Minnesota thought it locked up 700 sex offenders for life — it was wrong


Among Craig Bolte's earliest memories is a night of camping in his grandparents' backyard in Billings, Montana. He is three years old. The heat is suffocating.

Small hands feel along the seamless nylon walls of the tent. He is frantic to get beyond the reach of his teenage uncle. But he is too stupid, he thinks, to find a way out.

The sexual abuse wouldn't be discovered for years though his mother Michele suspects it began in infancy. Craig was an easy target for the whim and pleasure of an alcoholic young uncle and a pedophile grandfather who invaded his own kids' rooms when they were young.

Michele was only 14 when she gave birth to her son. The 16-year-old father was told not to come around, so Michele raised Craig in her childhood home.

The warning signs that all was not right appeared as he approached two. He touched himself. He tried to put his hands in a playmate's diapers.

By the time Craig could toddle, he was approaching strangers in the grocery store with crude confessions of molestation. One story the boy repeated with chilling consistency: that night in the tent, when his uncle put his hands on Craig's privates, then forced Craig to touch him in return.

Craig Bolte raped a younger female relative when he was 13. Now 28 years old, he’s been locked up for more than half his life.

Craig Bolte raped a younger female relative when he was 13. Now 28 years old, he’s been locked up for more than half his life.

When Michele confronted her brother, he swore that he would never touch the boy. She severed all contact with him nonetheless, doubly convinced that her own father must have taken part, as well.

At 18, Michele married Craig's father, bundled up her son and moved out.

Craig packed his aggression with him. He was diagnosed with ADHD, accompanied by explosive tantrums, and a disturbed imagination.

At five, he threatened to light fires in the heaters of the Boltes' one-bedroom. He'd boast of burying a body in the backyard. When Michele pressed him to explain, his stuttering retraction shed no light on his subconscious unrest.

With the birth of Craig's younger sister, Mom made the drastic call to get her son help. She pried Craig off her leg in the intake room of a Montana children's hospital, where she hoped he would learn peace.

He was five years old, convinced he'd been discarded.

"That was probably the hardest decision we ever made," Michele recalls. "I look back and I question whether that was best for him. All Craig knows is that we put him in this place, and we weren't there."

Craig gained a measure of calm by the time he came home. Yet there was a meanness the doctors could never fully kill.

By junior high he was drinking and threatening classmates with knives. He was arrested for trying to stab a neighbor kid in the head in a holdup over lunch money.

Craig also picked up his first sexual offense allegation. He'd been alone with a girl when her father walked in. Craig threatened to kill the older man. They were just playing doctor, he insisted.

In the end, all the charges were dropped and the Boltes moved to Farmington, Minnesota.

At 13, Craig began to sneak into a younger relative's room at night. The abuse would span two years. When the victim finally spoke up, it was Craig's father who called the cops.

Craig admitted his offenses with such gruesome detail that Michele felt he was determined to incriminate himself. He spoke of masturbating in front of the girl, of lusting after his mother.

He pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sexual conduct and registered as a sex offender. He would spend the rest of his childhood barreling from one juvenile sex offender program to another.

Two months in Hennepin County culminated in a discharge after he fought with other patients and tried to access porn online. He was transferred to the Benchmark Treatment Program in Salt Lake City, known for its gentle caring.

Craig Bolte shows off his tattoos

Craig Bolte shows off his tattoos

Craig finally quit lashing out and made headway in treatment. He shared during group discussions, sat attentively in lectures, and made an emergency plan in case he resumed courting familiar weaknesses.

He was close to finishing when the program switched therapists on him, assigning a woman. Craig feared opening up to women, Michele says. It had a way of gouging at his deepest reserves of self-loathing.

When Craig hurled a chair in one session, he was sent to the juvenile prison in Red Wing, Minnesota.

There he embarked on victim-offender mediations with the girl he abused at 13. She would travel to see him in a visiting room filled with her therapists and his, breaking down in tears over the harm he caused.

It triggered a flood of realization: that he alone was responsible for her pain, no one else.

Craig's 19th birthday came with a question. He was about to age-out of juvie. Michele asked his probation officer if Craig could move to a halfway house or group home.

The probation officer had other ideas, petitioning to have Craig committed to the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) for adults.

Dennis Steiner has spent more than 20 years behind the walls of MSOP. His last offense was in 1989.

Dennis Steiner has spent more than 20 years behind the walls of MSOP. His last offense was in 1989.

Deemed to have failed each of his prior programs, Craig's dossier was now a diagnostic buffet of paraphilia, hypersexuality, bipolar, histrionic, antisocial, and borderline personality disorders. A judge declared him a "sexually dangerous person" requiring indefinite supervision.

