Facing His Accusers
Wirt Norris heads to court with attorney Leonard Schilling, right. (Photo by Jerry W. Hoefer)
Judge Wayne Salvant refused to close the Wirt Norris hearing. (Photo by Jerry W. Hoefer)
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A parade of witnesses testify to decades of abuse by Wirt Norris.
By DAN MALONE AND PABLO LASTRA
The distance between the witness stand and the defendant in Judge Wayne Salvant’s courtroom is only a few paces. But this week, as a succession of witnesses took turns accusing the man at the defense table of sexual abuse decades ago, the divide between accuser and accused could hardly have been wider.
At the defense table, Wirt Norris sat silent, a thin smile occasionally breaking across a face that otherwise showed little emotion. The men testified about how the former Olympic diving coach plied them as boys with porn and sex talk. Norris occasionally craned his neck to whisper to an attorney or pressed a finger to his lips. They talked about how he urged them to masturbate or perform oral sex, then silenced them with shame. He sat with chin in hand, impassive.
In a dark suit with a crisp white shirt, oversized glasses, thinning gray hair, and an identification bracelet on his wrist like those hospital patients wear, the 77-year-old defendant had the look of someone’s infirm grandfather.
But those who have met Norris’ gaze across that courtroom space this week saw something altogether different. They recalled the man who was often near the bus stop when they got home from school, who told them dirty jokes, who showed them pornographic comics and a movie about a woman and a dog, who asked if they were “shooting bullets,’’ who told them “to get with the program,’’ and who instructed them to keep secret their times together. “This is between us boys,’’ one of the men recalled Norris saying.
“He took my innocence and threw it in a bag, and I couldn’t get it back,’’ said a 49-year-old man who testified that Norris began abusing him at age 10. “And he did it when he was smiling and friendly.’’
Norris hasn’t spoken publicly about the accusations except to deny them. His trial is scheduled for May.
This week’s testimony came during a hearing before Salvant, who is trying to decide whether the men will be allowed to tell their stories to a jury. The criminal charges Wirt faces deal with molestation charges based on only two accusers, even though 18 other men have come forward with accounts of being accosted. Those other allegations are too old to prosecute, but the district attorney’s office is asking that the 18 men be allowed to testify at trial anyway. Most have asked that their names not be published.
The men said Norris approached them as young boys and gained their confidence, then betrayed it with behavior they tried for years to purge from their memories. The men, many now middle-aged, often struggled to keep their composure while recounting their stories.
“A lot of it ... I put out of my mind,’’ said one man, now a minister and the father of two. He described an incident in which he said Norris gathered a small group of boys to watch pornographic videos and encouraged them to masturbate. “Our guard was completely let down,’’ he said. “That was the last time I ever went over to his house.’’
The men said Norris accosted them at his home on Eagle Mountain Lake, at his mother’s home near TCU, in his real estate office, and at the Panther Boys Club, where he was the diving coach.
The courtroom exchanges often grew testy as Norris’ defense team — attorneys Mike Ware, Leonard Schilling, and Terri Moore — grilled the men about their experiences. Schilling peppered one accuser with questions about a vibrator he could only vaguely recall: “Are you sure about the vibrator? Can you describe it? What color was it? What was it shaped like?’’ Moore pressed another witness about whether boys in a group masturbation session orchestrated by Norris fondled each other, then asked if it was possible the boys had kissed. They had not. One was asked whether his father was gay. The answer was yes. Another was asked whether he was gay. The answer was no.
The attorneys’ questions prompted some witnesses to fire back. “I know what you’re trying to do,’’ one said. Another complained that Norris’ team was “slightly insulting my intelligence.’’ And a third accused defense attorneys of making light of his testimony.
“I don’t like being made fun of. I don’t have many happy memories, and I’ve spent many years trying not to think about this,’’ that accuser said. “I saw this on Matlock,’’ he said of the cross examination. “You’re saying I’m making this up.’’
If Norris had his way, none of the testimony would have been publicly heard this week. The hearing began with Ware requesting that the proceeding be held behind closed doors, allowing only attorneys and court officials to hear the accusations. A public airing of such “sensitive testimony,’’ Ware said, would prejudice the pool of potential jurors.
Salvant, however, refused. “This is a public building and this is a public courtroom, and I’m going to leave it like that,’’ the judge said. He said he would move the trial if he could not seat “a fair and impartial jury in this county.’’
Courthouse security, which is normally tight, was disturbingly lax one evening as the hearing ran past normal business hours. Doors that should have been locked were open, guard stations unmanned, and metal detectors unused. Anyone could have entered the building carrying anything, a danger in a proceeding where at least one of Norris’ accusers broached the subject of revenge. “I thought many times about paying him a visit,’’ he said, “but I’m not a vigilante.’’
Even as Norris faced his accusers, some of those men have joined forces with child sex crime victims and their families around the state in a fresh attempt to abolish the statute of limitations in molestation cases.
They say the need to repeal the prohibition on prosecuting old abuse cases is underscored by the very nature of the proceeding unfolding before Salvant.
“The predator is getting the justice or the break,’’ said Stephanie Burt, whose son was among 50 children molested by a former East Texas preacher. “It’s sort of like, ‘Are you for the predator or the victim?’”
Burt and others have formed a group they call ENDSOL to lead the abolition movement. The group wants to add child sexual assault to the short list of crimes, such as murder and manslaughter, for which no statute of limitations exists. Under Texas law, people who were molested as children have until their 28th birthday to seek an indictment against their abuser. If they wait a day later, the law prohibits them from filing charges.
But Burt and others say a decade of adulthood isn’t enough time for many victims to deal with abuse they suffered as children.
“Due to the nature of the crime, victims are usually unable to acknowledge and cope with the effects of sexual abuse until later in life,’’ said one of Norris’ accusers. “The statute of limitations protects the predator, who is free to continue victimizing others, and leaves the victims with lifelong scars and no path to closure.’’
The men who are testifying against Norris this week didn’t come forward until well after their 28th birthdays. And many might well have continued to remain silent were it not for two men who chose to speak out two years ago. Will Hallman, 22, and Rolf Kaastad, 44, were the first to accuse Norris of molesting them. Kaastad says he was abused during the 1970s when Norris was running the diving program at the Panther Boys Club. Hallman says Norris molested him in the mid-1990s at Norris’ lake house.
“The courage of Will Hallman to press charges will never be overlooked,’’ said one accuser who came forward after learning of Hallman’s decision.
In the second charge being brought against Norris — the only other accusation to fall within the time limit — the ex-coach is accused by an Air Force pilot now in his late 20s of attempting to molest him during the late 1980s. Norris, who made his living as a real estate broker for some of the city’s wealthiest families, has been indicted in both those cases.
Norris’ accusers attempted to repeal the statute of limitations before, but that effort fizzled, and the proposed legislation never got out of committee. This year, the group says it has obtained a promise from State Rep. Terry Keel, an Austin Republican who chairs the House Jurisprudence Committee, to hold a hearing on the legislation.
“This is my promise to them,’’ Burt said. “They are going to be surprised when they have the hearing and the gallery is full of victims.’’
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