up another cigarette and tells his dreadful story.

In July, 1991, Mr. Klassen, his wife, his mother, his father, his sister, two brothers, and other members of his family were accused by three dysfunctional children of the most twisted acts of sexual abuse imaginable. Ritualistic stuff. Eating eyeballs, burning human flesh with knives, cutting skin, throwing wild orgies. A plethora of criminal charges were thrown at the Klassens. They were arrested and jailed; their own children were apprehended.

With the exception of four charges laid against Peter Klassen, Richard's father, the rest were eventually stayed. But the incident left an indelible stain. Seven of the Klassens launched a malicious prosecution suit against a child therapist, a Saskatoon police officer and a prosecutor involved in the case. Richard Klassen, a house painter with a Grade 7 education, led the way. He represented himself in court.

Two weeks ago, he walked into the Saskatoon courthouse where he had spent much of the last decade, arguing his case as a plaintiff. The verdict was at hand.

"I didn't think I'd win," he told me this week, over coffee in a Saskatoon hotel bar. "I was afraid. I've never told anybody this, but I brought a lethal dose of sleeping pills with me. There was no way I was going to live if I lost the case. I had put everything on the line and I was ready to die."

Inside the courthouse, Mr. Klassen was handed a copy of a 189-page decision prepared by Queen's Bench Justice George Baynton. He took the ruling with him into a washroom, and began to read. Mr. Klassen was soon in tears. He and his family had won, convincingly.

"The lives of the plaintiffs have been irrevocably damaged," Judge Baynton declared.

"The unlawful actions of the defendants caused them to be held up to hatred and public ridicule by being branded as pedophiles and wrongfully charged with the most horrible and distasteful crimes in our society ... In my respectful view, the lack of any regret or remorse for what was done to the plaintiffs is a strong indicator of malice on the part of each of the defendants."

Richard Klassen and his wife, Kari, returned to their home in Outlook, Sask., a small town outside Saskatoon. Last week, on New Year's Eve, they threw a victory party. Friends and family came to celebrate. The happy mood did not last through the night.

Mr. Klassen consumed too much Jack Daniels whisky. He also took a handful of sleeping pills; he had become addicted to them over the years, while fighting to remove the "sexual abuser" label from his family's name.

"I went berserk," he told me, glancing at the freshly stitched wounds on his right hand. "I wrecked the house. I guess I did try to commit suicide."

It made no sense. Mr. Klassen had won his battle, hadn't he? Yes, and no.

True, he had received the verdict that he had wanted, and more. This week, Saskatoon's chief of police formally apologized to the entire Klassen family for the role his department played in the malicious prosecution. Superintendent Brian Dueck, the Saskatoon officer who pressed the case against the Klassens, was placed on medical leave and suspended from police work while lawyers hired by his superiors investigate his involvement in the affair.

Mr. Klassen was pleased, but the entire experience has left him ruined, emotionally and physically. "People think I should be happy," he explained, "but it's been 13 years. I am obsessed with this. It became my life. I know it sounds crazy but now I have nothing to do. I can't fight in court anymore."

But two days ago, just after I met with Mr. Klassen over coffee, Saskatchewan's Minister of Justice announced that his department would appeal the malicious prosecution verdict. "No apology," said Frank Quennell. "It is our position that the Crown prosecutors did not commit a wrong."

Mr. Klassen was incensed. "What am I supposed to do? Hang myself on a light post in downtown Saskatoon to get my point across? I think I did right. I think the judge said I did right by coming to the courts where it belonged and I won. What more do they want from me?"

Richard Klassen

Yesterday, he was back inside the courthouse, delivering documents meant to block the province's appeal. His court fight is not over, after all. Richard Klassen must now return again to where it all began: Red Deer, Alta., 1991.

He was painting houses in that city with his three brothers. They had all left Saskatoon with their wives and children, after their father, Peter, had been convicted and jailed two years earlier for sexually assaulting two Saskatoon children.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the Klassen clan, Peter had also had sexual contact with the three foster children who had been in the foster care of his son Dale and daughter-in-law Anita.

Michael, Michelle and Kathy Ross were born to deaf and mute parents, both alcoholics. Their mother was a prostitute, and would frequently service customers in the family home. In 1987, the three children were apprehended by social services workers in Saskatchewan and placed with Dale and Anita Klassen in 1987. The Klassens were not told that the children had already been sexually abused.

According to Judge Baynton, "it soon became evident to the Klassens that the children were abnormal and constituted a real parenting challenge. They required constant supervision to keep them from inappropriately touching one another and others." Michael was particularly abusive with his sisters, and would constantly sneak into their bedroom at night. In 1989, he was placed in another, "therapeutic" foster home.

