Carlson sexually abused several children, victims tell state police

Posted Aug. 01, 2012, at 12:07 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 01, 2012, at 9:57 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The Rev. Robert Carlson sexually abused several children over the last four decades and groomed them to be his victims, according to people interviewed by the Maine State Police during a now concluded investigation into allegations leveled against the late community leader.

“There clearly were victims of sexual abuse that indicated that Bob Carlson was their abuser,” Lt. Christopher Coleman, commander of the Maine State Police’s Major Crimes Unit for the northern part of the state, said Wednesday. “It appears that it occurred over many years and it caused a lot of trauma to many people.”

Exactly how many children fell victim to Carlson is not known, and it is likely that other child sex abuse victims chose not to come forward, Coleman said.

Carlson was a longtime religious and civic leader who committed suicide by jumping from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge on Nov. 13, 2011, shortly after learning detectives were looking into allegations of sex abuse involving him and a boy.

To protect the identity of the victims, details about what Carlson did to the children, many of whom are now adults, were removed entirely from a lengthy state police report on the investigation released Wednesday, Coleman said.

The report was issued “to allow the public to know what happened [while] protecting their privacy,” the lieutenant said, referring to the victims.

While the victims’ names, ages, genders and the sexual abuse details are gone, what is clear in the 104-page report is that several people questioned Carlson’s behavior toward young boys over the years but few took action.

In this and other respects, the Carlson investigation is similar to the child abuse investigation of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who recently was convicted of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.

State police detectives began their investigation on Nov. 10 at the request of the Penobscot County district attorney’s office after that office received an anonymous letter stating Carlson “sexually abused a young boy several years ago” while he was the pastor at East Orrington Congregational Church.

“This boy is now a grown man and they still have a secret relationship,” the unsigned letter stated.

That letter was sent by a friend of one of Carlson’s victims shortly after the Sandusky story broke, Coleman said.

Family members of the Orrington boy, who is now a 52-year-old man living in Bangor, said Wednesday they are relieved the investigation is finally over.

“The fact that they’re finally saying that there was more than one victim is a relief,” the victim’s sister said. “I think that devastated my brother the most. He thought he was alone.”

The state police report includes interviews with at least 18 people, including Carlson’s victims. Also interviewed were the former president of Husson University, a Penobscot County sheriff’s deputy and detective, a Bangor police officer and a therapist who treated some of Carlson’s victims. They said they had either received information about or witnessed Carlson engage in criminal or inappropriate sexual behavior over the last four decades.

The therapist, who is not identified, said “there were at least half a dozen victims,” the state police report said, and “other staff members [at the same treatment facility] were working with victims as well.”

Carlson helped found and was president of Penobscot Community Health Care, leading the charge to provide those less fortunate with health care and dental services. He also was a founder of Hope House, a Bangor shelter for those with drug and alcohol addiction.

He “had full access” at the therapist’s treatment center, and after Carlson took part in a staff meeting one day, “administration told Bob that he was no longer welcome at the facility,” the report said. No dates are given to indicate when this happened.

The therapist “advised that monetary control or influence was part of Bob’s control over some of the victims” and “that there was a grooming process [that] occurred with the victims.”

Carlson was a longtime church leader in Orrington who had served as chaplain for the Bangor and Brewer police and fire departments, the Penobscot County Jail and Husson College, now Husson University.

Former Husson University President William Beardsley, who is now commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, told detectives that he got two calls regarding Carlson. The first call was in 2005 from a minister friend in Vermont who said “Bob Carlson was not who he appeared to be” and warned Beardsley to keep an eye on the volunteer chaplain, who at the time worked with the Husson football team.

“Commissioner Beardsley said his concern was Husson and he asked if anything had happened at the school,” the state police report said.

The caller said the information was second hand and that he only wanted the college “to be sensitized to the situation with Bob,” it stated.

After the Vermont call, Beardsley said “he was left with the impression that Bob Carlson may have homosexual tendencies.”

