Ben Trane testified for nearly 3 ½ hours Wednesday afternoon in his criminal trial in Keokuk. He’s accused of sexual abuse and child endangerment during his time as owner of Midwest Academy, a shuttered boarding school for troubled teens in Lee County.
Trane became emotional toward the end of his testimony, struggling to explain how it felt to be accused of the crimes facing him.
“To be accused of something you fought your whole life to stop, it is just the most horrible thing in the world,” said Trane. “I would never do that and put myself in a position to do that.”
A former student at Midwest Academy testified, last week, about a dozen instances in which she said Trane either touched her inappropriately or sexually abused her in 2015, including oral sex, masturbation and intercourse. She said they occurred both at the school and at Trane’s home near the school.
Trane’s attorney, Lisa Schaefer, asked him about each individual claim. He denied each allegation, stating that he was never alone with her.
He also testified about an incident that occurred in mid-November involving he and his accuser.
Trane said members of her family were supposed to visit the school at Thanksgiving 2015 and take her off-campus for an outing. He said the student became very angry after the trip fell through, stating “she did not want to have anything to do with me after that.”
It was about a week later that the student told a staff member that Trane “did things to her.”
Trane said the student was removed from the school in late 2015. He said things seemed to eventually return to normal, until Jan. 28, 2016.
More than two dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agents descended upon Midwest Academy that day with search warrants related to abuse allegations. Some spent more than 16 hours on site executing the search warrants and interviewing students.
Trane testified Wednesday that he anticipated law enforcement coming to the school after the Iowa Department of Human Services was contacted regarding allegations against him by a female student.
“I knew with the allegations, I would hope they would come and investigate,” said Trane. “I was not expecting them to come in, remove our students and shut down the school.
Trane said after the raid, the school’s structure fell apart, saying the students rioted and tore the school apart. He said it took about a week for all of the parents to come and pick up their students.
“Blown So Out of Proportion”
Trane testified about several interactions between he and the students that were raised on multiple occasions during the previous six days of testimony, starting with body image sessions.
Several former students said Trane brought a group of female students to the uniform room, which had a mirror. They testified that Trane told them they could take their clothes off in the room and look in the mirror to help them determine their body size.
Trane said there were only 2-4 sessions and that they had nothing to do with sexual gratification.
"This has been blown so out of proportion," said Trane.
He said a female student was being bullied about her weight, so he printed some handouts about body shapes and gave them to her. He said eventually more and more girls wanted the paperwork.
Trane said the students were allowed to look in the mirror if they wanted, but he did not pressure them to get undressed. He said, looking back, he would not have allowed the students to use the mirror.
“Truthfully, it was very annoying,” said Trane. “I had better things to be doing. If it meant a lot to them, though, I could easily do the session.”
Trane also testified about female students shopping at Victoria’s Secret with him.
Trane said certain students were allowed to go on shopping trips with staff members, including to the malls in Quincy and Burlington. He said a couple of times, the students wanted to go to Victoria’s Secret and if they did not have money, he said the school would purchase items for the students.
“I did not see it as a big deal at the time,” said Trane, adding that he understood the perception and that it would have been better for other staff members to visit that type of store.
Trane also said that he provided students with an anonymous study about sexual activity to help him prepare for a family and marriage seminar he conducted each year. He said the staff used the results to determine lesson plans for students, not for his own sexual gratification.
The surveys were found by law enforcement agents during the execution of a search warrant.
Trane told the jury he threw them away, but they re-appeared in one of the rooms on campus. He said he took them back to the office to throw them away again.
Opening of Midwest Academy
Trane’s attorney spent more than an hour talking about how Midwest Academy got its start.
Trane said he started out in pre-med in college in Utah before discovering his passion.
“I fell in love with working with troubled teens,” said Trane. “I love seeing families come back together and be happy.”
He said he knew he wanted to establish some sort of residential education facility, so he visited sites across the country. He said one night, he happened upon Keokuk.
Trane said he was interested in purchasing the former middle school, but he said its age and condition prevented it from being a viable option. He said Keokuk returned to his radar a short while later when former Mayor Dave Gudgel told him that a former county building outside the city was for sale.
"It was perfect," said Trane.
Trane said the school officially opened with one student in the summer of 2003. He said by the end of that year, there were 50 students and dozens of employees. he said at its peak, the school housed nearly 300 students and employed people.
He said at the time of its closure in early 2016, there were about 80 students in attendance.
Trane said he started out a minority owner of the school, but he was able to purchase it outright from three other partners in 2007. He said his priority was to charge a lower tuition than similar schools and to not kick students out if they could not pay the tuition of up to $5,000/month.
"Most of the kids, if they did not do something, they would be dead or in jail," said Trane.
Trane finished answering questions from his attorney at just after 5:00 pm on Wednesday.
After consulting with the attorneys, District Court Judge Mark Kruse chose to adjourn for the day instead of allowing Iowa Assistant Attorney General Denise Timmins to begin her cross-examination.
He told jurors to return to the courthouse at 8:30 AM on Thursday, about 30 minutes earlier than normal so they can get right into the cross examination.
The trial is entering its eighth day after originally being scheduled to last six.