Feature: Wednesday, October 15, 2003
Turns in a Twisted Path

Depositions reveal new details of early allegations against Wirt Norris.


The photograph seemingly captures a moment of triumph in one boy’s life. A mature man in a Ward Cleaver suit is presenting a letter jacket to a young athlete, big smiles spread across both their faces. It’s the kind of picture that makes people in the cynical, complicated 21st century think back on the ’50s as simple, innocent times.

But there’s a dark story beneath the surface of this image. The man is Wirt Malcolm Norris Jr., now a 75-year-old former diving coach accused of molesting several generations of young boys. And the boy he’s grinning at is Richard W. Chowning, now 59, who says he was abused by Norris almost 50 years ago.

“If I was not the first, I was one of the first’’ young boys to be molested by Norris, Chowning said. Chowning is one of three men who in recent weeks have given depositions in a lawsuit against Norris. Chowning’s testimony tells of abuse that goes back further than anyone else has alleged, to 1956 or 1957, when Norris himself was a young man. Chowning’s story also contains the first allegation that Norris not only molested young boys himself, but tried to involve at least one other adult in the abuse.

A second accuser, who said he was abused in the 1960s, also has said he’s tried for 20 years to warn families to keep their young boys away from Norris. And a third gave an even more chilling description of a man preying on a young boy’s vulnerability: He said Norris first stepped into his life one day after Norris learned that the boy’s father had died.

The identities of all three men who have given depositions in a pending civil damages lawsuit are known to Norris — he sat across the table from them as their words were captured on videotape by a court reporter. Each of the three agreed to let Fort Worth Weekly review his testimony and written statements, although Chowning alone was willing to be publicly identified.

Norris has not spoken publicly at any length about the accusations piling up against him. Contacted at his home Tuesday, he said that the allegations are untrue. Asked to explain why his accusers would level such allegations against him, Norris said: “They’ve all been involved in alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana. ... I do know that has come out in depositions.’’

Many of Norris’ victims indeed have experimented with drugs or used alcohol, and some became substance abusers — and attribute their problems at least in part to what they say Norris did to them.

But the three men who have given depositions live relatively stable lives and said they are free of addictions, criminal histories, or mental illness. All are well established in their professions; they are what some would describe with a single word: respectable. Of the three, only one said that he ever developed a substance abuse problem or sought treatment for addiction. And that man, who dealt with his problem a decade ago and has been sober ever since, said it was Norris who gave him his first sips of liquor — while the diving coach drove him around talking about sex and showing him pornography.

In interviews, written statements, and sworn depositions, the three collectively paint a picture of Norris as a man who knew little about diving but had a keen interest in the young divers themselves. They said he was able to sniff out vulnerability as quickly as they say he whipped out his lotion, vibrator, and porn.

Wirt Norris has yet to face his accusers in a courtroom. But he has begun to hear these disturbing stories first-hand during depositions his accusers have given in the civil lawsuit. Sitting with his back to a panoramic view of the city’s North Side, Norris has listened as Chowning and two other men have detailed under oath the abuse they say they suffered at Norris’ hand decades ago.

The civil lawsuit was filed by the family of Will Hallman, a 20-year-old budding musician who says his life was derailed by Norris’ abuse in 1995. Hallman, the son of a prominent Fort Worth attorney, is also the key witness in a pending criminal case against Norris. He is also the only person to have complained of being abused within the civil and criminal statutes of limitations. Thus far, all the other accusers in the case have said they were abused more than 10 years ago.

Chowning, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, is by far the oldest accuser to step forward. He is in fact old enough to be Will’s grandfather. Chowning, who says he buried memory of his abuse for more than 40 years, decided to tell his story publicly only after learning about Hallman’s lawsuit against Norris.

“I am trying to do any and everything I can to support Will Hallman and his family, because without them I wouldn’t be healing myself,’’ he said.

