Slaying suspects’ childhood ties

The plan seemed simple.

In September 2007, boyhood friends Geoffrey Grove and Nicholas Navarrette went to Grove’s ex-girlfriend’s house to steal her vehicles and a collection of guns. Grove was angry after his girlfriend, aspiring model Shpresa Hamzaj, broke up with him and returned an engagement ring.

The robbery was supposed to be "revenge" for the break-up, authorities said. But things got out of hand. At the house, Grove, 26, and Navarrette, 24, hog-tied Hamzaj and strangled her with a dog leash, police said. They then took her to the desert, where police said they shot and killed her.

But Navarrette and Grove have much more in common than the murder charges they face. Their bond goes back years, when they lived as kids at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, a nonprofit housing facility for abused and neglected kids.

And authorities are now linking Navarrette and Grove’s pasts at St. Jude’s with the murder case.

Prosecutors in mid-December persuaded a judge to open up sealed portions of a civil lawsuit Navarrette filed against St. Jude’s. Navarrette filed the lawsuit after he was molested by a worker at the nonprofit organization.

Grove was not part of the civil lawsuit. Authorities don’t believe he was molested at St. Jude’s.

Authorities claimed the records could show how badly Navarrette was abused at the facility, which will be important if he is convicted and faces the death penalty.

Ultimately, Navarrette’s lawyer could use the sexual abuse as a reason to spare him a death sentence.

Navarrette’s attorney wouldn’t comment in detail. But prosecutors said they want to open the confidential settlement to confirm some of Navarrette’s claims, such as whether the worker abused him more than he did other kids at St. Jude’s.

Grove’s attorneys tried to subpoena his records from the facility but were told none exist.

Navarrette’s childhood was tragic from the beginning. His parents abused him and his mother once stabbed him. He lived in several foster homes and landed at St. Jude’s when he was about 8.

Several years later, in 1998, a 6-foot 2-inch, 300-pound man named Larry Wisenbaker began working at St. Jude’s. Wisenbaker worked as a "cottage parent," meaning he had direct supervision over kids. Wisenbaker showed the kids, including Navarrette, pornographic tapes. He performed oral sex on Navarrette, court records state. Wisenbaker also forced some of the kids to perform sex acts with each other.

Authorities arrested Wisenbaker after boys at St. Jude’s reported the abuse. He was accused of molesting 16 boys in all, including 12 who lived full-time at St. Jude’s and another four who visited regularly.

Only after he was arrested did authorities learn the full scope of Wisenbaker’s criminal history.

He was accused of sexually assaulting seven boys at a facility similar to St. Jude’s in Texas and molesting two boys at a YMCA in Massachusetts. Prosecutors in Las Vegas also learned that Wisenbaker was convicted in 1996 of cruelty to children in Georgia after he bound and gagged two boys who were in his care.

His conviction wasn’t entered into a national criminal database, however. That meant his criminal record wouldn’t have shown up during a background check.

After Wisenbaker pleaded guilty to the Nevada charges, a judge sentenced him to four life sentences with eligibility for parole starting after about 65 years. At the time, prosecutors said Wisenbaker was the most prolific serial sex offender ever prosecuted in the state. He is at Lovelock Correctional Center, about 95 miles northeast of Reno.

In 2005, Navarrette joined a civil lawsuit against St. Jude’s brought by other victims of Wisenbaker. The lawsuit alleged that St. Jude’s was negligent when it hired Wisenbaker and shouldn’t have allowed him to oversee the kids.

The lawsuit also alleged that St. Jude’s tried to protect itself from litigation by ordering evidence related to Wisenbaker destroyed.

Those allegations came to light in a deposition from St. Jude’s former chief executive officer, the Rev. Steven Mues, who claimed that a board member asked him to destroy audio recordings of board meetings in which Wisenbaker was discussed.

Stewart Gibbons, the former board member accused of ordering the evidence destroyed, said he never asked that tapes regarding Wisenbaker be disposed of. He characterized Mues as a disgruntled former employee who misunderstood what he was saying.

Contacted recently, Mues maintained that he told the truth during the deposition.

"I was under oath. I always tell the truth," he said. "I’ll take a lie detector test on the issue of the tapes any day."

Mues resigned from St. Jude’s in 2005 after about 21/2 years as CEO. He now is the rector of St. Stephens Episcopal Church in Wichita, Kan.

St. Jude’s settled the lawsuit last year with the plaintiffs, including Navarrette. Though terms of the settlement remain sealed, District Judge Lee Gates last month allowed parts of the lawsuit to become available to attorneys. He granted the order after Chief Deputy District Attorney David Stanton, who is prosecuting Navarrette and Grove, asked him to open the records.

Stanton said the settlement agreement between St. Jude’s and Navarrette is important, because Navarrette claimed that Wisenbaker targeted him for more abuse than the other boys. By reviewing the settlement, Stanton said he could learn if the lawsuit’s payout reflects that claim. He also said Grove’s childhood records, found in Family Court, show that he manipulated other kids starting at a young age and is "devoid of human emotion."

Stanton said he subpoenaed Navarrette’s and Grove’s records from St. Jude’s but never got a response. St. Jude’s lawyer, Joe Coppedge, said the nonprofit couldn’t locate the subpoena but is now cooperating.

After the lawsuit was settled, Navarrette was flush with cash. Although he was unemployed, Navarrette showered girlfriends with gifts, buying one a Toyota 4-Runner and another a Chevrolet Silverado and jewelry, according to grand jury transcripts. He told one girlfriend he won the money from a personal injury settlement.

About six months after Navarrette reached a settlement with St. Jude’s, he and Grove carried out the slaying of Hamzaj, authorities said.

St. Jude’s said the facility has undergone changes since the Wisenbaker case. The facility, which houses about 50 kids at any given time, has a confidential phone hot line and Web site for kids to report misconduct. Residents also have quick access to the telephone number for child protective services.

The facility also does thorough background checks that include requiring more references and conducting criminal history searches. Those were done before Wisenbaker was hired but now include more safeguards, such as requiring three references. That is on top of conducting psychological evaluations for hired staff.

A staffer is responsible for investigating any incidents that involve the kids.

Las Vegas Review-Journal publisher Sherman Frederick has served on St. Jude’s national board of trustees since 2006. He had no role in the assigning or editing of this story.

Christine Spadafor, the chief executive officer of St. Jude’s, said no employee of the non-profit has been accused of molestation or sexual abuse since the Wisenbaker case.

"We’re very concerned about Nicholas Navarrette and his current situation. It’s a difficult and distressing situation for everyone involved," Spadafor said "But what we’re doing today at St. Jude’s Ranch will prevent what happened 10 years ago from ever happening again."

Contact reporter David Kihara at dkihara@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.

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