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'An awful secret': A Minnesota family's struggle to be heard

DULUTH—Relatives found it odd that sisters Katye Stolp and Kendra Alfords slept in a bedroom closet when staying over at their uncle's home in the late 1980s.

But they did it to feel safe. If their uncle opened the closet door, they'd be alerted.

Both Stolp and Alfords had awoken to find their uncle standing silently next to the bed during past visits. They did not want a repeat of what they would later tell an investigator happened next.

"I can remember what the bedding looked like. I can remember what the room looked like. Everything about that situation is always with you," Stolp, now 36, told the Forum News Service. "He took an innocence away."

It took decades for the sisters to come forward with allegations their uncle sexually abused them as children — allegations that echo among two generations of their family. Yet after authorities heard their stories and were handed confessional-style letters written by the suspect to the alleged victims, the case appeared to stand still for two years.

It was like "no one wants to listen still," Alfords said.

Delayed action

Urged by a relative, Stolp, Alfords and two other family members went to authorities in 2016.

All four told their accounts to an investigator from the Itasca County Sheriff's Office. Then they waited. The family, mystified by the state's complicated statute of limitations, remained unsure if the alleged crimes happened too far in the past to be prosecuted.

Stolp and Alfords say they were abused between 1986 and 1990.

Their father, Allan Maasch, and their aunt, Barbara Maasch, also made abuse allegations against the same man, which date to the 1960s.

After two years passed since talking to the investigator, the family felt like time was running out. It was. If charges were not filed within three years — for those whose allegations fell within the statute of limitations — the case would be closed forever.

The investigator, Itasca County Sheriff's Office Lt. Mark Weller, said the delay can be attributed to how many decades had passed since the alleged crimes and determining which laws might apply.

Itasca County Sheriff Vic Williams said as much in a February interview, but also said that if enough evidence has been gathered, that determination is for the county attorney to make.

"We take all (cases) seriously," Williams said. "I can give you the song and dance about how we're all buried in work, but still, we have a responsibility to people to get them answers."

After a reporter's call to set up an interview, Williams said "There was a lot of conversations taking place in a short period of time." Court documents later confirmed that Weller interviewed the suspect a few days after Williams, his boss, was contacted by the Forum News Service.

On March 30, nearly 26 months after the family brought its case to the authorities, Donald Jamsa, 81, of Grand Rapids, was charged with three counts of felony criminal sexual conduct related to Stolp's and Alfords' allegations.

Weller determined that for "any offense that would have occurred in the 1960s," it was too late to prosecute, according to charging documents.

Weller last week would not say exactly when he made that determination, but he did say that the people making the allegations, Barbara Maasch and Allan Maasch, should have been notified by the county's Victim Assistance Program.

The siblings did not receive anything explaining the statute of limitations had expired until a letter, dated April 9, arrived last week.

"Because of this expiration, I am not able to proceed with criminal charges for those acts," Matti R. Adam, an attorney with the Itasca County Attorney's Office, wrote in the letter. "Please know that the thorough investigation that included your statement about Donald Gene Jamsa's actions towards you were taken into consideration in my final charging decision with respect to the other victims."

Jamsa appears in court for the first time Monday, April 16.

The complaint says he was a teacher on the Iron Range for many years, including a stint at an alternative school for at-risk youth. It also says Jamsa admitted to writing the letters submitted by family members to the sheriff's office.

In one letter Jamsa wrote: "I do know that beginning in the 1960s I did much to some members of the family that was extremely harmful and criminal." In another he wrote that he "deserved the fires of hell and a disgraced life" for his "grossest sins."

'I've carried it with me'

Fifty years on, Barbara Maasch recalls vivid details of her alleged abuse. She remembers the pattern of the linoleum floor, the color of the blankets. She was 10 years old when she says she was sexually abused by Jamsa, her brother-in-law — who is nearly 20 years older than her — in his Duluth apartment.

She was afraid to speak out at the time, and said she was dismissed when she later found the courage to tell some family members. Maasch was haunted for years by depression and feelings of fear and worthlessness. She twice attempted suicide.

"I never felt there was anyone I could go to for protection or help," said Maasch, now 62. "It was just an awful secret ... I was too ashamed. I didn't want anyone to have that picture of me, that mental image."

Some family members were unresponsive and unwilling to be her advocate, she said. Some even told her the abuse was too long ago and she should move on. She moved to the West Coast and largely withdrew from her extended family.

Allan Maasch, 64, said he was sexually abused by Jamsa as a young teen while he was in his care at a Grand Rapids-area lake property. The first time he told anyone in detail what allegedly happened to him was when he was interviewed by Weller in 2016. More recently, he told his brother, and the act of fully processing it with family brought him to tears about it for the first time.

He didn't think he needed closure.

"I put it away and locked it up and that's where it stayed," but the thought that others might have similar stories or could still be hurt spurred him on, he said. "I wish I had done something a lot sooner. I carry that guilt that I let my daughters be around him."

