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Lawsuit accuses rehab facility of negligent hiring in sex abuse case

ST. PAUL - A Minnesota behavioral health company that hired a man who has since been convicted of sexual abuse at an East Grand Forks residential treatment center knew he had a history of criminal sexual conduct before putting him in charge, acco...

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Bruce Biddlecome
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ST. PAUL - A Minnesota behavioral health company that hired a man who has since been convicted of sexual abuse at an East Grand Forks residential treatment center knew he had a history of criminal sexual conduct before putting him in charge, according to a civil suit filed in Ramsey County.

Bruce Biddlecome, former director of Douglas Place Treatment Center, pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult, a gross misdemeanor, in May 2016 after admitting to engaging in sexual acts with a center resident in 2014. He was sentenced to serve five months in jail.

A lawsuit filed in Ramsey County claims that Meridian Behavioral Health, which operates Douglas Place, knew of Biddlecome's criminal history, including a 2012 charge of soliciting a prostitute in St. Paul that was reduced to a misdemeanor loitering with intent to participate in prostitution charge shortly before he was named director of Douglas Place.

The suit, filed on behalf of the victim by the Plymouth, Minn., law firm Kosieradzki Smith, seeks punitive damages against Biddlecome and calls for negligent hiring and retention claims against Meridian Behavioral Health.

A motion hearing in the case is scheduled for Friday, with a tentative jury trial set for Jan. 18, 2018.

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"Our biggest concern is, what the heck is this guy doing running a treatment center?" said Andrew Gross, an attorney representing the victim, who was 28 at the time of the assaults.

Biddlecome, 42, was initially charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct by a person in an authority role, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. That charge was ultimately reduced to sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult after a judge ruled Biddlecome was not a counselor for the victim. In Minnesota law, all clients of residential treatment centers are considered vulnerable.

The woman told investigators Biddlecome sexually assaulted her twice when he took her in his truck on two different trips to Wal-Mart and Gordmans in November and December 2014 while she was a patient at the center, according to a court document.

Both times, Biddlecome demanded she have sex with him and threatened she would go back to where she came from - she understood him to mean jail - if she did not comply, a court document states.

The woman told investigators Biddlecome assaulted her a third time on Christmas Eve 2014 when he went into her room at Douglas Place and said he had come "for an early Christmas present and that it was her," according to a court document.

He admitted to having sex with the victim on Christmas Eve 2014 when pleading guilty to sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult.

In a deposition, Biddlecome said he knew having sexual encounters with residents was unethical, not illegal.

The lawsuit claims Meridian knew of Biddlecome's solicitation charge and subsequent guilty plea to loitering with intent to participate in prostitution. In an interview conducted with Biddlecome as part of the civil suit, he recalled his exchange with Meridian's CEO in which he told Meridian about the prostitution charge was was told it would not be spoken about again.

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Meridian knew the 85-bed Douglas Place was heading in the wrong direction under Biddlecome's leadership before the sexual assault, the lawsuit claims. Patrick Pemel, who took over Douglas Place after Biddlecome was fired, testified in a deposition that in October 2014 he told Meridian the center had become a "madhouse" under Biddlecome's leadership.

"There just was a lack of oversight from Bruce to create a facility that was safe," Plemel testified.

No changes were made after Plemel's October 2014 complaint, he said.

Meridian acquired Douglas Place in January 2014, and brought in Biddlecome as executive director at that time, according to news archives.

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