Laying Out the Case
After years in the shadows, Wirt Norris’ accusers are taking center stage.
By DAN MALONE (Photography by Jerry W. Hoefer)
The twilight of Wirt Norris’ life has become a nightmare filled with voices he has not heard in years, stories he wishes would not be told, and fears spoken aloud after decades of silence.
His version of the good times — coaching at the Panther Boys Club, state diving meets, the Olympics, sunny days on Eagle Mountain Lake teaching young boys to water ski — have given way to uncomfortable questions, public confrontations, hours in courtrooms and the threat of prison. His health, which wasn’t good before his troubles started, has worsened since he was indicted two years ago for child molestation. He’d had two heart surgeries before the case began, followed by a third last year. He has appeared in court with a hospital bracelet, as if he might need medical care at any moment. At 77, he walks with a cane and seems to rise from his chair at the defense table only with difficulty.
The days of glad-handing himself around town, as a well-known real estate broker with society connections, seem long-gone as well. His circle of friends has narrowed. People he has known for years now distance themselves from him. The door to his lake house, the portal through which so many young boys walked, has been battered down, a symbol of an increasingly besieged life.
Yet Norris has remained defiant as the accusations against him have grown from a single voice to a chorus. In court papers and brief interviews, Norris has said the stories of grooming vulnerable young boys and betraying their trust with molestation are not true. To one acquaintance, he said simply, “It’s bullshit.’’
In the three years since the first accusation was made, Norris and his attorneys have suggested that the accusations against him were motivated by money, drug-altered memories, or a desire by his accusers to win favor with the wealthy family of his chief accuser. And the stories that they tell, one of his attorneys has said, seem to get more and more similar as they are told again and again.
With Norris’ trial now set to begin on May 16, however, the lives, if not the names, of his accusers are moving from the shadows into the light. For the first time, it is possible to flesh out some details about the men who accuse Norris of molesting generations of young boys during the last 50 years.
Thus far, about 20 men, ranging in age from their 20s to 60s, have accused Norris of molesting or attempting to molest them. Sixteen of them have testified in a pre-trial hearing about the case. Questioning from attorneys on both sides of the case has produced very little in the way of connections among the men or to Will Hallman, Norris’ chief accuser.
None of the men said they personally knew 22-year-old Will Hallman,who says Norris molested him 10 years ago. In fact, the only thing that seems to connect all the men is the abuse they say they encountered from Norris long ago.
There are, however, interesting if seemingly superficial links. Ten men said they knew, or knew of, at least one other person involved in the case. In most cases, the men said they remembered each other from childhood, diving meets or activities at Eagle Mountain Lake, where Norris lived. Few if any of those men, however, appear to have had serious discussions with each other about the case or to have maintained anything more than sporadic contact over the years. Three of the 10 men said they had a passing acquaintance with Hallman’s parents. One said he talked to Will’s mother after giving a deposition in a pending civil lawsuit the family filed against Norris. A second met Will’s father at another deposition. The third said he knew the family through social circles.
The remaining six men said they knew none of the other accusers prior to the hearing — some having met each other just briefly while waiting to testify. None said he discussed the case with the others. About one-third said they had looked at a web site dedicated to the case, www.wirtnorris.com. About half have talked to reporters or read news accounts of the case.
Most of the men appear to have had no problems with the law, but a handful have convictions for crimes ranging from DWI to wire fraud, drug possession, assault, car theft, and armed robbery. One said he had been arrested for domestic abuse, but that case was dropped. None of their cases, spread out over four states, appears to be related to the others. Several men said they had drug or alcohol problems that they blame partially on the aftermath of being sexually abused.
Many of Norris’ accusers still live in North Texas, while others live in Washington, California, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Most are married with children. Their occupations range among home-building, finance, the ministry, psychology, computer programming, and management.
Among such disparate lives, if the men share something in common, it is their lack of substantial links to one another — and the fact that they all crossed paths with Wirt Norris. If there is a conspiracy against the prominent former coach and businessman, no testimony or record has yet revealed it.
