Sleepovers With Uncle Jeff

The cardiologist traded on his status as a doctor to fondle young girls

"We prosecute aggressively in Jefferson County. I don't want you guys in Houston to think we don't."

— Waylon Thompson, Jefferson County District Attorney's Office

"My eyes were always shut...There was a few times that he never knew I saw. But I saw dead into his eyes. I looked dead into them."

Don't worry — Dr. Klem is not a registered sex offender.
Courtesy Jefferson County Sheriff's Office
Don't worry — Dr. Klem is not a registered sex offender.
Jeff and Beth Klem were a model couple at New Life Tabernacle.
Jeff and Beth Klem were a model couple at New Life Tabernacle.
In a picture dated 2001, the girls dressed in Beth's lingerie, (left to right) the cousin who recanted, Ashlyn, Brea and Randee.
In a picture dated 2001, the girls dressed in Beth's lingerie, (left to right) the cousin who recanted, Ashlyn, Brea and Randee.

— Ashlyn Treadway, 18

Stuck to the window of the Jefferson County District Attorney's office in Beaumont is a poster with the admonishment "Never Hurt a Child. Never, Never, Never." It's been a core platform issue for Tom Maness, who's held the office for 20 years. For a while, the slogan graced billboards along I-10 in Beaumont. The words looked so good there, big and bold.

The D.A. got a pat on the back for his fierce dedication to child safety last February, when a U.S. Department of Justice press release announced the arrest of a 52-year-old man suspected of soliciting sex online from an investigator with the Texas Attorney General's Office posing as a 13-year-old girl.

"Protecting children is our top priority," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott was quoted as saying. Abbott thanked the law enforcement officers integral to the cyber sting, including Maness.

The suspect pleaded guilty to one count of coercion and enticement in federal court, a charge that could land him in prison for the rest of his life for trying to have sex with a girl who never existed.

Unlike that case, the abuse against Ashlyn Treadway was very real.

It started in Beaumont in 2000, a few weeks after her Aunt Beth returned from her honeymoon in the Caymans with Jeffrey Alan Klem, a cardiologist. Ashlyn was 11 and enamored of her aunt. And everyone was enamored of Klem, none more so than Ashlyn's grandfather, Lonnie Charles Treadway.

Treadway, whom everyone called "Buck," was the longtime pastor of New Life Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church at the epicenter of the lives of the Treadway clan. Klem made a great impression upon the church right away. He played cello in the orchestra, sang in the choir and sat in the front pew every Sunday. At New Life, church members were addressed as "brother" or "sister," but Pastor Treadway junked that for Klem. Klem was "my son-in-law, the cardiologist." In the mostly working-class congregation, the title had cachet, and Pastor Treadway intended on using it.

Shortly after the newlyweds returned, they helped celebrate Buck's birthday with a crawfish boil. That night, the Klems spent the night at Buck's home — the church parsonage. They invited Ashlyn to stay.

Ashlyn recalls Beth asking her if she wanted to sleep with her and Klem that night. Ashlyn was extremely close to Beth and spent many nights in bed with her, so she didn't think much of the invitation. Beth slept between Ashlyn and her 38-year-old husband.

At some point that night, Ashlyn recalls, she felt Klem's fingers on her. Her uncle had reached across his sleeping wife and pushed his niece's nightshirt toward her chin. His hands moved all over.

Is this really happening? Ashlyn thought. She trusted Beth, and Beth trusted Klem, so there couldn't have been anything wrong with it. While Klem's hand moved up and down her body, she flashed on that thing hanging on the bathroom doorknob in Beth and Klem's home. It was like a hotel "do not disturb" sign, only about making sure women tested themselves regularly for breast cancer.

That's probably what he's doing, Ashlyn told herself. It seemed to make sense. After all, this was Dr. Jeffrey Alan Klem. "My son-in-law, the cardiologist."

So when Ashlyn's little sister came to her a few years later and asked about Uncle Jeff's hands, that's what Ashlyn told her. Probably just checking for signs of breast cancer.

