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Stephen Watson appeared to be a changed man.

After completing the Salvation Army's six-month drug treatment program at

Healdsburg, the former meth addict once tied to a white supremacist prison

gang was hired as a driver and soon rose to the position of resident manager.

Rehabilitation officials were so impressed with Watson, then 22, that they

allowed him to supervise the 90 other Lytton Center residents, many of whom

were violent criminals, giving him unfettered access to Salvation Army

vehicles and other property.

Then, on the night of Nov. 25, 2005, Watson loaded a van from the center

with six recovering addicts and drove to Santa Rosa for a night out on the

town.

After getting bounced from a Mendocino Avenue bar, the rowdy group spotted

three men walking down the street who they had earlier argued with and

attacked them in a violent flurry of kicks and punches. Two of the men were

knocked unconscious and one, a Navy sailor home on leave, suffered a brain

injury that haunts him today.

Watson and another resident, Terry Terwilliger, 43, were convicted of

felony assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury in the attack

on Sean Levens, Matthew Nunley and Jacob Thill, and sent to San Quentin state

prison.

Now, the victims have launched a civil suit against Watson and the

Salvation Army, seeking reimbursement for medical expenses and general damages

for pain and suffering that could exceed $1 million. The victims' lawyers

contend the Christian nonprofit is liable because it hired Watson and granted

him broad authority despite his checkered past.

``Stephen Watson is unquestionably at fault here. But fault does not end

with him,'' attorney Jeremy Fietz said in his trial brief. ``His former

employer, the Salvation Army, should never have hired him. It should not have

put a person with his background and profile into such a sensitive position.''

But lawyers for the Salvation Army argued the decision to hire Watson was

reasonable and the attack had nothing to do with his employment. Attorney

Steve Werth said Watson performed admirably in his position for several

months, even ``ran a tight ship'' before making off with a rehabilitation

center van without permission.

``While the plaintiffs argue that Mr. Watson should never have been hired

as resident manager, the evidence does not establish that the Salvation Army,

a facility of last resort for individuals such as Mr. Watson, could have

foreseen that the hiring ... would likely lead to this type of criminal

conduct,'' Werth said.

Opening statements began Tuesday before Sonoma County Judge Robert S. Boyd.

The jury trial is expected to run through next week and feature testimony from

the victims, Watson and past and present Salvation Army rehabilitation center

employees.

The Salvation Army offered to settle the case for an undisclosed amount but

was rejected.

``They never got past five figures,'' said Donald Edgar, another attorney

for the plaintiffs.

The court file detailing Watson's life at the Lytton Springs Road facility

reads like a chapter out of a Ken Kesey novel.

A week after graduating from the residential program, Watson moved into a

halfway house on the property and was hired as a driver. A month later, he was

named assistant residential manager, and three months after that he became

manager, according to Fietz's trial briefs.

The position required him to oversee dozens of addicts ordered by the

courts to get treatment, according to the briefs, and allowed him access to

urine samples from drug tests, and vehicles.

Watson held parties in the residence, switched urine samples so his rivals

would flunk out and brought in prostitutes for his friends, according to the

documents.

On the night of the assault, he organized a ``field trip'' to Santa Rosa,

taking a group of addicts in a Salvation Army van to the Nutty Irishman on

Piner Road and the Round Robin on Mendocino Avenue.

At the Round Robin, the inebriated group mobbed the bouncer, leaving him

bloodied and forcing the bar's early closure.

Speeding from the bar parking lot, they spotted plaintiffs Levens, then 22,

Nunley and Thill walking near a Chevron gas station. They screeched to a stop,

piled out of the van and attacked the men in a ``drunken, profanity-screaming,

blood-lusting frenzy,'' Fietz said.

Levens and Nunley were knocked to the ground before they could react. Thill

also was hit but remained conscious. In his deposition, he described Levens

being hit in the back of the head and then stomped and kicked in the face as

he lay on the ground.

Levens spent the next five days in the hospital, racking up medical bills

of $84,000. Nunley was released from the hospital after one day. His bill was

$48,000.

Meanwhile, Watson and his group headed back to the rehab center.

The plaintiffs argued that rehabilitation officials had the power to

control Watson and should reimburse them for his mistakes.

``All are guilty. But only Salvation Army has the resources to pay,'' Fietz

concluded.

.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 762-7297 or

paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.