Beardsley got a second call about Carlson in 2007 or 2008 from someone who “reported that they had information that Bob had participated in a sexual relationship with someone years ago” and who demanded that Beardsley confront Carlson.

Beardsley told detectives that he questioned Carlson, who “reported that he had never done anything unlawful.” However, “shortly after that Bob submitted a written letter of resignation stating that he was busy with other projects … and that he was done at Husson,” the report said.

The Bangor Daily News learned that Husson was going to be included in the report and contacted Beardsley two weeks ago.

“To this day, I have absolutely no knowledge of Bob Carlson doing anything inappropriate or illegal at Husson University,” the former college president said July 19.

When asked if he ever got a call from anyone who reported child sexual abuse by Carlson off campus, he responded by saying, “I am sticking with my statement.”

The state police report said a source told detectives that “a previous official at Husson College knew about the abuse allegations” and that person said two students under the age of 18 were abused by Carlson.

Whether those students were interviewed by state police is not known, since the names of the victims were not released.

Beardsley, who in November declined to be interviewed by police, the investigation showed, agreed to speak with state police Sgt. Troy Gardner on July 11. At the end of the 25-minute interview, the former Husson president “reported that based on one of the phone calls he was left with the impression that Bob had a sexual relationship with a seminary student in Massachusetts.”

Again, there are no time elements to say when Beardsley believes that happened or if the seminary student was interviewed.

The first person to report concerns about Carlson’s behavior said he was ignored by his superiors. Former Penobscot County Sheriff Timothy Richardson has said he questioned Carlson’s actions in the 1970s after seeing Carlson in the control room at the Penobscot County Jail in the middle of the night with young boys, sometimes rubbing them all over, including their buttocks.

Richardson, who was a young part-time deputy, said he reported his concerns to two superiors, both of whom are now deceased. He said they were concerned but didn’t take it anywhere.

“They didn’t want to take it anywhere,” the former sheriff told the Bangor Daily News in November. “Back then they [religious leaders] were above suspicion of child abuse.”

More Penobscot County employees have come forward since the investigation began.

Ronnie Green, an investigator with the Penobscot County district attorney’s office who once was an employee of the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office, told state police investigators on Jan. 19 he “did some soul searching” about reporting “incidents that he had seen in the past.”

Green said he also had concerns in the 1970s about Carlson bringing children into the dispatch center in the middle of the night and that he stopped by Carlson’s house once and found “there were a couple of kids staying at his house” and his wife was not living there.

Carlson also asked Penobscot County Detective Tim Jameson, with Detective Rick Canarr in the room, “for some child pornography videos so that he could do some research,” Green said.

“Carlson was not permitted to view the images” and “this request was rather upsetting to Det. Jameson and Det. Canarr,” the state police report said.

Because Carlson is dead and there is no one to charge in this case, his home computer was not taken as evidence, Coleman said.

“His decision to end his own life stopped our effort for prosecution,” the lieutenant said. “At the time of his death, the focus of the interviews shifted.”

The focus shifted to providing a place for victims to have a voice, Coleman said.

Former Bangor police Officer Bob Welch, who now works for the University of Maine Police Department, told investigators that in 2004 and 2005 he “started noticing Bob Carlson’s vehicle parking in the dark areas of the parking lot” near his home.

“Then one time when Carlson was leaving the parking lot, Welch observed a young child with him,” the state police report said.

Welch contacted Bangor police Lt. Tim Reid “and they discussed putting up surveillance cameras in the area” but later changed their minds because “Carlson always parked in the darkest areas and they felt that because of this they would not be able to get any usable pictures. After the 8- or 9-month-period Carlson stopped using the parking lot.”

The middle half of the interview with Welch was removed from the released report, but it ends with Welch reporting “that within the last few years Carlson has been hanging out on Valley Avenue in Bangor near the Federal Building at night. This is a known hangout for the gay community.”