Norris’ accusers say they first encountered him in seemingly safe settings and circumstances — at the church he attended, after business transactions with their parents, at the Panther Boys Club where he coached diving, or on Eagle Mountain Lake, where he was a familiar figure at the Fort Worth Boat Club. One man said he met Norris while flying with his father to the Augusta Masters Golf Tournament in Atlanta during the mid-1970s and that his father arranged for Norris to teach him how to dive.
More information: Another said he met Norris on the first day his family attended Trinity Episcopal Church. “He was a pillar of our church and highly respected,’’ said a Desert Storm vet, now in his early 40s. “He was like the uncle I didn’t have, someone you could trust and talk to about problems with my family, girl problems, parent problems — just about anything.”
After gaining their trust, Norris’ accusers say he typically would quiz them about sex, ask whether they had yet had an erection or had learned to masturbate. He showed them Playboy magazine or hard-core pornography, they say, and sometimes gave them small amounts of alcohol. They say he would encourage them to masturbate and sometimes fondle each other or him. He provided hand lotion, which he sometimes warmed with hot air from the heater of his car, for lubricant, tissues to clean up, and reassurance.
“This is what males do when they find women,’’ one accuser said Norris told him. “This is a normal feeling. Arousal is to be expected. This is how you take care of it.’’
When it came time to pounce, the accusers say, Norris molested them in his car, at the boy’s club, in his boat, in his office, parked in the drive outside his mother’s house, and in hotel rooms on diving meet road trips.
Some say they were abused only once, others dozens of times over several years. The abuse sometime stopped with mutual masturbation and other times progressed to oral sex. Afterward, he would swear his young friends to secrecy — while assuring them that what they had done was normal.
“I’m helping you, but you know this is among us boys’’ — that’s what a Washington man remembers Norris saying on one of the 30 or more occasions that he says Norris abused him during the 1960s. “We don’t talk about this.’’
Shame prevented many from telling their parents what had happened, though some tried.
“I opened up a dictionary to a page where masturbation was, and I just handed it to [my mother] and said, ‘It’s on this page,’” said a cable television manager in his mid-30s who lives on the East Coast and who said Norris abused him in the late 1970s. “Like a lot of men do, I just bottled it up inside.’’
The abuse, Norris’ accusers say, made trusting others difficult, led to problems in their marriages, and sent some into counseling years after the fact. Some continue to have uncomfortable flashbacks even now. “The smell of lotion is something that still triggers bad memories,’’ said one.
Such was the power of the spell that Norris’ accusers say he cast that some stayed in contact with him for years or decades after they say the abuse ended.
One man accused of wire fraud asked Norris to testify in his trial as a character witness. Norris did. Another man, for a time, worked with Norris in his real estate business. A third said he sent Norris a Christmas gift — a piece of glass etched with the Panther Boys Club logo — and invited him to his wedding. “I still like him to this day,’’ he said at the end of his testimony.
Whether the jury that will decide Norris’ fate will ever hear any of these 16 stories is not yet known. Norris has been indicted on charges of abusing or attempting to abuse just two of his accusers — Hallman and an Air Force pilot who does not want to be named. The other men who have come forward all complain about abuse that took place outside the statute of limitations. In Texas, child sex abuse victims have until their 28th birthdays to file a complaint.
Prosecutors hope to persuade State District Court Judge Wayne Salvant to permit the testimony of the other accusers to be heard by the jury to demonstrate that Hallman’s and the pilot’s cases are parts of a long pattern of abuse. But Salvant has said he may not rule on that issue until the trial is already under way.
Whether the trial actually begins on May 16 is an open question: The state’s star witness, Will Hallman, remains in an Outward Bound-style rehab facility in Utah. Hallman, who has struggled with crushing depression, substance abuse, and mental problems since he says he was abused, was arrested at Central Market late last year after walking out with a pizza he did not pay for. When he was stopped by security, he turned over a small bag of marijuana from a pocket. He was charged with misdemeanor drug possession.
Bill Kirkman, the lawyer who filed the damages lawsuit for the Hallman family against Norris, said he believes Will is going to be ready when the trial starts. “The plan is, it’s not going to prevent him from testifying,’’ Kirkman said.
Will told law enforcement that Norris, who had befriended his parents after a real estate transaction, molested him with a vibrator at his home at Eagle Mountain Lake in the mid-1990s.
