AUGUSTA, Mich. (WOOD) — Kenneth Struble was just 8, a Cub Scout, when a Boy Scouts of America volunteer with a history of sexual assault molested him at a summer camp in Kalamazoo County.
He learned only recently that it was an assault the Boy Scouts could have prevented.
One day before the sexual assault at Camp Ben Johnston, a woman had reported to the Scouts that the same volunteer had molested her 11-year-old son just days earlier at the same camp.
But the camp director, at the direction of the national Boy Scouts of America office and in an attempt to protect the Boy Scouts’ reputation, allowed the volunteer to keep working at the camp, according to Michigan State Police reports.
“(The camp director) stated that he had been advised by his supervisors and legal counsel that he would neutralize the situation and keep it quiet,” state police wrote in a report.
“They knew they had a loose predator there and they let it go,” said Struble, who is now 48. “It’s like letting a lion out in a zoo. What you going to do, let him sit there and gobble the people up? Hurt people? No, they should have put their foot down.”
Struble was among four boys molested by volunteer David Harter at Camp Ben Johnston over the course of two weeks during the summer of 1982.
Harter was volunteering despite his conviction 15 years earlier of molesting and taking naked photographs of a teenaged boy.
What happened during the summer of 1982 at Camp Ben Johnston illustrates why the Boy Scouts of America is in the trouble it is in today.
Facing a growing number of lawsuits, the Boy Scouts, based in Irving, Texas, sought bankruptcy protection in February 2020 to create a fund for men who claim they were sexually abused as children.
That led to a proposed $1.8 billion bankruptcy reorganization plan to settle claims filed by 82,000 former scouts nationwide.
In Michigan alone, state Attorney General Dana Nessel said there are “likely upwards of 3,000 victims” over the decades, a scandal dwarfing what happened in the Catholic Church. Her office has opened five criminal investigations.
CANVAS TENTS AND LIFE LESSONS
What better place for a boy to learn about the outdoors than Camp Ben Johnston?
Canvas tents and cabins scattered among 64 acres of beech, oak and maple on Sherman Lake, near Augusta. Kellogg Company founder W.K. Kellogg donated the land to the Boy Scouts in 1925. It hosted more than 35,000 scouts before closing in 1985.
Among them was an 11-year-old Webelo from Battle Creek Troop 306 — Harter’s first known victim at the camp.
The boy’s mom told Target 8 she had hoped Scouting would teach her son life lessons.
“The camaraderie of being together with other boys his age, and for someone to look up to because I was a divorced woman and no father figure in the household, and that he could learn camping and other things at the Boy Scouts that he could be proud of that could carry him through life,” his mom said.
But Scouting could not have prepared her son for what happened that summer.
He had just joined the troop.
“Perhaps that is what made me kind of an easy target,” said the victim, who is now 49 and doesn’t want to be identified. “I was new to that troop, didn’t have a lot of connections within it already, somewhat of an outsider.”
On his very first night at camp in July 1982, the boy curled up in his sleeping bag, in his pajamas, “’bout ready to fall asleep,” he would later testify, when Harter crawled into his canvas tent. It started with tickling.
The next night, the volunteer crawled in again, again with the tickles, then molested him — an assault that would later lead to the most serious criminal sexual conduct charge, first-degree.
It was their secret, the volunteer told his 11-year-old victim.
Harter was 38.
“Obviously, as anyone in that situation would question themselves, ‘Hey, what did I do? What was I doing to provoke this?'” the victim recalled.
His mom picked him up from camp two days later.
“After we got home, I was questioning him, ‘How’d it go?’ And then he started opening up about it,” she said.
“He goes, ‘Well, you know mom, David’s gay,’ and I thought, ‘What? How would you know?’ and then he just blurted out what had happened to him, and you could have knocked me over with a feather. I was devastated from that moment on.”
Police reports obtained by Target 8 provide a timeline of the Boy Scouts’ response.
The mom immediately called her son’s troop leader, who called camp director Dan Caulkett the same day, July 19, 1982. At 10 a.m. the next day, July 20, 1982, the troop leader, camp director and mom met at Speeds restaurant in Battle Creek.
Police reports show the national Boy Scouts office immediately told local leaders how to respond.
“It was the decision of their legal counsel that being that there were no proofs against Harter, and that they did not want to damage the reputation of the Boy Scouts or Harter, that they would wait until the camp let out for the summer before approaching him,” the report states. “A decision was made to closely monitor the activities of Harter…”
“That to me wasn’t acceptable at all,” the victim’s mom said. “I mean, if it had happened to his child- I just could not believe that: ‘Oh, let’s get through this season.’ Really? You have a predator out there? It didn’t make sense to me. It was very upsetting. I was so angry.
“I can’t even comprehend that an association like themselves would allow that knowing what they were told. Even if you did not believe what I had to say, err on the side of caution to remove that person immediately until you know for sure, rather than let some other poor child go through the same thing.”
The mom said she didn’t know until Target 8 told her that Harter molested another boy days after her son was assaulted.
Police reports show it happened at 10 p.m. on July 20, 1982 — 12 hours after the meeting at Speeds Restaurant.
“That’s very upsetting, that it could have been prevented, and now that child has to suffer as well,” the mother said.
That victim, Ken Struble, recalls what happened 39 years ago.
“There’s fragments that come back,” Struble said. “I only get little fragments and memories, and not all of them are all good.”
He remembers being afraid of another boy at camp, which is what led him to spend nights in a trailer where Harter was staying and where Harter molested him. Harter had set up a darkroom in the trailer, where he developed photos he took of Scout groups. He was allowed to sell the photographs for 50 cents each to supplement his income.
“He kind of took me under his wing, showing me his trade of photography, which he is a really good photographer,” Struble said. “He had his disguise. He had where he could get close, he could pick his targets. I felt like prey: He was the hunter, I was the prey.”
SPITTING OUT LICORICE AND SWEARING TO TELL THE TRUTH
Kenny was 9 when he had to testify against Harter in court, a boy cast into a strange and overwhelming world of judges, police officers, attorneys and bad guys.
“I do remember sitting in front of the judge,” he said.
The Kalamazoo County judge told him to spit out his licorice, then asked his name and how to spell it.
“My first name is Kenneth, that’s my real name. But I have two nicknames, one’s Kenny and one’s Ken,” he testified.
The judge asked if he knew what it meant to swear to tell the truth, if he knew what a conscience was — that voice that tells him when he’s doing something bad, like lying.
“Well, the girl that sits in front of me in school does,” the little boy tried to explain. “She keeps turning around. She doesn’t say nothing, but she keeps turning around and bugging me.”
And so it went, a Cub Scout testifying about how the Boy Scouts volunteer he knew only as Dave had done things to a part of his body he couldn’t scientifically, or legally, identify.
For the record, he pointed to his lap to show the judge where.
Struble said he didn’t know until Target 8 told him that another boy’s mom had already reported Harter to the Scouts.
“It could have been prevented, and it wasn’t,” he said.
CAMP DIRECTOR DISPUTES TIMELINE OF REPORT
Dan Caulkett, the camp director, was in his late 20s and just starting his career in the Scouts.
“It was probably my lowest point of my 50 years in Scouting,” he said. “It was very hard for me. I didn’t feel comfortable confronting him.”
Harter had come to his camp “highly recommended,” already an assistant scoutmaster with Webelos troop number 306 out of Battle Creek, according to his application to volunteer.
“He wasn’t on my camp staff, but he was a volunteer of the camp property,” said Caulkett, who approved the application.
Caulkett said he had no idea at the time about Harter’s criminal background — a conviction in 1967 for molesting and taking naked photographs of a 14-year-old boy.
“There must have been some kind of background checks because at times we would get names kicked back to us that you know this person is this the same person,” he said. “There were blacklists, I guess you’d call it.”
He disputes the police report’s timeline.
He recalls forcing Harter to leave the camp immediately, but police reports show Harter kept working at the camp and that state police weren’t notified until the camping season ended on Sept. 30, 11 days after the mom reported the assault.
“I dispute that,” Caulkett said.
“I swear I had called the state police yet that afternoon,” he continued. “Boy, that’s a long time ago.”
The camp director’s handwritten statement from back then describes the steps he took. They include getting written statements from the boy and his mom but nothing about calling police.
Police would later learn about two other victims, ages 11 and 12, both molested at the camp by Harter before the mom reported him.
“This is not exactly the way I remember it, and you know how angry I was at this guy?” Caulkett said. “I have made a lifetime commitment from being a school teacher to working for the Boy Scouts, being a volunteer for 30-some years for the Boy Scouts, that my reputation meant everything to me. I like to think that I’ve left my kids a little bit better off through Scouting and he tarnished that, and I was very angry about that, and I wish very ill will to that man.”
‘THE DOUBT STAGES’
At his sentencing, after pleading no contest to sexual assault, Harter stood before the judge. He pleaded for a second chance.
