In 2013, a recovering methamphetamine addict with an extensive criminal history — including a charge for engaging in prostitution — was hired to run one of the largest chemical dependency treatment centers in the state.

The decision would have dire consequences. After being hired, Bruce Biddlecome threatened a female patient and coerced her to have sex with him at Douglas Place Treatment Center in East Grand Forks, Minn. Early in the morning on Christmas Eve of 2014, the woman awoke in her bedroom to find Biddlecome "petting her face and stroking her hair." After promising the patient an "early Christmas present," Biddlecome pulled down her shorts and sexually assaulted her, according to state and local law enforcement reports.

Biddlecome, 42, was sentenced to five months in jail for sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult, and now the patient is suing Douglas Place and its parent company for negligent hiring and supervision.

The incident underscores serious gaps that still persist in Minnesota's system for screening tens of thousands of caregivers and other staff who care for vulnerable adults and children at state-licensed treatment centers.

A long-touted plan for automating and improving criminal background checks is still being rolled out statewide nearly three years after the Legislature approved it. A spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Human Services said the rollout is nearly complete, and most providers should be on the new system by the end of this month. Meanwhile, fines for violations are often minimal.

In sworn depositions filed this week in Ramsey County District Court, executives for the treatment center's parent company, Meridian Behavioral Health of New Brighton, admitted they hired Biddlecome as executive director despite knowing about his guilty plea for prostitution. Biddlecome said Meridian's chief executive "thanked me for my honesty" when he confessed to paying $100 for a prostitute at a hotel.

"I was an open book," said Biddlecome, who also had a previous conviction for felony vehicle theft and a charge for misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon before he moved here from California. "I said, 'Look, there are some things in my background that you need to be aware of,' and they appreciated that." A spokesman for Meridian declined to answer questions about the case.

The new job placed Biddlecome in a position of authority at Douglas Place, an 85-bed residential treatment center. He could enter patients' rooms, take them on trips alone in his personal vehicle, and even change the surveillance cameras, records show.

After the assault, the patient told state investigators that Biddlecome threatened to send her "back to prison" if she did not comply with his demands for sex, according to a state investigative report.

Following the Christmas Eve incident, the patient left a handwritten note on her bed describing what happened and then provided police with a napkin with Biddlecome's bodily fluids. Police later made a match to his DNA sample, and staff found condoms when they cleaned out Biddlecome's desk, records show. State investigators concluded that Biddlecome had sex with the patient "on more than one occasion," and immediately disqualified him from working in state-licensed programs.

"It's clear that he … had unfettered power," said Roberta Opheim, state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities. "It would have been very hard for a client to fight against that level of power."

Prostitution sting

In a recent interview, Biddlecome denied that he threatened or coerced the patient and said Meridian officials never told him state law prohibits facility staff from having sexual contact with patients.

Biddlecome recalled signing a packet of documents at his job orientation, which may have included information about abuse of vulnerable adults, but said he never actually read them before signing.

"I should have known better but … I'm a guy and sometimes you're not always thinking straight," he said. "I knew what I was doing was unethical, but I didn't know it was something that I would be charged with — and would have to do jail time."

This was not Biddlecome's first encounter with the law. In 2012, he responded to a posting on advertising a "fun and relaxing time with a sexy and flirty girl next door." Biddlecome arranged a meeting with a woman who turned out to be a decoy police officer at a Days Inn in Maplewood, where he placed $100 on the nightstand and began to undress. Police officers entered the room and arrested him, according to a criminal complaint.

Biddlecome would plead guilty to loitering with intent to participate in prostitution, a misdemeanor. But that did not appear to dissuade Meridian from hiring him. In testimony in the Ramsey County lawsuit, Biddlecome said he told Meridian's president and chief executive, Fran Sauvageau, of the prostitution case. "[Sauvageau] said that thanks for telling him … but we wouldn't have to speak about it again," Biddlecome said.

The problems at Douglas Place went beyond the rape allegations. In a recent deposition, a former counselor described a facility that had become chaotic and unsafe during Biddlecome's tenure. Patrick Plemel said people were bringing drugs into the facility in pizza delivery boxes, and that others were entering the facility at night and taping drugs to the garbage dumpster. Plemel said no one questioned why Biddlecome was taking a female patient on unaccompanied trips outside the facility.

"It was a madhouse," Plemel said.

During a licensing review in March 2015, the state Department of Human Services cited the facility for 33 violations and placed its license on conditional status. The facility was fined $200 for each background study violation, a total of just $600, records show.

As for Biddlecome, who has a wife and two children, he said he is trying to rebuild his life and put the abuse conviction behind him. He works at an oil-change shop in St. Paul and has been "clean and sober" for more than 14 years, he said.

"I believe in second chances. I can tell you that I'm not seeing prostitutes, you know what I mean," he said. "You learn from your mistakes and your experiences."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres