Feature: Wednesday, June 12, 2003
Accused and Accursed

Wirt Norris and his accusers await their day in court.\r\n

By Dan Malone

Strand by strand, warp and weft, the fabric of Wirt Norris’ life seems to be unraveling.

Accusations that began with whispers have now been shouted in a public dining hall and displayed on web sites available to people around the world. Soon, a grand jury will decide whether a 75-year-old man should be tried in a case in which accusations of child molestation span 30 years.

Tarrant County sheriff’s deputies, who arrested the former diving coach on a child fondling charge four months ago, are near the end of their investigation. Norris, meanwhile, remains free on bond but under an order not only to avoid contact with his accuser in the criminal case, but also to avoid all unsupervised contact with other children under the age of 17.

Norris’ insurance companies, which had agreed to defend him in a related civil lawsuit, are now asking a judge to let them withdraw because of the “extreme and outrageous manner’’ of the allegations against him. The downtown office from which Norris once catered to the real estate needs of Fort Worth’s best-known families closed long ago. Norris now runs what’s left of his business from his $265,000 home on Eagle Mountain Lake, where several men say they were molested decades ago.

Norris’ accusers, their relatives, and supporters are exchanging stories and expressing outrage in the most public of forums, the internet. A web site founded by one such family member has become a clearinghouse for articles about the case and a place to vent frustration and anger.

Will Hallman, the budding Fort Worth musician who filed the criminal complaint against Norris, returned late last month to Fort Worth from the Connecticut mental health facility where he had been undergoing treatment since August for problems his family says are related to Norris. “Slowly but surely, he’s worked his way through it,’’ said attorney William Kirkman, who is representing the Hallman family in a lawsuit against Norris. “It’s a real slow recovery process.’’

Thus far, Will is the only person to surface who could make a criminal or civil case against Norris. Ten other men have been identified in court and police documents as possible victims, but their complaints involve events so old that they are past the legal time limits for court action.

Under Texas law, a victim has until age 28 to file a criminal complaint in a molestation case. In court papers, Will has said he was repeatedly abused by Norris during 1995 — allegations that fall well within the statute of limitations. His return to Fort Worth means he could be available to testify against Norris should his family’s lawsuit or the criminal case go to trial.

Will’s parents, meanwhile, have stepped up their campaign against Norris. Dad William P. Hallman Jr., a prominent, well-connected Fort Worth attorney, made good on a pledge to confront Norris with accusations of child molestation if the two men ever met in public, as they did recently at a northside restaurant. And Nancy Hallman, in sworn statements brimming with a mother’s outrage, has put into words her bitterness toward a man she once trusted, whom she now accuses of imperiling her entire family. “He molested my son — and in effect got paid for it — through ... commissions on two large real estate transactions which he handled for us,’’ she said.

For his part, Norris has remained publicly mute except for a brief denial on the day of his arrest. He has declined to answer questions from reporters seeking in-depth interviews and from the Hallman family lawyer in a deposition. One of his attorneys said Norris would just like to be able to go out in public without being accosted. “There’s only one allegation against him and that’s Will Hallman’s and he’s not even been indicted on that,’’ said criminal defense attorney Michael Ware. “We’re continuing to investigate all of the allegations and we look forward to our day in court.’’

Norris’ arrest followed a series of events that began almost three years ago, when Rolf Kaastad, now 41 and living in California, told his brother Tim and other family members that Norris had molested him during the mid 1970s. Tim Kaastad almost immediately began a campaign demanding an investigation of Norris, sending letters to police, prosecutors, church and civic leaders, and elected officials. The following spring, someone — who has never been firmly established — distributed fliers accusing Norris of being a child molester. “Wirt Norris: Gift to Boys: Pain, Shame and Secrecy,’’ the flier read. “Don’t tell your parents what we guys do at the lake.’’

Late last year, Rolf Kaastad went public with his accusations, and Will Hallman filed a report with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department claiming that he too had been molested by Norris — a story first reported by Fort Worth Weekly on its web site Jan. 4. Since then, other accusers have come forward. Today, a total of 11 potential victims have been identified. Most have given statements to investigators.

The men, some now in their mid-40s, said that Norris used his position as a diving coach at Panther Boys Club, as a family friend, or as the owner of a boat and a lake house to seclude his victims, show them men’s magazines or pornography to get them aroused, then taught them to masturbate and give or receive oral or anal sex. All the while, they said, he put on a macho front, bragging about the women he had taken to bed, his political and social connections, and celebrity friends.

The allegations span three decades — from the mid-’60s to the mid-’90s. But only Will Hallman’s case is fresh enough for possible prosecution. The other known cases are too old.

When Norris was arrested — police used a battering ram to knock down his doors — officials carted off boxes of evidence from his home, including sex novelty toys, 159 Playboy magazines, and more than 40 film reels. Tarrant County sheriff’s investigators say they are in the final stages of formatting that material on modern media.

