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The Klassen (2002)

Klassens await their day in court

A decade after the child abuse charges, they are getting a chance to clear their names

Klassens await their day in court

Kari Klassen fell crying to the floor of her Red Deer home. Her husband Richard Klassen begged RCMP officers not to let social workers take away their two small children.

Their pleas were useless. The police rounded up Kari and Richard -- along with 11 others -- and charged them with sexually abusing three Saskatoon foster children.

The children -- an 11-year-old boy and his nine-year-old twin sisters -- had told police that Richard, Kari and others had them forced them into bizarre satanic rituals, had made them eat human eyeballs and feces and have sex with animals.

The Klassens knew they were innocent of the incredible claims, which made the injustice of having their own children torn from their home that much harder to bear.

Klassens"I started screaming, 'They're ours! You're not going to take them!'" Richard Klassen recalled in a recent interview.

"They were ripping our whole lives apart. That's a hurt that will never leave," Kari says.

The couple's six-month-old baby boy and their two-year-old girl were placed in a car with social services workers. The Klassens were put in a police cruiser.

The caravan drove to the neighbourhood swimming pool to pick up their eight-year-old daughter. It then moved on to other homes, picking up more suspects and their children, too.

"I told them mom and dad were going on a holiday. How do you tell something like this to an eight-year-old?" asks Richard.

"The older kids were looking out the back window of the car at us as they drove away."

The arrests were made July 10, 1991. The day marks the beginning of an ordeal that destroyed the lives of the Klassens and the other families who were charged. The sensational case was dubbed the Scandal of the Century.

But there was no satanic cult, no ritualistic abuse. It was actually the young boy, Michael, who abused his two younger twin sisters while they were in foster care.

In the past couple of years the children, now in their twenties, have all stated publicly that they lied to investigators. And they claim prosecutors have known the truth for much longer.

They say they told prosecutors early in the case that the strange stories were all lies.

Richard KlassenEventually the prosecution abandoned the case. Richard Klassen soon began the battle to clear his name and the names of others who'd been implicated. His fight, now a decade old, first started with putting up posters in downtown Saskatoon and staging lonely protests in front of the Spadina Crescent courthouse to try to shed the false label of child abuser.

None of the other people charged wanted to be identified in this story.

Klassen was even charged by police a couple of times because he continued to launch vociferous public attacks against those who he says wronged him.

During this time, Klassen also launched a $10-million lawsuit, alleging malicious prosecution against him and the other adults.

Now, against huge odds, preliminary examinations of witnesses have begun and the trial is scheduled for next fall.

Though he has only a Grade 7 education, Klassen is acting as his own lawyer and is holding his own. He's successfully fended off three attempts by government and private lawyers to have his lawsuit thrown out.

Klassen says police, Crown prosecutors, and therapists knew the foster children were lying and charges should never have been laid.

"(The Crown) had no evidence. They had no case," he says.

"A lot of damage was done. Things will never be the same."

During a recent interview at a downtown Saskatoon restaurant, Klassen and his wife recounted the many traumatic moments of the past 11 years.

The charges came just as Klassen was straightening out his life.

Born and raised in Saskatoon, at age 16 he began drinking heavily and started getting in trouble with police.

He was sent to jail for four years for armed robbery, getting out in 1980. A year later he met Kari in Saskatoon and they soon married.

His last conviction was for impaired driving in 1985. None of his offences had anything to do with children or sexual assault.

Klassen wanted to leave his life of crime, but finding work wasn't easy.

"Things were tough for a guy with a criminal record. We were living on social assistance," he says.

He established a painting company in Saskatoon with a partner in 1986, but there wasn't a lot of business. Three years later, they took the business to Red Deer and they soon landed their first big commercial painting contract.

Meanwhile, Kari and Richard celebrated the birth of their third child.

"We were feeling pretty good. Red Deer was beautiful. The business was just getting off the ground," Klassen says.

"I wasn't concerned about my past anymore. I wasn't drinking."

But in June 1991, the Klassens were contacted by Brian Dueck, then a corporal with the Saskatoon city police. The couple was stunned when Dueck told them they were accused of child abuse. A few weeks later, Dueck came to Red Deer and interviewed the Klassens at the RCMP depot.