Carlson apparently had a secret life hidden from most of the people who knew his public face, including Penobscot County Sheriff Glenn Ross, a longtime friend and former co-worker at the county jail.

The day before Carlson committed suicide, Ross told him he was the subject of a state police investigation involving child sex abuse allegations. Ross stressed Wednesday that he felt compelled to tell Carlson about the investigation because Carlson was on the Penobscot County Jail’s board of visitors and the sheriff wanted to limit his access to the jail.

“My contact with Bob was not about advance notice. My contact with Bob was for one reason: to restrict his access to the jail,” Ross said. “I did the right thing for the right reason.”

Because of their three-decades-long friendship, many have asked Ross if he had any suspicions about Carlson.

“I can unequivocally say I did not know or witness any abuse,” the sheriff said. “I never in my entire career had any inclination of any of this occurring. I was stunned by it. It’s unfortunate and it’s sad.”

He said he’s glad the difficult case is now closed and added he hopes the victims will have the opportunity to heal.

“My heart goes out to them and their families [for] what they’ve been going through for years,” Ross said. “They have my sympathy.”

Carlson was an administrator at the Penobscot County Jail in the 1970s and later became its chaplain, a role he held for 32 years, until two years before his death.

State police detectives did not get a chance to speak with Carlson, 68, before his death.

Family members of the Orrington boy — who is now a 52 and living in Bangor — say Carlson befriended him four decades ago and they had an ongoing sexual relationship.

“My brother came clean to the family” a couple of years ago, the victim’s sister said.

She and other family members were interviewed by a state police detective the day after the investigation started and have been waiting for the results.

Another sister said Wednesday that she is relieved that the truth is out. When Carlson first died and she read it in the paper, she said she wanted to scribble “pedophile” all over the news article.

Her brother, who was severely distraught after Carlson committed suicide, is now in a better frame of mind, she said.

“He’s working on himself and he’s doing good,” she said. “There is no backwards now. Carlson can’t come back now and destroy him.”

In the hours before Carlson took his own life, he met up with the Bangor man who was the focal point of the child sex abuse investigation, according to the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office report into Carlson’s suicide.

The man was an 11-year-old boy when Carlson entered his life and began sexually abusing him, family members said. The Bangor Daily News is not identifying the man because he is a victim.

The last call made on Carlson’s cellphone was to the man, who told police they met for about 30 minutes at his Bangor residence around 12:30 a.m. Nov. 13.

“We believe he was the last one to see him” alive, Waldo County Chief Deputy Jeff Trafton said in January shortly after his department’s report into Carlson’s suicide was completed.

Carlson’s company car was found — running and with the radio on — in the middle of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge by a Bucksport couple around 3:55 a.m., the Waldo County report states.

“Amazing Grace” was playing on the radio and a neatly folded clerical robe was found in the back seat, the report says.

Waldo County sheriff’s detectives met with the Bangor man on Dec. 1. He prefaced the interview by saying he was under the influence of the synthetic drug bath salts when he met with Carlson on Nov. 13, Trafton said.

The Waldo County Sheriff’s Department looked into the circumstances of Carlson’s death and Maine State Police investigated the sex abuse allegations.

The state police investigation is now closed, Coleman said.

“At this point it’s closed, but if we had a victim who came forward and wanted their story documented, [it could be reopened],” he said. “We’re available to listen.”

The Bangor victim’s family said that over the years Carlson provided housing, transportation and money to their loved one.

“He groomed him and never let him go — all in the name of God,” one sister said.

“There never was a time, once Carlson was in his life, that he let him go,” she added. “Births, deaths, reunions, birthday parties, Christmas, funerals, hospital visits — he would show up, if not with my brother, within 15 minutes” of his arrival.

When Carlson first befriended the family and began abusing her brother, there was no discussion about calling police, she said.

“We were poor and it was scary,” she said. “I remember thinking we had to be good or the state would break us up. Plus, like anyone would have listened. People have seen things and thought it was wrong and they had positions of power and they didn’t do anything.”

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