The sexual abuse and child endangerment trial of Ben Trane enters its 6th day Tuesday in the south Lee County Courthouse in Keokuk. Jurors heard from seven witnesses Monday, including state employees and law enforcement agents who investigated Midwest Academy.
The first witness, though, was a former employee of Midwest Academy who prompted one of the investigations into the former boarding school in Lee County.
Cheyenne Jerred – former Midwest Academy employee
Jerred testified that she was on the night shift at Midwest Academy in 2015, assigned to watch the female students so they did not try to escape or harm themselves or others.
“You would walk around, do head counts, make sure the girls were doing what they should be doing,” said Jerred.
Jerred said she was told not to interact with the students, but she said she would ask them how they were doing and other pleasantries while on duty.
She said in late November, one of the female students was on suicide watch, so she had to sleep in the hallway so staff could keep an eye on her.
“I asked if she was OK and she said no,” Jerred told the jury Monday. “ She was really scared and said ‘Mr. Ben' had done things.”
Throughout the trial, the prosecution has said students referred to Ben Trane as Mr. Ben.
Jerred said the student was very upset. “Pretty much with tears in her eyes. Very emotional.”
Jerred said she told her it was OK and that if she needed to talk about it, she should talk to a counselor. Jerred said she then reported it to her shift leader.
“The shift leader tried to talk to her but [the student] did not trust her so she did not talk to her,” said Jerred, who eventually encouraged the student to write down what happened, which she did. Jerred said, she did not read what the student wrote.
“I did not want to read it,” said Jerred. “I gave it back to her. I did not want to know and staff is not supposed to read personal journals.”
Jerred said soon after, on her day off, she was called into a meeting with several staff members. She said she assumed the meeting was in regards to the allegations by the student, so she said she called the Iowa Department of Human Services on Dec. 1, 2015 and informed the agency of what she was told to make sure the school did not cover it up.
Jerred was eventually fired. Jerred said she had no further contact with the student after her termination. But she did sue the school and won a nearly $750,000 settlement for wrongful termination, but that point was not brought up in front of the jury.
Elizabeth Webster – DHS employee (Lee County)
Webster testified that she was a Child Protection Worker in Lee County. She was assigned to the case of alleged sexual abuse of a Midwest Academy student following the Dec. 1 phone call by Cheyenne Jerred.
Webster said this case was classified as a one-hour assessment, compared to a 24-hour assessment or a 96-hour assessment.
“We need to respond immediately to insure the safety of the child,” said Webster.
Webster testified Monday that Jerred’s call came in at 3:06 PM on Dec. 1, 2015. She said another call came in to the DHS hotline involving the same student from a Midwest Academy employee named Jane Rider. That call was made 52 minutes later at 3:58 PM.
Webster said the student was removed from the school per a court order that same day and taken to the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
“She appeared nervous but seemed fine,” said Webster. “She did not talk a lot the first day I met her.”
Webster said she eventually mentioned the sexual contact and identified Trane.
Webster said she returned to the school on Dec. 4 to retrieve the student’s belongings where she spoke with Ben Trane.
“He wanted info on how to proceed,” said Webster. “He was not having contact with the girls” and he said “he had not been alone with her and that he was glad there had been no opportunity for that.”
Webster also testified Monday that she went to the school on Jan. 28, 2016 to interview students after 30 law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at the school.
Ryan Herman – Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI)
Herman testified Monday to his limited involvement in the investigation into Midwest Academy. He said he participated in the Jan. 28, 2016 search warrant at the boarding school, being on-site from 12:00 P.M. that day until 4:00 A.M. the following day.
Herman said he searched several rooms on the property and then interviewed students once the decision was made to interview every student on campus.
He also attempted to execute another search warrant on Feb. 1, 2016 for student records at the school, but he said there were too many records to transport with his vehicle, so agents returned a few days later with a large U-Haul truck.
Herman said he was also involved in interviewing former students and parents of former students about their time with Midwest Academy.
Tom Pearson – FBI (Cedar Rapids Office)
Pearson testified that the FBI opened an investigation into Midwest Academy in the spring of 2015. He was assigned to the case in the fall of that year.
He said soon after he was on board, he received a call from the Iowa DCI that it was investigating an allegation of sexual abuse at the school. He said that is when the FBI and the DCI started working together on the cases, including the coordination of the Jan. 28, 2016 search warrant.
Pearson said during the execution of the search warrant, he and another DCI agent, Joe Listina, interviewed Trane for roughly 6 hours in a break room in the school. Pearson said Trane was not under arrest and there were opportunities for bathroom breaks and water breaks.