"I denied any involvement. We weren't afraid of anything," Klassen says. "The lawyer assured us everything was OK and there was nothing to worry about."

The allegations were so bizarre, so strange the Klassens assumed nothing would come of them.

But within a few weeks the police were at their door, telling they were under arrest, putting them in police cruisers, making them hand their children over to strangers.

Eleven others were arrested and charged.

While in custody, Klassen didn't see Kari for six days, and didn't see his kids for more than a week. They were eventually released and got their children back.

Things were far from normal, however. Word of the child abuse charges spread quickly through Red Deer, and the Klassen family became virtual prisoners in their own home for the next 18 months, fearing harassment if they went out.

The painting business folded. No one else would give Klassen a job.

"We went into complete seclusion. We didn't leave our house. We never went to restaurants. No children were allowed to come and play with our kids," Klassen recalls, while tears well in Kari's eyes at the memory.

The case wound its way through the courts. A trial was scheduled for February 1993.

But on the eve of the trial, Klassen's father Peter agreed to plead guilty. He already had a previous conviction from years earlier for abusing children. In exchange for his guilty plea in this case, all charges against Richard Klassen and the others were dropped.

"I was under pressure. I felt I had no alternative. I figured I'd take the fall and relieve (the other adults) of this," Peter Klassen said in an interview. He would spend the next four years in jail.

Even though the children have recanted, his conviction is still on the books.

After the plea bargain, prosecutors didn't declare the others innocent. Klassen believes they could have at least announced there wasn't enough evidence to proceed.

What they said was that the children were too traumatized to testify. This remains the official stance of the Justice Department.

"I don't think there's a concern they were telling different stories. It's that they simply weren't able to stand up to do it again," says Justice Department lawyer Don McKillop, who represents some of the people Klassen is suing.

Richard Klassen says the way the charges were disposed of left the impression he and the other adults charged were guilty anyway.

He decided to prove his innocence in public. He moved his family to Saskatoon and began putting up posters around the city, picketing in front of the court house, among other aggressive tactics. A Web site was even dedicated to discussing the case.

Klassen harshly criticized various officials, often focusing on the fact that the foster boy at the centre of the case -- Michael -- had continued to abuse his sisters, even while Klassen and the others were facing their criminal charges.

Police charged Klassen with defamatory libel in 1994. But he defended himself and was found not guilty.

But the case and his very public crusade to clear his name were taking their toll. His children were getting teased at school, so the family moved to Harris, southwest of Saskatoon. But when no children came to their door at Halloween, they knew their reputation had followed them.

The Klassens were frequently threatened, and rocks were thrown through their windows on more than one occasion.

They arrived home one night to find their cupboards and walls full of paint. "Kiddie-Humpers" and other epithets were written in several different colours.

Another move was inevitable. They went to Altona, Man., where Klassen had other family.

"I decided to give up my public campaign at that point. I was scared. My kids had suffered. I felt guilty," he says.

Klassen found work as a painter, Kari was employed at a local jean factory.

Then in 2000, following an in-depth StarPhoenix feature, the CBC program Fifth Estate broadcast Klassen's story to a national audience.

Energized, Klassen moved with his family to Outlook, an hour south of Saskatoon, and again dedicated himself to clearing his name -- this time through the courts.

Klassen, a former con who never finished elementary school, is only months away from a trial where he can force the police and prosecutors who handled his case to publicly explain their actions.

During his legal odyssey, which has been financed by various relatives, he's demanded and received thousands of pages of documents on the case -- counsellors' notes, lawyers' memos, transcripts of the initial interviews with the foster children.

Klassen steadfastly believes Justice Department officials will soon have to admit defeat.

In June, Saskatoon police Sgt. John Popowich received a $1.3-million settlement and Justice Minister Chris Axworthy offered a personal apology for Popowich's prosecution on bogus ritual child abuse allegations in Martensville.

Axworthy called it the "first in a series of settlements" in the infamous Martensville case, which saw several police officers and a home daycare operator from the town charged with abusing children who'd been left at the home for babysitting.