In addition to the 16 accusers, Tarrant County Sheriff deputies, who made the case on Norris, also have testified. But Will has yet to testify or give a statement under oath in the civil lawsuit as others have. His testimony, when it finally comes, could well determine the outcome of the criminal trial.
One issue on which Will can expect a thorough grilling on is whether he ever accused anyone besides Norris of abusing him.
Michael Ware, Norris’ lead defense attorney, said in a hearing last week that a notation in Will’s medical records indicated he once accused his own father of having molested him. Similarly, in a earlier hearing, Norris’ defense team referred to other records indicating that Will previously had accused a third man of abusing him. In neither case are the records referred to available for inspection by outsiders. The courts have ordered the Hallman family to make them available to Norris’ attorneys but have sealed them from public view.
Discussing in open court information contained in sensitive and sealed medical record, Kirkman said, served only one purpose. “There is no question that they are purposively attempting to intimidate the Hallmans from going forward with this,’’ he said.
“Will is a very matter-of-fact young man who has the ability to give truthful, pointed, and concise answers,” Kirkman said. “If these lawyers ask him a question, ‘Was he molested by his father?’ or ‘Did he tell anyone [that he had been]?’, the answer will be unequivocally no because it is not true.’’
Kirkman said other records contained in the same file show that both statements were transcription errors — and that there are letters in the file correcting them. “When Norris’ lawyers made that statement in open court, they knew that evidence was there,’’ Kirkman said. “There was irrefutable evidence that those statements were false.’’
Ware said in an e-mail that his defense team would not comment for this article, citing a gag order by Salvant to attorneys and witnesses in the cases.
“We feel that we must decline comment, even though our opponents feel at liberty to disregard the wishes of the judge in this matter,” said Ware.
Kirkman isn’t the only attorney to complain about intimidation tactics. Leonard Schilling, another member of Norris’ defense team, questioned one accuser about whether he had posted comments on a web site intending to intimidate Ware and his family. And Terri Moore, the third lawyer defending Norris, has suggested that some of Norris’ accusers are motivated by money. In a hearing earlier this year, she referred to the civil lawsuit filed by the Hallman family as one in which “rich people ... are going after Wirt’s money.’’ In another exchange, she characterized the Hallmans as “very wealthy people’’ and asked if it’s ever “bad business to do something for very wealthy people.’’
Moore’s appearance on the Norris defense team is one of several strange twists the case has taken. Moore, a Democrat and former federal prosecutor who made a name for herself prosecuting child pornographers, attempted in the last election to unseat Tarrant County District Attorney Tim Curry, a Republican.
Had she won, Moore would be presiding over the very office that is now attempting to convict her client. She was not available for comment.
Victims in sex crimes typically aren’t identified in court records or by the media. In another twist in the case, four of Norris’ accusers, including Will, have chosen to let their names be used. Jack Strickland, who represents Will in the marijuana case, said Will and his family have placed the public good above Will’s own welfare by going public with their case against Norris.
“I’m quite certain that the trauma and public exposure and the rest of it that came about as a result of this case has not helped Will’s recovery,” Strickland said. “As difficult as this has been for this family, they thought that the public good required it.’’
Will Hallman’s story, at least, is almost certain to be told from the witness stand in trial. Norris, however, is under no obligation to testify. He has given a sworn statement in the civil lawsuit against him, but he answered many questions by asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Though he hasn’t made detailed public comments about the case, the string of accusations seems to have wilted the aging ex-coach. Following his arrest in February 2003, Norris walked from the jail without assistance, insisting to reporters he had done nothing wrong. In pre-trial hearings this year, he’s worn what appears to be a hospital bracelet and walked with a cane.
Defending himself from a growing line of accusers has taken a toll on his health, says Gene De Bullet, an attorney who has known Norris for about a decade. Norris, he said, underwent two bypass surgeries before the accusations surfaced and has in recent months had a pacemaker installed to regulate his heartbeat.
“He’s not doing well,’’ De Bullet said. “You can tell by his color. He’s much more feeble than he was. He won’t drive at night.’’
