His hands laced in front of him and his head cocked to the side, former St. Paul schools custodian Walter J. Happel answered questions listlessly at a court hearing Thursday where he pleaded guilty to sexually abusing his nephew.
"Yeah," he bellowed several times during the fact-finding portion of the hearing.
At one point, Happel's lackadaisical demeanor prompted Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Andrew R.K. Johnson to interrupt his line of questioning.
"Do you remember this or not?" Johnson asked.
"I haven't heard the rest of it," Happel said, flinging one arm out at the prosecutor.
The exchange came shortly after Happel admitted that in 1984 he fondled his nephew's genitals when the boy was 15, and pressed his genitals on the boy's thighs when the boy was 16.
In total, Happel, 63, pleaded guilty Thursday in three of eight cases against him — four of 13 felony counts — in Ramsey County District Court. He admitted to sexually abusing the nephew and a neighbor boy. He entered an Alford plea — which does not admit guilt, but admits that a conviction is likely based on the prosecution's evidence — on an accusation that in 2014, he peeked at a student standing at a school urinal.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi thanked the victims for "courageously coming forward."
In exchange for Happel's pleas, five other cases against him will be dismissed.
Happel, who will be sentenced May 7, also accepted a 10-year prison sentence. He must serve seven years before he is eligible for parole.
The term is an upward departure from sentencing guidelines from the time the crimes occurred.
Johnson also asked Happel about his abuse of a neighbor boy between 1986 and 1988, which led to the first-degree criminal sexual conduct plea. The boy would have been 9 to 11 at the time.
"Was there a time when you had sexual penetration with [the neighbor boy]?" Johnson asked.
"Yes," said Happel, who wore a red jumpsuit, a sign that he is being segregated from the general population at the county jail.
"Why don't you tell us about it?" Johnson asked.
"What?!" a startled Happel exclaimed. "I have to?"
Happel admitted that he forced the boy to have sex with him.
"He was certainly too young to consent, you understand that?" Johnson asked.
"I do now," Happel said.
Several family members testified at two hearings earlier this year that Happel had also sexually abused them. The only relative he has been charged with abusing is the nephew in Thursday's plea.
Six of the court cases against Happel involved students at St. Paul's Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school, where he was a custodian from 2004 until his resignation in 2014.
He is accused of peeking at boys in the bathroom, exposing himself and of pressing his genitals onto a boy's buttocks.
His Alford plea involves a February 2014 case in which he used a urinal near a 10-year-old student. Johnson asked Happel if he "repeatedly" looked at the boy.
"I looked over at him, but I don't know about repeatedly," Happel said. "I just said, 'Hi.' I don't know if that would be before, during or after."
Happel began working for the school district in 1984. Court and school records show that for years, several school staff — from principals to teachers to human resources personnel — had varying knowledge of some of the allegations against him.
In 2003, Happel was disciplined for giving candy to Roosevelt Elementary School students, and for giving a camera to a boy he met with in the bathroom.
The former principal and assistant principal of Linwood Monroe were charged with failing to report one allegation to police, but those cases were later dismissed by a judge for lack of probable cause.