The Gary Little Story:
A Man, A City And The News Media
by Bruce Brown
FEW SEATTLE NEWS stories have had more direct -- or quicker -- impact than the revelations about Superior Court Judge Gary Little that ran on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Friday, August 19, 1988.
Inspired by rumors that had recently led Little to announce his retirement, the stories detailed Judge Little's sexual relations with five teenage boys during the early 1970s when he was a prominent Seattle attorney and part-time teacher at Lakeside, the city's most prestigious private prep school.
As the first edition of that Friday's P-I was rolling off the presses, Little shot himself outside his chambers on the eighth floor of the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle. A janitor found his body in the hallway beside a handgun and a suicide note.
Remaking the front page of the main metro edition of Friday's paper, the P-I inserted a story on Little's suicide above the lengthy investigative pieces by Duff Wilson that prompted it. That morning, people all over Seattle were awakened early, as if by a thunderclap.
In the aftermath, some expressed the view that the press had unfairly hounded Little to his death. As the judge himself said in his suicide note, "I had hoped that my decision to withdraw from the election and leave public life would have closed the matter. Apparently these steps are not satisfactory to those who feel that more is required, so be it."
Many others, however, thought the press had erred in the opposite direction. For them, the deeper question was how a man who boasted of pedophilic rapes could use establishment connections to avoid public detection over three decades.
Why, they asked, had it taken so long for the Gary Little story to be told? That question could be especially troubling to journalists. I began wondering about Gary Little in 1969 when I was co-editor of the Lakeside Tatler. It was that year that Little began teaching a class entitled "Introduction to the Law" at the Lakeside School. He was then a slight figure with thinning hair and fashionably long sideburns. Although his features were a trifle heavy, his face had a marvelous mutability that made him hard to read.
Like the editor of a small-town newspaper, the editor of a high school newspaper hears a great deal that never sees print. I knew he was a 39-year-old bachelor who liked to spend time with boys away from school, assumed he was gay, and heard gossip that he had an extremely odd relationship with his mother.
It was in 1970, apparently, the year after I graduated, that Little began having sex with Lakeside boys. He was careful -- even meticulous -- in his method of recruitment, but like much compulsive behavior, it could be uncontrollable. Although the Lakeside student body then included many high-powered talents, including Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Little surrounded himself with a more mundane crowd of mostly rich kids whose desire for conventional rewards sometimes exceeded their ability to attain them through their own performance.
From these he recruited about a half dozen to become "Gary's boys," as the clique that spent time at Little's Sinclair Island summer home became known around school. Most of "Gary's boys" were never involved with him sexually. For them, Little was a dynamic and often very helpful mentor. But it was from this group that he selected his marks, mostly white male boys, with slender builds, fair hair, and blue eyes. The ones he took to bed also tended to be the neglected or emotionally abused sons of some of Seattle's most powerful families. That they were emotionally deprived may have made them easier victims, but, peculiarly, that they came from powerful families may also have been instrumental in protecting him from public exposure.
In any event, despite the considerable damage he did to some Lakeside students, none of the families told the school administration that Little was raping students. Had someone spoken up then, Little's tragedy -- and that of his young victims -- might have been avoided. Little might have gotten the help he needed and be alive today. So many people knew, or certainly had serious suspicions, but Gary Little skated forward under a benign silence.
By 1973, though, Lakeside was beginning to have its own doubts about Little. A long-time faculty member remembers a discussion in the faculty lounge "about Gary Little messing around with kids." That year was Little's last at Lakeside.
But because the school had never received any specific allegations of impropriety on Little's part -- and because many parents were honestly enthusiastic about the attention their boys had received from Little -- the school gave Little a good recommendation, enabling him to become, of all things, attorney for the Seattle public school system.
From all available records, it was not until 1980 that the darker side of Gary Little's life was suggested to the news media. It was to be much longer still before the story broke.
In 1980, Little ran for the King County Superior Court bench. Several former Lakeside students contacted Dan Coughlin, the P-I's courthouse reporter. They said that Little had a pattern of sexually exploiting people under his authority, and they feared for the youngsters who might come before his court. Coughlin pursued the lead, but because the alleged victims were still unwilling to go public, he concluded he did not have a story and the issue never arose. It was much later before a 19-year-old Bellevue Community College student testified how Little bore in on him one evening after dinner at his house, calling him "a nebbish, nothing," sodomized him, and told him he had "just been legally raped," adding, "I've done this before with seven boys such as you. You are the eighth. I have never failed."
Within two years of taking office, however, Little had begun to provoke the same sort of questions in the legal community that had previously concerned Lakeside and the Seattle public school system. And once more the system prevailed over public exposure.