Jay Lapham, head of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s crimes against children division, said he expects investigators to conclude their work “in the next couple of weeks’’ before the term of the current grand jury expires at the end of June. “We will be presenting a case to the grand jury shortly after the sheriff’s department finishes their review of the material seized at his house,’’ he said. “It’s just a matter of getting through all the videotapes.’’

Investigators haven’t said what’s on the tapes and have thus far refused to share their contents with Norris’ attorney. “They’ve taken the position they’re not going to allow me to review [the films] until they’re finished,’’ Ware said. “Evidently, they’re not done yet.’’

While some of Norris’ accusers have expressed frustration with the pace of the investigation, District Attorney Tim Curry, in an apparent sign of how seriously he views the accusations, has assigned the head of his criminal division, Alan Levy, to assist Lapham in any prosecution.

Ware said he has not yet decided whether to ask that his client be permitted to appear before the grand jury. When Norris was questioned in the civil lawsuit filed by the Hallman family, however, he repeatedly invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination.

Some of the questions Norris was asked by Hallman family attorney William Kirkman during the Jan. 14 deposition — When did he first meet Will? How often had Will gone skiing at Norris’ lake house? — appeared innocuous.

Others cut close to the heart of the case. Had Norris ever shown Will sexually suggestive images? Had he ever removed his clothing, touched his sexual organs, or displayed a vibrator in Will’s presence? Had he done any of those things with other children? Or been questioned by law enforcement about “any act of indecent exposure, sexual offense, or any other act of moral turpitude?’’ Had Norris boasted to Will about women he had taken to bed? Had he sought religious counseling or psychological help for a “sexual obsession with young boys?’’ Did he warn Will to keep what happened at the lake house a secret? Did he ever admonish Will that “Dad doesn’t get to see your penis. Only Wirt gets to do that’’?

Norris refused to answer any of them. His rote response: “On the advice of my legal counsel, I am invoking my right to silence pursuant to the Fifth Amendment... .’’

However, when it came time for Norris’ lawyers to question the Hallman family, Will’s mother, Nancy, used the opportunity to expound at length about the emotional fallout that she said the abuse has caused her and her family. Nancy was questioned via what’s known as an interrogatory — written questions and responses. Her emotions at times seem in danger of setting fire to the impersonal white paper and black ink that convey her answers.

Asked to describe the damage to her family, Nancy poured her heart over four pages, often seeming to speak directly to Norris himself. “The resulting injuries and damage should be self-evident to you, Mr. Norris. Will is my only son. ... There is not a day that goes by that I do not reflect upon your act and how it has adversely affected our child, my life, and our family’s life. My life changed forever on the day Will told me that he had been molested. ...

“I was mortified that six years ago I had not seen what Wirt Norris was and that I had allowed Will to spend time with him. I felt that I had been tremendously stupid and naďve, unfit to protect my child. ... Will had been abused, at the age of 12, by a person who had been made welcome in my home. I have never felt such anger toward anyone or anything as I felt toward Wirt Norris for what he did to Will, but also for the betrayal. I cannot think of a word strong enough to describe the hate I felt toward Wirt Norris.’’

She tried to put herself in Will’s shoes. “One of the first things I said to Will on the day he told me about the molestation was, ‘You must have hated us for not protecting you from this.’ Will’s secret had poisoned his relationship with Bill, myself, our daughters. From the day Wirt Norris molested Will, Will felt that he ‘didn’t belong’ in the way he had before. He felt alienated and different from everyone around him. Because of his shame and anger, he had withdrawn from the love of our family. We had lost him, in many ways; and during these six years, we had not known what was happening or why.

“I was anguished that there might be no way to get back to normal after something like this. I had, and still have, many fears: that Will would never be able to love us again, that he would never be able to accept himself fully and consequently would struggle with constant depression. I worried that he would always doubt his sexuality.”

She also expressed concern about the stress on her husband. “Bill has had a heart angioplasty procedure and I have been afraid that further heart problems might develop as a result of his high stress level. Bill worries a great deal about Will’s present and his future [and about] the truly enormous monetary costs of Will’s various treatments for several years now. I ultimately have a fear of prematurely losing my husband because of the far-reaching effects of Wirt Norris molesting my son.

“No area of Will’s life’’ had not been damaged by Norris, she said. “Will’s inner troubles affected his ability to be successful at school. ... He had problems with concentration that were made worse by anxiety. ... Will began having physical manifestations of stress including frequent vomiting. ... He would throw up many times a day, to the point that he was throwing up blood. ... The most disastrous effect of Wirt Norris molesting Will has been the damage to Will’s mental health. Will has been using strong psychiatric medicines. ... [T]he side effects of these drugs have further damaged his physical health, especially the first anti-psychotic drugs which caused him to become obese. ... Another bad effect was the physical stiffness and rigidity. It became difficult for Will to play the guitar, which was his chief pleasure in life. ... Some medicines caused extreme nervousness. More medicines were added on until I felt like he was ‘drugged out of his mind.’ Will did not even seem like the same person he had been.’’

William Hallman, too, has been overwhelmed by emotions — and he apparently shared them, face to face, with Norris and other diners during a chance encounter at a Fort Worth restaurant.

