Shame and Silence in Rexburg
“Rexburg physician retires,” proclaimed the front-page headline in the Idaho Falls Post Register. “Withers prescribes rest, relaxation after 30-year career.”
It was Monday, May 1, 1995. Above the headline, a large photo displayed a beaming Dr. LaVar Withers, stethoscope to his ears, caring for one last patient. Below the headline, an article offered a fond eulogy to this “popular physician.”
Withers, readers were told, always made time for patients and nurses. Withers remembered the names, faces and medical histories of all his patients. Withers had a knack for reassuring people. Withers loved his work.
“It’s time to stop and smell the flowers,” went the doctor’s parting quote. “I’ve had a great life, had a lot of fun, met a lot of nice people.”
Withers, 58 at the time, said something else as well: “I have no regrets, wouldn’t change a thing.”
It was this last comment that most stirred so many here in southeastern Idaho. In home after home that Monday afternoon, people stared wide-eyed at their afternoon newspaper.
Sandy Brinton wanted to hit the article. Laverne Rasmussen wept and fumed. Carol Hannah canceled her subscription.
Others, among them the chairman of the Idaho State Board of Medicine, were mainly dumbstruck. How could LaVar sit for such a tribute, wondered Dr. Donald Bjornson. What a blunder, what a terrible mistake.
Not everyone felt entirely displeased at that notion. Now, predicted Michael Proctor, they’re going to start coming out of the woodwork.
That, in fact, was precisely what happened. All over eastern Idaho, hands reached for phones. It had finally begun: the end, albeit slow and reluctant, to an uncommon 32-year-long public silence.
For three decades, women had whispered about Withers’ conduct in examining rooms. Those who didn’t have their own stories to tell about the friendly physician fondling their breasts and genitals knew someone else who did. “The booby doctor,” they called him.
Some had come to him with colds or the flu, others with sinus infections, broken ankles, migraine headaches, ingrown toenails, allergies, acne. All told much the same story. Withers’ groping wasn’t the least subtle or ambiguous. At times his gloveless fingers moved into their vaginas. It appeared to some that he particularly enjoyed having third parties in the room, such as a husband or parent.
Although many kept their stories to themselves, a few women told not only friends, but also nurses, lawyers, hospital administrators, police detectives, church officials and other doctors. None ever responded. It was an open secret--but a secret nonetheless.
Its public disclosure has not proved entirely welcome. Women once too reticent to speak out found themselves being deemed not credible, or not important enough, when they did finally lift their voices. For many months, their complaints met with almost universal denial among those with the power to act.
Even now--after no less than 133 women have registered complaints, after a dozen women rose to testify in court one afternoon last September, after all of Idaho watched Withers get booked into Madison County Jail on the morning of Sept. 12--a good number in the Rexburg area wish the Withers matter had never been raised.
It isn’t hard to see why: Not just a doctor has been revealed; so too has a community, as well as a way of doing business in the worlds of law and medicine. In sentencing Withers on Sept. 9, Magistrate Judge Keith Walker denounced not just the physician but also all those respectable, prominent citizens who knew about Withers for so long and failed to stop him.
How could this have happened, people here now are regularly asked. Why did so many remain silent for so long? Why didn’t anyone act in the face of such common knowledge? Why so much resistance once women did start speaking out?
The questions alone have created rifts and discomfort. They’ve done something else, though. They have brought enlightenment and empowerment to women not accustomed to either. Most of those who rose against Withers are neither prominent nor influential, yet they have prevailed against those who are both.
Such a victory comes with a price in this rural, largely conservative Mormon community. Even some husbands frown. So do certain physicians and bishops and neighbors. This brings the women distress, for without reservation, they still desire to be part of their community.
Rexburg is a good place, they insist. Rexburg is a good place, even if so many in it have failed them over the years. Individuals are flawed, but not their community, and not their church.
They offer these words tentatively, as if just now learning to speak. They are, at once, satisfied and anguished, validated and uncertain.
Said one of those who first raised her voice: “I don’t think there’s a word for what we feel. They haven’t made it up yet.”
