Twelve Natrona County residents will decide this week whether a man working at the Central Wyoming Fair is guilty of kidnapping and molesting a 5-year-old boy he met at a Casper bowling alley.
“You’re going to find that this is a case of a 5-year-old boy being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person,” Assistant District Attorney Brett Johnson said in his opening statements during the first day of trial Monday.
Prosecutors charged Joshua Winters with kidnapping, first-degree sexual abuse of a minor and second-degree abuse of a minor in July. They told jurors that Winters abducted the boy from the arcade at the El Mark-O bowling alley, took him across the North Platte River and molested him. If convicted, Winters could face up to life in prison for the kidnapping charge and a total of 70 years for the sexual-abuse charges.
During his opening statement, Johnson said that Winters grew up in Rhode Island and has traveled extensively as a flight attendant and while working for a cruise company and for carnivals. Winters had been in Casper for about two and a half weeks working for a food vendor that contracts with the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo carnival before he was arrested. Winters told police he quit his job the day of the alleged offenses and had bought a ticket to Denver.
Johnson summarized the case for the jury and told them that one of the important factors they will have to consider is Winters’ potential intent when he left the bowling alley with the boy.
“The main question in this case comes down to a credibility case between this man,” he said, pointing at Winters, seated nearby, “and a 5-year-old.”
The boy is expected to testify later in the trial.
In his opening statement, Oldham criticized the police investigation of the incident and said it was never thorough or objective. He specifically noted that some interviews with the boy were not recorded and there was little evidence to suggest the boy was forced or coerced into leaving the bowling alley with Winters. He also said the boy’s story was never tested for validity and that the DNA evidence is not conclusive enough to convict his client.
Oldham asked the jury to remain open-minded, to listen to all of the evidence presented in the case and to assume that Winters is innocent until proven otherwise. He said that Winters will testify later in the trial.
“He’s finally going to be able to take that stand and tell his version of events,” Oldham said.
Winters appeared in court Monday in a light blue shirt, his long brown hair now grown past the collar. He didn’t speak except to talk with his attorneys.
Both Johnson and Oldham said they expected the jury to find in their respective favors. The trial is scheduled to last all week.
During his opening statement, Johnson also alluded to previous allegations that Winters had molested a young girl and a young boy almost 20 years ago when Winters was still a teen.
In a letter filed to the court on May 5, Sullins ruled that the evidence could be introduced in court.
According to the letter, prosecutors plan to introduce evidence that shows that an 11-year-old girl reported in 1998 that Winters had molested her multiple times starting when she was 7 years old. The girl, with whom Winters lived at the time, said that Winters would beg her or bribe her for sexual favors.
Winters told the investigators that he had oral sex with the girl and would rub his penis on her genitals, according to the details outlined in Sullins’ letter.
During the same time in 1998, a 5-year-old relative of Winters reported that Winters had molested him. Winters admitted to investigators that he touched the boy’s genitals on multiple occasions.
Winters, who was 15 at the time, was never charged with a crime in connection to the allegations, and the matter was settled in a Rhode Island family court, according to the letter.
In his letter, the judge noted that there are “substantial similarities” between the 1998 allegations and the current case, though the allegations are not identical.
The case began on July 18 with a seemingly innocuous report to the Casper Police Department advising that a child was missing. Casper police officer Levi Hallock testified Monday that the department receives a lot of these calls, but the missing child is usually found at a friend’s house or elsewhere in their own home.
This call, the officer said, was different.
The child’s mother reported that the boy had gone to play video games in the arcade at the nearby El Mark-O bowling alley with his brother and another friend. When the boy didn’t return with the others, the mother called police, and a search began.
About an hour later, a woman driving her car along Fairside Road noticed a crying boy standing alone near the road. When she stopped to talk to him, the boy said that he didn’t know where he was and didn’t know his exact address. The woman then took the boy to the Mills Police Department, which contacted Casper police.
That woman, Shannon Sierra, testified Monday that the boy was quiet and soft-spoken during the car ride.
Officer Hallock then talked with the boy, who was covered in sand. The boy said he “was not OK” and that he left the arcade with a man “that gives me things.” The boy said he went with the man to his camp by the river where the man “touched me all over and put his mouth on my privates,” according to the documents. The boy later made similar statement in an interview at the Children’s Advocacy Project.
Hallock then took the boy to Wyoming Medical Center so that the boy could undergo a rape kit. DNA collected from the boy’s anal area is expected to be entered as evidence in the trial later this week.
Employees at the bowling alley and the attached bar told police that they saw the boys playing video games and watched a man start to play the games with them. One employee identified the man as Winters.
Two of the other children also told police that a man had joined them while playing the games and had offered them money to keep playing. The man asked them to stay and play when they tried to leave, and the 6-year-old decided to stay.
During a 12-hour interview with police, Winters gave various accounts of what happened that day, according to court documents. He said that one of the children stole his backpack and he chased the child out of the bowling alley. The child then ran to the river and jumped in, hitting his head on a rock in the process. Winters said he then jumped in to help the child. After taking the child out of the river, Winters said he passed out on the riverbank.
Winters also said that he followed the boy to the river after the boy’s brother stole money out of his wallet. He said the boy told him his brother was by the river. Winters said the boy then followed Winters to the river and later fell or jumped in, at which point Winters jumped in to save him.
A few days after his arrest, a woman saw a news report about the incident and reported to police that she saw a man and a child crossing the North Platte River the evening of July 18.
The woman, Kelli Brodrecht, testified in court Monday that she was driving down West 13th Street near the fairgrounds when she saw a man walking across the river with a child in his arms. Brodrecht asked her husband to stop the car and then ran the short distance back to the area where she saw the pair.
By the time she got there, both were out of the water. She said the man was lying on the ground and the boy was in the bushes along the riverbank. When she asked whether they needed help and if they were OK, the man thanked her and waved her off. The boy didn’t say anything to her and just looked at her across the river, she said.
Brodrecht said she didn’t call police then because she assumed that the two knew each other and everyone had made it across the river.
“I had no reason to think the child was in any danger, so I left,” she said Monday.
When she saw a news story about Winters’ arrest a few days later, she said she immediately knew he was the man she saw in the river and she called 911.
Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer