A University Place man was able to volunteer as a junior high school wrestling coach and get a job at the state's Special Commitment Center for dangerous sex offenders despite being convicted in the 1970s of sex crimes against children, the News Tribune has learned.
David James O'Connor's previous convictions for indecent liberties in Lewis County might not have been divulged to people running a background check on him because a judge dismissed the convictions after he completed sexual deviancy treatment at Western State Hospital, court records show.
As a result, O’Connor’s 1977 convictions do not show up in the Washington State Patrol’s criminal database, which is frequently used by school districts and employers running background checks on potential volunteers or job candidates.
O'Connor volunteered as an assistant wrestling coach at Curtis junior and senior high schools from 2003 to 2007 and has worked for the state since 1985, most recently as an administrative review hearing manager at the Special Commitment Center where he earns $55,000 annually.
O’Connor, 60, was charged last week with four counts of child molestation. Two men, now 22 and 23, said O'Connor inappropriately touched them during strength-training exercises when they were junior high wrestlers in 2005.
Pierce County prosecutors dropped the charges against O’Connor, who had pleaded not guilty, on Wednesday after determining the statute of limitations had run out on those allegations.
He was released from jail Wednesday evening. Attempts to reach him for comment Thursday were not immediately successful.
University Place School District Superintendent Patti Banks said this week she was not sure if the district ran a background check on O'Connor before allowing him to serve as a volunteer coach. He had children attending school in the district at the time.
"We cannot find a record of a criminal background check on Mr. O'Connor," Banks said. "However, if we had, it would not have turned up anything, as his current (State Patrol) report contains only the current arrest."
O'Connor has been a Special Commitment Center employee since July 1, 2005, said Mindy Chambers, a spokeswoman for the center.
Records with the state’s Personnel Resources Board show that O’Connor hired on with the state in 1985 and previously worked as security operations manager at the Special Commitment Center.
He was fired in March 2012 after subordinates said he “had intruded on or touched subordinate staff in ways that made them feel uncomfortable,” Personnel Resources Board records show.
“A number of staff expressed concerns with appellant touching them or getting in their personal space but indicated that when they told the appellant to stop he did not repeat the behavior,” those records show. “The incidents described included touching or rubbing the staff on the shoulder, touching or attempting to touch staff on the face or stomach, feigning tripping to rub up against a person and encroaching on individuals’ personal space.”
O’Connor argued that those complaining against him were upset by a recent staff reorganization at the Special Commitment Center and the fact they were asked to do extra work. Their complaints were retaliation, he argued.
The Personnel Resources Board decided O’Connor had committed the alleged behavior but ruled dismissal was too harsh a penalty. The board ordered him reinstated to a position that “represents a 15-percent reduction in salary and that does not have supervisory responsibility of subordinate staff.”
Chambers said Special Commitment Center officials would be reviewing O’Connor’s arrest last week after two young men came forward to say O’Connor sexually abused them when they were wrestlers at Curtis Junior High School in University Place.
“If an individual who works at the Special Commitment Center is arrested, we do a review of the situation before making a decision on whether that individual will return to work,” she said. “We will do that in this case. At this time, I do not have the timeline for that review, or a decision.”
Chambers could not say if DSHS knew of O’Connor’s 1977 conviction for sex crimes before the agency hired him.
The News Tribune has filed a public records request for his personnel file, but those records were not available for review Thursday.
In 1977, O’Connor, then 23, was charged in Lewis County with three counts of indecent liberties and two counts communication with a minor for immoral purposes, court records show.
Charging documents indicate he had sexual contact with three kids under the age of 14 and talked to two others under the age of 17 for sexual purposes. The documents do not spell out the circumstances of the contact.
O’Connor ultimately pleaded guilty to two counts of indecent liberties, the records show.
Superior Court D.J. Cunningham declared O’Connor a sexual psychopath “not safe to be at large” and ordered him sent to Western State Hospital for treatment. Cunningham also ordered O’Connor to have no contact with children under the age of 15 without the supervision of another adult.
Cunningham deferred imposing sentence for five years to give O’Connor the chance to complete his treatment.
In November 1981, O’Connor petitioned the court to change his “plea of guilty to not guilty, be discharged from probation and that all proceedings in this case be terminated,” court records show.
State officials, including his probation officer, certified that he had “successfully completed all phases of the Sexual Psychopath Program at Western State Hospital” and complied with Judge Cunningham’s previous requirements.
Lewis County Judge David Draper signed that order on Nov. 13, 1981.