That case and Klassen's -- which has also been called the "Foster Child Case" -- are almost identical. In both instances, police laid dozens of charges against people accused of abusing children as part of satanic cults.

Both occurred in the early 1990s, when hysteria over devil worship reached its peak.

But the Klassen case is different in one crucial aspect: the three children who made the allegations against Richard, Kari and the others have all admitted that they were lying.

When Popowich got $1.3 million and an apology, Klassen thought the government would soften its stance towards him.

But just days later, the government continued its offensive against Klassen, asking a judge for the third time to throw out his lawsuit. Klassen realized the fight to clear his name was far from over.

In a remarkable speech to the court, as he fought desperately to keep his years of work from being tossed aside, Klassen convinced the judge to let his lawsuit continue. Immediately afterwards, a spent Klassen wept with relief in the courtroom as his supporters embraced him.

"We've got a strong case and we're going to prove it one way or another. A lot of damage was done," Klassen says.

The Justice Department lawyer, McKillop, says he'll continue the government's defence against Klassen and the other 11 people who are suing.

Peter Klassen cannot be part of the suit because he pleaded guilty

"My instructions haven't changed on this file," McKillop said in an interview outside the courtroom after the latest ruling in June.Robert Borden

Klassen has started questioning potential witnesses behind closed doors as part of the pre-trial process.

"This is finally the day in court I've waited for. Questions are being answered. I want to prove they were wrong and I didn't do any of this," Klassen says.

The court process is intimidating, he admits, especially for someone with so little education.

"I'm scared to death in there. I could never have seen myself doing this, but I am.

"But I'm getting a chance to show the truth. Justice will be done."

Many officials, including Crown prosecutor Matthew Miazga, are refusing to talk about the case while the lawsuit is ongoing. Therapist Carol Bunko-Ruys, who worked with the children and is also named in the lawsuit, could not be reached.

One person who did comment was Dueck, who has since been promoted to superintendent. Speaking publicly for the first time on the case, Dueck says that Klassen's "vigilante" campaign has taken a toll on him, his family, and the Saskatoon Police Service.

"It certainly hasn't been pleasant. A lot of things have been done that you guys have no idea, to me or to my family, that border on the insane," Dueck says.

The Klassens and other plaintiffs have every right to take legal action, he says, but they've gone far beyond that with a postering campaign, a Web site, and other measures to denounce Dueck and others involved.

"Having this hanging around for 10 years is ridiculous. I would love to get it cleared up," Dueck says.

Many officers have said they'd have investigated the case the same way, Dueck says.

"It could have been anybody who took the file. Put yourself in that position. What do I have to gain?" he said.

Dueck says he can't talk about any specific aspects of the case because of the various lawsuits under way, and referred those questions to his Regina lawyer.

"It isn't that I don't want to talk. Gosh, it'd be great to sit down and frankly discuss this whole situation, but that's the advice I've been given. That's what I've stuck to," he says.

Dueck's lawyer, David Gerrand, wouldn't comment.

McKillop, the Justice Department lawyer, noted that a judge believed the testimony of the children when they testified against their birth parents and the mother's friend and the allegations were every bit as strange.

The judge convicted those adults, although it was overturned by the Supreme Court. One of the reasons was the lack of credibility of the children's stories.

McKillop says his clients, "like everybody else, are anxious to see this lawsuit get to an end."

His clients deny every allegation made in the lawsuit, and are countersuing Klassen and the others for defaming them.

The three children whose allegations brought the full force of the legal system crashing onto the Klassens are now adults. Michael, and his younger twin sisters Kathy and Michelle, all openly admit that they weren't abused by Richard, Kari or Peter Klassen, nor any of the other people involved in the lawsuit. There was no satanic cult, they say.

The boy, Michael, was troubled from a very young age. His parents were deaf and mute and the age difference between them was large. Their marriage was troubled and they struggled as parents.

When Michael was just seven years old, he was already touching other children sexually and inviting his teachers to have sex with him.