Town of 15,000
Founded 112 years ago, Rexburg is a town of almost 15,000 that sits mainly on flat valley land about 20 miles northeast of Idaho Falls. It is less than a two-hour drive from both Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. To the north are the stunning Teton Mountains, to the west, the Sawtooth Range. Agriculture is central to the economy; schools close for two weeks in late September so children can help their parents harvest nearly 1 million pounds of potatoes.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also plays a central role. Rexburg is home to Ricks College, a church-owned junior college that draws Mormon students from across the country. There is one bar in town, and it sells only beer. The local Wal-Mart is one of two in the country that closes on Sunday. Speeding cars are just about the biggest problem the Rexburg police face usually. If you ever see swear-word graffiti, night janitors for the school district are instructed, remove it immediately, because our children don’t swear.
It was to this town that a farm family from nearby Ucon brought their sick 13-year-old daughter on the afternoon of Friday, March 18, 1994. The Rasmussens’ 3 p.m. appointment at the Rexburg Medical Center would prove to be a key turning point in the lives of many, not the least Withers.
Lillie Rasmussen, as she will be called in this account, had been suffering recurring pains in her right side. She’d been to the hospital emergency room the week before. Now, because their regular physician was booked, she and her mother, Laverne, sat in an examining room awaiting LaVar Withers, a doctor they didn’t know.
As a nurse left, Withers walked in and sat down. He was an outgoing Idaho native with an appreciative following of long-time patients, for whom he had delivered 4,000 babies; on his walls hung plaques from Ricks College, Brigham Young University and the Temple University medical school. First, Withers talked symptoms. The Rasmussens’ account of what followed, told first to police and prosecutors, then in courtroom testimony, most recently in an interview, varies sometimes in the details but not the essence. It is an account Withers has flatly denied, although he would later characterize similar stories as misunderstandings.
“He had me lay down on the examining table,” said Lillie, now 16. “There was no gown, no nurse, no explaining what he was doing. He lifted up my shirt. He was feeling my stomach area, my abdomen. Then he unzipped my pants. He started feeling lower and lower. Pretty much as low as you can get. I don’t know what he was doing down there. I’m thinking, ‘Why is this idiot playing with me?’ I’m thinking, ‘He’s a dirty blink.’ Then he went under my shirt, started playing around there. He’s talking to my mom as he’s groping. He asks me, ‘Did you ever have breast cancer?’ I say, ‘No, I’m only 13.’
“He sits me up, stands behind me, puts his arm around me, on my chest. I’m trying to use my arm to scoot his hand back. Somehow it never works. He’s still talking to my mom. He finally relaxes his hand, so I relax. Then he moves his hand back, squeezes hard, gets a better grip. Later he slaps my butt, squeezes it. I was totally amazed. I didn’t know what to do. It was scary.”
Driving home, mother and daughter struggled silently with their thoughts.
“I knew what had happened,” Lillie said. “I thought Mom did too, so I didn’t say anything.”
It is unclear just what Laverne Rasmussen knew then. Her hesitancy would later form one of the reasons why some lawyers came to regard the Rasmussens as less than ideal witnesses.
“What I saw I couldn’t believe,” she said recently. “I didn’t think I was seeing it. I thought his hands sure looked low. But I didn’t realize until later when Lillie told me. I did see him messing with her breasts. I just didn’t know what to think. Doctors have to do things; you have to let a doctor do what he does. I was so fixed on finding out what was wrong with my girl. Part of me knew what was going on; part of me didn’t want to recognize it.”
Laverne Rasmussen began to weep at this point in her account. “You think you know what you’d do if someone messes with your daughter. Then the SOB does it right in your face. You feel so had.” Neil Rasmussen, Lillie’s father, added: “Lots don’t come forward because they feel they’ve been made fools of.”
Some of Lillie’s experience she shared with her family that first night, more the next day. Laverne approached her husband that Saturday as he was milking cows in the barn. “I think we’ve both been violated,” she said.
The Rasmussens, as did many of those who eventually rose to complain about Withers, were troubled, not just by the doctor’s groping, but also by what it implied. They felt he had exhibited utter disregard for them; they felt he had taken part of their dignity.
