WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Judge Deciding on Release of Midwest Academy Search Warrants

Feb 28, 2016

There are still many more questions than answers regarding the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at Midwest Academy, a southeast Iowa boarding school for teens. The path to finding some of those answers appears to be the legal system as the last week has been filled with court filings and hearings regarding the school.

The culmination was a roughly 40 minute hearing Friday morning in the 2nd floor courtroom of the south Lee County Courthouse in Keokuk. At issue was whether two search warrants executed at the school and a nearby treatment center on January 28, 2016 should be released to the public.

The hearing before District Court Judge Mary Ann Brown pitted the Des Moines Register against the state of Iowa. The newspaper requested copies of the search warrants and other related documents from the Clerk of Court but was denied, prompting the legal challenge for access.

The hearing was scheduled after Brown ordered the release of two documents: A February 9 request from Lee County Attorney Mike Short to seal the search warrants and a February 10 order from District Court Judge Gary Noneman to seal them and file them in a manner in which the public could not view them.

Short’s request to keep the search warrants private revealed a target of the investigation and some of the items collected by law enforcement.

  1. Search warrants were issued which, in part, dealt with alleged sexual abuse by Ben Trane, the owner and administrator of Midwest Academy, and involving a named prior student.
  2. Seized pursuant to that portion of the investigation were computers, cameras, cell phones and electronic items. Also seized were items of trace evidence involving bodily fluids for DNA and related forensic examination.
  3. Credit cards were also seized to determine if those cards were used in connection with the purchase of items for female students.

The request also stated it could be months before any charges could be filed.

The newspaper argued during Friday’s hearing that the public should not have to wait months to know what exactly the government was looking for through the search warrants.

Attorney Leita Walker pointed out the state wants to keep the documents private after the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) issued a press release announcing the execution of the search warrants. The DCI also held a news conference to further discuss the investigation.

The state argued the release of the search warrants would harm the case because witnesses might destroy evidence, change their stories, or not participate at all. It also said law enforcement agents have been working non-stop on the case, but there is still a lot to do.

Midwest Treatment Center was also a target of the Jan. 28 search warrants.
Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

Judge Brown told both sides during Friday’s hearing that her interpretation of existing law is that the search warrants cannot be released to the public until a filing of the inventory is returned to the Clerk of Court. The state acknowledged that had not occurred yet and that there is not a deadline to do so.

The newspaper countered, asking Brown to impose a deadline so as to not allow the state to hide the documents indefinitely by not returning the inventory. Lee County Attorney Mike Short told Brown he is aware of situations in which the inventories for search warrants were never returned to the court.

Brown said she intentionally had not reviewed the search warrants in anticipation of a hearing on whether to release them to the public. She said she would do so before issuing her ruling, which will also cover a 3rd search warrant that came to light during the hearing.

That warrant covered a raid several days later that resulted in the filling of a 26-foot long U-Haul truck with documents and records for the school.

Brown did not provide a timeline for issuing her ruling.

TRANE SEEKS SEARCH WARRANTS

It was noted at the start of the hearing that representatives for Midwest Academy owner Ben Trane were not present. Trane is seeking copies of the search warrants on his own.

A filing from his attorney, George Jones, earlier in the weeks stated that enough time has passed since the search warrants were executed that his client should have access to them.

No hearing has been set on Trane’s request.