There was no mystery what the order meant. By 2006, no one had ever been released from MSOP.

"We knew from the beginning it was going to be a life sentence..." Michele says. "That's why we fought so hard for him not to be in it. But it wouldn't have mattered if we testified for him or against him. They were going to commit him."

Her son had been sent to the wolves.

The Worst of the Worst

Craig joined the ranks of more than 700 patients with a cumulative victim count of more than 8,000.

Some committed their crimes as children. Others were unrepentant pedophiles, mentally disabled and coping with hallucinations, or predators with varying degrees of aggression.

There were assaults on staff, rapes in the double-bunk cells, and constant citations for breaking any of the 367 rules that governed the razor-wire-enclosed facility in Moose Lake. Everybody shuffled about in ankle chains.

Craig was assigned to share a cell with a 40-year-old convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl. The first chance he got to call home, he told his mother with reluctant optimism that they'd get along just fine. The roommate insisted he was innocent, and Craig believed him. All Michele heard was naiveté.

Reality did not register in Craig until he asked around about what it took to get out. The answer: dying.

There were guys who had completed all the coursework. But progress in treatment didn't come with a release date, leaving depression endemic and time to stand still. Each man cost the state $120,000 a year.

"At 19, when you show up for this program and the very first thing you hear is that nobody ever leaves, it's like your whole life ends," Craig says. "Every hope and dream you ever had of going to college and having a career and a family, everything pretty much ceases to exist. You realize you'll never be out in society again. You're never going to accomplish anything."

Dr. Mischelle Vietanen, a former MSOP psychologist, says the goal was to train inmates to understand their crimes and control their urges. But that always took a back seat to the public desire to keep them under lock and key.

Vietanen joined the clinical team at Moose Lake in 2011. She was fresh from earning her doctorate and wanted to work close to home in Duluth. The job would call for trial by fire. Yet her biggest challenges wouldn't come from the clients.

MSOP didn't seem to have a plan. There was no clear way to measure patients' improvement.

Progress reports were entirely subjective, written by young therapists who cycled in and out in troubling volume. Each time one therapist quit and another filled the void, patient scores were lowered due to unfamiliarity. Yet one prerequisite for progress was maintaining steady scores, a task made impossible for even the most earnest of offenders.

"My first year there, there was really very little indication to me that we were trying to move people out," Vietanen says. "I never felt like they wanted in my reports something saying this person is ready to be released."

One report was returned by a supervisor, urging her to find something, anything wrong with the inmate.

Vietanen held her ground. She could not find a shred of evidence in the man's records showing him defiant or refusing to engage. "I am sure it was not supported by MSOP. I don't remember any of my reports being supported by MSOP."

The program seemed chronically short-staffed, usually with only two or three psychologists when there should have been six to eight. Paperwork took priority over counseling.

When she did have time, Vietanen heard the inmates' horror stories of sexual and physical violence, foster care, and drug abuse. There were boys like Craig who'd been raped as children. Others grew up homeless, raised within the addiction and cannibalistic brutality of the streets.

The terrors varied in each case, yet MSOP took a one-size-fits-all approach to therapy, rarely guided toward a specific inmate's needs.

Vietanen learned to dread the ethical dilemmas. She lasted just two years.

From Hospital to Prison

At 66, Dennis Steiner is one of MSOP's oldest residents. He arrived in 1992, witnessing every permutation that came with each change in leadership. He now lives in MSOP's second facility in St. Peter, for those who have attained the final stage of treatment: reintegration into the public.

It's an empty honor, he says. "They've never released anybody, so they don't do a hell of a lot of work on that."

In a past life, Steiner was a chef who ran a series of restaurants and hotels. He was the son of a furniture salesman, the eldest of seven kids who found work at 12 washing dishes and prepping food at St. Paul's Commodore Hotel. He became hooked on the kitchen, eventually donning the high hat of chef at the Golden Valley House, the Holiday Inn in Roseville, and The Foolish Deer in Spring Lake Park.

At 27, he married, bought a house, and started hiring teenage boys from around the neighborhood to help with odd jobs. They cut the grass; he took them hunting and fishing, and gave them work in his kitchens.

He'd buy them gifts, clothes, and expensive toys like snowmobiles and motorcycles. He never picked them off the streets, Steiner insists. He would spend months getting to know them before attempting a move.

The youngest of his victims was the 8-year-old son of a friend. While the two sat alone together on a couch watching TV, Steiner dipped his hand underneath a blanket draped over their laps.