The Saskatchewan Department of Social Services had placed all three children in foster care by 1987. The new parents were not told of the problem behaviour by the children. The inappropriate behaviour soon resurfaced.

Michael was transferred to a second foster home in Warman. Shortly after he arrived -- while his sisters remained with the first foster family -- Michael made up the allegations against the first foster parents.

In May 1990 the girls were removed from the first home as well and reunited with their brother in the Warman foster home.

Saskatoon lawyer Robert Borden said this is one of the most disturbing elements of the case.

"Michael was assaulting his sisters. The police and social workers knew. It was unbelievable," said Borden.

In a recent interview, Rob Twigg, a therapist and professor of social work at the University of Regina, said he can't imagine why officials would knowingly keep a sexually abusive boy under the same roof as his sisters.

"I don't know how one would justify that. The first priority should always be the safety of the children," Twigg says.

The children's allegations widened to include their birth parents, Richard and Kari Klassen and others. The children were interviewed by police and placed in counselling.

Michael says he's not sure why he began to make up the allegations. But once he began he says officials pressured or bribed him and his sisters to continue.

Michael and the girls lied that the adults forced them to drink blood and urine, eat eyeballs and roasted babies, and have sex with dogs and flying bats.

All three children now say they think officials knew exactly what was happening as the incredible stories unfolded.

"They knew what was going on. They chose to do nothing about it. They looked the other way," Michael said in an interview this fall.

The girls say they lied because Michael threatened them.

"I felt intimidated. If I was in a different foster home I probably would have told the truth," Kathy, now 20 years old, says from her B.C. home.

"But they knew. They did nothing."

In another hard-to-believe twist in a case that has many, Klassen has befriended the three young people. He and Michelle and Michael have gone for coffee many times.

He often talks to Kathy, who has a two-month-old baby, by phone from her British Columbia home.

Klassen says he considers the children, even Michael, victims of a dysfunctional system.

Michael dreams of opening a nightclub. Kathy and Michelle both want to get their high school diplomas and become counsellors for abused children.

"I feel I have experience in that area," Michelle says.

"I'll never forget. I want to deal with things."

But it may be a while before Michael and Michelle realize their dreams. Michelle stands charged with robbery with violence, while Michael is in jail because of alleged breaches of probation and theft.

Richard Klassen says financial compensation is important, but the two keys are an apology and a public inquiry.

"Do they still think we're guilty? I want them to acknowledge this never happened," he says.

"It's time the government takes responsibility. Something went seriously wrong here. Let's look at it."

Once the lawsuit is finished, Kari and Richard Klassen plan to leave the province. He's anxious to spend more time with his family, time he sacrificed while pursuing his campaign.

As the interview at the Saskatoon restaurant concludes, he turns to his wife, who has kept her seat close by her husband, resting a supportive hand on his knee.

"I've lived and breathed this case from the start. I'm obsessed with clearing my name and Kari's.

"I want people to know what happened. But I can't wait for this thing to be over."

Kari agrees.

"This has been a major strain. I was really afraid of what was going to happen.

"When this is over, we're going to get a hammock and just take a break."

This story has been kept alive on this website since 1998. Before we went online, we conducted many actions in 1994 when we were placed on gag undertakings until criminal libel charges against us were quashed or dropped. There have been several attempts to have the website removed and Richard Klassen has been fined by the court because original disclosure materials were published here. I am proud to have defied the gag order. Kathy, Michael and Michelle were able to learn the consequences of their sessions with Dueck and Carol Bunko-Ruys and apologize to those they lied about because the information was published here (Michelle found the website because of one of the posters I put up which Dueck whines about in the above article). I have also been charged with criminal defamation and acquitted. Dan Zakreski who wrote a feature in 1999 and CBC's Fifth Estate which produced the award winning "Scandal of the Century" relied on the website as an accurate source. The website was up for several months before we publicized the $10M lawsuit as our initial goal was to find and protect the Ross children. We have also published information about the Martensville case where Popowich recently received the settlement. We have also given considerable thought to what would be a fair settlement.

-- Sheila Steele, webmaster, inJusticebusters Nov. 2, 2002

Globe and Mail article 1995