And when Ashlyn's younger stepsister asked about Uncle Jeff's hands, Ashlyn didn't know what to say. All of this, whatever it was, was liable to make someone mad. Like Beth. Like her grandfather. And no one would believe it anyway. Better not to say anything at all.

But in 2003, Ashlyn's stepsister Ashlee McEntire spoke up anyway, followed by Ashlyn's sister, Brea. Ashlyn and Brea's father, Les Treadway, and his second wife Lisa (Ashlee's mom), took the allegations to Buck and Patsy Treadway. It remained a family secret for two more years, until Randee McDaniel, another young girl from the church, came forward.

Although church members say Buck called his granddaughters and Randee liars and whores, Klem, in August, pleaded guilty to three counts of injury to a child in Jefferson County district court. In a carefully crafted plea bargain, Klem avoided having to register as a sex offender and was hit with ten years' probation and a $6,000 fine. He's facing two more charges in Harris County — one of which also involves Ashlyn.

All the girls' parents have also filed a civil suit against Klem and Buck Treadway, accusing the pastor of covering up his son-in-law's pedophilia. For this offense, Buck booted them all out of New Life Tabernacle. It has divided the church, but the United Pentecostal Church International has expressed no interest in investigating whether one of its ministers allowed a child molester to prowl around the church's children for seven years.

"Sometimes, doing justice means doing something that's difficult to do, like dismissing a case. Sometimes, dismissing a case is justice."

— Harris County prosecutor Suzanne Hanneman

"I think it was kind of an embarrassment to our town and our...judicial system, too. If you can molest three [girls]... and you can pay $2,000 a piece, well, that's not bad."

— Larry Wyche, former New Life ­Tabernacle member

It was supposed to be a package deal.

Although Klem was initially charged with indecency with a child, a ­second-degree felony which mandates sex offender status, prosecutors and defense lawyers worked out a deal whereby Klem would plead up to a first-degree felony (injury to a child) to avoid registering as a sex offender.

The charge carries a stiffer penalty, but sentencing was deferred for ten years. Waylon Thompson, the prosecutor who helped helm the deal, likes to point out that Klem has a "tremendous hammer" hanging over his head. One slipup, and he could face 99 years in prison.

But Klem also had charges pending in Harris County, where he allegedly touched Ashlyn and Randee McDaniel at an apartment he kept while at a fellowship at Baylor College of Medicine. During the plea process, Thompson and Klem's defense attorneys talked with Houston prosecutor Suzanne Hanneman to see if Klem could be offered the same deal here.

Thompson believed the victims and their families were satisfied with the plea, and Hanneman saw no reason why things should be any different in Houston.

"Honestly, that was kind of my thought before I met [the girls] — you know, maybe, heck, just let him do what he's doing in Beaumont and let him go..." Hanneman says.

Everyone was on board, except for the one person who mattered the most. When Hanneman approached District Judge Mary Lou Keel with the possibility of offering the same plea, Keel shot it down.

"Disingenuous, is what she said," Hanne­man says of Keel. "My judge said that the pleadings in Beaumont were disingenuous. Because...he's admitting the conduct without having the ramifications. And the biggest ramification, of course, being the registering aspect of it."

Hanneman says that she would be satisfied with a plea to indecency by exposure, whereby Klem would register as a sex offender for ten years. But without a clear shot at a plea, Hanneman gave Ashlyn and Randee the options: They could agree to dismiss the charges, or they could go to trial. The girls chose the latter.

Hanneman says she warned the girls and their parents that, in Harris County, juries can be overly impressed with defendants who are doctors.

"Honestly, I don't see a jury doing anything other than probation," she says.

Even the victims and their families look at Klem almost as a man blessed with otherworldly gifts. Lawyers representing Klem in both the criminal and civil cases laud his medical abilities. Robert Pelton, one of Klem's criminal defense attorneys, says he's received around 150 letters from patients who swore Klem saved their lives. When asked if that meant they were actually flatlining on an operating table and Klem manually massaged their hearts back to life, or if they simply did not die during or after an office visit, Pelton said he hadn't read the letters that closely.

Despite his reputation among the folks at New Life Tabernacle, Klem's profile with the Texas Medical Board does not indicate an especially distinguished career.