“I feel very bad about the whole situation,” Harter told Kalamazoo County Circuit Judge Richard Lamb. “…Sentence-wise, probation would be more than enough… I was involved in Scouting for eight years, I worked very hard at that. I feel bad about the whole situation.”
The judge sentenced Harter to nine to 15 years in prison, saying he was worried about his victims’ futures.
“We don’t know what impact in the long run this type of an experience has on a child. We do know it’s not beneficial,” the judge told Harter.
“It was devastating,” said the mom of the 11-year-old victim, looking back 39 years. “It changed his whole outlook.”
“He was happy-go-lucky before that and (after) it was just sadness,” she said. “Sadness and not really fighting out, or angry that way, just more sullen and upset. Nothing could really please him, make him happy.”
Her son is a former U.S. Marine, married and divorced three times, with three daughters. He works for an aeronautics maintenance company and lives in North Carolina.
“For me, it was I went through the doubt stages,” he said. “Hey, what did I do? Did I bring it upon? Did I not? What about me made me that victim?”
He recalls seeing a counselor but said his mother and grandmother got him through it.
“It didn’t define me. I moved on with my life,” he said.
His mom sued the Boy Scouts back then, leading to an undisclosed settlement.
“I had hoped that it had made a difference, that other children would be safer,” she said. “But after looking online and seeing how many lawsuits are still out there and they’re still in business, I don’t think they are taking any more care of our children. I really don’t. And I don’t know how they can hold their head up and stay in business.”
Ken Struble is 48, married with a daughter, and works at a meat plant near his home in Quincy in Southwest Michigan.
“I make hot dogs for a living,” he said.
“I’ve made a life for myself,” he said. “I didn’t use that as an excuse to hold me back; I went and did what needed to be done, to make me happy, and I’m happy and content.”
He only recently told his wife of 21 years about the attack.
“It’s a hard thing to grow up with, knowing that you have to keep it a secret because you feel that you’ve been violated and you don’t want people to know you’ve been violated because they look at you different,” he said. “You don’t want to be the pity. You want to just be a normal person.”
His wife Cherie Struble said her husband had made, in recent years, curious comments whenever he saw TV reports about Boy Scouts abuse, as if the reports meant something more to him.
“It puts a lot of relief on him, because now he knows he doesn’t have to keep this in and I’m not going to judge him any differently than I did the day before,” she said. “I would hate for him to take this to his grave. Nobody should have to live with something like this for so long.”
The camp is now run by the YMCA, with just a few reminders of its past.
Caulkett, the former camp director, is 68, living in the small town of Edmore. He still volunteers for the Scouts.
When Target 8 asked whether the Boy Scouts should apologize to the victims for allowing Harter access to them, he said: “I don’t know about apology for letting it happen; I guess the apology would be, I’m sorry that it happened.”
He hopes the Boy Scouts survive the scandal. He said he just recently helped seven boys in Edmore become Eagle Scouts.
“I’d like to think that they’re walking away into being young men with some valuable skills, and valuable life lessons,” Caulkett said. “Yeah, the program itself is only fallible by the people running it.”
As for Harter, he spent about a decade in prison. Then in 1998, six years after his release, he returned to prison for taking naked photographs of four boys in Grand Rapids and molesting one of them.
After his release in 2013, he was homeless, living in Grand Rapids, sometimes in a car, sometimes in a cheap motel. That went on for five years before he moved with a friend into an apartment in Standale, that friend said.
His friend said Harter told him he had been molested as a child:
“That’s what he told me: by a family friend starting when he was 11, that went on for years. I think he was just perpetuating the cycle.”
Harter was 77, still living in Standale, when he died on Sept. 22 of cerebrovascular disease.
“He was just old and started to fall apart,” the friend said.
Struble, his 8-year-old victim from the summer of 1982, said Harter will have to stand before God, if he hasn’t already.
“Well, he’s getting his justice,” he said. “Now I feel that justice is truly served.”
Earlier this year, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel released a public service announcement asking victims to come forward, hoping it could lead to prosecutions.
Nessel said she believes her investigation will reveal that the sexual abuse in the Boy Scouts was far more prevalent — “likely upwards of 3,000 victims” — than it was within the Catholic Church.
She said the same team of assistant attorneys general and state police detectives that worked on the clergy abuse investigation, leading to charges against 11 priests and four convictions, is working on the Boy Scouts case.
Anyone with information about the Boy Scouts of America is asked to call the AG’s investigation hotline at 844.324.3374 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Tips can be left anonymously.