The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Churchby Lisa Davis
When Seattle attorney Tim Kosnoff agreed to listen to an eighteen-year-old man who claimed to have been molested by his/b>
This brilliantly reported, unforgettable true story reveals how one of the most monstrous sexual criminals in the history of the Mormon church preyed on his victims even as he was protected by the church elders who knew of his behavior.
When Seattle attorney Tim Kosnoff agreed to listen to an eighteen-year-old man who claimed to have been molested by his Mormon Sunday school teacher, he had no idea he was embarking on a quest for justice on behalf of multiple victims or that the battle would consume years of his life and pit him against the vast, powerful, and unrepentant Mormon church itself.
As Kosnoff began to investigate the case, he discovered that the Sunday school teacher, a mysterious figure named Frank Curtis, possessed a long and violent prison record before he was welcomed into the church, where he became a respected elder entrusted with the care of prepubescent Mormon boys.
Through Lisa Davis’s deft storytelling, two astonishing narratives unfold. The first shows how Brother Curtis ingratiated himself into the lives of young boys from working-class Mormon families where money was tight, and was accepted by mothers and fathers who saw in him a kindly uncle or grandfather figure who enjoyed the blessing of the church. Having gained the families’ trust, Curtis became fiendishly helpful, offering to supervise trips or overnights out of the sight of parents, when he could manipulate his victims or ply them with alcohol.
The other narrative is a real-life legal thriller. As Davis shows, Kosnoff and his partners tirelessly assembled the case against the church, sifting through records, tracking down victims, and convincing them to testify about Brother Curtis’s acts. What began as a case of one plaintiff turned into a complex web stretching across multiple states. Joined by what would become a team of attorneys and investigators, Kosnoff found himself up against one of the most insular institutions in the United States: the secretive and powerful Mormon church.
The amazing legal case at the heart of The Sins of Brother Curtis shows how the church’s elite, well-funded team of attorneys claimed the church was protected under the Constitution from revealing that Curtis had molested a number of Mormon boys. Yet Kosnoff and his devoted legal team (which included a female investigator adept at getting parents of victims to talk to her) succeeded in forcing the church to reveal that it knew about Curtis and ultimately achieved a successful settlement.
Emotionally powerful page by page, The Sins of Brother Curtis delivers a redemptive reading experience in which the truth, no matter how painful and hidden, is told at last and justice is hard won. This is a remarkable story, all true.
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Read an Excerpt
The basketball hoop in front of Billy Loyd’s house was the epicenter of the southeast Portland neighborhood where Billy and Manny Saban and Bobby Goodall and their various siblings spent much of the second half of the 1970s. No one remembers how it came to be there, but it remains there today, like a monument to lost boyhood, its chain-metal net hanging scrappily from the hoop on a pole stuck firmly into the concrete.
Manny lived around the corner, toward the Dairy Queen on Duke Street. Bobby lived a block or so from there. His backyard was connected to Billy’s by an unpaved alleyway underneath two big trees that conspired to create an umbrella of foliage, which is how they came to be best friends just before second grade. Kids gravitated toward each other in the neighborhood without need for formal structure or organizing. Play was instinctual. If there was a ball, it was tossed. When enough boys arrived, a game started.
On most days, the boys gathered at the hoop to shoot baskets or toss footballs across the street in the field that was technically a park, though the weeds had long ago swallowed up everything except an aging metal roundabout and the skeleton of a swing set. Things were like that here, where Portland meets a suburb called Milwaukie. Officially, this was the edge of the Lents neighborhood, a disregarded part of Portland that the city hadn’t annexed yet. Unofficially, and as far as anyone around here was concerned, the neighborhood was Felony Flats, a name bestowed by police officers some years earlier because of the concentration of criminals among the citizenry.
To the boys growing up around Duke Street, the world existed mainly west of 82nd Avenue and north of Johnson Creek Boulevard. They attended Joseph Lane Elementary School, an old brick building dating back to the 1920s that sat adjacent to the lush acreage of Brentwood Park—even in the poorest neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest, street-level decay is decorated with evergreens and rhododendrons. Families lived in small houses, what real estate agents might call cottages or bungalows somewhere else, with weather-beaten exteriors ringed by short cyclone fences, or in apartments with rusting barbeques on the porches. They shopped at small corner markets where shelves were crammed with one or two of everything and negotiated deals with neighborhood mechanics who fixed cars and motorcycles in their garages. Especially in the summertime, kids were gone all day, engaged in one or another adventure involving varying levels of criminal mischief or moneymaking schemes to fund the purchase of candy, cigarettes, admission to movies, or arcade games at the mall.
Few of the mothers worked regularly or more than part-time. Most were overwhelmed by too many children, a lifetime of disappointment, and, in many cases, bad men. They dulled the pain of broken promises and routine domestic violence with alcohol and drugs. Husbands and boyfriends came and went. Fathers were significantly absent. Sometimes it was better for a kid to be gone than get caught up in whatever was going on inside the house.
