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Woman says she reported possible abuse at Circle C Ranch to police years ago

A camp employee reported concerns about Wayne Aarum's behavior to police and the Department of Health 15 years ago. They never followed up with her.

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A camp employee reported concerns about Wayne Aarum's behavior to police and the Department of Health 15 years ago. They never followed up with her.

Published Updated

VIDEO BY TINA YEE AND SHAWN DOWD/NEW YORK STATE TEAM

Linda A. Smith sat in her car outside the Arcade Police Department on an early August afternoon in 2006, strengthening her resolve before taking a step that she couldn't take back.  

During her yearlong tenure as business manager at Circle C Ranch, a Christian children’s camp in rural Cattaraugus County in Western New York, Smith, 63, had witnessed camp President Wayne Aarum touch multiple teenage female camp staff members inappropriately.

She'd seen him rub their upper thighs while sitting alone with them in a secluded corner of the conference room, or shuffle them into his office for counsel over things like teenage heartbreaks, parental problems or issues at camp. Other camp staffers said they noticed similar behavior from Aarum in the 2000s and 2010s. 

"I’d had enough,” Smith said to herself, and marched into the police department in Wyoming County to report Aarum's behavior. 

But they didn’t let her make a report. A police clerk told her police needed the people affected — the girls themselves — to share their experiences directly, Smith said. 

However, Arcade Police Chief Matthew Krist, a 24-year veteran with the village police force who became chief in early 2021, said victim accounts are not needed when officers create an initial contact report. 

Smith thought about trying to persuade some girls to give statements, but felt torn — she believed they knew what they'd experienced with Aarum was inappropriate, but that they "needed some distance" from the situation, she said.

She did speak to one girl who'd experienced a negative physical encounter with Aarum, but the girl didn't seem to want to be involved, Smith said. 

By the end of August 2006, Smith resigned from her job and left Circle C. She estimates she saw Aarum alone with teenage girls between the ages 15 and 18 about 30 times that year.

“I tried to make myself stay on longer because I thought, ‘I’m seeing things here that I can document,’ but once everybody else left, I’m down to just working with the Aarums,” Smith said. “What remains is that Wayne is doing this to these girls, and is going to do it again.” 

At the time, Smith said, she hoped that something would be done about it, after she'd alerted local authorities and talked to two other adult staff members at the Ranch. 

Fifteen years later, Aarum, who is still the president of Circle C Ranch as of spring 2021, has been accused of inappropriate conduct toward more than 20 women over two decades, at the Ranch and at The Chapel, a Buffalo-area megachurch.  

The Chapel at Crosspoint in Getzville, Erie County. Thursday, April 8, 2021.
The Chapel at Crosspoint in Getzville, Erie County. Thursday, April 8, 2021.
Georgie Silvarole/USA TODAY Network New York

People reported his alleged behavior to camp officials and church leaders over 20 times since 1997. Clergy are mandated reporters under state law. 

Smith is the only confirmed person to have alerted state officials and law enforcement until this year. Those agencies did not investigate Smith's claims at the time, due to jurisdictional errors or failure to follow state reporting procedures. 

Abuse reporting procedure at children's camps in New York is a patchwork process that could involve at least three different state and local agencies. This appeared to have contributed to a statewide lag in addressing Aarum's pattern of alleged misconduct with young women.

At least two law enforcement agencies – the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Office and the Amherst (Erie County) Police Department – investigated the allegations in 2021.

Linda A. Smith, former business manager at Circle C Ranch
What remains is that Wayne is doing this to these girls, and is going to do it again.

The Sheriff's Office investigation is currently closed because some of the allegations weren't criminal in nature, or the statute of limitations on specific alleged actions had expired, said Cattaraugus County Sgt. Drew Silleman over the phone in May. 

The Amherst Police Department's investigation was closed on May 14, 2021, because the statute of limitations had expired on allegations of Aarum's conduct at The Chapel as well, said public information officer Christopher Meyer via email. 

Aarum has consistently denied the allegations, saying in a May 7, 2021, email to a USA TODAY NETWORK reporter that he had never touched anyone "in a way that was unsuitable or incorrect in the work, situation, location, setting, or circumstances." 

He acknowledged that he hugged and patted young people on the back in a youth group context, and that he may have "entered a space where a female counselor was present" at camp, in response to allegations that he was routinely alone with young women in secluded spaces or empty rooms. 

"I have never intentionally said or done anything to hurt anyone," Aarum said in an April 28 email to reporters. 

