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The former director of the Salvation Army's residential drug treatment

program near Healdsburg testified Thursday that she filled a key managerial

position with a young graduate despite his lack of experience and writings

that boasted a propensity toward deception and violence.

Leilani Palmieri, once head of the program at Lytton Springs, said

methamphetamine addict Stephen Watson -- who completed the six-month program

just weeks before -- seemed trustworthy enough to be given keys to Salvation

Army vehicles and oversee his own drug testing.

She was surprised when Watson commandeered a van with six other recovering

addicts, got drunk in Santa Rosa bars and then beat three men who were walking

down a street.

``I just saw a young leader,'' Palmieri testified before jurors in the $1

million civil trial brought by the victims, who sued the Salvation Army

alleging negligence. ``He did a very good job.''

Salvation Army attorneys deny any liability, claiming Watson acted outside

the scope of his employment in the 2005 attack on Sean Levens, Matthew Nunley

and Jacob Thill.

Watson and another man were convicted of felony assault in a previous

criminal trial and sentenced to prison at San Quentin.

The civil trial is expected to run through next week.

Under questioning from defense attorneys, Palmieri testified that Watson

progressed rapidly in his treatment, demonstrating a ``willingness to do the

next right thing'' and showing no signs of any relapse.

Upon graduation, the then 22-year-old was offered a room at the rehab

center halfway house and soon won a job as its duty driver. Palmieri said he

stayed busy, proving himself an asset to management, she said.

Within a month, Watson was promoted to a supervisory position. Three months

later, he was appointed residential manager with broad authority over his

former peers.

Palmieri said she was aware of his past that included ties to a white

supremacist gang, but considering his progress over six months, ``I didn't

hold a lot of weight to it,'' she said.

She said she gave him a cell phone and talked daily with him about the

challenges of the job.

``We felt really strongly that Stephen was capable of it,'' she said.

She added it was customary to hire recovering addicts from the program

because they understand the work and also have trouble finding work.

But plaintiffs' attorneys asserted the Salvation Army failed to observe its

own hiring guidelines in promoting Watson and ignored several red flags.

The residential manager position required two years' experience and Watson

had none. Any claim of a shortage of qualified candidates was baseless because

the Salvation Army didn't advertise the positions, plaintiffs' lawyers said.

They suggested Palmieri should have taken it as a warning sign when Watson

crashed one of the center's vans and was questioned about drinking. Watson

blew a zero on a breathalyzer test, but Palmieri admitted there were no

safeguards to prevent employees from administering their own tests.

Palmieri acknowledged that in writings done by Watson during his

rehabilitation he had bragged about his skills of trickery and manipulation.

Those statements were an issue in Watson's criminal trial, said Jeremy Fietz,

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an attorney for the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit seeks reimbursement for medical expenses of more than $130,000

and general damages for pain and suffering.

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