FORT SMITH -- A Van Buren truck driver pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday in the rapes of foster-care girls he took with him on cross-country trucking trips.
Clarence C. Garretson, 65, pleaded guilty to five counts of interstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. He was charged Oct. 5 in a superseding indictment with 11 counts involving eight minors. The government agreed to dismiss the other six counts as part of a plea agreement.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner told U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III during a plea hearing that four of the counts to which Garretson pleaded were equivalent to rape under Arkansas law and one would be equivalent to first-degree violation of a minor.
Holmes told Garretson he could be sentenced to up to life in prison on the interstate transportation charges involving rape. Garretson will be sentenced after completion of a presentence investigation, which typically takes six to eight weeks.
Garretson has been held in federal custody since his arrest in June.
About 20 victims, their families and friends sat quietly in the audience during Tuesday's hearing. Jenner told Holmes the victims would make statements during the sentencing hearing.
Garretson, a thin, bald man with a bushy mustache who wore a faded orange two-piece jail suit, sat at the defendant's table with his attorney Marvin Honeycutt of Fort Smith.
Garretson appeared reluctant to answer at times as Holmes explained the rights Garretson was giving up as part of his guilty pleas and sought confirmation that Garretson understood. Garretson also hesitated when asked if he were guilty of one of the charges, glancing over at Honeycutt with a frown before responding. Holmes had Garretson plead to each count separately.
Documents filed in the case said Garretson took the girls with him when he went on the road during the summer when the girls were out of school and would have sex or would have them perform sexual acts on him daily throughout the multiday trips. He often stopped at a casino, had sex with a girl and then went into the casino to gamble, documents said.
"Garretson's actions are horrifying and the FBI and the United States Attorney's Office will work doggedly to put these predators behind bars," FBI Little Rock Special Agent in Charge Diane Upchurch said in a statement Tuesday. "I commend the FBI personnel and the [U.S. attorney's office] in their efforts to bring justice to these young people."
Garretson and his wife Lisa were foster parents for the Arkansas Department of Human Services from May 23, 1989, to Dec. 30, 2004, according to an FBI search warrant affidavit filed in federal court in June.
The government's plea agreement with Garretson said FBI Special Agent Robert Allen learned that at least 35 minors were placed in the Garretsons' home during the time they operated as foster parents.
The search warrant affidavit said Allen reviewed state Department of Human Services records and learned that multiple teenage foster children had reported to the agency that Garretson had sexually assaulted them while in his care.
"Some of the reports to DHS were unfounded and some were founded as 'true,'" Allen wrote. "I found reports alleging sexual misconduct by Garretson on foster children in his home were made to DHS in August 1997, January 2003, July 2004 and April 2006."
Allen's affidavit said the Garretsons were "classified by DHS" as an adoptive home from April 13, 2002, to Jan. 29, 2015.
Lisa Garretson was not charged in federal court or state court.
The Human Services Department said in a released statement Tuesday that it could not comment on specific cases.
The statement said it vets foster families, and it conducts state and federal background checks, child maltreatment checks, home studies, training and annual re-evaluation of homes.
"Sadly, there are people who prey upon children and may try to use the foster system to do so," spokesman Amy Webb said in the statement. "When that happens today, we act swiftly to ensure youth in foster care are in safe homes."
Garretson's abuse of the girls came to light in March when the Van Buren Police Department received a report that Garretson had molested a 10-year-old foster child in the summer of 2014 when he took her on the road with him.
According to the affidavit, the girl told police that Garretson raped her and said "he done it the whole time we were on the road."
Allen's affidavit said that when a Van Buren detective confronted Garretson with the girl's allegations, Garretson said she was lying and "it never happened."
The earliest case for which Garretson pleaded guilty occurred from May to September 2000. Some of the girls were in their early teens. The youngest was 9 years old.
According to Allen's affidavit, one of the girls told investigators that Garretson took several Polaroid photos of her while she was naked and exposing her genitals. When she asked him the next day what he did with the photos, he replied, "I gave them away."
Allen wrote in the affidavit that not all of Garretson's sexual activity with girls in his care occurred on the road.
One girl told him in an interview that she was placed with the Garretsons as a foster child in the summer of 1998. She said Garretson repeatedly sexually assaulted her in the home as well as on road trips.
On a trip in 2000, the affidavit said, the girl encountered her brother at a casino in New Mexico. When her brother asked her if Garretson did anything to her, she denied it. She told Allen she was afraid to tell about the abuse because the Garretsons also were raising her nephew and she was afraid they would be separated.
State Desk on 10/26/2016