After graduating from the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine in 1995, he spent a three-year residency at Yale School of Medicine, followed by a four-year fellowship at Baylor. Klem's profile lists no real awards, honors, publications or academic appointments. Instead, Klem has listed the fact that he made honor roll for six semesters. Other career highlights include listings in Who's Who in American Colleges and Universities and Strathmore's Who's Who, which lists the names of an elite society of people with addresses, a few hundred bucks for a Strathmore membership and, presumably, a pulse.

Even Jefferson County District Judge John Stevens, in his admonishment of Klem, seemed to state that it is really disheartening when extra-important people turn out to be pedophiles.

"You have been blessed with a lot of good things, and those who have been blessed with things also carry a higher responsibility of conducting themselves," Stevens said, according to the pleadings transcript. "Much more is expected from people like you who have been blessed."

Judge Stevens: "Are you pleading guilty in this case voluntarily?"

Klem: "Yes, sir."

Judge Stevens: "And because you are guilty?"

Klem: "Yes, sir."

— Plea hearing, Aug. 14, 2007

"Sometimes people plead to things because they are guilty, and sometimes people plead guilty to things because the risk of pleading not guilty is too great."

— Robert Pelton, Klem's criminal defense attorney

When Klem married Judy Elizabeth Treadway in 2000, he pretty much hit the jackpot.

The apple of Buck Treadway's eye, Beth was beautiful and vibrant. Unlike her sister Kathie, whom Buck had publicly rebuked years earlier for dating men not up to Buck's standards, Beth seemed to do no wrong. Buck ultimately welcomed Kathie and her daughter back into the family after she married a Pentecostal pastor, but it was Beth who married a doctor. (Beth, who is not named in the civil lawsuit, did not return several messages left for her by the Houston Press.)

This was important to Buck because, according to some former church members, Buck liked money. He drove a gold Cadillac paid for by mostly working-class church members who didn't want anyone to think their shepherd led a self-­centered flock. In addition to his Beaumont home, he owned a lake house and a bunch of rental properties. Church members contributed to the L.C. Treadway Retirement Fund. He put a premium on tithing, something that became even more apparent when he launched his annual "medical community outreach."

"It just seemed so blatantly obvious," former church member Marsha Hamilton says. "We didn't have these annual days to support teachers and service-workers or anybody else."

Buck's interest in the finer things ran counter to the tenets of Pentecostalism, which stresses modesty — especially among women. According to the United Pentecostal Church's interpretation of the Bible, women's attire should reflect "shamefacedness and sobriety." Pants are also frowned upon for women, because "often it takes a second glance to determine the sex of a woman today." Women must also subjugate themselves to men, who, it conveniently turns out, don't have such strict wardrobe requirements. "The New Testament does not provide instructions expressly for men's clothing," the UPCI Web site states. "Apparently, immodest dress was not as much of a problem for men in those days."

The UPCI traces its roots back to 1916, when a group of preachers split from the Assemblies of God, disagreeing with that church's vision of God as a trinity. The split resulted in the Pentecostal Church, Incorporated, and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ. These merged in 1945 as the United Pentecostal Church International, which is today headquartered in a suburb of St. Louis.

While the UPCI has its own president ("superintendent") and board of directors, and while it has the power to issue and revoke ministerial licenses, congregations are autonomous, and any supervision is left to district offices. The UPCI, as an organization, serves mostly as a ministers' union, and holds annual conferences to vote on important issues. For example, at the September 2007 conference, ministers passed a resolution allowing Pentecostal services to be televised, a somewhat odd vote, given that the UPCI finds television "unsuitable for Christians or for their homes."

Of course, one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the UPCI is that it believes members show proof of receiving God's grace by speaking in tongues. "Speaking in tongues symbolizes God's complete control of the believer," the UPCI Web site states.

And, until August 2006, Buck Treadway had complete control over his congregation. A charismatic man and ­natural-born public speaker, Buck commanded authority. He could boast of an impressive lineage; his father was a prominent pastor in Louisiana, and his grandfather was the UPCI's first superintendent of the Louisiana district.

