Lititz man, named in Scouting 'perversion files,' befriended boy who later hanged himself

Josh Smith came to know ousted Boy Scout leader Ken Eshleman through a troop in Wilkes-Barre. (Photo courtesy of Karen Martin)

When the Boy Scouts banned a Lititz troop leader due to his sexual behavior with Scouts in the mid-1970s, the leader didn't leave the organization entirely.

He just went to a different county, became a volunteer there, and allegedly continued his sexual abuse.

This time, Ken Eshleman focused his attentions on a teenage boy who was a member of a troop located 100 miles north of here and led by a friend of Eshleman's, according to the boy's mother.

The boy developed emotional problems and ended up in a psychiatric unit of a hospital. There, he revealed he had been molested by a Scout leader, even as Eshleman was sending letters to the boy's home, asking to see him, according to the correspondence that was kept by his mother.

Five months later, in February 1991, the boy, 17-year-old Josh Smith, hanged himself.

Eshleman, who is now 63 and lives on a family farm outside of Lititz, was never charged or investigated in any of the Scout cases. He has led a quiet life in recent years.

But parents of Scouts in his troops have not forgotten him.

Smith's mother, Karen Martin, did not know until recently that Eshleman had been banned from Scouting more than a decade before he ever met her son.

When she found Eshleman's name online in the recently released Scouting "perversion files," she was stunned.

Stunned and disgusted that Eshleman was allowed to continue to allegedly victimize her son, whom he found through Scouting.

"I stared at it in shock," she said of seeing Eshleman's name in the files of ousted leaders. "My stomach started doing flips. Literally, I was in shock. I just burst into tears.

"Those bastards. They knew all that time he was an abuser."

The father of a boy who was in the local troop said, "It really makes me cringe at the severity of what happened.

"The after-effects of abuse is much worse than what happened to these boys."

After the ban

Eshleman was one of three local troop leaders named in the first round of Boy Scout "perversion files" that were released at the end of October.

He was ousted from the organization in 1974, when he was 23 and a leader in a Lititz troop.

Eshleman fondled at least three boys in the troop, according to the documents and letters from his victims in his Scout file.

The confidential file, and thousands of others, were recently made public after they had come to light in a 2010 trial, when an Oregon law firm used the documents to prove the Boy Scouts knew about, and concealed, an institutionwide problem with sexual abuse.

In their letters in Eshleman's file, two of the Scouts said that Eshleman would start out by giving back rubs to boys at night as they slept in tents on campouts, and then proceed to fondle them.

After talking to the boys and receiving their letters, a committee met with Eshleman and asked for his resignation. He initially denied the actions but later said he was seeking help and had agreed to counseling, according to the documents in his file.

However, about 10 years later, in about 1985, Eshleman found his way back into Scouting, through a friend who led a troop that met at a Lutheran church in Wilkes-Barre.

Thomas Lehmier, the Lancaster-Lebanon Council Scouting executive at the time of Eshleman's ouster, said there was nothing the Scouts could have done about Eshleman if he was working as an unofficial volunteer in Wilkes-Barre. If he did not register, no one would have known that he had been banned, Lehmier said.

Josh Smith was a member of that Wilkes-Barre troop. His mother was divorced and her ex-husband had recently died from cancer. She thought Scouting would be good for Josh and his older brother, Sean.

"I wanted them to have a male figure in their lives," said Martin, 60, who now lives in Luzerne. "They had lost their father. It was very difficult for them. I thought it was best for them to be in an environment like Boy Scouts. Being a single mom, I didn't even know how to tie a tie."

Eshleman accompanied the troop on campouts. He took an interest in Josh, Martin said, and began buying him gifts and trying to visit with him outside of troop activities.

"He bought Josh a denim jacket," she said. "Josh was a huge Kiss fan. He bought him Kiss patches and memorabilia and that type of thing."

Josh's older brother, Sean Smith, now 42, of Wilkes-Barre, said he never personally saw Eshleman do anything inappropriate with his brother or with other Scouts.

Smith said, "That's not to say that nothing happened, just that it was done outside of my vision or somewhere I couldn't see it."

"He was just unusually nice," Sean Smith said of Eshleman. "That would be the best way to describe it. He gave out a lot of gifts to various members of the troop."

The letters

The Lititz man also wrote letters to Josh Smith, which Martin has kept. On the surface, they were jolly-sounding missives but also carried a note of pleading, as Eshleman asked the teen for contact as he mentioned the gifts he had bought for him or places he would like to take him.

In an October 1989 letter, Eshleman refers to the teen as "my Josh," and asks him to write him.

Eshleman wrote, "I could not believe how tall you are. You better stop growing soon, or I will be looking up at you. Of course, then I will kick you in the shins and make you bend over, then I will be taller again. Ha! Ha!"

Eshleman also tells Josh he would like to take him out for a steak dinner. "Maybe I am getting too old for you, and you don't want to be seen with such an old person. Ha! Ha!" he wrote.

Eshleman closed by telling Josh to decide what they will do and that Eshleman would "put you #1 on the list of things to do."

A year later, Eshleman wrote in another letter, "How is your job, or jobs going? What are you doing with all your money?

"Yes, I know that I should not ask you questions because you Never Write Back!!! Ha! Ha!"

In the letter, Eshleman asked Josh to come to a campout on the Labor Day holiday of that year.

"If you can pick a nite (or 2 or 3) and come out. … It would be great to see and spend some time with my great friend again.

"Boy, is that ever buttering you up. Ha! Ha!"

Eshleman signed both letters with his name, followed by a nickname, "Big Esh."

But around that time, things had begun to unravel for Josh, who already had some complex emotional problems and was, in his mother's words, "an insecure, fragile individual."

"He became very sullen, very withdrawn," his mother said. "He started to become difficult."

Josh was impulsive, and didn't fit in with kids his age, who bullied him, she said. His mother discovered he was setting small fires in the attic of his Wilkes-Barre home. He began to embrace the occult and Satanic writings.

The downward spiral ended up with Josh being admitted to the psychiatric unit of a local hospital for first one and then another stay.

He was diagnosed with depression and an atypical psychosis. However, there is nothing in the records shared by his mother to indicate that health care professionals linked Josh's mental health problems to any abuse.

It was during his second hospital stay in September 1990, shortly after Eshleman wrote one of the letters, that Josh told the staff that he had been molested by a troop leader, according to his hospital records, of which his mother has a copy.

"Josh revealed to staff tonight that he was molested by a male (involved with the Boy Scouts) from about the age of 12 to 15 years," according to notes from Josh's chart. "He said he received nice presents, such as a stereo, from this man in return for favors."

The chart also indicates that Josh's mother, who was not aware of the revelation at that time, had brought in letters the man had written her son.

"Letters invite Josh to meet this man," the chart notes.

Several days later, Josh's chart noted that he said of the abuse, "Although I had a lot of problems before this happened, I realize that it probably made me worse."

The chart also notes Josh was ambivalent about the Scout leader being punished but "did state that he wants to prevent this man from potentially hurting others."

Hospital personnel notified the Luzerne County Children and Youth Agency about Josh's allegations, according to the chart.

A month later, the state public welfare department sent a letter to Martin, noting that the report of abuse was "indicated," which "means that the agency determined that the child was abused," the letter states.

The letter does not specify the nature of the abuse or the name of the abuser. It also notes that a court had not determined the abuse had taken place.

Sean Smith said, though he never directly saw any inappropriate behavior, that he believes his brother was abused.

"My brother said it and I believe him," he said. "That's as much as I can say right now."

Martin said she was informed the abuser also would receive a letter, and that the findings would be turned over to law enforcement officials in Luzerne County.

By this time, Josh had been transferred to Eastern State School and Hospital in Trevose for treatment. Eshleman called the family home during that time and asked to talk to him, Martin said.

Martin asked Eshleman if he had received a letter from Children and Youth about the alleged abuse. She said Eshleman told her that he had, but that he didn't know what the letter was about, and that it mentioned someone else named, "Joshua White."

"I am not sure why he said that," she said. "He could have made it up. He could have been in denial."

He then ended the conversation. "He said, 'Sorry about Josh' and hung up," Martin said.

Martin said the Luzerne County District Attorney's office was responsible for investigating the abuse. Recent calls to the detective on the case were not returned.

In February 1991, while home on a weekend visit, her son hanged himself.

Without his testimony, Martin was told the case against his abuser could not proceed.

While the case ended, Martin's grief and guilt over what happened has not. Though she found Eshleman's interest in her son unusual at the time, she could not find a reason to cut off contact from him, she said.

"That is my one regret," she said, "that I never stopped it."

On the farm

Eshleman has lived a quiet life on his family farm off the 300 block of Owl Hill Road in Warwick Township, where he resides with his elderly father.

He has had health problems in recent years, said a neighbor, who asked not to be named.

Those health problems led him to quit his job as an oil truck driver. He later worked in maintenance or on the grounds crew of a local retirement community.

However, he was seriously injured in a vehicle accident in 2005. Shortly after that, he was diagnosed with leukemia, said the neighbor, who believes Eshleman no longer works.

He was an excellent golfer at one time - his family once had a small golf course on their farm. The neighbor said he believed that Eshleman volunteered to help coach the Warwick High School golf team in the 1980s. The school could not confirm that because it did not keep records of volunteer coaches during that time period, a spokeswoman said.

Eshleman stopped playing golf in recent years, due to his health problems.

He lives down a long farm lane, and neighbors said they rarely see him.

When contacted by phone for his response to the allegations regarding the Wilkes-Barre teen and the Lititz troop, Eshleman said, "Nothing ever happened," and then hung up.

cstauffer@lnpnews.com