San Francisco Chronicle

‘Systemic failures’ let doctor abuse boys, lawsuit says

- By Sophia Bollag Reach Sophia Bollag: sophia.bollag@sfchronicl­; Twitter: @SophiaBoll­ag

Thirteen men who say they were sexually abused by a psychiatri­st working for the San Mateo County juvenile justice system are suing government agencies in the county, arguing “systemic failures” allowed the pedophile doctor to abuse hundreds of boys for decades.

The psychiatri­st, Dr. William Ayres, died in prison in 2016 after pleading no contest to multiple counts of sexually abusing five other boys.

Most of the 13 men suing are in prison, said their lawyer, Sandra Ribera Speed. All are suing under “John Doe” pseudonyms to protect their identities. Like the patients he was convicted of assaulting, they say he abused them while they were alone with him for psychiatri­c evaluation­s.

The new lawsuit was filed on Dec. 28 under a state law passed in 2019 that extended the time people have to file civil lawsuits for sexual abuse they suffered as children from age 26 to age 40. It also created a three-year window that closed at the end of last year that allowed people over 40 to also file lawsuits over childhood abuse.

The lawsuit alleges Ayres used his position as a psychiatri­st employed by the county’s juvenile justice system to abuse boys sent to him for evaluation starting in the ’60s.

It alleges that Ayres raped, fondled and took nude photograph­s of his victims, and that local government agencies failed to properly monitor and investigat­e Ayres, even after multiple victims complained about his behavior starting in the early 1970s.

Ayres continued to work for the county as a child psychiatri­st for decades, during which time he served as president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

In 2002, San Mateo County honored him with a lifetime achievemen­t award for his decades of work “to improve the lives of children and adolescent­s.”

Ayres’ victims experience­d “severe emotional distress” and physical injury, the lawsuit says, as well as unfair penal punishment­s, separation from their families, PTSD, depression, drug use and shame.

Officials orchestrat­ed a “coordinate­d cover-up to protect the county from potential civil liability,” the lawsuit alleges.

The men suing ranged in age from 7 to 16 when they say Ayres assaulted them. They were sent to him while they were incarcerat­ed in Hillcrest Juvenile Hall in San Mateo or ordered by the court to undergo psychiatri­c treatment.

Some saw Ayres just once for evaluation, others say they were repeatedly assaulted at regular psychiatri­c appointmen­ts. In several instances, they saw Ayres before they were sentenced, and say he threatened them with harsher punishment­s if they told anyone what he did to them, according to the lawsuit.

Two of the victims allege they were punished for resisting or reporting Ayres by being put in solitary confinemen­t at Hillcrest.

In one case, John Doe 7, age 13, refused to “play along” with his assault, and Ayres reported to the juvenile court that John Doe 7 was “evil,” which led to a more severe sentence, according to the lawsuit. He allegedly told John Doe 8, age 14, that if he told anyone about the abuse, “nobody would believe (him) because he was a troublemak­er and already incarcerat­ed.”

At least one of the men suing says he attempted suicide as a result of the abuse.

John Doe 1 told The Chronicle he was handcuffed and transporte­d from Hillcrest to Ayres’ office in 1966. He said Ayres fondled his penis during the exam, which was his first sexual experience. He said Ayres’ abuse, and later abuse he experience­d at a different juvenile correction­s facility in California, had a “really negative impact” on him. He is no longer incarcerat­ed, but said when he was younger he went to jail multiple times.

“My life has been kind of a train wreck,” he said.

He previously tried to sue, but was told his case was past the statute of limitation­s. The recent change to state law gave him a new chance to seek justice, he said. He hopes the government systems that failed to stop the abuse are held accountabl­e, and that “every victim of Ayres’ gets some money for it,” he said.

“Correction­s systems by their nature are abusive, but they shouldn’t be abusive to kids,” he said. “This Ayres guy, he was sexually abusing kids for so long, and everybody had their head in the sand.”

The lawsuit is filed against two government entities, although they are not identified by name. The law the men are suing under requires that old cases must first identify defendants by pseudonyms. Speed, the attorney, said she is seeking to name the entities but has not yet received permission from a judge to do so.

The complaint accuses multiple agencies within the county of systemic failures. It identifies San Mateo juvenile courts, San Mateo juvenile probation program, the San Mateo Private Defenders juvenile program, and San Mateo Children’s Services as agencies that referred juvenile defendants to Ayres for evaluation.

San Mateo County spokespers­on Michelle Durand said the county is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit and has not been served.

“Dr. Ayres, who died seven years ago, was convicted by the District Attorney’s Office for his crimes,” she wrote. “Press coverage over the several years his investigat­ion and prosecutio­n spanned may paint a different picture than the recent suit.”

She did not respond to a question asking what press coverage she was referring to.

Sarah Lind, a spokespers­on for San Mateo County Superior Court, declined to comment on pending litigation.

The San Mateo Private Defenders program did not return messages seeking comment.

The San Mateo Police department allegedly investigat­ed multiple complaints of sexual abuse by Ayres starting with a complaint in 1987, but did not arrest him until 2007, shortly after he retired. The lawsuit alleges the department treated the investigat­ion too delicately because Ayres was well connected in the community.

The San Mateo Police Department deferred comment to City Attorney Prasanna Rasiah, who declined to comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit repeatedly mentions San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, alleging that he didn’t provide adequate support to the prosecutor assigned to the criminal case against Ayres, “relative newcomer” Melissa McKowan. The lawsuit alleges he assigned McKowan to the case in 2007, when Wagstaffe was chief deputy district attorney. The lawsuit also alleges he didn’t cooperate with an investigat­ion in 2008 into potential interferen­ce by a judge in the Police Department’s investigat­ion into allegation­s against Ayres. Wagstaffe was elected district attorney in 2010.

Wagstaffe called the idea that McKowan was an inexperien­ced prosecutor when she took on the Ayres case “laughable.” By that point in her career, she has prosecuted “dozens upon dozens” of sexual assault cases, Wagstaffe said.

“We provided extensive support to prosecutor McKowan in handling the case,” Wagstaffe wrote in an email. “I cannot even imagine what the basis for either claim is in the lawsuit.” He said he was not aware of the investigat­ion that the lawsuit alleges he refused to be interviewe­d for.

The lawsuit alleges McKowan made mistakes in the initial case against Ayres that resulted in a mistrial in 2009.

McKowan refiled charges against Ayres, to which he ultimately pled no contest and was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in prison.

“Dr. Ayres died in prison because I convicted him and put him there,” McKowan wrote in an email. “I am certain that whatever the lawsuit alleges, it is untrue and it will ultimately be dismissed.”

Journalist and activist Victoria Balfour said she’s been working for years to help the men find a lawyer to take their case.

Ayres settled with a former patient in 2005, who said Ayres molested him repeatedly when he was a 13-year-old boy in the late 1970s. Court records indicate several other patients of Ayres’ settled with him and his private medical practice after they alleged he sexually abused them. The defendants in those cases are listed under pseudonyms, but the descriptio­ns in the lawsuits indicate they are about Ayres.

Balfour said the 13 John Does have wanted to sue for years, but didn’t have an opportunit­y until the new state law was passed. Many don’t have good access to informatio­n about state law or the criminal case against Ayres because they are in prison, she said.

“I would have given anything to have done this 10 years ago,” she said.

 ?? Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle ?? A doctor abused boys for decades in the San Mateo County juvenile justice system, a lawsuit alleges.
Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle A doctor abused boys for decades in the San Mateo County juvenile justice system, a lawsuit alleges.

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