Buck came to New Life Tabernacle in 1969 with his wife Patsy, six-year-old son Leslie and baby girl Beth. Another son and daughter would follow. The congregation credits Buck's vision for creating the church's school, New Life Christian Academy.

But periodically, according to some former church members, Buck would call special meetings where he'd lash out at people he felt did not meet the church's standards.

"It does not pay in the long run to cross Treadway, simple as one two three," says one former church member, who asked not to be identified, saying she feared retribution from Buck and his supporters. "You make him mad, there will be repercussions. He's a very dominating man, he's a very strong-willed person and he does not take criticism very well at all. In fact, he just doesn't take it."

This criticism had already proved evident in his public lashing of daughter Kathie, but it soon spread to his other children, who came to him a few years ago with a real problem.

Of course, the stories of what actually happened next are wildly ­different.

"He used to make these little comments like, 'You're beautiful. I have beautiful little nieces.' And it'd just make my flesh crawl."

— Brea Treadway, 14

"I'm not going to say that they're telling their clients what to say; I don't believe that. But you can certainly create an environment where the plaintiffs...feel comfortable making it up as they go."

— Civil defense attorney Kip Lamb

No one disputes the fact that, in 2003, Buck's son Leslie and his second wife Lisa came to Buck with a grave concern.

Ashlee McEntire, Lisa's ten-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, had accused Klem of touching her during a sleepover at his house. Brea, Leslie's nine-year-old daughter from his first marriage, was at the same sleepover and was alleging the same thing. So this, according to Leslie and Lisa, was the first time Buck was made aware of a pedophile at his church.

Leslie and Lisa told Klem they wouldn't notify authorities if Klem promised to leave the girls alone. At this time, Leslie had no idea Klem had been molesting his daughter Ashlyn for the last four years.

But Kip Lamb, who's representing Buck, Klem and New Life Tabernacle, says it wasn't so sinister.

"New Life Tabernacle has not had any...child abuse complaints in decades," Lamb says. "However, several years ago...a very minor incident was mentioned to the pastor and recanted, and the parents of that child expressed doubts that it was even true."

Lamb says the girls quickly recanted and, as far as Buck knew, the whole mess was over. He adds that when Buck was served with the civil suit, which used pseudonyms for the girls and their parents, he had no idea who they could be. Moreover, Lamb says, Buck was never present at any of the incidents and therefore couldn't have been aware of Klem's actions. Lamb also carried forth with the medical motif: "The parents expressed doubt and the pastor understandably, you know, wasn't sure what they were even saying, inasmuch as Dr. Klem is a ­cardiologist."

When asked what Klem's job had to do with any allegations, Lamb betrayed a profound misunderstanding of the difference between "good touching" and "bad touching."

"You're going to someone saying, 'This doctor touched me on my chest,'" he said. "My doctor touches me on my chest, I don't think anything about it."

While it's not clear if Lamb's doctor ever touched him during a sleepover, Ashlee and Brea say they have a clear memory of what it meant to spend the night with Uncle Jeff.

After a fun day at the beach in Galveston, Ashlee, Brea and Ashlyn spent the night at Jeff and Beth's home. While Beth was reading a book in the bedroom, the girls were in another room, watching The Ring. That's when Klem strolled in, still in his scrubs, Ashlee recalls.

She asked, "'Uncle Jeff, I'm scared, will you lay beside me?' And when he came to lay beside me, he got under the covers. Well, I didn't think much of it because I was like, 'This is my uncle, it's not a big deal.'"

But then it did become a big deal. According to Ashlee, Klem then put his arm around her waist. It made her uncomfortable, so she hopped out of bed and went to the refrigerator for a handful of tiny ice cubes the girls liked to eat. After she collected herself, she returned to bed. Next, Klem moved his hand toward her chest.

Needing another break, Ashlee again hopped out of bed and threw on a bra. Back in bed, Klem moved his hand beneath the bra. This called for more ice cubes. Ashlee padded to the kitchen and back, and Klem continued his thing.

Ashlee needed some moral support. She asked Brea to come to the kitchen with her. That's when Ashlee explained what happened. She said she had to tell her parents and Aunt Beth.

Ashlee recalls her sister saying, "'No, don't do that. It won't work. That'll just make Beth really mad...so don't tell her.'"