Today, Chowning is happily married with two grown daughters. He grew up in Fort Worth and makes his living here selling real estate. He says he’s never been arrested, never been treated for any drug problem. In the mid-1950s, when he was 12 or 13, he was a rail-thin kid who didn’t get enough attention at home. He whiled away his summer days swimming and diving in the pool at Fort Worth’s Colonial Country Club, a short bike ride from his family’s house. He was a 7th-grader at McLean Junior High, where the school coach doubled as the pool manager. Colonial, a haven for the city’s upper middle class, seemed so safe.

Norris, too, was drawn to the club. His mother, who was a member, often took Norris’ younger sister to the pool to swim. Norris, then in his late 20s, introduced himself to Chowning one day at the pool and asked if he might be interested in becoming a diver. Chowning was.

“I loved anything to do with water,’’ Chowning said. “Swimming and jumping off the diving board were my favorite activities.’’ Chowning initially appreciated the interest, recalling that Norris at first seemed “like the older brother I had always wanted.’’ But he soon began to have questions. For starters, Chowning said he was Norris’ only diver. And Norris, Chowning said, didn’t seem to know much about the sport and never demonstrated diving techniques. He can’t remember ever seeing Norris diving or even wearing a swimming suit. And his coaching technique was “just trial and error.’’

“Just go up there, and this is about what you need to do,’’ Norris would tell him. “Go up and do it.’’ Chowning said: “In retrospect, I think I taught myself how to do it and he watched.’’ When workouts at the pool were over, Norris would drive Chowning home or out to eat. In the car, Norris would steer the conversation to sex, discussing masturbation and telling Chowning he “needed to learn.’’

Eventually, Chowning said, Norris showed him how. “When someone like Wirt Norris touches you for the first time, your childhood ends,’’ Chowning said.

Over the course of the next year or so, Chowning said, Norris molested him perhaps several dozen times. And Norris was soon touting the joys of oral sex just as he had masturbation. When Chowning resisted, he said, Norris passed him off to another man, a pedophile who intended to “teach me how wonderful it was to get a blow job.’’

Chowning said Norris drove him out to a field in Ridglea Hills where he watched a second vehicle approach.

“I had no idea what was going on or what he had in mind, but as I recall, he (Norris) said this guy was going to teach me something really neat.’’ Norris, he said, got out of his car. The other man got in and began touching Chowning and encouraging him to remove his pants. Chowning told the man to leave him alone and get out of the car. Norris waited nearby.

Chowning never saw the man again and was soon was able to break away from Norris himself. But Chowning thinks he had seen the man once before: Norris was riding with Norris on a business errand, he said, when Norris stopped at an apartment complex on University Drive. Norris met the man and went inside for a brief time. When he came out, Chowning said, he told him that the man “thinks you are queer.”

To this day, Chowning has no idea who the second man was. Almost 50 years later, all he can remember about him is he had greasy hair and appeared to be a few years older than Norris.

Soon after that incident, Chowning said he made it clear to Norris that he had had enough. “I just reached a point where the shame was so great,’’ he said. “I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t allow myself to be abused that way, and I just made him stop.’’ And once the abuse stopped, Chowning said, he forced “those memories to a place in my mind where I did not have to think about them’’ and became able to deal with Norris “without having to deal with the evil things he had done to me.’’

He married, went to college, joined the Air Force, and volunteered for duty in Vietnam. After the war, he settled in Arizona. As his first marriage was coming apart, he returned to Fort Worth and began a career in real estate. And, as incredible as it may seem, he says he had so thoroughly buried his memories of abuse that he was able to turn to Norris for help. Norris served as his sponsor in the real estate business, and Chowning, for a while, worked in the agency owned by the man who he says once abused him.

“I had suppressed the events so deeply in my mind that I never thought about what had happened,’’ he said. “My memory began to come back slowly about six or seven years ago when the Catholic Church was being stunned by revelations of massive child sexual abuse by priests and other church officials. Each new revelation seemed to jolt my mind into remembering more sordid details of what Mr. Norris had done to me.’’ When he heard late last year about the Hallman case, “I knew that I was finally going to come forward and tell my own story of abuse,’’ he said.

