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.
If that wasn't enough, Watson's own writings should have given her pause. In statements raised during Watson's criminal trial, he bragged about his skills of trickery and manipulation, said Jeremy Fietz, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit seeks reimbursement for medical expenses of more than $130,000 and general damages for pain and suffering.