That's when nine-year-old Brea offered to take the hit.

"She said, 'Well, I'll get back into bed with Jeff because he's put his hands down my pants before,'" Ashlee says. "She knew that I had never been messed with, nothing had ever been wrong with me. So she was just going to take it for me."

But Ashlee told her mother, causing an unfortunate chain reaction.

Lisa Treadway recalls: "When I told Les what had happened, Les believed me. But we both knew that it was going to be horrible...Jeff is Brother Treadway's pet. Jeff was a doctor. Everybody loves Jeff. It was hard to believe, but my daughter had never lied to me."

Ashlee told Ashlyn, who pretended not to believe her.

"Beth was all she had," Ashlee says of Ashlyn. "And she just adored Beth and didn't know what would happen, you know, if Beth knew she took my side."

She also told her stepcousin, another one of Buck's granddaughters via Kathie. The girl said the same thing happened to her. And then she didn't. She recanted, leaving Ashlee and Brea on their own.

It proved too much for the girls. The day after Leslie and Lisa met with Buck, they woke up crying, curled into fetal positions. The girls were afraid Paw-Paw and Sweetie — their names for Buck and Patsy — were mad at them. Lisa says she wasn't sure what to do, so she called Patsy, who came over immediately. Both Lisa and the girls are certain of what happened next.

They say Patsy suggested the girls had a crush on Klem. Maybe it'd be best if they called Uncle Jeff right now and apologized for lying, she said.

Ashlee says she told Klem, "I'm sorry that it happened, but I'm not sorry for telling my mom."

Brea says that, after she got on the phone to apologize, Klem had an apology of his own. "He said to me, 'I'm sorry about my bad hands,' and nobody heard him. So I knew he knew what he did. And that was pretty pathetic for him to say that."

So boom, it never happened. Ashlee started making herself vomit after meals, but it didn't last long. Lisa moved her back to Louisiana. It cost her a marriage, but she couldn't leave Ashlee around Buck, Patsy, Beth and Klem.

While Patsy chose to believe her granddaughters were lying, the girls would get to address Klem in open court after he admitted to touching them.

Brea recalls her statement: "I just remember telling him that he was a nasty man and I was sad for him, that he liked to watch little girls being tortured, and [to] watch them cry whenever their families turn against them, and that I forgave him even though I had to say 'sorry' to him four years ago."

"I just wish it'd be over. This is the reason why kids don't come out and say anything. This is it."

— Ashlyn Treadway

"It's just not a matter that we're dealing with."

— Danny Russo, Superintendent, ­Texas District, UPCI

The Tampa Marriott Waterside is a beautiful hotel resort boasting a marbled lobby with palm trees dwarfed by gigantic ­columns.

It sits upon a riverwalk, adjacent to the Tampa Convention Center. In late September, it was flooded with UPCI ministers and their special guests, in town for the annual general conference. They got a cut rate — $119 a night. As usual, Buck Treadway's expenses were covered by his congregation.

Buck was unavailable for comment even before he split for Tampa. On the first call, he was attending to more important matters.

"He is swimming laps out in the pool," Patsy Treadway said. Patsy declined to comment, citing a nonexistent gag order.

The hesitancy comes not just from the civil suit, but from a notorious meeting at New Life Tabernacle in August 2006 that may have cost the church a third of its membership. When former members speak of that meeting, they sound like someone who endured an alien probe — shocked, hurt and, most of all, unsure of what the hell happened.

Although the nearly-five-hour meeting was recorded, the only known copy was subpoenaed by the grand jury in Klem's criminal case. Jefferson County prosecutor Waylon Thompson said the tape was not public record, and attorney Kip Lamb said that, while he's heard the tape, he doesn't have a copy himself. While Lamb conceded that Buck Treadway sounds a bit odd on the tape, his ramblings had nothing to do with the civil suit.

It's not clear who made the recording, as Buck told the congregation upfront that no tape recording or note taking would be tolerated. Then, according to some who attended, he ordered an usher to lock the doors.

Arnold Hamilton, Marsha Hamilton's husband, recalls, "For the next five hours, there was shouting, rebuking, slandering and all kinds of distractions in that ­meeting."