“He was going around doing what he wanted,” Laverne Rasmussen said. “Laughing at us. We didn’t want him to get away with it. We also didn’t want to let it happen to others.”
That first Saturday, she dialed the home number of their regular physician, Dr. Jud Miller, who had been too busy to see them the day before. Laverne Rasmussen’s account of this call--offered in an interview and courtroom testimony--echoed that of others who said they talked to Miller regarding Withers.
Miller’s wife answered the phone, according to Laverne. When told something “inappropriate” had happened with Withers, Laverne recalled the doctor’s wife asking, “Oh, was it a breast exam?” On the phone a moment later, Laverne remembered Jud Miller saying, “We know Dr. Withers has a problem. We want to help him, and help you too.”
This would not be the only instance where the Rasmussens gained a sense that others already knew about Withers. Two days later at the Rexburg police station, after Lillie gave a detailed statement to Det. Bart Smith and a county caseworker, the caseworker checked twice to make sure the tape recorder was turned off. Then she said: “This has happened to me too. I got a breast exam from Dr. Withers.”
So, it turned out, had a volunteer who listened to Lillie’s story days later at the Rape Response and Crime Victim Center in Idaho Falls. “Me too,” Sandy Brinton offered after Lillie finished talking.
It had happened 20 years ago, when Brinton was 16. She’d driven by herself to the doctor for the first time, suffering from a sprained thigh muscle. He’d fondled her breasts, Brinton would testify in court, and slipped his gloveless finger into her vagina. She’d never told anyone; she’d felt confused, humiliated, dirty. Now she realized she wasn’t alone.
Smith, it turned out, had a considerable file on Withers. There’d been a number of informal reports, but no one had been willing to sign a formal complaint. Until the Rasmussens, that is. They signed.
In such a small rural town, certain Rexburg citizens explain, we all know each other. This doctor, he came from a well-respected family. People were cautious, not just about hurting the doctor, but also his family. His wife, his kids. We knew them.
Among those who knew them was the local Madison County prosecutor. Sid Brown belonged to the same Mormon Church ward as Withers, and had once been among his patients. So when the police passed the Rasmussen family’s complaint to him in early April, Brown quickly declared a conflict of interest, and handed the matter to Steve Clark, a deputy prosecutor in adjoining Jefferson County.
Clark hailed from the San Francisco Bay Area. He’d chosen life in small-town Idaho over a high-powered legal career. He was, he allowed, a man willing to recognize his own limitations, “hard as that might be.”
After studying the Rasmussens’ complaint, he decided to black out all the names and send it to another doctor for advice. What he heard back was unequivocal: This doesn’t seem right; this doctor’s conduct doesn’t seem justified.
Then Clark started learning about Withers’ reputation. The Rexburg police told him about their file. The caseworker at Lillie Rasmussen’s interview shared her experience. Sandy Brinton at the rape center provided a written statement.
In late July, Clark received yet another report, this time a notarized letter through the rape center from DeAnna L. Richardson, describing in detail an exam-room rape that she said occurred during a visit to Withers in January 1980. “He put his finger into my vagina and moved it around and round. After Dr. Withers removed his finger, he then penetrated my vagina with his penis. . . . “
Clark was struck by the similarities in statements made by people unknown to one another. By mid-September, he’d decided there were too many such allegations to ignore. He wrote to Withers’ attorney, declaring his intent to file a complaint.
This lawyer sent back what Clark would later call “a nasty letter.” It harshly questioned the reliability of Clark’s witnesses and the ethics of a prosecutor bringing charges amid so much doubt.
Clark wavered. There were legal problems. Some victims were reluctant to talk, some possibly unreliable; many incidents were simply beyond the law. Groping the breasts of a woman older than 18 was only a misdemeanor with a one-year statute of limitation. The law required genital insertion, or a victim younger than 16, to make it a felony with a five-year statute of limitation.
There were less tangible problems too. Clark had limited resources and backing. He faced the prospect of standing alone in a close-knit community that had been silent about Withers for years.
He still believed that charges should be filed or that Withers should quit, he advised the doctor’s attorney in early October. But “perhaps my judgment is erroneous.” He would, therefore, without waiving possible criminal charges, forward the case file to the Idaho Board of Medicine.
It remains unclear what the board did with the file Clark handed it that October. It can be said that none of the victims named in the file were contacted by the board. Nevertheless, the board managed to reach a judgment within two months.
“On December 8, 1994, I spoke with the medical board,” Clark wrote four days later to Patricia Day Hartwell, director of the Rape Response Center. “It is the board’s conclusion that Dr. Withers did nothing wrong. The board evaluated the evidence including the provided letters, and found them not credible. I will be reviewing this matter in light of this new information.”
The first woman to come forward with a story about Withers probably did so almost 32 years ago, in late 1964 or early 1965. Carol Hannah was 24 then, and fighting a bad cold. She visited Withers at his office, then in Blackfoot, Idaho. “He fondled my breasts, he ran his hand up my leg to my crotch area,” she recalled in testimony and recently, in an interview. “I knew it was wrong. I was petrified, in total shock. But it was confusing. I was young and thought doctors did no wrong.”
Impoverished, unable to travel, her young husband dying of lymphoma, Hannah saw no option but to return several more times to Withers after she became pregnant in the summer of 1965. “He was extremely rough, he did too much. He’d roll his chair toward me. . . . He grinned as he did it. He knew he could get away with it.”
She eventually turned to the Blackfoot police, to no avail. “They laughed when I went to them. ‘You misunderstood,’ they told me. ‘That doesn’t happen here.’ So I shut up. I was so naive, I was just stupid. I thought I had to put up with it.”
DeAnna Richardson, in an interview and courtroom testimony, said she also met with dismissal when, in January 1980, while a Ricks College student, she told others she’d just been raped by Withers in his office. “I was in shock when I left his office. I walked across the street to a church homemaking meeting. I remember my friends trying to get me to eat, I remember letting Jell-O slide down my throat. I told a therapist about it the next day. Then I told a [Mormon] bishop the next week. No one ever did anything. I didn’t think anything could be done.”
By the time Sherri Fullmer tried in 1986 to tell people at a Rexburg party that Withers had fondled her breasts while she lay in a hospital bed sick with pneumonia, she could elicit only shrugs. “They all knew about Withers already. It was so hush-hush.” As time passed, Fullmer said, she kept discussing Withers, especially with nurses and doctors when she took her children for checkups. “They wouldn’t look at me or even answer. They all wanted to make it go away.”
Patients and nurses who submitted complaints to Madison Memorial Hospital found no more encouraging a reception.
In late September 1992, a parent wrote the hospital’s executive director, Keith Steiner, to report that Withers, without a nurse present, had examined her daughter’s breasts and pelvic area when she went to the emergency room after being hit in the head by a volleyball. Steiner wrote back, saying he’d received “an absolute denial” from Withers. “I will say that I have not had any indication of this type of behavior from the doctor,” he added. “He is greatly respected in our community.”
Two months later, the hospital found it harder to ignore an incident report filed by one of its own nurses, who thought Withers “was very handsy” when she came to the emergency room with a back injury. A note on the bottom of this nurse’s report indicates “policy developed and taken to medical staff in Feb .”
This policy, hospital personnel would later tell a special prosecutor, instructed nurses not to leave Withers alone with a female patient. It didn’t stop the complaints, though. In fact, at one staff meeting, the view was expressed that Withers appeared to enjoy his misconduct even more when a nurse or other third person was present.
In March 1993, a nurse reported that an emergency room patient had blanched and mouthed the words, “Don’t let him near me,” the moment Withers entered her room. He’d “fondled” her in a previous exam, the patient told the nurse. He gave her “the chills”; he would “never touch me again even if I’m dying.” In concluding her report, the nurse wrote, “I am very concerned with what happens when [Withers] is covering our ER.”
Yet another nurse filed a report six months later. Examining a patient for hives on her legs, feet and hands, Withers slid his hands under her blouse. “He looked right at me and did it. . . . “ the nurse wrote. “I didn’t have enough nerve to confront him with this. I’m sorry.” A note scribbled at the bottom of this account indicates that it was “reviewed in exec comm” in October 1993.
