Victims of former Kennewick teacher's sex abuse planning legal action

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KENNEWICK — Several boys who were sexually abused by their Kennewick High teacher believe the school district didn’t do enough to protect them and should be held accountable.

Some of William B. Pickerel’s victims, who are now adults, are working with an attorney to build a case against the Kennewick School District. Lawyer Jeff Kreutz with the Tamaki Law office in Kennewick said he anticipates filing a claim soon with the district. If the claim is rejected, a lawsuit can be filed.

“It is our claim that the district knew or should have known” what Pickerel was doing to students over 27 years, Kreutz told the Herald. “(The men) would like somebody to acknowledge that they were mistreated and were not protected.”

District officials said they haven’t received notice of any claim or lawsuit and declined to discuss potential litigation.

“We can’t respond to something that hasn’t happened yet,” said Robyn Chastain, district spokeswoman.

Pickerel, now 78, was a revered teacher and wrestling coach in the district when he molested dozens of boys on out-of-town trips to sporting events. The field trips were not school-sanctioned events, and Kreutz questions why they weren’t stopped since school officials and faculty members knew Pickerel was organizing the trips in violation of district policy.

The lawyer said Pickerel should have needed to get the approval of an administrator or the school board.

“If anybody would have stepped back and looked at it, the red flags were there, and they should have seen (them),” Kreutz said.

Pickerel pleaded guilty in King County Superior Court in 2008 for having sex with or inappropriately touching five Kennewick boys during overnight stays in Seattle.

Similar charges against Pickerel in Benton County Superior Court were dismissed as part of the plea deal. None of the abuse reportedly happened on Kennewick school grounds.

Pickerel was ordered to serve 10 years in prison. He cried at his sentencing, asking for mercy and saying he didn’t want “to die in prison” because he was in poor health with heart problems.

However, a Washington state Department of Corrections spokeswoman said Wednesday that because of his good behavior, he is set to be released after serving 5 1/2 years.

Pickerel will be free as soon as his “offender release plan” is final.

The plan calls for him to live in King County, where he will be on community supervision, said Department of Corrections spokeswoman Norah West. For now, he remains housed at Airway Heights Corrections Center near Spokane.

“It’s clear that a lot of these young boys — a lot of them are young adults now — are struggling still with what happened … and are having difficulties in their lives,” said Kreutz, whose firm was contacted last fall by a victim.

“At some point the victims have to have a beginning of their closure. A recognition that they did go through something terrible, and we acknowledge you and want to make it right,” he added.

Kreutz said the district has never offered counseling to the victims he’s spoken with.

Pickerel’s career with the Kennewick School District started in 1960. He taught English and history at Park Junior High School until 1969, when he moved to Kennewick High School to teach history and geography.

He retired in January 1998 but continued to work as a substitute teacher.

Pickerel was so beloved in the district that the annex building at Kennewick High was renamed in his honor in 1998. After the sex abuse allegations surfaced in late 2007, the district covered up the name “Pickerel Hall” and eventually permanently removed the sign.

Pickerel confessed to police that he typically would take three boys out of town and get a hotel room with two beds, so one boy had to sleep with him, Kreutz said.

And Pickerel acknowledged that this happened dozens of times throughout a year, including summertime, the lawyer said.

“It’s unthinkable how many victims are out there,” Kreutz said. He noted that Pickerel told police in the criminal investigation that there were so many victims, he couldn’t remember how many.

However, at his sentencing, Pickerel said officials were skewing the extent of his crimes because even though there were hundreds of trips, “on only a very small percentage did I misbehave.”

Kreutz did not disclose how many victims his firm is representing.

He said Pickerel was the typical sex abuse perpetrator in that he “focused on the weakest boys in the crowd,” boys from unstable or broken homes, who then became too scared and ashamed to talk about it.

He added that Pickerel’s case had “eerily similar circumstances” to the Jerry Sandusky case, though the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach got 30 to 60 years in prison for 45 charges.

Tamaki Law published an ad Wednesday in the Herald asking for people who believe they were victimized by Pickerel or have information about the sexual abuse to contact them.

Kreutz said they’re not necessarily looking to bring more victims into the legal action, but want to give people the opportunity to speak up and be included in the law firm’s investigation.

The attorney said Pickerel denied his request for an interview in prison.

After Pickerel was arrested, the district apparently hired a Tri-City law firm to investigate and talk to current and former school teachers.

Kreutz said that firm “prepared a significant and substantial report” and he’s requested the documents under the state Public Records Act, but district officials claim it falls under attorney-client privilege. Kreutz said under the law, that report no longer is exempt because the case against Pickerel was filed and resolved with a conviction.

He added that the district also has refused to release the report with the privileged information blacked out and has been slow to respond to other document requests.

“I get the feeling everyone is protecting themselves, but no one is caring about the dozens and dozens of victims,” he said.

Chastain said the district received requests for documents from Tamaki Law and some were provided as required under state law. Others, she said, were exempt from release.