I-TEAM: Justice delayed, justice denied? Molestation suspect has yet to go to trial
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) – The I-TEAM uncovered an Augusta psychologist, accused of molesting multiple children he was treating, has yet to go to trial for 10 years.
Dr. Kenneth McPherson was arrested in 2011 and has been free on bond for more than a decade now. That is despite two grand juries indicting Dr. McPherson on not one, not two, but seven counts of child molestation.
The I-TEAM’s Meredith Anderson spent months combing through a decade of court documents, talking with sources and alleged victims, and consulting legal experts to answer: how could a man with so many felony charges involving so many children avoid trial for all this time?
Justice delayed is justice denied. It’s not just an expression, it’s what is known as a legal maxim -- or an unwritten rule.
We do want to warn you the details in this story are disturbing.
Dr. McPherson’s office on Central Avenue was supposed to be a safe haven for children, but allegations in court documents paint a much darker picture.
Court documents show concerns about the child psychologist began emerging locally more than 15 years ago. In 2005, a mother accused McPherson of molesting her four-year-old during his “therapy sessions.”
The I-TEAM found another parent also called the Department of Family and Child Services, or DFACS, to report the doctor allegedly engaged in sexual behavior saying quote (they) “played tickle with their penises” with her son.
According to this search warrant, her five-year-old told her, “That’s what we do at Dr. Ken’s office.”
A Third Child Comes Forward
Zachary Potts was a third child who stepped forward. He agreed to sit down with the I-TEAM.
“I’m uncomfortable, but I felt like it’s the right time to speak out about it.” Potts first made his allegations in 2011. That’s six years after the initial allegations in 2005. The I-TEAM found records showing back then, investigators couldn’t find evidence of a crime.
So, that meant Dr. McPherson continued to treat children for another six years. Children like Zachary. He was just 5 years old when he began weekly sessions says his grandmother, Ruby Vanenkenvoort. “His pediatrician sent him, you know, to him, and he was diagnosed with Asperger’s.” Today, Zachary is 19-years-old but he still clearly remembers the sessions with McPherson.
“There was always a toy waiting for me. Every time. Just…every time. It was, sometimes, radios. Flashlights. “ His grandmother remembers Zachary also getting Hot Wheels. Vanenkenvoort is the one who raised him and took him to the appointments. She’s also the one who first called the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office when Zachary was eight-years-old. According to the incident report, one night he told his grandmother about Dr. McPherson’s anatomy. The incident report from that first call describes Zachary as a child saying “Dr. McPherson had a big wee wee.” The incident reports states he told her he had seen it “at least two times.” Potts remembers even more.
“I didn’t have no clothes on, and all I know is he didn’t have no clothes on, neither. But I remember, he used to sit me on top of his lap when this all happened and stuff.” Vanenkenvoort remembers as well. “He said it grew like a tree, like an erection. Dr. McPherson.” According to this search warrant, that’s the same thing Zachary told investigators and when they searched his office, they found a naked photo of Zachary on Dr. McPherson’s computer.
“I can still see that picture,” recalls Vanenkenvoort. “The look on his face. It was just pure fear.”
Dr. McPherson Charged and Arrested
When a grand jury heard the case, they indicted him for having that very photo and charged McPherson with sexual exploitation of a minor. He was also indicted on seven other counts of child molestation. All of the charges are felonies.
Dr. McPherson was behind bars for 156 days in the Richmond County jail, waiting on a bond hearing. Prosecutors argued against releasing McPherson, but Judge Carlisle Overstreet granted him a $200,000 bond. McPherson wasn’t allowed to have contact with children. The then-54-year-old also had to live with his parents and have a 10 p.m. curfew. It has remained that way for more than 10 years and counting.
Dr. McPherson has yet to go to trial even though he was arrested back in 2011. That is outrageous to Ruby Vanenkenvoort.
“He’s still out there walking the streets. Not even registered as a pedophile, because he hasn’t been to court on it yet.”
Back in 2011, Dr. McPherson pleaded not guilty, so for more than a decade he’s been an accused man. But he’s also been an innocent man.
The Dead Docket and the Legal System
How it is possible that a man, indicted on seven felony counts of child molestation, has been out on bond for more than 10 years?