Around this time, the children were interviewed by Saskatoon police officer Brian Dueck, then a corporal, in regards to alleged sexual abuse in and around the Klassen home. Apparently, the interviews were precipitated by an incident of sexual abuse by Peter Klassen. Afterwards, Michael supposedly expressed concern that his sisters were being abused at the home of Dale and Anita Klassen.

The girls were then moved to Michael's new foster home, where their older brother continued to abuse them. Ropes and buzzers were attached to his bedroom door "in an attempt to prevent him from entering the girls' bedroom at night to sexually abuse them," Judge Baynton noted.

The effort failed. "It is reprehensible that [child welfare authorities] took no meaningful action to have [Michael] and the girls placed in separate foster homes to prevent further incidents of sexual abuse," he added.

While Michael's abuse of his sisters continued in their new home, Cpl. Dueck and child therapist Carol Bunko-Ruys took seriously his claims that the entire Klassen family had repeatedly assaulted them sexually. Eventually, Cpl. Dueck and Ms. Bunko-Ruys extracted even more lurid allegations from the two girls. Kathy Ross, for example, "related being burned and cut with knives, having knives inserted into her bum and vagina, and ingesting blood, feces, urine and raw fish," Judge Baynton noted. "All three children described in graphic detail the sexual abuse that occurred which includes oral, vaginal and genital contact."

On July 10, 1991, armed with information provided them by Cpl. Dueck and Ms. Bunko-Ruys, RCMP in Red Deer arrested Dale and Anita Klassen, Richard and Kari Klassen, and their brother John and sister-in-law Myrna Klassen. They spent a week in jail before arranging bail; their children were apprehended by Alberta Social Services and then returned.

Police in Saskatoon arrested Peter Klassen and his wheelchair-bound wife, Marie, plus their daughter, Pamela Sharpe, and several others, including two youths. In all, 16 individuals were arrested and charged with more than 70 counts of sexual assault. Peter Klassen pleaded guilty to four sexual assault charges and was sentenced to four years in jail.

None of the other accused had in any way abused the three Ross children; however, they were not given the opportunity to go to trial and clear their names. Instead, their charges were stayed.

The prosecution argued that the three children had suffered enough, that it would not be in their best interest to force them to endure the "trauma" of a full-blown sexual abuse trial. Eventually, the children recanted, and said their allegations had been the result of much prompting and suggestion by Cpl. Dueck and Ms. Bunko-Ruys. This still did not sit well with Richard Klassen. "We had not been declared innocent," he says. In 1994, he launched his malicious prosecution suit against Cpl. Dueck, Ms. Bunk-Ruys, and two Crown prosecutors.

At first, the lawsuit went nowhere. Mr. Klassen claims his lawyers were inept. He stopped working, and wound up on welfare. He moved to Harris, Sask., with Kari and their three children, but their house was vandalized, its interior spray-painted with ugly slogans such as "kiddy humper."

They moved again, first to Manitoba, and then to tiny Outlook, near Saskatoon. After the CBC's investigative television program, Fifth Estate, aired an episode that cast a negative light on the entire child abuse investigation, Mr. Klassen was re-energized. He fired his lawyers, spent $350 on a civil law book, and proceeded with the malicious prosecution case himself.

He also bought a bullhorn and painted signs and marched outside the Saskatoon Police headquarters, loudly accusing Brian Dueck of malicious prosecution. He was charged several times with disturbing the peace and with defamation. He defended himself and was acquitted every time.

"I pushed and pushed until a judge said we were going to trial," he said this week. "I was crazed. I could not sleep. I'd stay up every night, reading my law book and going over documents."

Along the way, he suffered a nervous breakdown, developed a prostate problem, and became hooked on prescription sleeping pills. He overdosed three times, he says. He can barely remember most events leading up to and even during the malicious prosecution trial, which began in September, and concluded with the positive verdict two weeks ago.

Remarkably, he holds no grudges against his accusers. The Klassens speak with the two Ross girls, now 21, almost every day. "They have had a very hard time, even after finally being separated from Michael" says Kari Klassen. "Both of them have had children of their own taken from them." Kathy Ross is living in B.C. Michelle Ross is in a prison for women in Saskatchewan.

Richard Klassen's own family has been torn apart. His mother died in 1995. He doesn't speak to his father, and remains close with just one sibling, an older brother.

He is 42 years old, and struggling to avoid alcohol and pills. A week has passed since his last relapse. He looks haggard. Now that the province is appealing the malicious prosecution verdict, Mr. Klassen is sure to feel the strain that punished him before.

He will not rest, he says, until his family is completely exonerated. "I want a full inquiry to examine how this could have ever happened. I could accept that the Saskatoon police service and the others have evolved. But I want them to show me how."