Word in the neighborhood was that Billy’s father had died on the job some years earlier. None of the kids really knew the details of the story, other than he’d been killed at work, which involved doing something on a bridge. The late Mr. Loyd had also left behind a mess of kids, three boys and three girls, more than could be easily managed by their mother. Added to that were some cousins who stayed periodically while their family reorganized. The Loyd house was considered among the best in the neighborhood, mostly because, despite the usual lack of adult supervision—the oldest teenage girl was, by default, in charge—there was always food. A kid could find loaves of bread, big bags of potato chips, and crates of bottled soda pop in the Loyd kitchen.
Bobby shared a house across the alley with his older brother, older and younger sisters, their mother, her boyfriend, and sometimes his son, who was a few years younger and thus often the unwitting victim of an array of pranks. (Bobby and Billy regularly dangled Bobby’s younger siblings by the ankles from the big tree that leaned over the alley.) Bobby’s brother, Jimmy, older by about three years, often stayed with their father in Yakima, Washington, but he was well known in the neighborhood. Jimmy enjoyed a certain status as one of the oldest boys in the immediate vicinity and therefore the first to get into significant trouble, his palpable anger having landed him in juvenile detention before he became a teenager. Plus, his sisters and, to some extent, Billy couldn’t seem to keep their mouths shut, so Jimmy had plenty of opportunities to fight.
Manny was the most recent addition to the boys in Felony Flats. His family had arrived in much the same way as most of their neighbors, having lost everything somewhere else. Manny’s given name was Stanley Jr., after the father who had left for another life in another state, but everyone called him Manny. He was ten years old when he moved into the small blue house with his mother, Raquel, his brother, Jeff, who was two years younger and Manny’s best friend, and their baby sister, Roseanna. For practical reasons, Manny’s father had taken their twelve-year-old sister, Janice, with him when he moved to Las Vegas. Stanley Sr. had managed to reach middle age without having learned to read or write well enough to function on his own without difficulty. He’d grown up in rural outposts and spent most of his youth working on farms. That wasn’t to say he couldn’t earn a living. When he worked, Stanley often made good money painting big structures like bridges. When he didn’t work, he drank, which generally got him in trouble. Stanley Sr. had spent time in prisons up and down the West Coast before he met Raquel, who already had three older children from a previous husband.
The Saban family had come to Portland from Grants Pass, Oregon, about 240 miles south. Grants Pass was still dominated by the timber industry then, and Raquel had worked at a cabinet manufacturer there to add to the income from Manny’s father’s painting business. They’d lived relatively well in a double-wide trailer on five or so acres they shared with a few cows, pigs, and a roving band of peacocks. Manny had liked their life in Grants Pass, but it ended when his parents split up. For a while, the kids had lived with Manny’s father in north Portland, which wasn’t too bad. But then he’d found opportunity in Las Vegas and passed them back to Raquel, which is how they all landed in the house on Duke Street. Financially, it marked a new low. Whatever other problems Manny’s father might have had, he’d managed to bring enough money into the house to buy clothes and shoes and groceries. In Grants Pass, the boys had BMX bicycles, nice clothes, and new sneakers. But there were no extras in Felony Flats. There wasn’t much of the fried chicken or meat loaf Manny liked. These days, Raquel served up rice and beans and tortillas, a staple of her Mexican heritage. She’d grown up in eastern Oregon, where her father had worked on the railroad, and had a lifelong relationship with poverty, interrupted by the brief periods of something resembling lower middle class that came along with each husband. Raquel was skilled at making something from nothing. Soon after she’d secured the house on Duke Street, and perhaps bolstered by the accomplishment, she had signed up for nursing classes at the nearby community college. The rest of the time she worked in one or another care home, feeding and cleaning up after the elderly and disabled. At home, she retreated into her bedroom and read books from the library or from school. And she cleaned the house. Regardless of what kind of chaos rained down on Manny’s family, they lived in what was widely regarded as the cleanest house in Felony Flats.
For a boy, no single possession was as important as a bicycle, perpetually tinkered with in yards and garages. A bike was freedom, the means to exploration, the passage to adventure. A bike could take a kid fishing in the creek beds and to buy candy at the corner store. A bike broke up the emptiness of long, warm days where there was no summer camp or vacation or trips to amusement parks.
Bikes also brought religion to Felony Flats. Young Mormon men wearing suits and ties and crisp white shirts glided through the neighborhood on ten-speeds, inviting people to church. Raquel listened to what they had to say about the Bible and God and a wonderful Mormon community where everyone helped everyone else. It was hard to argue the appeal when you had your hands full of kids and low-paying jobs. Raquel had been raised a Catholic and had taken her children to Mass earlier in their lives, but churchgoing had turned from sporadic to nonexistent here. Raquel was eager for spiritual comfort, though, and she invited the young Mormons inside.
Both of the missionaries, one short and one tall, had blond hair and blue eyes. They were young, clean-cut men who called each other “elder.” Manny was enraptured by the yarns they told, which he considered on the order of adventure tales. There were stories of how Mormon pioneer Joseph Smith, guided by an angel, had found the tablets that ultimately became the Book of Mormon, and read them using his special glasses.