This included asking all those who supported him to rise, without actually explaining what they were supporting. After he got that tally, he asked those supporters with master's degrees or higher to stand up, ostensibly demonstrating that, if well-educated people supported him, anyone else would be a fool not to.

"He humiliated all of those who didn't stand to support him," Arnold Hamilton says.

According to former members, Buck also singled out kids who were present. He polled them, one by one, first asking if they'd ever lied, and then if they were virgins. For those who confessed, Buck hit them with a harsh "I rebuke you!"

According to Arnold Hamilton, Buck also rebuked his son, Leslie, saying he was incapable of marrying a decent woman.

When Buck finally said, almost in an offhand manner, that he was being sued, Arnold and Marsha Hamilton suddenly knew what this was all about.

Some time before the meeting, the Hamiltons received a call from fellow church member and friend Tina McDaniel. She called to say she would no longer be attending church and that her daughter Randee wanted to say goodbye. McDaniel explained that Randee said she had been touched by Jeff Klem. Tina said it happened in 2001, when the girl was 11. She hadn't told anyone until four years later, by which time mother and daughter knew about the other girls' allegations. Tina said she immediately notified the police and Children's Protective Services. That was to take care of Klem. Then she told them she was part of a civil suit to hold Buck Treadway responsible.

So when Buck said one of his kids was suing him, the Hamiltons suddenly believed that Buck was admonishing anyone who had prior knowledge of the suit. Indeed, Tina McDaniel and her husband — like others who refused to give Buck their support — received "letters of release" from New Life Tabernacle. They were no longer welcome.

Lamb says McDaniel was already looking to find a new church and Buck merely provided a polite letter giving her the opportunity to do so. He also says only a few people left the church, and the bulk of those who stayed are probably not even aware of the civil suit. And while Lamb says Buck had just returned from his fourth round of chemotherapy for cancer before that meeting and was not in the best physical or mental condition, no one appears to dispute that the meeting was bizarre.

But it's unclear whether any church members reported concerns over their pastor's mental health. And while Tina McDaniel says she and her daughter told a New Life official about the daughter's molestation, there is no documentation indicating that the district office or UPCI headquarters were ever notified.

While that may be, it would be hard for UPCI officials to plead ignorance once Klem was indicted in December 2006.

According to the UPCI's bylaws, all complaints against a pastor must first be investigated by the district before the headquarters can get involved. Complaints must be submitted in writing, signed by at least two accusers, and must state the nature, place and date of the offense. Insufficient complaints are kicked back to the complaining parties, who must submit another draft.

If this process is not followed — if, for example, there is only a verbal complaint — the district cannot open an investigation. Without evidence of a proper complaint, no UPCI officials can open an investigation. And if Texas District Superintendent Danny Russo says the district isn't interested in New Life Tabernacle, there is nothing that can be done at the national level.

General Superintendent Ken Haney politely explained this after he popped into his Tampa Marriott hotel room for a lunch break between board meetings.

"I'm vaguely familiar with that," Haney says of the rift at New Life. Unfortunately, the UPCI's bylaws prevent him from attaining knowledge beyond the level of "vaguely." His hands are tied.

"Was there a complaint properly filed?" he asks, later adding, "It is my opinion...that perhaps a complaint was not properly filed. If it is properly filed, of necessity, they have to make an investigation."

And what if a complaint is properly filed, but there's a conflict of interest between the district superintendent and the minister in question, and an investigation is never opened? Does the whole thing evaporate?

Haney assured the Press that it wouldn't.

"There's too many voices," he said. "In other words, there's too many other churches in that area with pastors that would lend themselves to complaining about it and something would have to be done."

Not satisfied with the bold proclamation that "something would have to be done," Haney added that "things will be addressed."

Then Haney had to go. He had to make another board meeting.

"I sat down these girls, and the consensus was, they wanted to get on with their lives. They wanted to plead this case and get on with their lives."

— Jefferson County prosecutor Waylon Thompson

"Two-thousand dollars per [count]? People get more for that on DWIs."

— Lisa Treadway, victim's mother

It's not clear who was for the plea bargain and who wasn't.

