Officials: Criminal charges against Michael Ritchie dismissed because of potential impact on victim

2013-01-20T22:00:00Z 2013-01-22T00:11:07Z Officials: Criminal charges against Michael Ritchie dismissed because of potential impact on victimMarisa Kwiatkowski marisa.kwiatkowski@nwi.com, (219) 662-5333 nwitimes.com

Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-day Times investigation into Michael Ritchie, a former region man who has worked with developmentally disabled children under a cloud of allegations pertaining to inappropriate relationships with the youths he was entrusted with serving. He has not been criminally convicted. This story contains graphic descriptions some may find inappropriate.

 

By the time Michael Ritchie was transferred to a job at a Valparaiso-based facility for the developmentally disabled, he already had faced at least five allegations of misconduct involving children.

The 61-year-old has worked as a teacher, employee at a facility for the developmentally disabled, and volunteered as a youth leader with several organizations, according to employment, court and police records obtained by The Times.

He also has resigned from at least two local school districts amid accusations of inappropriately touching children, police and court records show. And he ran a website featuring pictures of young boys and has admitted having romantic fantasies about them, according to those records.

Yet Ritchie has never been convicted of a crime, is not a registered sex offender and still has a valid teaching license, according to police and Indiana Department of Education records.

A Times investigation, interviews and official records found a pattern of allegations that Ritchie developed relationships with boys from dysfunctional homes and who had developmental or learning disabilities.

When accusations of misconduct surfaced, he either was transferred to a new facility run by the same employer, or he left that employer and secured another job working with children, court and police records show.

It's a pattern that doesn't sit well with one former region grandmother.

"I am just totally disgusted," said Stephanie Bach, a former region resident whose grandson was one of Ritchie's alleged victims. "If (Ritchie) had been caught and prosecuted sooner, this wouldn't have happened to my grandson."

But Ritchie was not criminally convicted relating to any of the allegations leading up to the one involving Bach's grandson, police and court records show. Ritchie declined requests by The Times to interview him for this article.

 

Showered with gifts

A Valparaiso woman spoke with authorities in 2008 about concerns she had over her son's relationship with Ritchie.

The woman said she met Ritchie during the summer of 2007 when he was a coach for her then-12-year-old son's Special Olympics team, according to a letter from a Porter County juvenile probation officer to the prosecutor's office. The woman's son had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

She said Ritchie befriended her and offered her a job at In-Pact, where Ritchie worked at the time.

In-Pact is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing services to people with autism and other developmental disabilities. Ritchie worked at In-Pact facilities in Crown Point and Valparaiso at various times.

When the Valparaiso woman had trouble finding transportation, Ritchie bought a car and gave it to her with the understanding she would make payments to him, Valparaiso Police Department records state.

The woman said Ritchie scheduled her for evening shifts, then offered to help her son with his homework and tutor him while she was at work, police records state. She said Ritchie's relationship with her son progressed from day trips fishing or getting ice cream to sleepover parties with other children at Ritchie's house.

The woman said she became concerned when she noticed a change in her son's attitude and read text messages in which Ritchie told the boy his mom didn't care about him and wasn't interested in taking care of him. She claims she later learned Ritchie and her son had shared a hotel room while they were in Indianapolis for a Special Olympics competition, police records show.

Michael Furnish, CEO of Special Olympics Indiana, said the organization never received any official complaints about Ritchie's conduct as a volunteer. Ritchie was involved with Special Olympics from 2007 until 2009, when he was placed on indefinite suspension for facing criminal charges relating to allegations of misconduct against Bach's grandson. Ritchie remains suspended from Special Olympics, Furnish said recently.

Ritchie also frequently bought the Valparaiso woman's son gifts: new shoes every couple of weeks, hair dye, computer and Nintendo DS games, a digital camera and a bed to be kept at Ritchie's house, according to records from the Valparaiso Police Department.

The woman told her son's juvenile probation officer she started questioning the appropriateness of Ritchie's relationship with her son. She claimed she told Ritchie she didn't want him buying any more gifts for her son, nor did she want them spending so much time together, police records state.

However, for Christmas 2007, Ritchie bought her son a Nintendo Wii system, laptop, bike, clothes and other items against her wishes, according to police reports. She told police she warned Ritchie not to have any more contact with her son.

When the woman told her son to stop communicating with Ritchie, he became angry and ran away twice — both times to Ritchie's house, police records state. She reportedly sent her son to his father's house in Ohio to end his relationship with Ritchie.

The woman reported her concerns to Valparaiso police and a Porter County juvenile probation officer, but her son denied having an inappropriate relationship with Ritchie. No criminal charges were filed in that case.

Meanwhile, a former Indiana resident said Ritchie was becoming increasingly close to her teenage grandson who lived at In-Pact's group home in Valparaiso.