De Bullet said he met Norris in the mid-1990s when he was looking for property near Eagle Mountain Lake on which to construct the castle-like home on Boat Club Road in which he now lives. De Bullet’s son worked odd jobs for Norris, mowing lawns and trimming hedges, and sometimes accompanied him on the boat where others have accused Norris of sexual predation. When he first heard about the accusations, De Bullet said he asked his son about his experiences with Norris, whether Norris had ever “made a move’’ on him. “Are you nuts?’’ his son responded.
“I have never had anything but good things to say about him, but I don’t know what he was like 20 years ago,’’ De Bullet said. “I had never picked up a negative vibe.’’
Norris had dinner with De Bullet’s family a few Sundays back, and he remains close to De Bullet’s wife, who has been battling cancer for the last six years. “He goes to see her. He prays with her,’’ the attorney said.
Norris hasn’t said much more to De Bullet than he has to reporters when, in brief interviews, he has denied the molestation charges. “The only thing I’ve ever heard him do is say, ‘It’s bullshit,’ and deny it in general,’’ De Bullet said. But the accusations, he said, seem to have also taken a toll on his personal life. “He just doesn’t have the friends he used to,’’ the attorney said. “ I think he’s more reclusive.’’
Norris would appear to have good reason to keep a lower profile — the Hallman family has gone out of its way to publicize the accusations against a man they once trusted.
Rumors about Norris were first whipped up when flyers accusing him of being a pedophile were found on vehicles outside a downtown church and around Westover Hills, the exclusive residential enclave that some of Norris’ business and personal contacts call home. The anonymous handbills were later determined to have been distributed by Nancy Hallman, Will’s mother.
Will’s father, William P. Hallman, a partner in a prestigious downtown law firm that counts some of the city’s wealthiest families among its clients, has also personally confronted Norris with allegations of abuse. When the two men encountered each other in a restaurant, Hallman got the attention of other diners and very publicly introduced Norris to the group as a child molester. More recently, prior to Norris’ appearance at one of the pre-trial hearings, Hallman wrote letters to leaders of Norris’ church and a civic organization, inviting them to attend the proceedings and hear the accusations for themselves.
A neighbor who has been close to Norris for years said he’s no longer in touch. “I haven’t had any contact with him for months,’’ he said. “I think we probably ought not to talk about it until it’s over.’’
Another man whom some believe was once close to Norris insisted he knew little about the controversy surrounding his former coach.
“I haven’t talked to him in years,’’ he said. “I wish I could help you. All I did was dive.’’
While Norris’ accusers wait to find out whether their testimony will be allowed in the approaching trial, others are expressing anger over the fate of legislation that could have made all of their stories into criminal cases in their own right.
A bill by State Rep. Debbie Riddle of Houston that would have repealed the statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases was shunted to a subcommittee backwater, where it stands little chance of passing — and where a Dallas legislator made statements that have victims’ rights advocates fuming.
For some victims, its takes more than a decade of adulthood before they are ready to confront those they accuse of having abused them. Many of the men who have come forward in the Norris case, for example, did not do so until they were well past their 28th birthdays, the cutoff for filing criminal charges in child sex abuse cases.
Rep. Riddle argued that the repeal was needed to let sexual predators know, “You can run but you cannot hide. You can grow old, but we’re still going to come get you.’’
But the repeal effort appears ready to die in a house subcommittee without a vote.
Terri Hodge, the Dallas lawmaker who presided over a hearing on the bill, described some accusers’ “big mouths’’ and questioned the motivation of others, according to a partial transcript prepared by Rhonda Kuykendall, whose organization ENDSOL — for “End the statute of limitations” — has been lobbying the legislature for repeal.
“I guess what they did was right, but they took down the Catholic Church,’’ Kuykendall quotes Hodge as saying. “It was more about lawsuits than protecting our precious little children ... .’’ Later in the same hearing, Hodge said “There is always one big-mouth girl that says, ‘Mr. Whatever his name was touched me here or touched me there.’”
Hodge was not available for comment. And Riddle, fearing her own bill would not pass, has requested no vote be taken on the measure.
Kuykendall and others, meanwhile, are plotting-last minute strategies that might breathe new life into the legislation. “It’s in my nature to keep fighting to the last day,” she said.
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