Five people who claim they were sexually abused by a former St. Paul schools custodian testified Friday that he assaulted them when they were children, took nude photos of them and touched their genitals multiple times.
The witnesses, two women and three men who are not being named to protect their identities, are now in their 30s, 40s and 50s. They testified that Walter J. Happel sexually abused them when they were as young as 6, 7 and 9. The graphic testimony was part of an evidentiary hearing for the two most serious criminal cases against Happel, who is scheduled to go to trial in March.
The alleged victims included a man who grew up near the Happel home, three of Happel's relatives and one of Happel's two sons.
His son, deeply conflicted, testified that he didn't want to be on the witness stand. He said that his father showed him pornography when he was a child and sexually assaulted him when he was between 7 and 10.
"I love my dad," he said. "This is very tough."
Happel, 62, is charged with various counts in eight separate criminal cases in Ramsey County District Court. Six of the cases involve students at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school, where Happel was a custodian before resigning in 2014 due to the criminal investigation into his alleged behavior.
The other cases involve a relative and the neighbor boy who testified Friday.
Happel's son testified that when he was in his early 30s, he witnessed a cousin confront Happel about alleged sexual abuse.
When asked by Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Andrew R.K. Johnson what Happel told the cousin, the son replied that his father said, "The statute of limitations is up."
One man, the neighbor boy, testified that he was sexually assaulted while staying overnight at the Happel home when he was 9 or 10. The man, now in his 30s, is a victim in the most serious case against Happel.
"I remember him sitting on me and making me have sex with him," the man testified.
Johnson asked him how long the assault lasted.
"Felt like forever," said the man. "I don't know."
"How did it make you feel?" Johnson asked.
"I think I shut my feelings off," the man testified. "I just went numb."
Cross-examination grew tense when one of Happel's attorneys, Thomas Donohue, asked the man if he felt any "stimulation."
"Are you asking me if I enjoyed it?" the man asked.
"Yes," Donohue said.
"No, I didn't enjoy it," the man shot back.
Several witnesses were called in the evidentiary hearing, which will allow Ramsey County District Court Judge Diane Alshouse to determine what evidence, if any, from their testimony can be admitted at trial as Spreigl evidence.
Spreigl evidence is information about other crimes or wrongdoing that can show a suspect's intent to commit the crime that is being prosecuted. Such evidence is sometimes considered prejudicial, because it can include incidents in which the defendant was neither charged nor convicted.
Happel has never been charged for allegedly assaulting the three relatives who testified Friday, nor for allegedly abusing his sons.
Johnson wants to admit Spreigl evidence in the two most serious cases against Happel to show a "common scheme plan" in Happel's alleged abuse of his relative and the neighbor boy.
Happel's attorneys, Donohue and Daniel McGarry, oppose the move. Donohue said that some of the witnesses were "subject to fabrication."
"The evidence is just so prejudicial that it doesn't come close to meeting that standard of probative value" for admission at trial, Donohue said.
A female relative of Happel's, now in her 30s, testified that when she was a child, Happel abused her and made her have sex with one of his sons.
Another of Happel's female relatives, now in her 50s, testified that he touched her genitals when she was 6.
The cases involving students do not allege sexual penetration. In one case, Happel allegedly pressed his genitals onto a student in the school cafeteria.
More witnesses will testify at another evidentiary hearing on Feb. 17. Happel's first trial is tentatively scheduled for March 9.