A Pass for Wirt?
Wirt Norris trails defense attorney Leonard Schilling to court for a recent hearing. (Photo by Jerry W. Hoefer)
‘This is a kick in
the teeth to me.’
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 plea offer to an accused serial child molester has some folks screaming.
By DAN MALONE
Accused serial pedophile Wirt Norris can walk away from the Tarrant County courthouse on Wednesday and never spend a day in prison, by admitting something he has been loath to acknowledge for years.
Tarrant County prosecutors have offered the 77-year-old former diving coach 10 years probation if he’ll plead guilty to a single charge of indecency with a child and register as a sex offender, persons familiar with the negotiations say. Had Norris been tried and convicted, a jury could have sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
If Norris accepts the plea bargain, the family of his chief accuser, 22-year-old Will Hallman, has agreed to drop a pending civil damages lawsuit filed against the former coach. Other criminal charges against Norris also are expected to be dropped.
Tarrant County prosecutors began notifying witnesses in the case Monday that Norris had agreed to a plea bargain and that his trial, scheduled for next week, would be scratched. Norris has been indicted on charges of molesting Hallman at Norris’ home on Eagle Mountain Lake in the mid-1990s, and on a charge of attempted molestation of another man who does not wish to be identified.
When Hallman and yet another accuser, Rolf Kaastad, went public with their complaints three years ago, it prompted other men to come forward with their stories of abuse. Sixteen other men have testified in pre-trial hearings that Norris also molested or tried to molest them, but their allegations fall outside the statute of limitations and are too old to prosecute.
Prosecutors told Norris’ accusers Monday that the decision to offer Norris probation was partially motivated by a desire to spare Hallman from what was expected to be a brutal cross-examination by Norris’ defense team. (Defense attorneys have been poring through Hallman’s voluminous medical files and questioning whether he had accused others of abusing him. His attorney said that Norris was the only person Hallman has accused.)
Letting Norris off with probation “is a kick in the teeth to me,’’ said one man who says Norris molested him in the 1970s. When he complained about the lenient offer, he said, a prosecutor told him, “We have to take into consideration the victim’s fragility.’’
Plea deals like the one offered Norris can fall apart, up to the time when a defendant actually appears in court and pleads guilty. Whether Norris, who has adamantly denied the molestation charge for the last three years, will be willing to reverse himself and be publicly branded as a child molester won’t be known until the hearing, scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
District Judge Wayne Salvant had ordered attorneys and witnesses to refrain from discussing the case. Attorneys would not discuss details of the agreement, and accusers interviewed for this story asked not to be identified. But attorney Mike Ware said the defense team agreed to the plea because of Norris’ “declining health.” Norris recently underwent a third heart surgery, walks with a cane, and has attended court wearing what appears to be a medical bracelet.
Plea deals like this one also are usually kept under tight wraps until they’re done. In this case, however, news of the offer began leaking out Monday as prosecutors called witnesses, and Will Hallman’s mother, Nancy, e-mailed friends and acquaintances with the family’s good news. Within hours, word of the plea agreement was the subject of chatter on a web site devoted to the case, www.wirtnorris.com, operated by Tim Kaastad, the brother of Rolf Kaastad.
“Norris wins!’’ Tim Kaastad proclaimed in a headline on the page. “A plea without prison time will be a betrayal ... . No family can ever again depend on the Tarrant DA’s office [for] prosecuting child molesters.’’
As word spread, it quickly became apparent that Norris’ accusers were divided on whether Norris had won or lost.
A second man who said Norris molested him during the 1970s was elated that he would not have to return to Fort Worth, testify, and be grilled by Norris’ defense team about sexual abuse he says took place decades ago.
“I did not want to have to go back and have people impugn my character,’’ he said. “I was able [during testimony in a hearing] to set the record straight on something I wasn’t able to do years ago. Having it over with is good. I can put it back where it needs to be and get on with my life.’’
A guilty plea even on one charge, he said, is enough for him. “There’s no mystery or gray area with this guy anymore.’’
While others said they understood the Hallman family’s desire to bring the case to a close, they also said probation wasn’t appropriate for a man accused of molesting generations of boys. Another accuser who has testified that Norris repeatedly molested him said his former diving coach “deserves to be put in a cage for the remainder of his life.’’
Since the mid-1990s, the time when Hallman says Norris abused him, Hallman has been treated in a succession of medical facilities for depression and substance abuse, problems his family say grew from the molestation. Even as negotiations to avert a trial progressed, Hallman, who was arrested late last year on a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge, remained in Utah at an Outward Bound-style rehab facility.
Norris’ case has twice led to attempts to repeal the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse in Texas. Under Texas law, victims have until their 28th birthdays to file criminal charges against their abusers. Some of Norris’ accusers and other children’s advocates have attempted to persuade the legislature to remove the time limit altogether, but the reform — proposed two years ago and again in this session — fizzled.
Details of the plea agreement with Norris remain murky. For example, it was not immediately clear whether he will be required to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet or receive counseling as a sex offender.
Bill Kirkman, who represents the Hallman family, said the plea agreement, if it goes through, would be vindication for the family. “You call it a plea bargain. I call it pleading guilty,’’ Kirkman said. “This never was about money.’’
In pre-trial hearings, Norris’ defense team had questioned whether his accusers were after Norris’ wealth — or what may be left of it. Norris, who coached diving at Panther Boys Club and the Olympics, made a living brokering real estate deals for some of the city’s most affluent families.
Rumors about him swirled for years in the society circles in which he ran, and families repeatedly took their suspicions about Norris to law enforcement — with little impact until Hallman and Kaastad went public with their complaints. Tarrant County sheriff deputies eventually made a case on Norris, accusing him of having molested Hallman when he was 12.
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