They talked about Boy Scouts and other activities going on at the church, and how there were lots of other kids there. They were selling religion, to be sure, but the truth was that these young men brought more in the door than anything else going on in the neighborhood. Manny didn’t just want to go to church, he secretly wanted to become a missionary, to wear a suit and ride a ten-speed through the city, saving citizens and slaying sin.
After a few visits, Raquel packed her kids into their beat-up green Pontiac Bonneville with the white rag top and drove them the mile or two to the Linwood Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a Sunday service. The church couldn’t have been mistaken for anything else. It was housed in a redbrick building with a steeple on top, all surrounded by lawn with a wide cement path and two short sets of stairs leading into the building, where lots of people were milling around. Manny was glad to see that the young missionary men from the adventure stories were there. A man named Brother Hunt, whom Raquel had met earlier through a neighbor, greeted the family as they walked up the steps toward the building. Everyone seemed exceedingly friendly and wore nice clothes.
Shortly after that first Sunday, the missionaries, or Brother Hunt, or someone persuaded Raquel to bring her children to a baptism service at a larger Mormon building known as a “stake” house. Several Mormon wards comprise a stake, like a district. The ceremony featured men in robes reading from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. A large older man in a robe launched into prayer with a booming voice that began, “Oh God. . .” This startled Manny and Jeff and sent them into uncontrollable snickers, immune to their mother’s nudges and swats. When the service concluded, a flow of people smiling and shaking hands carried them out of the chapel. Brother Hunt had brought the loud man over to where Manny and Jeff were standing with their mother. His robe now gone, the man was dressed in a corny-looking outfit of gray polyester slacks and a baby blue jacket with white stitching. The ensemble reminded Manny of something the father on The Brady Bunch might wear, except that this man was considerably older. Manny’s eyes locked on the man’s large hands, the left one missing part of three fingers. Brother Hunt introduced him as Brother Curtis and then explained that Manny’s mother was having a hard time “controlling her boys.” Manny quickly put together that they were in trouble; the snickering in church, he figured, had sealed their fate. Fear slowly climbed up his insides. The large man was there, it seemed, as part of some plan for their future. “Bring them over,” he was telling Raquel. There was some talk about other boys and going places, and then Manny heard the words “straighten them out” and “get them out of your hair” and knew he was in a mess.
In the months and years that followed, the Mormon church became a semipermanent part of life in Felony Flats. Not long after Manny and his family had connected with the church, some of the other boys in the neighborhood began tagging along. The missionaries were enthusiastic visitors, and curiosity mixed with the simple desire to join the crowd swept down this part of Duke Street.
On Sunday mornings, some collection of Manny and his siblings, Billy, Bobby, and, when he was around, Bobby’s older brother Jimmy went to church in Raquel Saban’s Pontiac or in an old yellow school bus that the church sometimes used as a kind of shuttle. Brother Curtis was always there, and he periodically brought along one or two boys who lived near him. Brother Curtis didn’t drive, so they’d come on the city bus or catch a ride with another churchgoer.
Everyone in the Mormon church, regardless of age, attends Sunday school before going into the chapel for a religious service, known as a Sacrament Meeting. The boys were corralled into a room the size of a large office, furnished with a table, metal chairs with plastic seats and backs, and a chalkboard, all of which contributed to making the place smell like school. Books, games, and toys were scattered around. After Sunday school, the boys played tag in the hallways and then sat with Raquel in the sanctuary, where they engaged in a competition to see who could smack the other the hardest without getting caught. Brother Curtis was usually up in front playing some role in the service, which inevitably begat snickers from the boys. Religious lessons, lacking the appeal of the missionaries’ adventure tales, were quickly forgotten. Mostly, Manny and his friends went to church for the social aspect, the promise of something more than the stretch of Duke Street between their homes. Mormonism emphasizes the idea of a religious community, and church doesn’t stop on Sunday. There are activities scheduled for women, men, children, and teens throughout the week.
Manny and one or more of the others would go with Brother Curtis to the church building during the week for Boy Scouts and jump on a trampoline in the back. The boys didn’t get uniforms or badges, but they called it Boy Scouts, anyway, and Brother Curtis was their leader. He taught the boys how to cook and camp, and occasionally took them to movies or hockey games. In the winter of 1977, the famed Harlem Globetrotters came to Portland for an exhibition game, and Brother Curtis managed to get enough tickets to take a handful of boys from the church and the neighborhood, including Bobby, Billy, and Manny. Bursting with excitement, they rode the bus downtown to Memorial Coliseum and made their way through the throng of fans to their seats. The coliseum was also home to the Portland Trailblazers, but none of the boys had ever seen them or any other professional sports team play. It was enormous and loud. The lights dimmed. And for nearly two hours they were mesmerized watching Meadowlark Lemon and his teammates perform amazing stunts with a basketball, stunts that would be discussed and reenacted by young boys for weeks to come.
© 2011 Lisa Davis
Meet the Author
Lisa Davis is a seasoned investigative reporter who has worked as a senior writer at Village Voice Media publications in San Francisco (SF Weekly) and Phoenix, AZ. (New Times), and has written for various publications including The Arizona Republic, Phoenix Gazette, Business Journal and Slate online magazine. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College in Baltimore and a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism and urban studies from San Francisco State University.
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