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A Sonoma County jury awarded more than $1 million Friday to two men who

were beaten by residents and an employee of the Salvation Army's drug

rehabilitation center near Healdsburg.

Jurors said the Lytton Springs facility was responsible for the 2005 attack

on Sean Levens, 27, of Shelbyville, Ind., and Scott Nunley, 26, of Santa Rosa

because it hired and put in charge a former addict with questionable

credentials.

Jurors said drug-addict-turned-resident manager Stephen Watson was also

responsible, as were others in the attack. But the jury punished the Salvation

Army, saying it bore 80 percent of the responsibility for the attack because

it hired Watson and made him a manager.

Levens was to receive more than $906,000 of the award, which included

payments for medical bills accrued for treatment of a permanent brain injury,

as well as past and future suffering. Nunley was awarded about $170,000.

Their lawyer, Jeremy Fietz, argued during the civil trial that the

Salvation Army was negligent for allowing Watson, a recent graduate from the

program, to supervise more than 90 recovering addict-residents, many of whom

were referred by criminal courts.

Fietz compared the Salvation Army's actions to ``putting a wolf in charge

of a zoo.''

``When members of a community get hurt by dangerous animals, who do they

hold responsible?'' Fietz said in an interview after the verdict. ``They ought

to hold the zookeeper responsible. The zookeeper should know better.''

Steve Werth, an attorney for the Salvation Army, said he didn't believe the

evidence supported findings of negligence or that the incident was forseeable.

He said the Salvation Army was considering whether to mount an appeal.

``In our view, and what I hoped the jurors would agree with, was that this

was a matter personal in nature, motivated by malice and fueled by alcohol,''

Werth said.

It remained unclear what impact, if any, the jury award would have on the

organization locally. Werth said the Salvation Army was self-insured, but he

said he did not know more about the impact of such a court award.

``I would certainly hope this verdict is not going to impact the Salvation

Army in any way,'' Werth said. ``It would be the hope of all involved in this

matter.''

Major Jack Phillips, regional administrator for the Salvation Army's adult

rehab program, did not return calls seeking comment.

The verdict came after three weeks of testimony about events leading up to

the Nov. 25, 2005, attack from the victims, Watson, Salvation Army officials

and medical experts.

In the criminal trial, Watson and one other man, Terry Terwilliger, were

convicted of felony assault and were sentenced to state prison. Watson was

freed after serving about four years.

The civil proceedings covered some of the same ground, with witnesses

explaining how the then-22-year-old Watson was hired on as a driver after

completing a program for methamphetamine addiction. Within months, Watson was

promoted to assistant residential manager and manager, supervising some of the

same people he was in rehabilitation with.

Witnesses testified that the Salvation Army allowed him to conduct his own

drug testing and use facility vehicles. He began supplying residents with

alcohol and prostitutes and even forced out those he didn't like, according to

testimony.

Fietz argued the Salvation Army gave Watson sweeping authority despite

knowing about his past, which included an affiliation with a white supremacist

gang, according to court records.

On the night of the attack, Watson put about a half-dozen addicts into a

Salvation Army van and drove to Santa Rosa for a night of drinking. After

getting ejected from a bar on Mendocino Avenue, the group spotted two men --

Levens and Nunely -- walking down a street, pulled over and attacked them.

The two were beaten severely and a third man, Jacob Thill, sustained minor

injuries. He settled with the Salvation Army before trial for $45,000, Fietz

said.

Watson has since sought forgiveness from the men. Outside the presence of

the jury he rendered a tearful apology and cooperated with his candid

testimony, said Fietz, who was joined by co-counsel Rex Grady.

In explaining the decision, jurors concluded the Salvation Army was 80

percent responsible for the beating and that Watson was 11 percent to blame.

Other attackers were 9 percent negligent, the jury said.

``What resonated with the jury was the question of community safety,''

Fietz said. ``You just can't put a 22-year-old in charge of 90 rehab residents

with that kind of history.''

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or

paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com

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