Alfords, now 38, said her alleged abuse affected her relationships as she grew up.

"I've carried it with me," she said. "I've felt men were superior to me ... I have a hard time connecting."

Stolp and Alfords, who were between the ages of 7 and 10 at the times of the alleged abuse, didn't tell anyone about the incidents detailed in the charges against Jamsa right away. They only told their father later into their teenage years.

When Allan Maasch heard his daughters' allegations, he confronted Jamsa but didn't go to authorities, he said. Family gatherings became strained and awkward, as the allegations spread among them.

Both Allan and Barbara said that Jamsa and his wife — their sister — did nice things for them as kids such as taking them on trips and buying them gifts. Barbara says now she thinks they were being "groomed," and she, back then, didn't want to hurt her sister by reporting what Jamsa allegedly did to her.

Alfords, too, struggled with members of her family continuing to accept Jamsa despite knowing what he had been accused of doing, she said.

"He never faced any consequences," she said, and it seemed as if he never would.

'A lifetime effect'

The long delay was difficult to understand, said Steve Maasch, a sibling of Barbara and Allan who convinced all of the alleged victims to report their stories.

"These things are swept under the rug, or pushed to the side," he said. "But these things have a lifetime effect. I can see it in my family."

Duluth's Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault works with many survivors "who doubt themselves," said interim director Deb Scott — especially when the abuse is from a family member.

"Talking about it is really important because it gives other people permission. The #MeToo movement is a perfect example," she said, referring to the ongoing social media movement highlighting the widespread existence of sexual harassment and abuse.

Sharing "empowers" others, she said, and in that way, people can begin healing.

"It's really important, whether (or not) the statute of limitations has run out, to seek the support you need," she said. "There is not a timeline on healing ... You need to move past it and alleviate some of that guilt and shame and blame that so many survivors put on themselves."

Even if the abuse is too old to be prosecuted, going to authorities can help establish a pattern and build a case against a perpetrator who may have multiple victims.

"It's definitely to their benefit ... to see if there's a newer case that is prosecutable," said Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "Sometimes it's helpful for people, even if it is too late."

Williams, the Itasca County sheriff, agreed and said that "it's important for the victims not to harbor those feelings."

"What you may feel you never want to talk about again may affect the life of someone being victimized now," he said.

A hope for healing

Jamsa was charged with two counts of first-degree and one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. The charges relate to digital penetration of victims under the age of 16 with whom he had a "significant relationship." If convicted of the most serious charge, he faces up to 25 years in prison and a $40,000 fine.

According to charging documents, Jamsa acknowledged to investigators that there was inappropriate contact, but he told them it was not to the extent that was reported by the alleged victims.

"He recalled getting drunk and crawling into bed where his (redacted) were sleeping," according to the criminal complaint. "He said he touched one of them, then immediately got up and left."

Although the identities of the alleged victims he's been charged with abusing have been redacted from the criminal complaint, Stolp and Alfords have confirmed they are the women described in the documents.

While Barbara Maasch's allegations will not be heard in court, she still felt relief at Jamsa's charging.

"I feel like I've taken my first full breath in 52 years," she said. "How this has impacted me as a woman sexually ... what it did to our family ... it just haunts you."

Coming forward wasn't easy, she said, and the difficulties encountered underscored why some sexual assault survivors never bother going to authorities. But it's important to seek help of any kind, she said.

"If this can stop one child from going through what we went through, then it's all worth it," she said.

After so many years, the news that their story was in the hands of a judge made Stolp feel "lighter."

The trauma hung over the family like a cloud, she said, and now: "It's like some sunshine came through."

"I'm ready to close this (chapter) on my life now. He didn't break me."

Child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse by family members might be decreasing in Minnesota, but it is not disappearing.

According to the 2016 Minnesota Student Survey, 2.2 percent of the state's surveyed ninth-graders said they had been touched or forced to touch sexually against their wishes by "an older or stronger member of their family."

The survey, given every three years by the departments of education, health, human services and public safety, shows that number has decreased over time. In 1992, it was 4 percent; in 2013 in was 2.5 percent.

More students in 2016 — 3.6 percent — reported sexual abuse from someone outside of their family.

Reports of decades-old child sex abuse aren't as common as more recent abuse, said St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin. And the older the victims are, the more difficult it becomes to prove cases, he said.

"Whether or not you have DNA evidence, you are relying on people's memories from so long ago," he said. "That makes it even more challenging."

A bill has been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that would eliminate the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes. It wouldn't be retroactive, but it would allow victims as much time as they need to come forward, advocates say.

For help and information:

Statewide:

*Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault

mncasa.org

National:

*Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

(800) 656-4673

rainn.org

Editor's note

Forum News Service does not typically identify the victims of alleged sex crimes, but in this case reporters were granted explicit permission by those named in order to tell this story in the most comprehensive way possible.