Metropolis: Wednesday, August 13, 2003
‘Every one of them has a story that has a chink in it ... .’
Norris Gets Nearer a Trial

The former diving coach accused of molesting boys over three decades has been indicted.


The indictment this week of Wirt Norris on child molestation charges was greeted with elation by the men who say he abused them years ago, even as the former diving coach’s defense attorney was challenging the credibility of the accusers.

A Tarrant County grand jury indicted Norris on Aug. 11 on two counts of indecency with a 12-year-old boy. Norris is accused of fondling the boy and exposing himself in an incident at his Eagle Mountain Lake house on July 1, 1995. If he is convicted, punishment for Norris would range from probation to a total of 30 years in prison for the two felonies — a sentence that would effectively keep the 75-year-old locked up for the rest of his life.

The indictment culminates an investigation begun 15 months ago when the Tarrant County sheriff’s department received a complaint accusing Norris of indecency with Will Hallman, the son of a well-connected downtown lawyer.

Rumors about Norris, a socially prominent real estate broker who moved among Fort Worth’s best-known families, have long circulated in some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. But his accusers complained about events that occurred so long ago they could not be prosecuted. Only after Will Hallman came forward last year were law enforcement officials able to act. Will’s complaint is the only one thus far to fall within the statute of limitations.

Under Texas law, child molestation cases must be brought within 10 years of the victim’s 18th birthday. Many of Norris’ accusers, men now well settled into middle age, complain of being abused during the 1960s and 1970s — and say they were too ashamed to speak out until Will Hallman and another accuser, Rolf Kaastad, went public with their accusations earlier this year. The accusations against Norris were first reported by Fort Worth Weekly in January on its web site.

Norris, who has remained free on $25,000 bond since his arrest in February, did not return a phone call placed to his home this week. In addition to the criminal case, Norris also faces a civil suit for damages filed by the Hallman family. Neither case has a trial date.

Defense attorney Michael Ware said that Norris, a one-time Olympic diving coach and a mentor to several generations of Fort Worth boys, is innocent. “Our position is he didn’t do it,” Ware said. The attorney said he was thankful to live “in a free country where the accused are presumed innocent.’’ The grand jury, he said, merely “rubber stamped’’ the case presented by the prosecutors.

One man, who has accused Norris of abusing him during the 1960s, said the indictment may be letting Norris off light. “He made his bed a long time ago and did it for generations, and he’s getting what he deserves — or maybe not all that he deserves,’’ said the man, who has asked that his name not be published. The Weekly does not publish the names of victims in sex crimes without their permission. Of the nine men who have told investigators that Norris molested them, only Hallman and Kaastad gave permission to be named.

Asked to explain why nine men would be making such accusations against Norris, Ware said he didn’t “need a theory to explain that. The fact of the business is Mr. Norris has only been indicted for one incident.’’ But the attorney also challenged the credibility of the entire group of accusers. “Every one of them has a story that has a chink in it and for different reasons,’’ he said.

A private investigator, James Lasater, has been brought in to assist with Norris’ defense, but Ware would not discuss what he has been looking into.

The victim who said he was molested by Norris in the 1960s said attempts to discredit victims will be seen for what they are: “The more you throw mud at people, the more people know that’s what you’re doing.’’

The civil lawsuit filed by the Hallman family accuses Norris of plunging Will, now 20, into a depression that hijacked his teen-age years and pushed him to the brink of suicide. Norris, a real estate broker, had helped the Hallman family find a new home and was introduced to Will by his parents. Norris subsequently invited Will to go water skiing and to visit the lake house where Will says he was abused.

Ware said he believes that Will had emotional problems for several years before that. “Our investigation has turned up strong evidence that he has been on medication and had substantial emotional problems as early as 1991 at the age of 8, which even according to their pleading is four years before he ever met Wirt Norris,’’ Ware said.

William Kirkman, the attorney for the Hallman family, said Ware’s assertion is false. He said that Will, like scores of other young boys, was given Ritalin for what doctors believed was attention deficit disorder when he was 8 or 9. Norris and Ware “must be desperate, given the evidence that has accumulated against Mr. Norris, to take such a ridiculous position,” Kirkman said. “I wish I had a dime for every young ... boy for whom Ritalin has been prescribed.’’

Jay Lapham, the assistant district attorney who presented the case against Norris to the grand jury, said he will try to persuade District Court Judge Wayne Salvant to permit testimony from Norris’ other accusers during the first phase of the trial, in which jurors determine guilt or innocence.

“It was a very similar type of modus operandi with respect to befriending the boys, isolating them, taking them water skiing, showing them pornography,’’ Lapham said. If he’s unsuccessful in getting their testimony before the jury during that phase, the prosecutor said it could easily be used during punishment if Norris is convicted. “Based on the sheer number of victims, I don’t think us asking for prison time is unreasonable,’’ he said. “What you have to consider, what a jury may consider, is [that] his age — 75 or 76 years old —may be mitigating to them.’’ And because Norris has no prior criminal record, a jury could place him on probation, he pointed out.

In the months since Norris’ arrest, some of his accusers have wondered whether Will’s accusations might fade into the realm of rumor — and put the case against Norris back into the world of whispers and inaction where it has been for years.

“There is no joy in seeing this happen,’’ said another man, who has told investigators he was molested by Norris in the 1970s. “I’m surprised that it actually got this far in the system, knowing his connections and who he knows.’’ But he added, “At this point, I don’t think he can manipulate himself out of it.’’

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