Updated: 05/20/2014 8:47 PM KSTP.com By: Leslie Dyste
Photo: Photo: Ramsey County Sheriff's Office
A former St. Paul schools custodian was charged after allegedly peeping on male students in the bathrooms, making inappropriate comments and removing property from a hidden room at a school where he worked.
Sixty-two-year-old Walter Johann Happel of Newport, Minn., was charged with one count of surreptitious interference with privacy. He made his first court appearance Thursday afternoon.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS cameras got an exclusive look at Happel walking out of jail. Reporter Brandi Powell asked him if he had anything to say about the claims against him. "No comment," Happel replied.
Powell followed up by asking if any of the claims against him are based on truth at all. "No", Happel said. Then he paused and said, "No comment."
Powell asked, "No? None of those are based in truth?" The young man he was walking with, who appeared to be one of his children, continued to cover his head and face with a sweatshirt and said, "He said no comment.'" A bail lawyer for the now-former public school custodian said Happel is a married father of four.
Allegations against Happel date back to 2003, and are as recent as February. According to the criminal complaint, six students have reported incidents involving Happel over the years.
On Feb. 19, a student at the Linwood Monroe Arts Public School in St. Paul returned from the bathroom and told his teacher about an incident involving Happel. The student said Happel had peeked underneath the stall and "smiled at him."
School officials contacted Happel's supervisors Feb. 19 and he was put on paid administrative leave. He was told not to report to work until further notice, and was forced to turn over his keys and badge, which allowed him access to the building.
Later that day, officials at the school learned Happel had returned to the building. An employee who confronted Happel noticed he was visibly shaken and disoriented. According to the complaint, Happel acknowledged that he wasn't allowed to be at school, and was putting items on a dolly to take them out of the building.
Officials discovered Happel had a room in the building few people knew about, in addition to his office in the boiler room. Officials found an enzyte topical intensifying gel, a packet of Stimulean energy capsules and a bottle of testosterone pills in the room.
On Feb. 21, school officials contacted St. Paul Police to report the incident.
The boy told police he was sitting on the toilet with his pants around his knees when he saw, through the cracks in the stall door, a man enter the bathroom. He recognized the man as the person who cleans the bathroom and lunchroom.
The boy told police he was scared, shaky and the man's actions made him "feel sad."
Happel resigned from his position at the school Feb. 26. He was arrested on Tuesday and denied knowing why he was arrested.
Police told him it was related to an incident where he looked under a stall and smiled at a boy. Happel said that was a lie, and claimed there was a mess on the bathroom floor. Happel said he looked under the stalls and saw some feet. Happel claimed he said, "Anybody in here," and no one answered.
As for removing property from the room in the school, Happel said he returned to the building to get his files so he could do his taxes. He said he got his files and left, along with other items. Happel also denied other incidents he's accused of involving male students.
The criminal complaint reveals a history of accusations against Happel.
Investigators learned Happel had been involved in an incident in 2003 at Roosevelt Elementary School. According to the complaint, a boy reported Happel had given him a digital camera which they used to take each other's pictures. He had asked the boy not to tell anyone about the camera, and said the gift would be "their little secret," according to the complaint. The boy told authorities he would meet Happel in the restroom where Happel would give him candy. He denied ever being touched by Happel or asked to take his clothes off.
Police were unable to access the images on the camera, and the St. Paul Public School District told police they would address the matter internally.
Happel was reprimanded and ordered not to give students candy. According to the complaint the district indicated giving the camera to the boy without consulting school officials was "inappropriate."
Investigators learned Happel was also involved in an incident in 2011. A 12-year-old boy reported Happel followed him to the bathroom throughout the year on a regular basis. The boy said he was using the urinal next to him when Happel said, "It's a big thing" referring to his own exposed penis. According to the complaint, the boy was scared and left the bathroom.
The boy told his mom about the incident, who spoke to a woman at the school the next day. When school officials didn't take action, the boy's mother called police. The complaint states, "apparently the assistant principal had talked to Happel about the incident, and he denied it."
Around the same time in 2011, a student reported that Happel swatted his butt and made an inappropriate comment. Happel told the student it was because of his sagging pants. That incident was apparently not reported to police.
In 2012, Happel was reprimanded for both of the incidents reported in 2011. He was directed to use staff restrooms while in the building and to leave dress code enforcement to the administrative staff.
Last week, a 13-year-old student came forward to report an incident that occurred when he was in fourth grade. He reported Happel used the urinal next to him and said, "Why don't you take out your penis more? We're both boys." He said the same incident happened twice.
Another student reported a man peeping on him through a vent in a school's bathroom. He said there was a door that slid back covering the vent. Investigators verified the student's description of a door covering a sliding vent in the bathroom.
Happel faces a maximum sentence of two years behind bars and a $5,000 fine. He will enter a plea at his preliminary hearing April 10.