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Former Duluth youth counselor admits sexually abusing boys

With the plea, Mark David Painter forgoes a jury trial that was set to begin next week.

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A Hermantown man admitted Monday to sexually abusing five boys in his care while working at The Hills Youth and Family Services in Duluth.

Mark David Painter, 29, pleaded guilty in State District Court to five felony counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. He acknowledged performing sexual acts on the victims, ranging in age from 13-17, in exchange for cigarettes and other contraband at the youth correctional facility.

Painter was set to stand trial next week on a total of eight charges of first- and third-degree criminal sexual conduct. A plea agreement with the St. Louis County Attorney's Office will result in the dismissal of the more serious charges.

Painter, who posted bond in April, will remain free as he awaits sentencing. The plea agreement does not stipulate any particular sentence, leaving it open to argument from attorneys.

Sixth Judicial District Judge Theresa Neo ordered Painter to undergo a pre-sentence investigation and psychosexual evaluation ahead of sentencing on Jan. 27.

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Painter was arrested in July 2018 on allegations that he had abused at least five boys , where he had been hired as a youth counselor in March 2018.

The claims came to light after three boys who ran away from the facility reported to Duluth police that Painter would use contraband — including cigarettes, drugs, tattoo supplies and access to a cellphone or laptop — to coerce sexual acts, according to court documents.

Police said they conducted an extensive investigation in the following days, speaking with all of the juvenile residents under Painter's care. Investigators said they were ultimately able to identify five separate victims who were assaulted on at least eight occasions.

Under questioning from St. Louis County prosecutor Jon Holets, the defendant admitted performing sexual acts on each of the victims in exchange for goods or privileges. He further acknowledged that he was tasked with supervising each of the boys.

The Hills offers residential and day treatment for youths with behavioral or mental health needs — some with substance abuse issues — and many who are court-ordered to be there. Formerly known as Woodland Hills, it is based at 4321 Allendale Ave.

A Minnesota Department of Human Services investigation found Painter responsible for the abuse and disqualified him from future work in similar fields. The agency found that while Painter violated numerous policies, other staff members acted appropriately.

The report said The Hills later completed an internal review and made changes to "the physical plant, staffing practices, training, facility culture, technology, programming for youth, communication and critical incident review procedures."

The Hills and Painter are both named as defendants in a civil lawsuit filed last November by a father on behalf of his 14-year-old son, who was among the victims. The eight-count complaint alleges the facility was negligent in its supervision of Painter, failing to exercise care that would have prevented the abuse and misrepresenting itself as a facility where children would be protected.

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Hills CEO Jeff Bradt responded by asserting that the facility "followed professional standards and responded promptly and appropriately on learning of alleged misconduct by a former employee."

The civil case is scheduled for a jury trial on March 10.

Painter and defense attorney Andrew Leone declined comment after Monday's plea hearing.

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Mark David Painter

Related Topics: CRIME AND COURTSWOODLAND
Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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