For decades, Thomas Erickson's rural Nisswa, Minn., property was a magnet for boys.
They shot BB guns and played in tree forts on the regular sleepovers that Erickson hosted. One early guest, now 59, recalled how Erickson even let them help blow up stumps with dynamite and crash an old car into a tree for fun.
But according to criminal charges filed in Crow Wing County, the 69-year-old Erickson has admitted to police that he is sexually attracted to children and abused about 10 boys from the 1960s to the early 2000s. Authorities suspect there are more victims.
Erickson is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday, charged with four felony counts of criminal sexual conduct. He is free on $150,000 bail.
So far he's charged with abusing two boys, including one who says the abuse began when he was in the second grade around 1990. Another alleged victim estimated that Erickson abused him more than 50 times, starting when he was 7 or 8. Authorities began their investigation in August, when an alleged victim, now 28, came forward, saying he'd seen Erickson walking with some boys and feared he was abusing new victims.
Reached by telephone, Erickson declined to discuss the charges in depth, saying his attorney, Charles Halverson, advised him against it.
He acknowledged telling the Brainerd Dispatch in September that he'd made "big mistakes" about which he was "not proud," but said his actions weren't as bad as portrayed by the charges.
"I know why this is happening," he said Friday. "One of the parties to the case has a reason to be angry -- that's all I'll say."
Erickson said he anticipates answering the charges at trial. He has not yet entered a plea.
"It's a total shock when something like this happens," he said.
The 59-year-old who visited Erickson's property as a boy told the Star Tribune that once he learned of the charges, he gave a statement to police saying Erickson abused him and that he knows other victims from the same period.
"If he was doing this 50 years, he's racked up so many [victims] it would make [former Penn State assistant football coach] Jerry Sandusky look like a novice," said the alleged victim, who asked that he not be identified.
He said the Sandusky scandal prompted him to call the Brainerd newspaper about Erickson, only to learn that others had come forward and charges had been filed.
"I couldn't believe it," said the man. "After 50 years, they finally got him."
Hung around kids
The man said he was about 12 when he met Erickson at the Langford Park skating rink in St. Paul about 1964. He said Erickson, who would have been about 22, lived nearby with his parents and was an assistant Boy Scout leader in the neighborhood.
"We would go skating every night, and Tom hung out with the kids," said the man, who said he hoped his story would prompt others to come forward. "He told my mom that since there was no man in our family, he could teach us how to drive cars, carpentry or whatever -- the manly things."
The abuse began gradually, he said, with Erickson exposing himself, telling the victim to keep it a secret, and giving him presents, such as a 45 rpm record he wanted.
In the mid-1960s Erickson bought property in Nisswa, built an A-frame cabin and brought the victim and other boys there on weekends. There, the man said, Erickson began touching him sexually and asking the victim to reciprocate. He said the abuse continued until "maybe when I was about 15. I finally matured enough to know what he was doing wasn't right, and I quit going there."
He added, "He took a lot of kids from St. Paul up there. I know I'm not the only one."
While the number of potential victims is unclear, photographic evidence suggests that Erickson hosted scores of boys over the decades.
The charges say Erickson admitted to engaging in oral sex and mutual masturbation with boys and taking nude pictures of them, but said he destroyed the photos. At his property on County Road 13, police found "hundreds of photographs in Erickson's bedroom of children without clothing on their upper body, and photographs of children sleeping in bed," according to a search warrant.
About a week after that search, according to court records, a 43-year-old man called police to say that from age 10 to 12 he visited Erickson monthly. The man said Erickson forbade the boys who stayed with him from wearing clothes in bed or in the sauna. The man also told police that Erickson kept photos of naked kids in a hidden compartment in a closet.
Police returned with a second search warrant and seized photographs, documents say. Authorities have not disclosed what those photos showed.
Erickson told police he was a Scout leader and church youth group leader in Nisswa. David Trehey, head of the Central Minnesota Council of the Boy Scouts, said the organization checked its files for police and found no record of Erickson being a registered leader. To his knowledge, Trehey said, no Scouts or former Scouts have accused Erickson of abuse.
The Rev. Glenn Taibl of Lutheran Church of the Cross in Nisswa said Erickson is a member there but wasn't a youth group leader, to his knowledge.
"As far as whether or not he was in a position to compromise any of our youth, we're not aware of that occurring," Taibl said.
Abuse reported earlier?
The 59-year-old former St. Paul man, though appreciative that authorities are now pursuing the case, said he reported Erickson to Crow Wing County authorities in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and he's been frustrated that no investigation began at that time.
He said an officer told him then that the statute of limitations would prevent authorities from charging Erickson with abuse that occurred in the 1960s. The man said he'd lost notes of who he talked to and exactly when he first reported Erickson.
County Sheriff Todd Dahl didn't respond to requests for comment. Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston, whose department is jointly investigating the current case with the county, said his department has no record of an earlier report by the former St. Paul resident.
The statute of limitations in child sex abuse cases -- which sets the window of time prosecutors have to file a charge -- was only three years until 1982, when lawmakers started a series of reforms to extend the deadlines and even suspend the limitation period for unreported offenses.
As a general rule, Erickson couldn't now be charged with any child sex abuse that occurred before 1984, according to Jeanne Schleh, a retired assistant Ramsey County attorney and an expert on child sex abuse law.
But authorities say they still want to hear from any potential victims, because the information might help prosecutors. McQuiston said he suspects there are more victims.
"Some of [the] other names that were supplied as potential victims claimed that nothing happened to them, even though we suspect that something may have," McQuiston said. "Those people have decided for whatever reason that they did not want to discuss it or possibly bring up a negative time in their life that they have moved on from."
Staff writer Jane Friedmann contributed to this report. Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751