Pearson testified Monday about the information obtained during that interview.
- There were 77 students enrolled at the time, down from roughly 300 in the past.
- The listed tuition was $5,000/month though Pearson said reduced amounts were offered.
- Trane felt “the nation should follow his school system with the success he had.”
- Trane was a “family representative” for four students, including the student accusing him of sexual abuse. Prior testimony stated a family representative is charged with keeping a family apprised of a student’s condition and wellbeing.
- Trane mentioned taking students to various stores (Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Sam’s Club) and the mall, but Pearson said he did not mention one store in particular: Victoria’s Secret. (During cross examination – Pearson said there were a lot of stores in some malls, including Victoria’s Secret).
- Trane said he had no sexual contact with his accuser. “Trane said [the student] did not pursue any sort of relationship with him. He said she did not try to pursue any type of closeness.”
- Trane did not recall the student being in his home. (She previously testified that she was in his home and that was a time of an unwanted sexual advance.)
- Trane described the isolation rooms for out of school suspensions as “time-out rooms.” “Once students calm down, the doors are opened,” is how Pearson said Trane described them.
- Midwest Academy was planning to expand to another location along Highway 218.
- Trane said he turned off some of the video cameras in the school because he kept catching employees stealing and did not want to deal with that anymore.
Pearson said Trane was calm and cooperative during the interview. He said after the six hour discussion, he helped interview the students who were still in the school.
Pearson was also responsible to transporting the student records to the FBI field office in Omaha, Neb. for eventual analysis. He said some of the records had been removed from the school and were found in the garage of a Keokuk residence.
Pearson confirmed during cross examination that Trane said he had no relationship with his accuser.
Joe Lestina – Iowa DCI (Lead Agent on Midwest Academy Investigation)
Lestina described for the jury Monday that he met with the student accusing Trane of sexual abuse in Minneapolis soon after she left the school. He had the student call and text Trane’s cell phone, but did not receive a response.
Lestina testified that 30 officers were needed during the Jan. 28, 2016 search warrant because the complex was roughly 100,000 square feet and the additional manpower was needed to relocate students to allow for the search. He explained the layout of the complex to the jury during his time on the witness stand.
Lestina also discussed records collected from Trane’s cell phone, which law enforcement seized (along with the passcode) during the search. The jury was shown nine photos that included the student accusing Trane of sexual abuse along with several other students.
Lestina said during cross-examination that there were hundreds of photos on the phone. In most of the photos, the student was hiding her face from the camera.
There were also questions raised about DNA testing during the search. Lestina said there was little DNA evidence found related to Trane or the student, which he said was not out of the ordinary.
“We often have investigations where we do not find DNA,” said Lestina. “It is more common to not find DNA than it is to find DNA.”
Lestina did say at the end of his testimony that seminal fluid was found on carpet in front of the camera monitors in one of the offices.
Jenny Richardson – DHS Employee (Lee County)
Richardson said the DHS and the FBI both received complaints related to Midwest Academy in the spring of 2015. She said the complaints involved the amount of time seven students spent in isolation rooms while attending the school.
Richardson said when she traveled to the school, she was informed that just two students remained in the school, so she removed them and interviewed them in her office. She said something that stood out was that one of the students was very hungry.
“He kept asking for food,” said Richardson. “He even opened the refrigerator looking for food.”
Richardson said she was concerned about their health, in particular weight loss, and their time in isolation, with both students spending more than 50% of their time in the rooms during their time at Midwest Academy.
She described several other meetings with Trane and discussions about therapy, the isolation rooms, food intake, and regulations.
Richardson also testified about an instance in Dec. 22, 2015 involving Trane. She said she was shopping at Victoria’s Secret in a mall in Coralville when she heard Trane’s voice.
Richardson said she saw Trane with who appeared to be a group of female students from the school. She said she did not know if there were any other adults with them.
Richardson said she immediately texted her co-workers to inform them because she said Trane had stated a couple weeks earlier that he would avoid instances of being alone with female students, following the complaint called in by Cheyenne Jerred.
Rick Rahn – Iowa DCI
Rahn testified that he participated in two of the search warrants executed at Midwest Academy. He said during one of the searches that a “sexual activity survey 2015” was discovered in one of the offices.
Rahn said after reviewing a few of the surveys, he informed Agent Joe Lestina of the surveys. The jury was allowed to review the surveys prior to the end of court for the day.