AN INCOMPLETE SENTENCE
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."
After spending time in an orphanage, James was adopted by Annis and Pearl Christensen of Webster City, Iowa, both of whom have since passed away. "His parents were farmers, grain farmers," recalls Curtis Erickson, a boyhood friend who now lives in Golden. "They were the kind of people who, if you'll pardon the expression, wouldn't say `shit' if they had a mouthful of it. They didn't drink, they didn't smoke, they went to church."
Despite such role models, James went his own way. "I came out of that orphanage I believe with a chip on my shoulder," he says. "I was completely out of control as far as being ornery and making people take notice of me."
He says he first sexually molested a child when he was sixteen years old. Experts on pedophilia say sexual offenders frequently don't see incidents of abuse as their fault, and Christensen is no exception. He claims an eleven-year-old neighbor girl lured him into deep water at a nearby swimming lake and stuck her hand down his pants. After having sex with her several more times, he says he called off their get-togethers.
In 1952 Christensen joined the U.S. Air Force where, he says, he was raped during a stint he spent in a guardhouse for going AWOL. "Three men jumped me and held me down and proceeded to rape me in every conceivable place," he remembers.
Air Force personnel records indicate that Christensen claimed he was sexually assaulted in August 1953. They also note, however, that in a subsequent interview, he changed his story and "declared that he is a homosexual and encouraged [the three men] to have sexual relations with him... and offered no resistance when [they] committed acts of sodomy upon his person."
No charges were ever brought against his alleged attackers. (In later appeals, Christensen contended he changed his story so he wouldn't receive the regular beatings he was subjected to after he brought the incident to the attention of his superiors.) In February 1954 Christensen was given an "undesirable discharge" from the Air Force for homosexuality.
After moving around the Midwest for a year or so, Christensen says he was able to track down his biological parents. His father, Charles Logsdon, was a small-time crook who'd spent the previous three decades in and out of prison. When he finally located him, his father was sharing a large apartment with a family that worked at a carnival. They had two children, one of them an eleven-year-old girl. Once again, it was not the 22-year-old Christensen's fault.
"One evening after retiring, she came over to my room and crawled in bed with me, snuggling up," he says. "Then she put her hands where I never expected, and I reciprocated. This was the start of something that would continue for many years." When he went to visit his biological mother several months later, he took the girl with him. "Later," he reflects, again distancing himself from the incident, "I wondered why any mother would let their child go way out of state with some young man."
In 1959, after a failed marriage to a woman with three children ("I never touched any of the three," he insists), Christensen met Flora Maise. According to court records, they were married on August 18, 1960, in Adel, Iowa. Flora brought two boys under the age of two to the union.
In 1964, after drifting to California, Texas and Iowa and having two children of their own, a boy and a girl, the young couple settled in Colorado. Among the first people they contacted were the Ericksons.
Curtis Erickson, a gangly and affable man whose coffee table holds a Bible crowded with bookmarks, recalls meeting and getting reacquainted with the Christensens: "Flora never had had anything; I guess you could say she came from the other side of the tracks, although we all do, in one way or another. They were just the kind of people living from one job to the other. I think they were looking for roots. That's what they were doing."
It was in Colorado, Christensen says, "when old feelings came back, and I started molesting both [of Flora's boys]. It had been some years since I had done anything like that. Now it was back, and it stayed."
In 1965 Flora gave birth to another boy, and in 1969, her fifth son was born. The growing family changed Christensen's behavior only in scope.
"The sexual contacts continued, and then my wife contracted cancer and was in the hospital a few weeks for surgery," he says. "It was at this time that I started up with my daughter. I had also messed around with a couple other girls in the area."
After walking in on Christensen having sex with one of her sons, Flora attempted suicide, he says. Later, she was admitted to a Denver hospital as a psychiatric patient. The family continued to disintegrate. In 1975 their Golden house burned down; Christensen says one of the children set the fire. Several months later their daughter told her mother about Christensen's molestations.
"Flora came over to us first," Erickson recalls. "She said, `I'm tired of him abusing the kids.'" Next she called the police, who arrested Christensen at work. He was charged with six counts of second-degree sexual assault.
Flora filed for divorce in the spring of 1976. That August, Christensen wrote to the court on his own behalf: "The father is presently receiving medical attention and loves his children and looks forward to a complete and permanent reconciliation after he has recovered." But in January 1977, when the divorce became final, the judge denied him visitation rights.
By then Christensen was already serving time. According to prison records, Christensen pleaded guilty to all six counts of sexual assault. In exchange, on July 30, 1976, he was sentenced to spend anywhere from one day to the rest of his life in prison.
The following year, Christensen was transferred to the state hospital in Pueblo, where he began intense aversion therapy. "In January 1978 I was given ten days of electrical-shock therapy," he recalls. "An electrode was placed on my finger and right wrist. They would show me pictures of naked boys and girls doing sexual things, and I would be zapped for about four or five seconds. Then I was shown a picture of a woman and would receive no shock.
"When the ten days were over, I was sent to the biofeedback lab to calm down. The only thoughts I had were, I wasn't going to let them do that anymore. On January 23, at 1:15 p.m., I was on my way to the lab and, having limited ground privileges, I walked off. I was gone eleven and a half years."
end of part 1
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.