Complaints by lawyers prompted the office of the King County prosecutor to prepare a 107-page report detailing irregularities in the sentences Judge Little handed out to physically favored young men. In the fall of 1981, despite Little's success in pressuring at least one witness to give false testimony, the prosecutor's office notified the state Commission on Judicial Conduct that it would soon be filing a complaint against Little.
Two days before the complaint arrived, however, the state commission essentially threw it out by adopting rules prohibiting consideration of any evidence against a judge prior to its creation in 1980. This decision was championed by William Baker, an Everett lawyer and a personal friend of Little's, who later served as chairman of the state commission.
All investigations by the state Commission on Judicial Conduct were originally supposed to be public, but the commission circumvented the legislature's intent by inserting an intermediary stage of investigation prior to public hearings. This is how the commission handled the King County prosecutor's 1981 complaint. Little was privately admonished for his conduct in three juvenile cases, but the the public was never informed of the complaint, or its resolution.
Little, meanwhile, began to recruit sexual partners from among the defendants who came before him. One was David Curran, who appeared before Judge Little on a variety of petty theft counts. Thin, blond and then 16 years old, Curran fit the profile of one of Gary's boys to a tee. By means of a somewhat veiled judicial ploy, Little essentially gave Curran a heavy sentence, and then suspended it at his own discretion.
In this atmosphere, Little had no trouble coercing sexual favors from Curran in exchange for a reduced sentence. "There wasn't a question in my mind that I could refuse [Little's sexual advances] because of the fear he could do something to me," Curran said later. "The fact of me being on probation, it was enough. He always had something on me."
In 1984, after Little had dropped Curran, Curran and Jerry Chun, another youth who had been abused by Little, met at the Conquest Center, a drug and alcohol treatment center outside Seattle. There both told counselors about their experiences with Little; both later said they were advised to keep quiet.
Although the state Commission on judicial Conduct continued to receive complaints about Judge Little, it did not think them serious enough to keep accurate or detailed accounts.
In 1985, however, after a juvenile defendant listed Little's place as his home in court records, the presiding judge of the King County Superior Court removed Little from hearing all juvenile cases, assigning him instead to complex civil litigation.
Catching wind of the move, the press began to reexamine the file on Little. Seattle Times reporter Peyton Whitely wrote several stories about official investigations of out-of-court contacts between Little and male juvenile offenders. Then just as Whitely thought the story was really beginning to get hot, he was pulled off and assigned to cover other subjects.
When he resisted the change, he was told by Times City Editor Mindy Cameron, that "he was having too much trouble getting it together." As she recently recalled in an interview with one of the paper's own reporters, she said, "It was all very elusive." Managing Editor Alex MacLeod added, "I'm aware of the fact that there have been rumors circulating literally for years that there was a conspiracy not to report or to investigate his personal activities. I can say to you unequivocally that that was untrue." Other stories, they said, had higher priority.
At about the same time, KING-TV in Seattle had taped interviews with several of Little's victims, who also provided the station with sworn affidavits supporting their statements. Reporter John Wilson prepared a thorough, hard-hitting piece on Little's sexual abuse of teenagers at Lakeside 15 years before. Again, the segment never aired. Wilson's superiors decided it was "relatively older news." This was the same year that the presiding judge of the King County Superior Court had found it necessary to remove Little from any cases involving juveniles.
When that old news finally caught up with Gary Little three years later on the front page of the P-I, he characteristically showed no remorse and offered no explanations.
"I have chosen to take my life," his suicide note read. "It's an appropriate end to the present situation." The note concluded, "I am deeply appreciative of those who have wished me well these past few weeks."
It was as if the judge, faced with being defrocked, was determined to sit in final judgment on himself. Gary Little, the charming little man who always had to be in control but who could not control himself, strove for dignity by refusing to face what he had done.
The secret at the heart of the Gary Little tragedy may have been his own father's suicide, which occurred when Judge Little was eight. If his own suicide was a plea of no contest to the charges against him, it was also a final act of loyalty, protecting the establishment network that had protected him for so long.
Still, he could not kill the glare entirely. The Gary Little story runs like a radioactive tracer through the Seattle power structure, exposing the old-boy network that connects many of the best law firms, local government, the old media families, and local barons of industry and retailing.
One measure of the size of a place -- no matter what its actual population -- is the size of story that can be squashed by the local establishment. In this sense, Seattle has been a very small place for years.
If there is a bright side to the multifaceted tragedy of this marvelously talented man who twisted lives and destroyed his own, it is that in finally telling the truth, Seattle has grown as a city.
© Copyright 1988 Bruce Brown
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