After 45 years of silence, he told his family what had happened and gave a written statement, from which much of this account is taken. “I do this,’’ he wrote, “in hopes that everyone who has suffered abuse at the hands of Wirt Norris Jr. will come forward and free themselves of this horrific burden.’’

In the late 1960s, about the time Chowning was getting ready for flight training school, a man we’ll call Bob Smith first encountered Norris. Today, Smith is a 49-year-old college-educated businessman who has been married for more than 20 years. He grew up in Fort Worth but now lives out of town and wishes to remain anonymous.

Smith was a 12- or 13-year-old swimmer at Panther Boys Club when he first met Norris. He was taking a break from swimming laps but still in the club pool when Norris walked up and began a conversation, just as he had with Chowning.

“He told me I was a ‘pretty’ boy,’’ Smith recalled. “I remember him not using the word ‘handsome’ or ‘good-looking’ or ‘attractive’; it was ‘pretty’.”

Norris encouraged him to join the dive team and soon began showing up at Smith’s home, taking him out for steak dinners, letting him drive his green Buick Riviera — a pattern that several other men have said Norris also used with them. On their outings, conversations that began innocently turned into graphic talks about sex, Smith said. Norris showed him sexually explicit magazines, stroked his crotch with a vibrator, and taught him to masturbate, he said. “The mechanical stimulation progressed to manual stimulation. I distinctly remember him getting out a pink bottle of Baby Magic lotion and telling me this was going to feel just like pussy.’’

Over a period of about six months, Smith said Norris molested him perhaps half a dozen times. He said the abuse ended after Norris asked Smith’s parents if he could take their son on a trip to Hawaii. They refused — but not before his mother began to make inquiries about the man, almost 40, who was showing inordinate interest in her son. Smith said his mother asked an official at the Panther Boys Club whether Norris was safe. He said his mother was told “she should be honored that a man of Mr. Norris’ caliber is taking an interest in me.’’

Unlike other accusers who came forward after hearing about the Hallman case, Smith says he has repeatedly warned others about Norris over the years. About a decade after he was abused, in the mid-1970s, Smith said, he was talking with a college friend who was worried about the attention an older man was showing her own younger brother.

When his friend told him that the man was Wirt Norris, Smith began warning others that Norris was a “sick individual.’’ He told his parents to keep his younger brothers away from Norris, Smith said, and warned the mother of a family friend that her son, who was about the same age Smith was when he met Norris, was potentially in danger. The mother, who asked not to be identified, confirmed Smith’s account — and provided the Weekly with a copy of a statement she gave the district attorney’s office about the incident.

How much good Smith’s warnings did is not clear. Smith said the brother of his college friend also was ultimately molested by Norris, despite his warning. Smith’s own brother subsequently discussed Norris with the district attorney’s office, but no action was taken.

At 13, it was difficult for him to reconcile the nice man he had met at the pool with the pedophile and his vibrator and lotion, Smith said. “That confusion at 13 was more than I could emotionally deal with. ... You know, had I been older I think I would have been able to stop him. But had I been older, I don’t think he would have had an interest in me.

“He couched everything he did in terms of heterosexual relationships. Like he was an adviser. He was a mentor. He was going to show me the way. He was going to show me the way to business. He was going to show me the way to diving. ... He was going to show me the way to sexual maturity with women, with girls.’’

The man we’ll call Rick Roberts said he also met Norris in 1967. Roberts was 9, and the occasion was a swim meet in Houston. The swimming and diving fraternity in Texas was a close-knit, fraternal group, and Norris for several years was nothing more to Roberts than a familiar figure on the periphery of swim meets, a man who would occasionally offer a word of congratulation when Roberts would win an event.

Then, in 1972, Roberts’ father died of a heart attack. Though the Roberts family lived in another county, Norris somehow found out about the death that very day. Within hours, he was on the phone to Rick and his mother, offering condolences. The next day, Norris showed up at the Roberts family home and discussed with Rick “being the man of the house.” Before long, Norris was making regular trips to take Rick out for hamburgers. He began offering him sips from the bottle of Cutty Sark he kept in his car, Roberst said, and talked nonstop about sex, masturbation, and girls.