The oldest was 17, a homeless kid who needed a job and a place to stay.

In between, there were 29 others, mostly older teenagers. Some he touched in their sleep. He coerced others into mutual masturbation and oral sex.

His victims are likely broken for life, Steiner reflects. But from 1977 to 1989, he only concerned himself with the mechanics of getting what he wanted.

"They accepted me as a person and they were willing to go along with anything I asked them to do. That was the sad part," Steiner says. "My stuff was very calculated and sneaky and conniving."

But the boys inevitably told their parents. Steiner's wife left him and he served three stints in the workhouse, each for a year. Jail time was no deterrent.

In 1991, Steiner was charged with molesting five young boys. He pleaded guilty and was committed to MSOP as a psychopath — a conclusion he considered fair.

For the first five years, he dove into treatment. At the time, MSOP's entire population of 37 met together, coaxing each other to share. They'd excavate the roots of their crimes. Individual therapy came daily.

Steiner finally embraced his homosexuality. He has since found a healthy sexual desire for men his own age, he says. Zoloft helps catch his impulses.

A caseworker thought he might be among the first to earn his freedom. That was a beautiful thought.

Back then the men had a rapport with staff. They wore their own clothes. They had fish tanks and plants. Steiner bought thousands of dollars in kitchen appliances and became known for his garlic bread and cookies. He set up a cottage business sewing bed sheets and curtains for the other men. He crafted furniture in the wood shop, outfitting his bedroom with cabinets and desks.

But in 2008, Dennis Benson, former deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, took over MSOP. His arrival marked the end of an era.

Steiner says he led Benson's first tour. Afterward, Benson promised that nothing would change. "He flat-out lied to my face," Steiner says.

He'll never forget the massive search that came shortly after. Staff swept through rooms, taking everything that hinted of excess comfort. TVs and radios were confiscated. After Steiner's room was purged, all that was left could be stored in a few paper bags.

Benson doesn't remember promising Steiner a thing, and he denies ever being shown around by an inmate.

What he does remember is a pregnant therapist sobbing uncontrollably in his office, relaying how a patient had whispered that the only reason she could go home that night was because he'd chosen to allow it.

That brand of terror was just one small piece of the problem Benson inherited. Five years earlier, assistant director Gary Grimm discovered that a client had manipulated an elderly offender into naming him the sole beneficiary of his will. Grimm ordered a transfer, but the inmate had connections outside. While Grimm slept in his Mankato home one night, three men broke in and beat him half to death.

When Benson arrived, there was grease an inch thick in the vents. The inmates had Internet access to porn.

"When I came to MSOP in 2008, the patients really ran those two physical plants, not the staff," Benson says. "It doesn't surprise me that there are vocal people there that didn't like me, didn't like what we did, and hold me accountable."

At the same time, referrals to MSOP ballooned. The catalyst was the 2003 rape and murder of University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin, who had been kidnapped by a sex offender freshly released from a 23-year sentence.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty raised the sentence for first-degree sex offenses from 12 to 25 years and introduced the possibility of life with parole for the most severe crimes. He would also allocate $90 million to double the capacity of MSOP's Moose Lake facility.

Therapists' caseloads doubled. Rules were copy-and-pasted directly from the Department of Corrections. Letters were censored.

The changes were hard on MSOP's relatively green staff. Therapists tended to be young people straight out of school. They struggled to establish boundaries with sex offenders who manipulated and preyed when the opportunity arose, Vietanen says. Some were overwhelmed with stories of the horrible things their patients had done, the task of restraining this reservoir of darkness with no clear end.

It seemed like once a week they'd get a new directive, to be implemented with haste. Slightly more senior staff trained the incoming staff. The end result was that nobody was exceptionally trained at all.

Benson's clinical director was David Prescott, a social worker of Wisconsin Sex Offender Program stock. He resolved to tackle MSOP with a team of his own, determined to make it a treatment facility again.

"Every person that goes into a program like that does so with the greatest optimism and enthusiasm. I was one of those people, and I failed," Prescott confesses.

Prescott could not have anticipated the immensity of the problem. Fending off lawsuits over conditions with one hand, he tried to improve treatment with the other.

Yet a 700-man ship does not turn swiftly. The transition dragged on.

His inability to move quickly left inmates with a "sense of hopelessness that is unimaginable to outsiders," Prescott says. "...The level of anger among the clientele and the bitterness and impatience increases."

The men and women who guarded MSOP shed their polos and donned prison-style uniforms. Though their badges still read, "counselors," they were ordered to simply lock the doors, enforce the rules, and stay aloof with offenders.

