By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 1 of 2
Although he met him only once, nearly two decades ago, T.W. Norman reserves a special place in his memory for James Christensen. In 1976 the then-assistant district attorney for Jefferson County prosecuted Christensen on charges of sexually molesting his own children.
When the file passed across his desk that spring, Norman had just finished handling a series of sexual assaults. Even then, Christensen's case stood out. "When I looked at this one," he says, "I just threw the thing across the room. It was just so perverted. I stormed out of the office. I almost quit the DA's office over this case."
In particular, Norman recalls one incident in which Christensen had his son lie on top of his naked daughter while Christensen lay underneath and performed oral sex on the boy. "It's one thing for a stepdaughter/stepfather situation. But for your own kids..." Norman's voice trails off. "You don't forget a thing like that," he says.
Neither does the state parole board. In July 1976 Christensen was sentenced under a Colorado statute for sexual offenders called "day-to-life." The law allows the parole board to keep a convicted sex criminal under lock and key for as long as boardmembers think he is a danger to society--up to and including the end of his life.
If anyone fit the profile of a potential lifer, Christensen did. Even his mother allows that at the time he entered prison her son was "a very upset and nervous boy" who was "sick." A protective order that came out of his subsequent divorce prevented him from having any contact with his children; according to Jefferson County legal documents, even the letters Christensen was writing from jail "upset the minor children enormously."
But then James Christensen escaped.
On January 23, 1978, after fifteen months at the state hospital in Pueblo, where he'd been receiving electric-shock "aversion therapy," Christensen simply walked away. He now refuses to give details of his escape, and state prison officials say there is no report on the incident because they don't keep records that far back.
What state records do show is that Christensen didn't re-enter Colorado's prison system until the summer of 1989--eleven and a half years later--when an anonymous phone tipster turned him in. As the tip promised, police found Christensen in a tiny town in central Iowa, only miles from where he'd grown up and married.
The 4,000-odd residents of Eagle Grove knew Christensen as Christopher Nelson, a hard-working mechanic and devoted member of the Church of the Open Bible. Even today, after learning of Christensen's awful past, many townspeople say they would happily welcome him back.
"As mayor of Eagle Grove, one of my responsibilities is to oversee the police department," Keith Riley wrote the Colorado Parole Board a couple of years ago. "From their standpoint, Mr. Christensen has been a model citizen all the time he has lived in Eagle Grove. If he has done something wrong in the past it did not show in his actions or attitude while in Eagle Grove."
George Lent, an Iowa friend, wrote a letter to the governor asking for Christensen's release. "I don't know if he got it, but I just got to try," he says. Adds Alicia Burras, another friend, "We're all praying for him."
Their supplications have not touched the state parole board. Every March since he returned to prison six years ago, Christensen, who is now sixty years old, has appeared before the board and tried to convince its members that he is no longer a threat. Each time the board, noting that he has refused to participate in the prison system's Sexual Offenders Treatment Program, has denied him parole.
By living on the outside for nearly a dozen years, seemingly without incident, Christensen appears to have satisfied--albeit illegally--the single biggest question that haunts parole boardmembers as they decide whether a sexual offender is ready to rejoin society: Will he repeat his crime? Yet by insisting that he remain in prison nevertheless, the parole board is posing a question of its own: Are sex criminals ever ready?
Numerous interviews and a review of legal documents all lead to an inescapable conclusion: James Christensen destroyed his family.
Of the six children he was raising--two stepchildren and four biological kids--several have compiled criminal records of their own. One was murdered in Oregon. Not surprisingly, all are estranged from their father. (One natural son lives in Denver, but he did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.) Christensen's second wife, Flora Maise, died of cancer several years ago.
Then again, a family of crime and tragedy was nothing new to Christensen. He was born in Iowa on July 3, 1935, and was quickly separated from his parents. His biological mother, Catherine Derrickson, now lives in Seaside, Oregon.
"I married James's father, Charles, in 1932, while he was an escaped convict," she recalls. "After we had James, I got sick and had to go to the hospital. So he took our two boys and put them up for adoption. I didn't even know about it. I didn't see James until he was 23 years old. So I don't know about his past, except for what he told me. But I don't think he'd lie to me. I'm his mother."