‘There’s still time’

‘There’s still time’

The police were Smith’s last resort.  

Several days before going to Arcade Police, she contacted Rebecca Johnstone, who conducted camp inspections as a sanitarian at the Cattaraugus County Health Department for more than 15 years. Johnstone has since retired from the department.

County health departments inspect and issue licenses for about 2,500 children’s camps across New York state, according to the state Department of Health.

Health officials conduct camp inspections twice yearly, evaluating things like kitchen hygiene, bunk bed safety and screenings of camp staff for criminal convictions and flags in state sexual offense databases.

Smith hoped Johnstone could investigate Aarum's behavior while summer camp was still in session, or provide further guidance about what to do with her concerns.

“I thought, “There’s still time for them to get up here and interview the girls, and find out what’s going on,’” Smith said.  

But Johnstone said the department couldn’t make a report unless campers were being abused, Smith said. The majority of the girls Smith saw with Aarum were Ranch staff members.

Health department inspection reports for Circle C Ranch from 2000 to 2016 show Johnstone's signature, next to handwritten lists of minor violations she noted each year, such as pool deterioration or missing outlet covers.

A 2006 Cattaraugus County Department of Health inspection report for Circle C Ranch shows Rebecca Johnstone's signature on the bottom. Johnstone did the camp's inspections for at least 15 years, according to documents obtained from the county health department.
A 2006 Cattaraugus County Department of Health inspection report for Circle C Ranch shows Rebecca Johnstone's signature on the bottom. Johnstone did the camp's inspections for at least 15 years, according to documents obtained from the county health department.
Handout

There was no mention of sexual abuse allegations in these reports, obtained by the USA TODAY NETWORK through a Freedom of Information Law request. 

If an allegation of child abuse — or abuse of someone 18 or under — comes to the health department from a camp staff member, the department should inspect the camp to determine if the allegation is a violation of the State Sanitary Code, said Ray Jordan, a senior sanitarian at the Cattaraugus County Health Department in an email to the USA TODAY NETWORK. 

The department would coordinate with the camp operator to facilitate protective action for a child when needed, Jordan said. If claims are egregious in nature, the department may also contact law enforcement.

Cattaraugus County Environmental Health Director Eric Wohlers said via email to a USA TODAY NETWORK reporter in April that the allegations against Aarum have made processing the Ranch's camp application "more complex and a priority this year." The department will closely follow all state procedures throughout that process, he said. 

Wayne Aarum's application as director related to camp licensure has never been flagged or rejected, Wohlers said via email March 16, 2021, in response to attorney Kimberlee Norris, who was investigating the abuse claims with consulting company MinistrySafe, which conducts third-party investigations of abuse allegations in Christian ministries.

On March 31, Norris asked for an update. Wohlers said the department had filed a required report to the state Department of Health with Norris' report and the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Office reports attached. 

To Smith's knowledge, Johnstone, the former Cattaraugus County sanitarian who inspected the camp, never followed up with anyone at camp about Smith's concerns at the time, Smith said. 

Wayne Aarum said on May 7 that he has never been contacted by a state agency regarding concerns about his interactions with teenage women at Circle C Ranch. 

Johnstone did not respond to the USA TODAY NETWORK’s multiple requests for comment for this story, including phone calls and certified letters. 

After USA TODAY NETWORK reporters repeatedly asked Jordan, Wohlers and another health department official for comment on whether Johnstone knew about abuse allegations against Aarum in 2006, the Cattaraugus County attorney, Ashley Milliman, told reporters the officials declined an interview. 

When calling the health department didn’t seem to go anywhere, Smith tried law enforcement.  

But Arcade Police have no jurisdiction over the county where Circle C Ranch is located. Arcade officers should have immediately referred Smith to the Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office, said Arcade Police Chief Matthew Krist.

He could not confirm the circumstances around Smith's original complaint, and no report exists of her visit to the department, Krist said. 

“You want to make sure you take information that you feel is worthy of a follow-up and is credible,” Krist said. “I can’t believe that nobody would have done that.”  

Smith said Arcade Police never referred her to the Sheriff’s Office or followed up with her on her concerns. Sheriff's Office reports regarding Aarum and Circle C Ranch don't reference any information from Smith or Arcade Police. 

More than a decade later, the Sheriff’s Office would be inundated with stories of women who said they were abused by Aarum at camp or at The Chapel over the past 20 years.  

Smith called the Sheriff's Office in early 2021 to share her story, Cattaraugus County's Silleman confirmed in May. That was the first he'd heard of her account.

