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Joshua Winters

Carnival worker Joshua Winters talks with his public defender after a preliminary hearing in July at Natrona County Circuit Court in Casper. Winters is on trial for allegedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting a 5-year-old boy.

The 6-year-old boy appeared unfazed as he walked into the courtroom — the first time in almost a year that he would be in the vicinity of the man who allegedly sexually assaulted him.

The boy waved to a woman he knew as he made his way to the witness stand. The man, Joshua Winters, kept his head down as the boy walked to the front of the courtroom, seemingly fixated on the notes he was writing at the defense table.

The boy — too young to know his left from his right hand when asked to take the oath before testifying — was the first witness to testify on the second day of Winters’ trial. Prosecutors charged Winters with kidnapping, first-degree sexual abuse of a minor and second-degree sexual abuse of a minor in July for allegedly taking the boy from the El Mark-O bowling alley and molesting him after crossing the North Platte River near the fairgrounds.

The boy enthusiastically answered questions about his pets and his family, but his voice became quieter as the prosecutor asked him about what happened that July day by the river. His blond head barely reached above the rim of the witness stand as he looked through tiny glasses at the courtroom full of adults staring at him.

“Whose idea was it to go to the river?” Assistant District Attorney Brett Johnson asked.

“His,” the boy answered.

“How were you feeling when you were in the river?”

“Scared.”

“Why?”

“Because it was so deep and he didn’t even know how to swim.”

The child became more hesitant as Johnson asked him what happened once he and the man, later identified by police as Winters, reached the other side of the river. The boy said the man took his clothes off but then hesitated when asked to describe what happened next.

“He humped my leg and put his peepee in my...” the boy said, trailing off. The courtroom remained silent.

“Go ahead and say it,” Johnson coaxed the boy.

The boy finished his sentence. The courtroom remained otherwise quiet.

By the time Winters’ attorney, public defender Rob Oldham, started asking questions, the boy had become increasingly fidgety, as 6-year-olds are prone to do after long periods of sitting.

The boy told Oldham that he slipped and fell into the river at some point. He said that he didn’t want to cross the river. He said the man had done some things that had hurt him.

After about 45 minutes, the boy was released from the witness stand and walked out of the courtroom hand-in-hand with the director of the Victim Witness Unit in the district attorney’s office. As he left, the entire back row of men and women from Bikers Against Child Abuse followed.

The trial is scheduled to last all week. Winters is expected to take the stand in his defense later in the proceedings, as are witnesses from the bowling alley and police who aided in the investigation.

If convicted, Winters could face up to life in prison for the kidnapping charge and a total of 70 years for the sexual-abuse charges.

The boy’s first interview

After the alleged assault by the river, the boy said that the man took him somewhere and left him. A woman, who testified Monday, said that she found the boy crying by the side of a road by the fairgrounds.

The woman took the boy to the Mills Police Department, and a Casper police officer then drove the boy to the hospital before taking him to the Children’s Advocacy Project so that he could be interviewed. Rosemary Bartle, a forensic interviewer who works at CAP, testified Tuesday that she is trained to use non-leading questions to help the boy tell his story without planting information in his head.

The jury watched the video of Bartle interviewing the boy at the CAP building about 10:45 the night he was found. While he colored, the boy explained what happened that evening. The version he told Bartle was slightly different than what he said on the stand Tuesday, but many facts aligned.

He said he “got stolen” from the bowling alley and then was taken to the “lake.” He said that he hated being there and that the man took his clothes off and took off the boy’s clothes before touching his privates. He said that the man left him somewhere that he didn’t recognize.

Bartle said children don’t remember events in the same way that adults do. An expert who testified Monday said that children often have trouble recalling the exact sequence of events.

“It is typical for a child of that age to not be able to recall concrete details like we do as adults,” Bartle said.

During his chance to question Bartle, Oldham asked her why she didn’t attempt to fact-check the child’s version of events or ask about inconsistencies. Bartle said that it’s not her job to question the child’s memories, only to have the child tell their story as they remember it. That information is then passed to law enforcement for use in their investigation.

“My job is only to collect the information, not to weigh or challenge it,” she said.

‘He left without telling any of us’

It wasn’t like the boy to just take off without telling anybody, his mom testified Tuesday. So when she noticed that he wasn’t in the yard with the other kids, she was immediately alarmed.

The woman, whose name will not be published to protect the identity of the boy, said the boy and his older siblings were allowed to visit the nearby bowling alley provided they checked in on a regular basis. She said that the boy and his older brother checked in with her that evening and went to play in the yard. About 15 minutes later, she went to check on the kids and noticed that the boy wasn’t with the others.

“He left without telling any of us,” she said through tears. “I thought he was in the front yard.”

The boy’s 10-year-old brother testified Tuesday that he, his brother and others had been playing video games at the bowling alley when they met Winters. After a few games, the kids told Winters they had to go check in at home. As the kids left, the man told them that they should return to the arcade when they were done so they could continue to look for some money that he lost.

The soft-spoken 10-year-old told the court that his brother sneaked out and returned to the bowling alley after they returned home.

His mom said that she never knew the boy returned to El Mark-O until they were reunited hours later.

“He was scared,” she said. “He said, ‘The guy’s going to kill me, Mom. The guy’s going to kill me.’”

Interviews with the suspect

The jury also watched videos of Winters as he was taken to the Casper Police Department in the back of a patrol car and then interviewed at the station.

According to Winters’ interview at the police department, he met the children in the arcade and suspected that one of them stole money from his wallet. He asked the younger child where his money was and the child told him that his brother, who was by the river, had the money. Winters said the boy then led him to the river.

Once at the river, Winters said the boy slipped or fell into the river and he jumped in to save him. Once he helped the boy reach the other bank, Winters said he laid down on the ground and fell asleep. He said he never saw the boy again.

Winters returned to the fairgrounds after learning police were looking for him. He walked up to an officer, who placed a shirtless Winters in the back of his patrol car. The officer then drove Winters along the river area near the fairgrounds to see if he could identify which part of the river he had been in.

Winters said that he had been drunk earlier that day but appeared to be fairly lucid during the car ride — he was able to answer questions and his speech was clear. Later in the ride, he said he started to feel sick and either passed out or fell asleep.

Video of Winters in the interview room also showed him barely conscious. He mumbled or didn’t answer when officers asked him questions and fell off his chair at one point in the video. Medics responded to the scene and found nothing physically wrong with him. When asked if he had taken any drugs, Winters said he had consumed a little “ice” — a slang word for methamphetamine — earlier that day.

After allowing Winters to sleep on the floor for about three hours, detectives interviewed him and heard his version of events.

The lead detective in the case is expected to continue his testimony Wednesday morning.

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Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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