Thompson says he was ready for trial all along, but when the idea for the plea surfaced, he brought it to the families and they were all on board.

"If they had at any point said, 'No, we think we want to go ahead and roll the dice on this,' then we'd have done that," Thompson says. "That's what we do. We don't do anything designed to be charitable to a defendant by any means."

He says he thoroughly explained the conditions of the plea bargain and the risks of a trial. He would have to conduct three separate trials, one for each girl. And for some reason, instead of leading off with Ashlyn, who endured seven years of torment, Thompson planned to lead with Ashlee, who was touched on one ­occasion.

He wouldn't know until the trials started what information, if any, he could include about the other girls. There were no witnesses. Acquittal or probation were definite risks of trial.

Lisa Treadway says that, since she and her daughter were now in Louisiana, she left the decision up to the other girls, her ex-husband Leslie and his first wife, Rilea.

"They've had to eat, sleep and drink this thing right in their face in Beaumont," she says. "I had pulled myself away from it."

According to Leslie and Rilea, Thompson told them from the beginning that all three girls could be tried together. It wasn't until the last minute, they say, that Thompson sprung the plea bargain on them and steered them in that direction.

Ashlee and Brea appear to have been satisfied with the plea bargain, although Ashlee isn't exactly sure what the plea bargain was. ("I don't really understand what he got," she says).

Randee had no say, because her case was in Harris County. But Thompson allowed Tina and Randee to be there through the whole process — they were all like family.

Randee says she would have been okay with a similar plea bargain in Houston.

"This is my senior year," she says. "I don't want to have to be pulled out of school for this stuff. I want my life back."

She's doing much better now. She's not cutting herself anymore. She's not around Klem anymore. And because her mom was constantly talking about the case and upsetting Randee, she's not living with her mom anymore. She's over at her father's, in a more mellow environment.

The ultimate call for the plea bargain seemed to lie with Ashlyn, who bit her tongue and left it up to her sister and stepsister. They were younger, and they hadn't endured what she'd had to. If they wanted to drop everything and move on, Ashlyn would respect that. She already felt bad enough for not defending her sisters in the first place.

"I didn't know what to do," she says. "I was so scared, and I wanted to stick up for [them] then. And I'm feeling a lot of guilt because I didn't."

Like Randee, Ashlyn had turned to self-mutilation. For the last two years of Klem's touching, she'd cut herself with a bobby pin or a nail. She has no clue why she did it. But through tears, she takes a guess.

"It's like it wasn't me," she says. "It wasn't me, it was all the anger held up in me, because I didn't say anything and I needed to, I know I needed to do. And I ignored it because I wanted to make them [Beth, Buck and Patsy] happy...I loved them and I didn't want to hurt them. And I wanted to be mad at myself because I was close to Beth and I let it happen. I trusted her and...she was there almost every time and she could've seen it."

In the end, she lost Beth anyway. And Paw-Paw. And Sweetie.

She lost her church family, too. People who she considered friends, but chose to believe she and her sisters were liars and whores.

"It's just like hit after hit after hit. You're just like, 'You know what? I'd just rather lay here and let it all hit me. Just lay here. I don't feel like fighting it.'"

So right now, Ashlyn's lying there. College is on hold. She had wanted to be a dental hygienist. But college is the furthest thing from her mind because, as she says, "I'm so screwed up in the head right now."

If Ashlyn didn't bite her tongue during the plea bargain discussions, if any lawyers had asked her how she felt, she could have told them. The words would have been choppy, garbled by tears, dripping with anger, like she was slashing herself with that nail deeper than ever before.

"This is a freakin' joke. It's taken as a freakin' joke now because, you know, our system's not doing anything. The doctor's, you know, getting to work and he's happy and he's smiling....Yeah, if that's how it is, this sucks. It sucks, and I don't have any respect for it. [Klem] should be put up somewhere. He's not a good person. He needs somebody to do that to him. He needs to live with the guilt and he needs to go somewhere where he can be, you know, hurt for seven years. He needs to be molested for seven years. By somebody bigger than him. And then he'll know."

craig.malisow@houstonpress.com

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