That was just about when Sherri Fullmer received a call summoning her to the hospital’s emergency room, where she occasionally worked as a translator for Spanish-speaking patients. A Latina had been beaten by her mate.
In Spanish, the patient told Fullmer where she hurt: her head and shoulder. Then Withers entered the unscreened cubicle.
Fullmer told him where the woman hurt. Immediately, according to Fullmer, the doctor’s hands went up the patient’s skirt. To Fullmer, it seemed obvious he was groping her vaginal area. Kneading it, like he was making bread. All the while watching the patient’s face, his expression was deadly serious.
“Did you tell the doctor where I hurt?” the patient asked Fullmer.
“Dr. Withers,” Fullmer said, “she doesn’t hurt there.”
According to Fullmer, he kept kneading under the patient’s skirt.
“Please tell him again,” the patient implored.
Withers unbuttoned the patient’s blouse and began groping her breasts.
“Please tell him I don’t hurt there,” the patient urged.
“Dr. Withers,” Fullmer said. “You know she doesn’t hurt there. She hurts around her head and shoulders.”
Fullmer thought Withers was acting as if she weren’t there. She felt amazed, and angry. Withers, it seemed to her, had become God of his own world. She wanted to scream out that he was molesting this woman. She felt afraid, though, and dumbfounded.
Then, a week later, it happened again. Another Latina arrived at the emergency room, the victim of a car accident. Her head hurt.
Fullmer talked to her. Then Withers walked in. “This,” Fullmer said, “is kind of like the last one, Dr. Withers.”
He wouldn’t acknowledge her. According to Fullmer, his hands immediately went up the patient’s blouse, before Fullmer could say where the patient hurt.
“Dr. Withers,” Fullmer said. “She doesn’t hurt there. She hurts about her head.”
Fullmer felt angrier than she’d ever been. The next day, she said, she called hospital director Steiner. She says she told him about the incidents with the two women, and her own experience years before.
To a special prosecutor many months later, Steiner would deny ever having a substantive conversation with Fullmer about these matters. Fullmer scoffed. “He knew it was me on the phone. We know each other.”
According to Fullmer, Steiner indicated that they were “aware” of Withers’ problem. We have counseled with him several times, Steiner said, and given him guidelines to follow. Then Steiner handed the phone to a nurse, saying, “I’m really busy right now, Sherri.”
Fullmer said she next turned to a lawyer, who was serving as a prosecuting attorney for Madison County. “He told me he wouldn’t help me. He told me he wouldn’t take on a case like this. He called it a ‘no-win situation.’ ”
In a final effort, Fullmer turned to a private attorney. He couldn’t touch it either. A conflict of interest, he said, without elaborating.
“I was just amazed,” Fullmer said. “I couldn’t get anyone to help. So I finally let it go. What could I do?”
Reasons for Silence
The respect accorded doctors and the protective insulation of self-policed medical communities form some of the reasons offered now for the extended reticence regarding Withers. So too does the relatively lower station of those who visited his examining rooms. Withers was friendly, likable and established, one woman observed, while “most of his victims were just poor Idaho folks.”
They were also not his regular patients. Withers often worked weekends, and at the local hospital’s emergency room, seeing whoever came in. Students, transients, emergencies--those apparently were his targets. “If it had happened to prominent women with roots in the community,” said Dan Sparhawk, a former managing editor of the Rexburg Standard-Journal newspaper, “it would have been different.”
Instead, it was often a solitary woman’s word against the doctor’s. The victims were “embarrassed;” the victims didn’t want to “offend;” the victims feared others would think them “tainted.” Pat Day Hartwell at the Rape Response Center put it this way: “He’s grabbing breasts. That’s bad, but how far do you want to go with that?”
It also may have affected official responses that a number of those who complained about Withers were women struggling with personal problems. Some had been to therapists, some had troubled histories, some were burdened by issues of self-esteem that preceded their contacts with Withers. “I was numb, I just wanted it all to go away,” said one teenage girl. “I wasn’t scared of the doctor, I was scared of life.”
