A Score of Accusers
Wirt Norris, right, returns to court to face his accusers later this month. (Courtesy of KTVT/ Channel 11)
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
Several decades’ worth of allegations against Wirt Norris will be aired this month.
By DAN MALONE
For years, the rumors were little more than the subject of hushed conversations. Then they appeared in writing, on anonymous handbills found in wealthy neighborhoods, in a flurry of angry e-mails and letters. Two years ago, two men who could no longer stay silent went public with their accusations. Slowly, they’ve been joined by others who say they too were victims. And on Tuesday, as Wirt Malcolm Norris and his attorneys prepared for a key hearing, three more accusers were added to the list, bringing the total to 20 men who accuse Norris of everything from indecent exposure to sexual assault of a child years or decades ago.
The men, raging in age from 22 to 61, say Norris, a former Olympic diving coach, accosted them over a period spanning five decades, according to records filed by the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. All of the men and some of their relatives and friends are listed as potential witnesses in a Jan. 31 hearing.
The hearing will determine whether a criminal court jury ever gets to hear the stories of most of these men, whose allegations are now too old to be prosecuted. But if it goes forward as planned, the hearing will unfold the broadest public look yet at the worst sex abuse scandal ever to hit upper-crust Fort Worth. If the case itself didn’t guarantee a full courtroom, the father of one accuser has sent out letters inviting those who mingle socially and attend church with Norris to come and hear it for themselves.
Norris, now 77, has denied the allegations of abuse, in court documents and brief public statements. Reached by phone on Tuesday, and told of the new accusations, Norris again denied any wrongdoing. “It’s not true,’’ he said during a brief conversation, “and I’m sorry I can’t talk to you.’’
Despite the growing number of accusers, the criminal charges against Norris are based on complaints from just two men, both now in their 20s, who say Norris tried to molest or actually did molest them in the 1980s and 1990s. Thus far, theirs are the only complaints that fall within the statute of limitations. The remaining complaints, dating back to 1956, are now too old to prosecute.
Prosecutors hope that District Judge Wayne Salvant will let a jury hear their stories of abuse after he himself listens to the men’s testimony during the Jan. 31 hearing.
Whether a jury gets to hear from all of Norris’ accusers hinges on a legal theory advanced during a triple murder case tried in England almost a century ago. George Joseph Smith was executed in 1915 after he was convicted of killing three women, each of whom died shortly after marrying Smith. All three were found in their baths, apparently drowned. Their deaths were initially ruled accidental.
Police didn’t realize the women were murdered, according to a London police agency account, until the man who owned the bath where wife No. 2 died sent a newspaper clipping about the woman’s death to police investigating the death of wife No. 3. The deaths that individually appeared innocent looked altogether different when examined together.
The rules governing criminal proceedings in the United States often prohibit prosecutors from introducing evidence of so-called extraneous offenses during the guilt or innocence phase of a trial. A prosecutor, for example, wouldn’t usually be permitted to inform a jury that a person being tried for murder had previously been convicted of a robbery. But what might be called the “Brides in the Bath’’ exception allows prosecutors to introduce such evidence as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, and planning.
At Norris’ hearing, prosecutors Alan Levy and Amy Collum will argue that a jury should be permitted to hear the testimony from the older accusers because of, Levy said, the “logical relevance” of their stories.
“What are the odds of 20 different people in four states over 25 years, who don’t know each other, all accusing somebody of the same conduct?” Levy said. “[H]ow many times can you get hit by lightning?’’
But Norris’ defense attorney Mike Ware said, “People make false accusations, and they do it for many different reasons. Sometimes they make false accusations for no apparent reason. If that were not the case, there would be no need for judges, juries, or fair trials.”
The case against Norris began with accusations from two men in an article first published by the Weekly on its web site in 2003. Rolf Kaastad, now 43, claimed that Norris repeatedly molested him during the 1970s when he was a young diver and Norris was his coach. Will Hallman said that he was molested by Norris in the mid-1990s at Norris’ home on Eagle Mountain Lake. The Weekly, like most news media, usually doesn’t publish the names of sex crime victims. In this case, however, both men wanted their names to be known.
