The former St. Paul Public Schools custodian who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing two boys and to peeking at a student using a bathroom is asking to withdraw his pleas.
Walter J. Happel, 65, filed a motion in May to withdraw pleas he entered in 2015, which resulted in a sentence of 10 years in prison. The move coincides with a lawsuit served on the school district by Minneapolis attorney Gary Manka alleging that the district knew or should have known that Happel was “a danger to children based on his conduct that dated back to at least 2003.”
“They did nothing,” Manka said Thursday of the district. “They did literally nothing until he was arrested. They knew or should’ve known that something was afoot or something wasn’t right. We kind of expect the school district to protect children.”
The school district issued a statement Thursday saying that it does not comment about ongoing or potential litigation.
Manka is representing an 18-year-old man, listed as “Doe #1” in court filings, in a personal injury suit alleging that Happel engaged in “unpermitted and repeated instances of sexual abuse and sexual contact” with him from 2011 to 2014 while he was a special-needs student at Linwood Monroe Arts Plus school.
The suit was at the center of a hearing Thursday that also touched on Happel’s attempt to withdraw his guilty pleas. “I didn’t do those things,” Happel told Ramsey County District Judge Timothy Mulrooney on Thursday.
Happel pleaded guilty to three of eight cases against him — four of 13 felony counts — in Ramsey County. He admitted to sexually abusing two boys (not students) in the 1980s and was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and second- and fourth-degree intrafamilial sexual abuse.
He also entered an Alford plea — which does not admit guilt, but admits that a conviction is likely, given the prosecution’s evidence — on an accusation that in 2014, he peeked at a 10-year-old student standing at a urinal at Linwood Monroe. Happel was a custodian there from 2004 until his resignation in 2014. He was convicted of surreptitious interference with privacy.
The other cases against Happel, which involved students at Linwood Monroe, were dismissed. They alleged that he peeked at boys in the bathroom, exposed himself and pressed his genitals onto one boy’s buttocks.
Happel’s petition for post-conviction relief said the pleas should be withdrawn “because they were not knowing, voluntary, or accurate.”
Mulrooney took the petition under advisement in May. No decision has been issued.
Michael McLaughlin, Happel’s attorney, said he planned to file an amended petition. “We’re still exploring the cases and determining the legal arguments,” he said.
Thursday’s hearing centered on a motion filed by Manka asking Mulrooney to release unredacted reports of the investigation into Happel. Manka said he received police reports from the Ramsey County attorney’s office, but they were so redacted it was impossible to identify Doe #1 and to investigate his claims.
Manka proposed issuing a protective order that would keep the reports confidential and require that they be returned or destroyed after his investigation. He said after the hearing that his client had hoped to mediate the issue with the district without a lawsuit, but the district “indicated that they had no interest.”
Manka said his client was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is undergoing therapy.
Happel told the judge that he was informed of the identity of Manka’s client and that he did not know the man. Manka has “no rights” to the police reports, Happel said. “I don’t remember having an encounter with this said person,” Happel said. “I was never charged with a crime for this person.”
Manka said after the hearing that he needs to see unredacted reports to determine whether his client was one of the boys in the criminal cases brought against Happel. Mulrooney expressed uncertainty about his jurisdiction over redacted reports but took the issue under advisement.
Happel began working for the 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 a bathroom. Allegations came to light in early 2014 when an 11-year-old Linwood Monroe student told a teacher that he was half-clothed in a bathroom stall when Happel allegedly peeked in and smiled at him.