Lawyers for both men confirmed that such an incident had happened but they declined to give details of the encounter. Those with firsthand knowledge are not speaking about it publicly, so details are fuzzy. For example, there are conflicting accounts about whether it happened in April or May, the name of the restaurant in which the exchange took place, and exactly what was said.

Those close to the two men have confirmed the gist of an account given to the Weekly via e-mail by a person who heard the story third-hand. “Bill Hallman ... told me he was eating at a restaurant in north Fort Worth,” the e-mail said. “He noticed that Norris was there eating alone.’’ At that point, “Mr. Hallman walked over to Norris and told him, ‘I told you what I would do if I ever saw you in public.’ Mr. Hallman then announced to all in earshot in the restaurant that Norris is a child molester.’’

Hallman’s attorney, Kirkman, said he didn’t know exactly what was said during what he described as the “short’’ exchange between the two men but described Norris as sitting in the restaurant “eating a chicken-fried steak like he didn’t have a care in the world.’’

Ware, Norris’ criminal lawyer, also said he could not provide a blow-by-blow account of the conversation but summarized Norris’ response. “Once again, he reaffirmed to Mr. Hallman that Mr. Hallman was completely wrong in his accusations,’’ Ware said. “As a 75-year-old man who is presumed to be innocent ... what he would like to be able to do is go out and have a peaceful lunch without these kinds of inappropriate scenes and confrontations.’’

The exchange between Hallman and Norris subsequently led to an exchange of letters between attorneys in the civil lawsuit. In a May 22 letter to Kirkman, Charles Aris threatened to seek unspecified sanctions against Hallman for approaching Norris, yelling at him, and trying to “to engage him in some form of demeaning discussion.’’

“I would ask that your client please refrain from contacting my client ... . [L]et me know whether you and your client will agree to this or whether you would like for me to seek intervention from the judge and sanctions for Mr. Hallman’s conduct,’’ Aris wrote.

In a June 4 response, Kirkman said he is “reasonably certain’’ that there would not be a repeat of the confrontation. He also said Hallman is “emotionally charged’’ and should be “judged as the father of a child whom he believes was sexually molested.’’

“It is difficult, if not impossible, for Mr. Hallman to separate himself from this event and the intense emotional feeling it generates in him. I am sure it is easy for us as lawyers to sit in our offices and pontificate about someone’s conduct and how wrong or right it is. ...[N]one of us have experienced what Mr. Hallman is experiencing — that is, his son was sexually molested by an adult male at least 50 years his senior who Mr. Hallman believes violated his and his wife’s trust in gaining access to their son.’’

Aris declined a request for an interview. A new lawsuit filed against Norris raises questions about who will be handling the case in the future. State Farm Lloyds and State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. filed suit against Norris in mid-May. Lawyers said the companies had carried Norris’ homeowners insurance since 1994 and an umbrella liability policy on him since 1991. In January 2003, the companies said they informed Norris that they would defend him in the suit filed by the Hallman family “but reserved their right to later deny coverage and withdraw from the defense of the case.’’ On May 16, they asked a judge to let them do just that. The attorney who filed the lawsuit, David J. Metzler of Dallas, would not comment. Metzler’s suit said Norris’ homeowner’s policy doesn’t cover intentional acts. “Certain conduct, such as sexual molestation of a minor, is so extreme or outrageous that the courts infer intent to injure exists as a matter of law,’’ Metzler wrote in court pleadings. “Insurance is intended to protect insureds against unknowns.... Losses known to the insured or losses already in progress at the time the policy is issued are not covered as a matter of law.’’

Late last week, yet another attorney, Andrew Trusevich of Dallas, filed a boilerplate denial for Norris in that case. Trusevich did not return a phone call.

Will Hallman’s only public comment thus far on the Norris case is a posting on an internet site during his last weeks at the Connecticut mental health facility. The site was set up by Tim Kaastad, brother of Rolf Kaastad, the 41-year-old California man whose allegations of abuse were the first brought to light in the Weekly’s January story. The site, www.wirtnorris.com, features news articles about the case, links to resources for abuse victims and a forum where victims and their families and friends vent.

In an April 21 posting, Hallman said he’s “getting better.’’

“I have stopped all drug and alcohol use and I have gotten stable on a medication,’’ he wrote. “It has been a long journey to get to where I am today, ready to go back into the outside world as a functioning and productive member of society.’’

For child abuse victims, leaving the past behind and getting on with life can be a long struggle — as one man, who identifies himself only as “Nixon’’ on the site, confided.

“I am so messed up ... yet I cannot change easily to overcome it. ... I still despise certain sex acts that are in the norm of heterosexual endeavors yet were fun with Wirt in the beginning. ... I trust no one completely. I cannot explain why I have never trusted others with my dirty secret ... I try not to find disgust toward him [Norris] but what else can I keep coming up with? At least I am not a predator and for that I am thankful. I try to take responsibility for me today.

“Lord knows others depend on me, so I do the best I can.’’

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