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Former Kairos worker enters into plea deal

A Grants Pass woman accused of having a sexual relationship with a teenage boy in her care at a Kairos mental health treatment facility for youths has pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor crime — a charge that could be dismissed in six months if she complies with the terms of the plea deal.

Jessica Morton, 31, was initially charged with first-degree custodial sexual misconduct — a felony — as well as three counts of second-degree custodial sexual misconduct and two counts of third-degree sex abuse. She pleaded no contest Thursday to one count of second-degree custodial sexual misconduct, with other charges dropped.

Morton's attorney, Nathan Wente, said his client has entered into a diversion agreement with the Josephine County District Attorney's Office. Under that agreement, which he likened to putting the case on "pause," she's been ordered to pay a $225 fine and remain law-abiding for 180 days. If she does both successfully, the charge to which she pleaded no contest will be dismissed and her record will be wiped clean, Wente said.

"I have no doubt that she is not going to have a problem obeying the law for the next six months," Wente said. "She's been a law-abiding citizen all her life."

Morton has maintained her innocence since her arrest, and her supporters staged several demonstrations at the county courthouse. Wente said it was tempting to take the case to trial, but that juries are "notoriously unpredictable."

"The risk was just too great," he said.

He called the plea agreement a "tough pill to swallow" but that Morton is looking forward to closing this chapter in her life. A no contest plea does not include an admission of guilt.

The prosecutor in the case, Deputy District Attorney Matt Corey, insisted there was evidence that would have supported the charges in a trial but that the alleged victim also wanted to resolve the case, and a diversion agreement was appropriate.

"DA diversions are for those defendants whose crimes appear to be an isolated case of poor judgment, where there is little or no loss or injury to a victim, as is the case here," he said.

Morton, a former Grants Pass High School and University of Hawaii softball star who worked as a skills coach for Kairos, has garnered a wave of sympathy and support and has been outspoken about the charges against her. In a piece she wrote for the U.S. Observer, she called her accuser "an aggressive, angry boy" who was an attention seeker. He was in Kairos' care from the Oregon Youth Authority.

Morton's court hearings were often attended by a group of supporters who wore "Team Morton" shirts. Morton sold "Supportin' Morton" bumper stickers to help cover her legal costs.

The investigation into the boy's claims against Morton began last year, but her arrest occurred only after other Kairos employees were charged with sex crimes in separate cases.

One of them, Sonia Leamons, 41, pleaded guilty to second-degree encouraging child sex abuse and attempting to use a child in a display of sexually explicit conduct, both felonies, and was sentenced in June to 50 days in jail. Leamons had been accused of sending sexually explicit photos of a 17-year-old girl to another Kairos employee, Dewayne Sandle-Carnell.

Sandle-Carnell, 32, has pleaded guilty to four felony counts of second-degree sex abuse. His sentencing is set for Feb. 2.

A fourth Kairos employee, 34-year-old Jason Tesorero Morla, was sentenced to 30 days in jail in May after pleading no contest to felony first-degree custodial sexual misconduct for having sexual contact with a young woman who was in Kairos' care.

The employees' arrests prompted a review of Kairos by the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Human Services. An OHA report described lax oversight and found Kairos had violated state law in more than a dozen ways. The DHS review focused on Kairos' New Beginnings program, in which Leamons and Sandle-Carnell worked, and found that "extensive and remarkable changes" had occurred since the arrests, including the installation of additional cameras at the facility and closer monitoring of activities.

In a statement this morning, Kairos CEO Bob Lieberman stressed that his agency has met "all corrective actions" required by state authorities.

"We are continuing as we always do to make improvement and move forward," he said.

"We're always focused on the needs and strengths of the youth and families that we serve."

Kairos has programs in Grants Pass, Jackson County, North Bend, Eugene and Salem. The agency began as the Southern Oregon Adolescent Study and Treatment Center, or SOASTC, in 1977 and changed its name to Kairos in 2012.

Reach reporter Melissa McRobbie at 541-474-3806 or mmcrobbie@thedailycourier.com

Jessica Morton