It’s a fair question, but no one with authority or insight into this case will go on record. So, the I-TEAM combed hundreds of pages of court documents looking for clues and something caught our eye. A potential roadblock came in 2015, when then Assistant District Attorney Rex Myers said he couldn’t locate some witnesses.
Because of that, he requested to place the case “on the dead docket.”
That means the charges aren’t dropped, but the case is suspended indefinitely.
Documents obtained by the I-TEAM show one witness Myers told the court he couldn’t find was Zachary Potts, even though Zachary and his family never left the area, their addresses remained public and the young boy remained in local Richmond County schools.
The case remained on the dead docket for almost a year. That’s when a new prosecutor, Natalie Paine, took over the case. Paine later told the judge she “was able to locate Zachary Potts” so, she was ready to try the case in front of a jury.
Potts and his grandmother remember when Paine knocked on their door. “We sat down, and she showed me pictures of me.” His grandmother remembers the encounter, and the photo, as well.
“He was standing like against the wall. Nothing on. And he had, you know, terrified look on his face.”
Dr. McPherson’s attorneys have argued this photo of his nude patient “does not even hint at sexually explicit conduct,” but prosecutors argued Dr. McPherson, as a psychologist, has no reason to have his young patients “take off their clothes.” For Potts, it’s even more frustrating as the years have ticked by.
“They had all the evidence right in front of them. So that’s what’s devastating for the people that’s got to deal with this right, right now.”
New Allegations Emerge during the Investigation
The I-TEAM found other examples of delays seemingly in McPherson’s favor. Perhaps the most significant was Judge Overstreet’s decision to exclude one of the allegations of child abuse. This accusation arose during the investigation. The fight over including the new allegations went all the way to The Court of Appeals of Georgia. According to the ruling, “after the media publicized the case against McPherson,” a man called the District Attorney’s office “and reported that he had been molested by McPherson.”
He alleged he was abused in elementary school between 1979 and 1981. McPherson was in his 20s. The alleged victim says his family knew McPherson through church. He would bring the boy and his brother gifts, take them to football games, and they would spend the night. During these visits, he says McPherson “exposed himself” and “climbed into bed with him.”
Prosecutor Natalie Paine argued before the court that the account showed a pattern by McPherson and was relevant to include at trial.
Judge Overstreet disagreed, “granting a motion to exclude it,” but did not provide a reason. The appeal followed. In the end, Georgia’s Court of Appeals overturned Judge Overstreet’s ruling allowing the previous allegations to be used at trial, calling the court’s decision to exclude the evidence “an abuse of its discretion.” After all of this, McPherson’s lawyers filed this paperwork in 2018, requesting the court dismiss all his charges. They argued his constitutional right to a speedy trial has been violated. They also argued Dr. McPherson has been punished enough and lost his professional career since his arrest, telling the court “he surrendered his license.”
The I-TEAM found the state board actually suspended the doctor’s license.
The Pain of Waiting for a Day in Court
Ruby Vanenkenvoort says she still doesn’t know what she would say to McPherson if she ever ran into him in public.
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I might lose my religion. Again, I might turn around and walk away. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
As for Zachary, he’s on track to graduate high school, but he’s also hoping he’ll be able to graduate from another class – the class of 2011. That’s the group of six different children all named as victims in the 2011 indictments, who, for now, still await their day in court.
That almost happened in 2018, but case management records show more than 20 scheduling delays since then. Each time the case came up on the court calendar, it was moved to the next, and the next, and the next. “It’s time for something to be done about it. Actions should be done,” says Zachary. “I mean, I was embarrassed at first. But, I mean, reality is that is it’s all true, you know?”
Time might heal all wounds, but in this case, it’s left some additional scars.
Zachary says he’s waited more than half of his entire life to have closure in the courtroom.
Instead, he believes he’s been a prisoner while his alleged abuser has all but been a free man. The I-TEAM reached out to Dr. McPherson, but he did not return our call. His attorney tells us he has instructed his client not to talk to the media.
When the I-TEAM first started asking questions about this case, we were told this case could be tried before a jury in October, but when October came and went, the ITEAM was then told it would probably happen in March of 2022.
Judge Flythe is now assigned to his case.
His office confirmed the trial should begin on March 7.
You can bet the I-TEAM will be watching.
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