If the stories about LaVar Withers had continued to come solely from such women, there is no telling whether they would ever have been acknowledged. They didn’t, though. In early 1995, a month after the state medical board declined to act against him, a woman unlike most of the others raised her voice. If there is one moment that truly marks the start of Withers’ downfall, it is the day Tee Andrew appeared in his examining room at the Rexburg Medical Center.
Andrew, 53 then, was an artist who’d taught landscape painting for 20 years, both at Ricks College and in her Rexburg shop. For 12 years at Idaho Falls High School, she’d also taught community education classes and led self-esteem workshops. A convert to the Mormon Church, she’d been given the highest honors and positions that it affords women. She was married to an accountant, and had three sons. “Dr. Withers chose the wrong woman this time,” Andrew observed recently. “He made a dreadful mistake.”
It was noon on Monday, Jan. 9, 1995. Andrew was suffering from yet another migraine. Her longtime family physician, Jud Miller, was no longer in general practice, so Andrew had been given an appointment with Withers. Lying on the exam table, wracked by pain and nausea, she watched him approach. She knew something about his reputation, but wasn’t expecting a problem. Her husband, after all, was in the room.
Andrew has offered her account of what followed in interviews, written statements and courtroom testimony. Withers, she said, pulled up her sweatshirt and put a stethoscope on the top of each breast. As he did so, his expression began to change. He now looked terribly sober, his face drawn, his cheeks shaking. He straightened up, let go of the stethoscope, looked over at her husband, and started talking to him. As he spoke, he put his hands under her sweatshirt and cupped her left breast, taking it in his hand, pulling it toward him, then flattening it against her chest.
After Withers left, Andrew sat up and turned to her husband. “Honey, the doctor just felt me up.”
Where others assumed they alone had been molested by Withers, Andrew sensed she wasn’t his only victim. He did it so smoothly, she reasoned, without drawing attention to himself. He did it with her husband sitting right there, as if he felt certain that his conduct wouldn’t be questioned.
For an instant, Andrew wanted to summon all the other doctors at the medical center and rage. Instead, she decided, she would put this in the hands of authorities.
When Andrew called the Idaho Board of Medicine three days later, she first asked if the board had any sexual-abuse complaints against Withers. She could hear the board’s investigator tapping on a computer keyboard. At medical boards across the country, such computers yield only reports of formal actions taken, so it was no surprise that this one apparently did not know of special prosecutor Clark’s recently disregarded file. “No,” the investigator replied, “nothing on Withers.”
That day, Andrew gave the board something. First on the phone, then in a formal, five-page written complaint.
The next day she called Jud Miller at his home. This was the same doctor the Rasmussens had called a year before about their 13-year-old daughter.
According to Andrew, Miller said he was “aware of some problems” Withers had had in the past, but he thought Withers had stopped. Miller sounded obviously upset now. It was time, he told Andrew, to take action. He advised her to call Withers’ Mormon stake president, Farrell Young. Tell him I told you to call, Miller said. Tell him he can talk to me.
That a doctor in Jud Miller’s situation would direct Tee Andrew at this moment not to medical or legal authorities, but to a church official, tells much about this region.
A good number here object to suggestions that the Mormon culture in any way caused the failures to speak out against Withers. Mormon Church officials emphasize that the church has “long expressed its abhorrence of any form of abuse . . . it is right and proper that the perpetrator be subject to the course of the law.” In fact, although not revealing so publicly, the church placed Withers on probation in the fall of 1995.
All the same, it is impossible to examine the Withers matter without considering that it has unfolded in a predominantly Mormon community. Church, job and community roles are deeply interconnected here; hospital director Steiner is a Mormon bishop, and so is Jud Miller.
The church’s values permeate the culture: to forgive and move on is a central teaching. So, by implication at least, is respect for authority and deference to men, for Mormon men are lay members of the church’s priesthood, while no woman can be. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to see why some Mormon women might find it difficult to speak out against a male Mormon doctor whom the church at the time regarded as a member in good standing.
