Denise Timmins sat up from her chair and walked in front of the newly seated jury at about 3:00 p.m. Wednesday in the south Lee County Courthouse's district courtroom. She proceeded to read the criminal charges against Ben Trane and then begin her opening statement.
Trane, the former owner of Midwest Academy, is charged with Sexual Abuse in the 3rd Degree, Sexual Exploitation of a Child by a Counselor, and Child Endangerment. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Timmins, an Assistant Iowa Attorney General, is handling the prosecution.
Her opening statement to the 9 men and 3 women on the jury lasted about 40 minutes. She emphasized a singular point throughout the statement: that Trane was in complete control at Midwest Academy.
“He was the director,” said Timmins. “He wrote the rules and the policies. He decided who to hire and who to fire. He had staff living in apartments there on the campus. He had control of everything.”
Timmins said Trane also had the trust of the parents who sent their kids there and the students themselves because he could give them treats and be a little lax with the rules.
“The evidence will show that that trust was abused and that power was abused and it was the kids who paid the price for it,” said Timmins.
Description of Midwest Academy for Jury
Timmins said Midwest Academy opened in the early 2000's, describing itself as a therapeutic boarding school where parents could send their troubled teens.
“Parents were told their children would be cared for, kept safe, given a good education, and taught discipline,” said Timmins. “Students were told that the program was tough, but that you would be better for going through it.
“For some students, that might have been true and it was a positive experience. For other students, it was definitely not true. There was no positive experience.”
Timmins described the structure of Midwest Academy as rigid. She said every student entering the school was considered a Level 1, adding that they could become Level 2, 3, etc. based on their actions. Timmins said many did not move beyond Level 1 while at the school.
“Level 1 had certain restrictions,” said Timmins. “Food was a privilege there. So as a Level 1, you could not eat catsup and mustard and you could not have the salad dressing at the salad bar. You had to earn condiments.”
“As a Level 1, you couldn’t talk to people. There were certain people you could talk to… but Level 1's were not able to talk to each other. They weren’t allowed to talk to staff. It was part of the discipline.”
Timmins focused a great deal during her opening statement on what she called the OSS room. She said students were sent to an OSS room if they got in trouble, a room she described as having a door without a handle on the inside, so when it shuts, it is locked.
“It’s very small, it’s concrete, there’s nothing in there, the lights are on 24/7. There is a camera watching you at all times. You are expected to sit in structure.”
Timmins said an example of sitting in structure is sitting on the concrete with their legs extended and their arms at their side. She said they could not move or talk during a 24 hour period, during which they could sometimes earn a chair and a mattress.
“If you were bad and you weren’t sitting quietly or you were yelling or throwing a fit because you wanted to get out, you wouldn’t get a mattress. You would sleep on the concrete floor if you slept at all. So that’s what could happen on a bad day at Midwest Academy.”
Timmins said the OSS meals were also limited to a sandwich or even a special meal consisting of the foods they disliked. She said it was an incentive to make the right choices.
Timmins also talked about staffing policies and procedures and students’ access to parents to try to paint a picture of how the state viewed the school.
Sexual Abuse/Sexual Exploitation
Timmins said Trane is accused of sexually abusing a female student at the school. Tri States Public Radio is not identifying the student.
Timmins said the student arrived at the school in 2015. She said the student noticed early on that Trane was paying more attention to her than the other students.
“The defendant started to touch the student,” said Timmins. “It started with very quick moments. Nothing that took too long of a time.”
“’Mr. Ben’ could pretty much do what he wanted there,” said Timmins, noting that students called Trane ‘Mr. Ben’, “and no one questioned if Mr. Ben went here or went there.”
Timmins said the former student will describe to the jury what happened in her own words during the trial.
Timmins said this was taking place while Trane was also serving as a counselor in the school, prompting the second criminal charge against him. She said Trane even became the female student’s family representative, allowing him to spend more time with her.
Timmins said witnesses will testify regarding the sexual nature of counseling sessions at the school and the attention Trane paid to the student he is accused of sexually abusing. But she said there will not be a witness called to verify the account of that student.
“Nobody else is going to say they saw the defendant have sex with [the student],” said Timmins. “You need to know that right now. The only person that’s going to corroborate what happened in these sexual acts is [the student] because she was there. Because it happened to her and you just have to listen.” was there. Because it happened to her and you just have to listen.”
Timmins said this charge deals more with the behavioral policies developed by Trane. She said parents were assured that their children would not spend long periods of time in the room.
But Timmins said two male students, in particular, spent the vast majority of their time at Midwest Academy isolated in the OSS room. She said that led to the students falling behind in their education and losing a great deal of weight due to a lack of nutrition in the OSS rooms.
Timmins said one of the two male students will not be able to testify about his time at Midwest Academy. She said he cannot talk about it. But she said the other will be able to describe his time in the room.
“You won’t hear from the evidence that it was the defendant who was shutting the door,” said Timmins. “You won’t hear that it was the defendant that was picking them up and dragging them down the hall and putting them in the control room. But what you will know is that it is the defendant’s rules. It’s his policies, it’s his procedures and his employees are expected to follow them. He was in charge.”
Defense Opening Statement Deferred
Defense Attorney Lisa Schaefer had the opportunity to give her opening statement following Timmins’ statement. Schaefer declined, though, choosing to present her statement following the conclusion of the state’s case.