Kevin Scanlon was hired to work security in 2011. He tried to honor his official job title by looking clients in the eye, listening, and talking to them like they were worthy of basic compassion. He managed to get a man who never passed his hygiene checks to both clean his room and take a shower, Scanlon recalls with pride.

But kindness for offenders did not ingratiate him to the higher-ups. When Scanlon helped a client fill out a routine assignment, his boss was furious. Behind closed doors, the man screamed with spit-laden vehemence that Scanlon was not to help people. He was a guard, nothing more.

"I get that human mentality is they don't deserve compassion, but the way I was raised, I was able to see past their offenses," Scanlon says. "And don't get me wrong, I've never looked someone in the eye and seen pure evil before I worked up there."

But he truly believed some could be rehabilitated.

For Craig, the fact that he would never see freedom meant there was no point in continually unearthing his past. Group therapy became a wormhole of old perverts glumly describing their aching for children.

Craig recalls one memorable session where a pair of roommates begged for staff intervention. One confessed he was having violent rape fantasies about the other, who sat there talking about how scared he was.

The facilitator told the two to deal with it on their own. MSOP would not give them single rooms. The result was a brutal rape.

Nobody could keep track of the rules. Craig would be written up one day for attempting to throw a birthday party in the yard, for playing music too loud, for sharing a stick of deodorant.

He caught a guard in the hallway and opened his face with flying fists, for no other reason than to pick a fight. In court, the judge tried to show mercy because it was Craig's first offense as an adult. Craig begged to go to prison, where MSOP inmates believed life was so much better.

"Even in prison you know you're not getting out, but everybody else around you has hope, and you live vicariously through them," he explains. "You talk with them about what they're going to do when they get out. Their happiness is contagious."

The Black Sheep

It was accepted as fact that individual lawsuits against MSOP invariably died on the vine. Nobody had carved a path to freedom — at least not in Minnesota.

Peter Lonergan would get closer than anyone.

The auto mechanic had grown up a preteen runaway in St. Paul. Dad was dying of cancer and Mom imposed too many rules for a boy with no tolerance for authority. He graduated from the city's Street Academy, where cops would pick him up a half hour before class started and drop him off afterward. He was an alcoholic by 17.

In 1984, Lonergan pleaded guilty to molesting his sister-in-law's 8-year-old daughter. He spent two years behind bars.

In 1991, he was charged with raping the 8-year-old son of his cousin. Lonergan vehemently denied guilt, but evidence suggested he'd molested at least six other children, ranging in age from three to 15. He was sentenced to 22 years.

Three-fourths of the way through, the state petitioned to have him committed to MSOP. Lonergan, who had never confessed to the crimes, refused to accept treatment as a condition of remorse.

However, in 2006, after Pawlenty had enacted a moratorium on releases from MSOP, Lonergan knew he didn't stand a chance. He was going away for life.

He started hitting the law library. The more successful suits dealt not with individual grievances, but conditions of confinement and the structural problems of being committed indefinitely. It hadn't occurred to him to write up a complaint so broad.

He wrote to sex offenders in Wisconsin, Florida, California, and Texas, discovering that Minnesota's program was the most draconian in the nation. Every other state had released somebody, it seemed. He decided to build a class-action suit that could pit the weight of all 700 offenders against MSOP.

Advice trickled in from across America. He needed to cover all the major categories of people committed, other offenders warned, with an emphasis on those whose only crimes came as juveniles.

He narrowed the plaintiffs to 14 names.

He wanted Craig, the kid, and he wanted Steiner, whose confinement ran close to 25 years. He wanted men of all religions, sexualities, longtime residents, and newcomers, people with slim rap sheets, and those with imposing criminal histories.

"I didn't have to talk anyone into it," Lonergan says. "Everybody here knows you don't get out through the front door, so everybody, in a way, thought I was bringing hope to a hopeless situation."

Federal district court Judge Donovan Frank would hear the case. Lonergan expected to represent the group, but Frank assigned the law firm, Gustafson Gluek, to work on its behalf.

As word spread, hope soared.

Janet, the wife of a 59-year-old inmate, Rolando, asks that her name not be used so she can assume a normal life. They met at a dance in St. Paul in the 1970s when she was just a teenager. He was an electric dancer with devil-may-care bravado. She knew he was a womanizer, an alcoholic at 15. But she followed him like a puppy. When he inevitably insisted on going his own way, she was heartbroken.

"I always wanted to make it in the world with him, and when we were younger, it never happened."