From there, Roberts described the same progression that other men say happened to them — Norris turning talk into action, coaching the young Roberts into sexual acts in the back seat of his car. Roberts remembers the cache of porn Norris stashed in his trunk. One of Norris’ favorites, he said, was a magazine called “Porno No. 3.’’

Roberts’ meetings with Norris often left him feeling physically ill. “Even today,’’ he said, “the memory of the taste and texture makes me sick to the point I want to vomit.” With Norris, he said, “I went from what I would term an innocent kid, and I leapfrogged all the way over to this perverted world of all that crap. It was so shameful to me that I could not tell a soul.’’ For years afterward, Roberts said, “I buried this deep in my heart because I didn’t have the courage or I was so overcome with shame that I could never tell anyone about this.’’

Roberts, like other accusers, said he had trouble trusting others and getting close to the girls he met, his instinct tainted by his memories of Norris. “I would immediately have these images of porno mags flash right up.’’ He eventually sought solace in a bottle and, as have many others who have accused Norris of abuse, tried to drown the memories in alcohol. By the early 1990s, he sought help from an employee assistance program and checked into a 28-day rehab program. One day, during group therapy, his secret came out.

“When I first revealed that, I felt such a weight off my shoulders,’’ he said. “I was scared to death because I thought this would forever be buried in my soul.’’

That was almost 10 years ago, and he’s been sober ever since.

Prior to his comment Tuesday, Norris’ most extensive public comment on the allegations against him came shortly after his arrest in February. In an interview with KTVT/Channel 11, he portrayed himself as a old man in poor health. “I’m 75, and I’m sick and don’t feel good,’’ he said.

Norris told the Channel 11 reporter that Will Hallman had been to his house three times, on each occasion arriving about 11 a.m. and leaving a few hours later. The boy’s mother, he said, dropped him off and picked him up. Asked if the allegations against him were true, Norris responded: “Absolutely not.’’

Charles Aris, a Dallas lawyer who has defended Norris in the civil lawsuit filed by the Hallman family, said the stories contained in the depositions have “serious inconsistencies.’’ He also said the allegations are so old it is no longer possible to know the truth of what happened.

“I really don’t have specific comment on any of the guys because we’re talking about things that happened 40 or 50 years ago,’’ he said. “None of these people are significant because they’re so long ago you can’t verify any of this stuff.’’

If the Hallman’s lawsuit goes to trial the case will turn on what did or did not happen at Norris’ lake house in the mid-1990s, Aris said. “I can’t address things that happened in the ’50s and ’60s.’’

Norris’ criminal defense attorney, Michael Ware, said the accounts given by the three men have yet to be thoroughly scrutinized. “I think it would be inappropriate for me to start making specific comments about their deposition statements,’’ Ware said. “The Supreme Court has said and some of the foremost legal scholars have said ... cross-examination is beyond a doubt the greatest legal engine invented for the discovery of truth, and none of these men have been cross-examined yet.’’

Until earlier this year, when his first accusers went public, Norris was living a relatively obscure life at his home on Eagle Mountain Lake, ostensibly just another retiree drawing Social Security and enjoying the golden years of a long life.

But the allegations against him have been the subject of whispers in Fort Worth for years — and his behavior the subject of speculation even within Norris’ own family, according to Chowning.

“Everybody in town has asked themselves a question,’’ Chowning said. “Why does this man spend all of his time around young kids?’’

Even Norris’ mother had her doubts, he said. After he returned to Fort Worth, Chowning said Mrs. Norris, now deceased, once asked him a question he was not then willing to answer.

“Richard, do you think there is something strange about Wirt spending all his time around young boys?” Chowning remembers her asking. “I said, ‘I don’t know. That’s something you’ll have to ask your son about.’’’

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