Editor’s note: The following report includes details of alleged sexual battery of children.
A witness in the sexual battery trial of a former Palmer Home employee is claiming to be a third victim of sexual abuse, and there appears to be at least one document to back up her story.
The female witness was the third to testify in the trial of 45-year-old Seth Copes. Copes and his wife, Kara Copes, began working as house parents at the Columbus children’s home in 2006, but the couple was terminated from their position in 2013 after teenage twin girls pressed charges against Seth Copes alleging he sexually assaulted them when they were 7.
The Dispatch does not identify victims of sex crimes.
The third witness, now a 21-year-old woman living in Los Angeles, California, is not biologically related to the victims who pressed charges in 2013 but lived in the same cottage with them when all three were children at Palmer Home. She is not listed as a victim in Seth Copes’ indictment, according to court records. Seth Copes had only been charged with two counts of sexual battery.
She testified to two incidents when she was about 8 when Seth Copes touched her inappropriately. The witness also said she told Kara Copes, who told her, “This is just a dream.”
The witness said she didn’t know whether Kara Copes had followed up on her allegation, but former and current Palmer Home employees testified later to learning of a behavior incident report from 2008 referencing the witness having dreams that Seth Copes and another individual from her past were touching her inappropriately and “it hurts.”
Palmer Home president and CEO Drake Bassett said he found the document, which Kara Copes wrote, in 2013 after the twin victims told family Seth Copes had abused them. The document prompted him to call the witness to his office to interview her with a counselor present.
Bassett said he hadn’t known about the report before then, having not been working for Palmer Home when it was authored, but said “in 2018” he would have wanted such a report “on my desk” so he could initiate an investigation, one which he said would have likely involved the Department of Human Services.
“It becomes a full-blown conversation,” Bassett said.
He added the incident report is only one piece of that conversation and “there appears to be no other” in this particular case.
The third witness told the jury of two instances when she specifically remembered Seth Copes touching her inappropriately. The second time, she said, occurred when Kara Copes was out of town.
The witness said Seth Copes went into her room while she was sleeping and carried her to his bedroom. She woke up in his bed and ran back to her own room.
She said she first told the Copes’ 8-year-old daughter about the incident.
“I said, ‘… I’m going to tell you something. Your daddy touched me inappropriately,'” the witness said. “And she just started crying.”
The witness said the two girls told Kara Copes, who then reminded the witness she’d had dreams before about “having sex” and that was what this was. At first, the witness said she considered Kara Copes was right but later changed her mind.
“I know for a fact I was not dreaming,” she said.
Under cross-examination, the witness admitted to defense attorney Patrick Rand of Richland that she’d had bad dreams about sexual abuse that happened to her before she moved to Palmer Home.
She also said she told Bassett and a counselor in 2013 about four incidents — the two she testified to and two others, one when Seth Copes tried to pull her out of her bed one night and she wouldn’t come and another when she woke up in the living room to Seth Copes staring at her. She said he did not touch her inappropriately on either of those occasions.
Palmer Home counselor Meg Blaylock, who interviewed the witness with Bassett in 2013, testified the witness told them she remembered waking up in the living room one day when being touched inappropriately and that she saw Seth Copes staring at her.
The witness said she never talked to the twins about the abuse.
During her testimony Wednesday, the witness appeared shaky and teary-eyed. When prosecutor Collen Hudson asked her to point out the man who assaulted her, the witness sobbed so hard the judge sent the jury from the room while she regained her composure.
‘It was like a chasing game’
The third witness’ testimony followed the testimony of one of the twins, who spent several hours being questioned by two defense attorneys.
The twin, 20, told the attorneys that after Seth Copes sexually assaulted her on multiple occasions the Copeses tried to prevent her from telling Palmer Home administration.
Defense attorney Thomas Pavlinic, of Maryland, seemed skeptical of the claim.
“Are you saying in that seven-year period (before reporting the assault) that you never had the opportunity to talk to anybody (without the Copes’ knowing)?” he asked.
“Yes, I am saying that,” the twin said.
She later said she was “forced” to go to counseling but that she probably could have raised allegations during those sessions.
Pavlinic asked if she was ever alone with teachers or coaches at school. The twin said she was. He also asked if either Kara Copes or one of the school teachers had ever talked about “good touch, bad touch” with her.
“Never,” the twin said.
She added telling coaches was the last thing on her mind because she was focused on doing well in sports so she could get a scholarship and “get out of there.”
Pavlinic asked several times if the twin wanted to leave Palmer Home and live with her aunt.
“I would never make up a lie like this, but I didn’t enjoy Palmer Home,” the twin said. “I hated it. If that’s what you’re asking, yes.”
She later amended the statement, telling Rand it wasn’t necessarily Palmer Home she hated.
“It was my household,” she said.
She also admitted to violating multiple rules, including an internet policy and sneaking out after curfew.
Both she and the third witness talked about wanting approval from the Copeses while they were living at Palmer Home when the abuse was happening and in the months after.
“‘I’m always searching for her approval,'” the twin said, apparently quoting a letter she wrote to Kara Copes when she was young. “I can tell you that much. It was like a chasing game.”
The third witness said Kara Copes told her she and Seth “wouldn’t love me anymore” if she told anyone Seth Copes assaulted her.
“I was an 8-year-old and all I wanted was to be loved, and they threatened me,” she said.
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