 

'Something really isn't right'

Stephanie Bach told The Times she placed her then-15-year-old grandson at In-Pact in 2004 because she wanted to make sure he had proper long-term care in case she lost her battle with cancer.

Her grandson — who has been diagnosed with Down syndrome and a congenital heart defect — initially thrived in the Valparaiso facility, she said during a civil lawsuit and later repeated to The Times. Bach said he would run up and hug her when she picked him up for weekend visits, nearly knocking her over.

Ritchie was transferred to the Valparaiso facility a few years after Bach's grandson moved in. Bach said she initially was impressed by Ritchie. He seemed mature and capable of handling things in the In-Pact group home, she said.

But six months after Ritchie's arrival, her grandson became more withdrawn and reserved.

"I thought, something really isn't right," Bach recalled.

As time went on, Ritchie stopped notifying her about her grandson's major medical appointments or family night dinners at the home, Bach said. Ritchie also took her grandson on overnight trips and bought him presents — a TV, PlayStation 2, movies and more, she said.

During a visit in 2009, Bach said her grandson stood in her bedroom doorway with a confused, strange look on his face. He started talking about Santa Claus and PlayStation 2 and pointing at his buttocks, she told The Times in this account:

"What?" Bach said she asked him.

"Pee pee," he responded.

"Pee pee in the back?" she asked.

"Yeah."

"Someone touched your butt?"

"Yeah, Michael," the boy said.

"He touched your back with his pee pee?" she asked.

"Yeah."

"Why?" she asked.

"Hulk game," the boy said.

Bach said the conversation continued, with her grandson saying he "worked" in Ritchie's lap in return for gifts.

 

A sickening feeling

Bach said she was horrified and didn't know what to do.

"I didn't know whether I should quit my job," she said. "I was just kinda stuck. It was a sickening feeling in my stomach."

Bach said she knew her grandson had hernia surgery scheduled within a few weeks, so she sent him back to In-Pact while she figured out what to do. She didn't report the allegations to In-Pact, Ritchie or anyone else.

Ritchie told Bach he would be there for her grandson's surgery in Indianapolis, she said.

Bach said she told Ritchie not to attend, but when she and her grandson arrived at the hospital, Ritchie was there and had already registered her grandson, listing the In-Pact home — not her residence — as the emergency contact.

The morning of the surgery, Bach said she fell asleep in the parents' lounge. When she woke up, Ritchie was there and told her he already had checked in on her grandson, Bach said.

While her grandson recovered in the hospital, Bach contacted a nurse at the hospital's Down syndrome clinic about allegations of sexual abuse her grandson had made about Ritchie. The nurse contacted a hospital social worker, who contacted the Porter County Sheriff's Department, Bach said.

Bach said she removed her grandson from In-Pact upon his release from the hospital. She brought him home the night before his scheduled release to avoid Ritchie, who showed up against her wishes to try to bring her grandson back to In-Pact, she said.

Bach's grandson later was interviewed by police and adult protective services. He told them Ritchie had sex with him in an office at In-Pact and called it playing "Santa Claus," court records state.

The grandson told police Ritchie also played the "game" with another resident at the facility. Bach's grandson said he told another In-Pact employee about the game, but that employee just told the boy to sit on the couch, court records state.

In-Pact Executive Director Herbert Grulke declined requests to comment for this article. Ritchie also declined to speak with The Times.

During his first interview with police, Ritchie denied any wrongdoing, according to police records.

 

Fantasies and charges

While investigating the allegations against Ritchie, Porter County Detective Sgt. Steven Rose received a call about a suspicious website, Porter Superior Court records state.

The site consisted of photo albums of pictures of small boys, most of whom wore underwear or Speedo swimsuits, court records state. It was registered under Ritchie's name.

Rose interviewed Ritchie again. This time, Ritchie admitted having sexual fantasies about young boys his entire life, court records state.

He said he posted photos of boys for people who "like to see boys happy and smiling" and because they enjoy the companionship of boys, according to court records. He described his type as 12 to 13 years old, slender, with long hair and a nice tan, court records state.

Ritchie admitted fantasizing and masturbating while thinking about a young boy who was living with him at the time, according to the court records. He also referenced various allegations that have been made against him involving inappropriate conduct with children, court records state.

Ritchie told police his romantic fantasies of children made him work harder to take care of them. He told Rose he could "fight the temptations that he has for the boys," court records state.

In-Pact fired Ritchie shortly after his interview with Rose, agency records state.

Ritchie was charged Oct. 7, 2009, with felony criminal deviate conduct and felony sexual battery, Porter Superior Court records show.

 

Horrifying realization

When Michele Bates, of Hobart, read a newspaper article about the criminal charges leveled against Ritchie, she said she was horrified.

She said her son had not been the same since he left In-Pact's Crown Point facility earlier in 2009. He had nightmares and was obsessed with rubber gloves and Santa Claus, she told The Times, repeating information she shared with police and during proceedings in a civil lawsuit.

Bates said she called In-Pact and asked whether Ritchie was the same "Mike" who had been working with her son.

Initially, In-Pact refused to answer Bates' question, she said. Bates said it wasn't until she threatened to call the Porter County Sheriff's Department and explained that her son would need a sexual psychological evaluation that the employee put her on hold, Bates said.

The employee came back on the phone in tears, Bates said.

"I'm so sorry, Michele," she remembers the employee saying. "I'm sorry. It is the same guy that was working with (your son)."

Bates called the Porter County Sheriff's Department to report her concerns. They referred her to the Crown Point Police Department because of the location of the facility where her son lived.

Bates and the Crown Point detective handling the case differ over what happened next.

Detective Sgt. Norm Isaacs, an 18-year veteran of the Crown Point Police Department, said a lack of physical evidence and witnesses hindered Bates' son's case against Ritchie. He claims the case stalled when he did not receive cooperation from the family or Michele's attorney and when they refused to allow Bates' son to be interviewed by police.

Bates said she never refused to let her son be interviewed. She claims Isaacs told her he couldn't help because her son is mostly nonverbal and wouldn't be able to speak at trial.

"I was with her 110 percent," Isaacs said of Bates. "If there was anything wrong, I was on the side of the victim. It was closed because I didn't have anywhere else to go."

Isaacs said he would reopen the investigation if Bates would allow her son to be interviewed. She agreed, and the teen was interviewed in September.

But by this time, the statute of limitations in the case had run out unless Bates' son could tell police he was penetrated, officials said. The teen did not do so.

Isaacs presented his case to the Lake County prosecutor's office, which he said declined to file criminal charges against Ritchie because of a lack of evidence. Isaacs said he notified police in Elkhart, where Ritchie now resides, in case they receive any complaints about him.

Bates said she is devastated the man she believes victimized her son hasn't paid for his crimes because her son can't articulate them.

"He's still a human being," Bates said of her son. "He still has legal rights."

Meanwhile, Stephanie Bach's pursuit of justice for her grandson hit its own roadblock in Porter County.

 

Damage

After nearly two years of pretrial proceedings, Porter County prosecutors dismissed their criminal charges against Ritchie in June 2011.

At the time, Deputy Prosecutor Cheryl Polarek said her office believed Ritchie abused Bach's grandson and believed it could be proven at trial — but also concluded it was not in the victim's best interest to testify.

Bach said her grandson told her he wanted to put Ritchie in jail.

"After two years of going back and forth, it's unconscionable," she said. "The prosecutor's office royally screwed it up."

Porter County Detective Sgt. Rose, who handled the investigation, no longer works for the Sheriff's Department and could not be reached for comment. Bach said Rose did a great job handling her grandson's case.

Porter County Prosecutor Brian Gensel said his office was told by a therapist that Bach's grandson would be damaged psychologically if the case went to trial. Prosecutors decided to dismiss the charges to keep Bach's grandson from suffering more trauma.

"We didn't want to harm him anymore," Gensel said. "Unfortunately, that's the decision we were left with."

Gensel said his office was put between a rock and a hard place. He doesn't believe prosecutors will ever refile the criminal charges against Ritchie.

"We don't know what would change to make the case any less traumatic for the victim," Gensel said. "Those are the ones that keep us up at night."

 

Money isn't enough

When their attempts to have Ritchie criminally prosecuted failed, Bates and Bach filed a civil lawsuit against Ritchie and In-Pact Inc. in June 2011. They argued the nonprofit breached its duty by failing to provide for their loved ones' care and safety, Lake County Superior Court records show. The women also claimed In-Pact failed to supervise and protect the boys while they lived in the nonprofit's facilities.

Both boys and their legal guardians suffered trauma, emotional distress and mental anguish, according to the complaint.

In-Pact and Bates and Bach settled the lawsuit for $1.1 million in December 2011, Lake Superior Court records show. The nonprofit agreed $475,000 would be placed into special needs trusts for each of the boys' care and $75,000 would be paid to each of the women for their claims, according to the settlement agreement.

But money isn't enough to satisfy Bates' and Bach's desires for justice, the women said.

Bach said she wants to see Ritchie's name on the sex offender registry so he can't be hired by other school districts or facilities that work with children.

Ritchie still has a valid teaching license, Indiana Department of Education record show.

"It feels horrible," Bach said. "This man is out there, he has no record. ... (My grandson's) best interest would have been to know that his offender was put and kept behind bars."

Bates said she alternates between anger and sadness over what happened to her son. He still has nightmares and has attacked family and school officials, she said.

"I want Lake County to open up a case and go after (Ritchie) — not only for (my son) but for the other boys he's hurt," Bates said. "I want justice. I want to go in front of juries. I can vouch for what happened to my child."

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