Sometime after they lost touch, Rolando fell into drugs. With a seventh-grade education and no work skills to speak of, he was convicted of a burglary and diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. A short stint at a Hennepin County halfway house crashed to an end when he beat a counselor.

At 26, he was committed to the Minnesota Security Hospital, where he refused treatment and raped a nurse. For that he received 10 years in St. Cloud. MSOP awaited him at the end. So did Janet.

She found Rolando at St. Peter five years ago, when she spontaneously packed her bags and moved down from the Cities with her son to be closer to him. They would marry in a visiting room, the guards bearing witness.

"I know people say I'm wasting my life," Janet explains, "but I just feel a person can change with help."

Physically, Rolando is no longer much of a threat. A heart attack a decade ago called for a bypass. He's lost all his hair, and his back is giving out.

He's cycled through the program six times now. Janet hoped Judge Frank would recognize that.

As the lawsuit gained traction, public scrutiny ensued. Tensions built to a boiling point as Frank appointed a panel of experts to investigate MSOP's constitutionality, followed by a taskforce of clinicians, victim advocates, and police, to suggest reforms.

There were pitfalls to the attention, Lonergan admits. Staffers singled him out and they paused his progress in treatment indefinitely, he claims. After seven years in the system, he has never moved beyond the first phase — learning the program's rules.

"I can't tell you where the days have gone," Lonergan says. "...You don't develop memories here, you just kind of exist. This just happened, and it was out of necessity. It's the only way I could see I would ever be free."

In the meantime, a few would be quietly released. The first, Clarence Opheim, disappeared into the community wearing a GPS, with orders to avoid bars and the Internet. Since 2012, he appears to be doing fine.

Others, like Christopher Coker, have been granted provisional discharge despite their social workers' judgment.

The suit went to trial in February. Former clinical directors and therapists reunited in court. Even Benson, the central villain of the offenders' complaint, took the stand to deliver a devastating opinion.

"I don't think that program should grow until it gets fixed," he says. "Because I do believe there are people in there that shouldn't be there, and they're the people who want to change, who can jump through the appropriate hoops and participate in treatment, that aren't being recognized as worthy of another chance."

MSOP is thoroughly broken, Benson believes, but not irreparably so. Entrance and release should be free from the political instincts of judges and county prosecutors, who have come to see the program as a dumping ground for any sex offender who has nowhere else to live.

Despite protestations from the Attorney General's office, the judge sided with Lonergan. MSOP was ruled unconstitutional.

The crux of the judge's ruling was that a treatment program that takes two decades to complete simply failed the straight face test. Though releasing anybody from civil commitment means someone, somewhere down the line, will inevitably reoffend, the state could not detain people indefinitely for crimes they might commit.

Those with juvenile convictions ought to be released first, he reasoned, because the tools used to evaluate them weren't applicable to children. The old and infirmed could be relegated to secure nursing homes.

He left the task of reforming MSOP to the state Legislature, which has scant political interest in seeing the offenders freed.

In August, Gov. Mark Dayton, who had always taken a hard line to releasing anybody, proposed a $22 million plan to create new "community facilities" and pay for up-to-date evaluations.

State health officials, however, refused to propose any reforms. Frank has promised a new ruling this month with more forceful directives for the state. The offenders' only hope is that he will put a figurative gun to the Legislature's head.

Steiner hopes he might live to taste freedom. He turns 67 in April, the age his father died. After 24 years in confinement, his body is rapidly weakening. The hearing in his right ear is gone, as are most of his teeth. His dentures shift too much to eat with, so he tends to gum his food into submission.

He thinks about what release might mean to his victims, but he has no intention of ever finding out firsthand. "I'll go away. There can be no contact," he says. "That's just the way it has to be."

The first thing he'll do is move to his mother's hospice so they can spend her final days together. Then he'll get dinner at Mancini's in St. Paul, where he used to sit at the bar and watch the old owner flow from table to table, greeting each diner.

Craig has grander ideas. He sees himself sitting in college business classes so he can make money if no one will hire him. He'll learn to drive a car and move back to Montana, where camping in the mountains composes his favorite childhood memories. He hopes a family will be in his future, and with it the opportunity to help bring up a generation better than his.

"If I ever get out, I don't see myself ever taking anything for granted again."

He recalls one winter ages ago. His mom wanted to drive around town looking at Christmas lights. Craig threw a fit, telling his parents to fuck off. He wanted to hang out with his friends, so he kept his eyes closed the entire ride.

"And I looked back and I said to my mom on the phone last year, I said, 'Mom, I really want to go look at Christmas lights with the family.' I said, 'I'm really sorry. I'd be so grateful to be able to do that.'"