Yet that is just what Andrew did. Following Miller’s advice, she that same day called Young, a dentist. Stake presidents sit above bishops in the Mormon hierarchy; Young’s great-great-grandfather was the Mormon pioneer Brigham Young.
“I’m not going to mince words,” Andrew began. Then she told her story, and offered to take a polygraph test. According to Andrew, Young mainly expressed his sorrow and appreciation for her call, right up until she told him she meant to notify the police.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that now,” Young responded. “I’d appreciate you letting me take care of things from my end.”
In an interview months later with the Idaho Statesman newspaper, Young didn’t dispute this account. Yes, he agreed, he “may have said do not go to the police immediately,” because Mormon doctrine stresses forgiveness. “When people have a hurt, they should leave it alone. Put it away and look for the good.”
Andrew wasn’t happy with Young’s request. But in the end--”being a co-dependent Mormon female” she later observed wryly--she agreed to wait.
Only for a month though. Having not heard from Young--she never would--Andrew in mid-February visited the police and prosecutor Steve Clark, who was still evaluating the Withers case. She also started talking to other women.
One contact led to another; the stories multiplied. At a meeting with Clark, Andrew was stunned to learn that since she’d filed her formal complaint, Withers had apparently molested yet another woman, a Ricks College student named Katherine Proctor.
Write letters, Andrew urged each woman she spoke to. Speak out. File formal complaints with the medical board.
Katherine Proctor did just that on March 23. So did Terena Chastain, a woman from nearby Menan, on March 29. By early April, 23 women had come forward. On April 5, the Idaho Board of Medicine finally felt moved to dispatch an investigator to eastern Idaho.
Withers now understood well what trouble he faced, for he was receiving a copy of each complaint sent to the medical board. One day he called Tee Andrew’s home and left a message on the answering machine, addressing the message not to Tee but her husband. “I have to tell you I am thoroughly upset by the letter. . . . “ he began. “Please may I have an opportunity to visit with you and to apologize . . . because of this, I guess I will call it a misunderstanding. . . . “
Some time later, Withers apparently tried to defuse matters by other means. According to Dr. Donald Bjornson, chairman of the state medical board, Withers’ lawyers called the board to say the doctor was going to retire.
On April 30, 1995, he did just that. It is possible Withers’ travails might have ended at this moment if he’d simply taken down his shingle and slipped away. He didn’t, however. On the occasion of his retirement, he made himself available to a Post Register reporter bent on writing a flattering farewell profile.
A stunned special prosecutor Steve Clark stared at the front page on May 1. They’d put the doctor’s quote--”I have no regrets, wouldn’t change a thing”--in a special box with large blown-up type. How could Withers possibly have done this, Clark wondered.
The phone calls began cascading into the offices of the Post Register, the Rape Response Center and the special prosecutor. Clark, feeling overwhelmed, soon turned to the state attorney general’s office, which agreed to participate in the criminal investigation. By June, the state medical board had notified Withers that it intended to hold a public hearing.
For a time, it looked as if the overt acknowledgment the doctor’s victims had so long sought was finally at hand. It wasn’t, though. The medical board never held its hearing.
Instead, as so often happens in such matters, the board offered the doctor a secret deal. Retirement wasn’t enough, the board privately told Withers’ lawyers. To forestall a public hearing, he would have to surrender his license, and agree not to practice in Idaho or in any state.
Withers complied, effective July 31.
“This gave us what we thought was very good protection for Idaho and the rest of the country,” board chairman Bjornson would later say. “The surrender was reported to two federal databanks. I was thinking about the net effect. A hearing takes months, and much expense. This is much quicker. A surrender gives us the same result we’d get if we revoked after a hearing.”
Not quite the same result, in truth. A formal action requires public disclosure; a private deal requires none. Once again, a medical board had saved itself the burden of protracted litigation but had also saved a doctor the appearance of being punished.
Most people still knew only what they’d been told in the Post Register’s glowing profile. Withers hadn’t been held publicly accountable; Withers’ transgressions had yet to be revealed. The 32-year-old open secret remained just that.
Next: Courtroom confrontation.
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