‘Whose job is it?’

‘Whose job is it?’

A local health department may report abuse allegations to law enforcement or to a statewide child abuse hotline known as the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment.  

The hotline is operated by the Office of Child and Family Services, which has no oversight of summer camps, said state OCFS spokesperson Monica Mahaffey. 

The hotline only accepts reports of abuse of victims under 18, including children under immediate threat by parents or legal guardians. Once accepted, those reports would go to local Child Protective Services for further investigation, Mahaffey said. 

The USA TODAY NETWORK asked for reports of calls to the hotline about Aarum or Circle C Ranch under the Freedom of Information Law. That request was denied because child abuse records, at state and county levels, are confidential.  

There are no confirmed instances of camp staff or parents calling the hotline about Aarum's conduct. 

Fast forward to early 2021:  MinistrySafe is nearly finished with its investigation of Aarum's alleged behavior with women.

MinistrySafe attorney Kimberlee Norris, who has 30 years of experience in sexual abuse litigation, found the allegations against Aarum to be serious enough that she recommended Chapel pastors report her findings to police and the state as soon as possible.

She herself contacted the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Office about the matter.

“If it was reportable then, it is reportable now,” Norris said in an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK reporters. 

Norris also contacted Buffalo's regional Office of Children and Family Services division in January 2021 to orally report her findings. The regional office director, Amanda Darling, encouraged Norris via email on Jan. 11 to contact the state hotline with the information, which Norris did the same day. 

On March 15, after receiving a copy of Norris' written report, Darling told Norris via email that the matter fell outside the jurisdiction of the state hotline and Child Protective Services, because the time period in which the events were alleged to have occurred was in the past, the impacted youth were now over 18 and Aarum is not legally responsible for them as a parent or guardian. 

She added that because Norris' finding concerned a summer camp, the matter should be referred to the Department of Health. 

Darling did not return requests for comment. 

More than 16 women across the country have alleged Wayne Aarum's physical and emotional behavior toward them at either The Chapel or Circle C Ranch from the late 1990s onward was inappropriate and abusive. Six of them were photographed together in Buffalo on April 3, 2021. From left are Carolyn McDonald, Michelle Poulsen, Rachel Horvath, Jessica Spiesz, Ashley Scibilia and Joy McCullough.
More than 16 women across the country have alleged Wayne Aarum's physical and emotional behavior toward them at either The Chapel or Circle C Ranch from the late 1990s onward was inappropriate and abusive. Six of them were photographed together in Buffalo on April 3, 2021. From left are Carolyn McDonald, Michelle Poulsen, Rachel Horvath, Jessica Spiesz, Ashley Scibilia and Joy McCullough.
Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team

Meanwhile, the Cattaraugus County Sheriff's Office dug into Norris' report, interviewing 14 women in the early months of 2021, according to police reports.

Silleman, of the Sheriff's Office, and County District Attorney Lori Pettit Rieman eventually decided that none of the cases could be prosecuted criminally, according to the report. 

"It was determined that in most of the cases … even if a crime had occurred, that statute of limitations on those crimes had expired," the report read.  

On Feb. 5, the agency closed the case, the report noted, and on Feb. 9, Silleman reached out to the women in a mass email, saying their allegations were not criminally actionable. 

Silleman confirmed in May that some of Aarum's alleged actions may have constituted a charge of endangering the welfare of a child or forcible touching, both misdemeanors, if the statute of limitations hadn't expired, according to the police report. 

Under the Child Victims Act, individuals and attorneys alleging felony child abuse have 10 years to file criminal charges, starting when the individual turns 18; those alleging misdemeanor child abuse have seven years, starting at age 18, to file criminal charges.  

When asked to explain whether the statute of limitations had indeed expired on some allegations, Silleman deferred to Pettit Rieman, who did not return the USA TODAY NETWORK's multiple requests for comment. 

The women can also file civil child abuse cases until Aug. 14, 2021, under the Child Victims Act, as long as they are under 55 years old. 

State and local agencies, some of which heard of abuse concerns involving Aarum in the mid-2000s, should have acted more urgently to investigate, said MinistrySafe's Norris. Pastors and others have tried to report what they’ve heard and seen, but their efforts fell flat if they didn’t reach the correct person or agency at the right time.   

“How is it that various state agencies in the state in receipt of this information are not acting?” Norris said. “If it’s not your job, whose job is it?”  

GSILVAROLE@Gannett.com

STADDEO@Gannett.com

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