The accusations had been the subject of rumors in Fort Worth society, law enforcement, and national diving circles long before any case was filed. The relatives of two boys who had spent time with Norris told the Weekly that they shared their concerns about the diving coach with investigators years before Hallman says he was molested. A former sheriff’s department employee also says he warned a high ranking department official about Norris. For whatever reason, nothing came of their complaints.
Stories about Norris also circulated in the diving community more than a decade ago. One of the men identified in the court records filed Tuesday complained to a friend about Norris, and the friend later shared that information with other diving coaches, who confronted Norris about the accusations more than a decade ago.
Mark Virts, the accuser’s friend who warned the coaches, said he witnessed a confrontation between Norris and coach Vince Panzano from across a pool at a 1992 national diving championship. Though he could not hear the exchange, Virts said in an interview this week that Panzano later told him Norris denied the allegations. “Wirt’s response was, ‘I’m not doing anything with those boys,’” Virts recalled Panzano telling him. Panzano declined to comment for this story.
Ware said that the “alleged incident appears to be another ‘he said, she said’ from over 10 years ago.”
The rumors about Norris were rekindled more than a decade later by relatives of other accusers. Rolf Kaastad’s brother, Tim Kaastad, began a letter-writing campaign trying to prod officials into investigating Norris. His campaign eventually morphed into a web site (www.wirtnorris.com) where Norris’ accusers exchange stories and offers of support.
Bumper stickers with the site’s address were plastered on stop signs west of downtown. Anonymous handbills accusing Norris of molestation appeared in parts of town where Norris was well known. It was later determined that the handbills had been distributed by Will Hallman’s mother, Nancy. More recently, Hallman’s father, attorney William P. Hallman Jr., sent a letter to the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth and to the Steeplechase Club, entities with which Norris is affiliated, inviting their members to the upcoming hearing before Salvant, “if there is any doubt as to Norris’ guilt.’’
Norris was initially indicted on charges of molesting Hallman. He was also named in a civil damages lawsuit filed by Hallman and his family. Information about another possible victim sent to Tim Kaastad eventually led the district attorney’s office to seek a second indictment. That case is based on charges from an Air Force officer in his late 20s who said Norris attempted to molest him in the late 1980s.
As word of molestation allegations spread, other men began to come forward and tell investigators their stories. The accusers, many now in their 40s and 50s, include prominent professionals and businessmen from Texas and several other states.
Norris’ accusers, according to court records, say he befriended them as a diving coach or water skiing instructor, gave them cigarettes and alcohol, teased them with dirty magazines, and boasted about sexual exploits with women. He bragged about his political connections and celebrity friends. Having gained their confidence, his accusers say, he pounced; afterward, they say, he used the shame they felt to convince them to keep the abuse secret. His victims say they were abused at the Panther Boys Club, where Norris coached diving, in hotel rooms during out-of-town swim meets, in his car, at his lake house, and in the driveway of the house that the lifelong bachelor shared with his mother.
During his trial, Norris’ defense attorneys are expected to delve deeply into the background of each of his accusers. From prosecutors, they have obtained criminal histories of their client’s accusers. (Prosecutors say a few of the victims have records involving drug offenses and non-violent crimes. Will Hallman, for example, was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession late last year, according to records Norris’ attorneys filed in the case.) They’ve also obtained permission to review Will Hallman’s extensive medical files. Court records show that Hallman sought treatment from a succession of doctors and mental health professionals following his encounter with Norris.
Norris’ criminal trial on the Hallman complaint, which was scheduled to begin at the end of this month, was pushed back to May in an attempt to avoid a change of venue. Attorneys believed it would be difficult to select a jury immediately following the hearing in which Norris’ accusers are expected to testify.
The civil lawsuit filed by the Hallman family has been put on hold until after the criminal case is over. In an interview Tuesday, the Hallmans’ attorney, Bill Kirkman, stopped just short of saying that the family would drop their lawsuit if Norris would publicly admit that the accusations from Will and others are true.
“I just wish Mr. Norris would publicly admit to the acts, admit he needs help, and put all this at an end,’’ Kirkman said.
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