Sandy Kluessendorf will drive 300 miles round-trip from Menomonie, Wis., to Moose Lake Correctional Facility on Sunday, a drive she's made twice a month for more than five years.
Kluessendorf, 67, knows this could be her last Mother's Day with her son, Kurt. She has stage 4 lung cancer and pancreatic cancer.
"I don't have too many pity parties," said Kluessendorf, who talks with Kurt, 43, daily by phone. But she affirms that her son is innocent, and she's urgently trying to bring him home.
I often hear from readers who say they've been wronged. I extend sympathy, try to find them resources, move on. I've stayed with this one, growing more uneasy reviewing the facts of an admittedly complicated case.
Kurt Kluessendorf was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2005 for first-degree sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl. His mother is among many who question his conviction.
William Seabloom, who developed the nation's first adult male sex offender program in the 1970s, interviewed Kurt extensively in prison. Seabloom, of St. Paul, found "no indication that Mr. Kluessendorf has any sexual attraction to children [or] that he is guilty of any such behavior."
An assessment of the interview of the victim by a nurse, he said, found "a significant violation of standard procedures," including failure to seek other explanations for the child's responses. And, a convicted sex offender lived in the same Hastings trailer park as Kurt and the victim but was not interviewed.
Attorney Kyle White calls the case "extremely unusual." White appealed the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court, where justices upheld the verdict.
"With a lot of these guys who say they didn't do it, we say, 'Why don't you take a lie detector test?' and they don't," said White, of St. Paul. "But Kurt did take it and he passed."
On Oct. 1, 2005, Kurt said the child came to his door about 7:30 a.m. looking for her mother. He said he took her back to her house, which was empty. He said he found a coloring book for her and returned to his house.
The girl's mother arrived at his house 15 minutes later, "quite upset," he said, "but not with me. She glared at her daughter and sternly said, 'Come on, let's go.'"
'I'm an innocent man'
He said he confronted the mother about "abandoning" her child. He was arrested soon after. The Dakota County attorney offered Kurt a plea bargain of a year in jail. "I never contemplated the plea," Kurt said. "I'm an innocent man."
Jurors were shown a videotaped interview of the victim saying Kurt touched her. Kurt's first attorney said his innocence was their strategy, so Kurt didn't testify, nor did friends or family. Lie-detector tests aren't admissible in Minnesota courts.
Even if they were, Minnesota law states that a child's testimony does not need to be corroborated.
"It's human nature. People want to find someone accountable in a crime," said Kurt's estranged wife, also named Sandy. By coincidence, she works for St. Paul attorney Jeff Anderson, a national expert in child sex abuse cases.
"But pedophiles," she said, "don't wake up one day and say, 'Oh, I find prepubescent girls so attractive,' I do believe something happened to her," she said of the child. "I just don't believe Kurt did it. Kurt is in prison and there is a pedophile out there."
Many people emphasized to me the extreme challenges of interviewing children in sex abuse cases. Jennifer Anderson, associate director of Twin Cities-based CornerHouse, whose protocols have been adopted nationally, calls interviewing, "a really delicate balance that requires training."
"We want to ask kids questions in as indirect a way as possible." But really open-ended questions to children may be misunderstood, she said.
A spokesperson at Midwest Children's Resource Center, which conducted the interview in this case, said the center is "very comfortable" that the interviewer "followed protocol."
'Could not get off the bunk'
The Dakota County attorney's office deferred to the court file, in which the mother reported leaving her daughter alone briefly in mid-day, not morning, and found her at Kurt's house with her shirt tucked in, which was unusual.
In a prison interview in February, Kurt said he felt "desperate" during his first two years in prison. "I could not get off the bunk." He was put on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications, and ballooned to 310 pounds.
Then he began living, following the Hindu proverb, "Bloom where you are planted." Or, he said, "Don't let them take everything I've got."
He now runs five miles a day, five times a week. He's lost 80 pounds and takes no medications. Kurt, who has a business degree, tutors prisoners with learning disabilities. And he writes letters to attorneys, about 100 now, asking for someone to help him. And his family.
Last August, his depressed 22-year-old son, Nathan, tried to kill himself at his St. Paul Park house, then turned his shotgun on police. A SWAT team sniper ended the standoff, hitting Nathan in the stomach. Nathan sits in Washington County jail.
"You can't imagine how heart-breaking it is to not be there for him," Kurt said, "not to mention how I feel my tragedy helped put him in this state of mind in the first place."
He hopes for early release to visit Nathan and to help his mother, who raised him largely alone since he was 6. He's sick that she's blown through her 401(k) and surrendered her life insurance fighting for his innocence.
"My mom raised me to have the highest moral and ethical standards possible," Kurt said. "She dictated that if you work hard and play by the rules, you'll be rewarded."
He no longer believes that. He does believe that, without her, "I don't know if I could have survived this."
Sandy is bone tired, but hanging on. "I made him a promise that we'd get him out," she said. "Can you imagine giving up on your child?"