Train

Cassie Ruwaldt, 29, stands near a large wooden train built by her stepfather who used building the train as a pretense to sexually abuse her as a child. Ruwaldt is fighting to keep it from being displayed in front of Metolius City Hall.

A simple, brightly colored wooden train has become a symbol in Metolius. City officials say it honors their railroad past. But for Madras mother Cassie Ruwaldt, it represents a decade of childhood sexual abuse.

It was built around 20 years ago by Richard Eugene Pickett, Ruwaldt’s former stepfather. He was convicted of sexually abusing her, usually in his woodshop.

Ruwaldt, 29, wants the train destroyed in memory of victims of child abuse and sexual assault. Instead, the elected leaders of this town of 787 people voted this month to display it outside City Hall.

“I really thought that any municipality that’s made aware of that kind of history would be disgusted,” said Jefferson County District Attorney Steve LeRiche. “But they’ve apparently put money into it and have found a way to rationalize what they’re doing.”

In 2008, AOL contacted police in Jefferson County with a tip that Pickett had downloaded child pornography. Investigators searched his home on 10 acres outside Madras and seized the diary of his teenage stepdaughter — Ruwaldt. It described years of sexual abuse at his hands.

Pickett ultimately pleaded guilty to 36 felonies related to child sex abuse and child pornography. Today, he’s an inmate of Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, 11 years into a 36-year prison sentence.

Pickett was a county employee who worked primarily at the cemetery in Madras. Before his arrest, he was known to neighbors for the oversized toy wooden village spread around his property. The centerpiece of “Pickettville,” as it was called, was a four-car train, essentially a play structure, that sat in the front yard before the family home.

Pickett began abusing Ruwaldt when she was 8 years old. He used woodworking projects as an excuse to spend time with her and isolate her from her family, she said.

“The woodshop was basically a lure,” Ruwaldt said. “He’d tell my mom he just wanted to spend time with Cassie and build stuff.”

Most of the time they were “building,” Ruwaldt was being abused.

“He kept all his tools and a couch and a pool table out there so it wouldn’t look creepy. But it was creepy,” she said. “If he hadn’t built that train, he would have gotten caught a lot sooner.”

After Pickett’s conviction, most of Pickettville was destroyed, while the train and a similar wooden truck were sold by an in-law at a yard sale.

Over the years, Ruwaldt thought often about that train and what might have happened to it. It was a case that stayed with LeRiche, as well.

“In my 20-plus years being here, it’s one that I remember well,” he said. “It was a very horrible crime — just the duration stands out, and the variety of crimes committed.”

Last year, a Metolius city employee saw the train advertised on Craigslist for $500. Not aware of its history, the city bought it and the council voted to put $2,500 into restoring it. Throughout 2019, public works employees refurbished it one car at a time in the city shop.

With its historic roundhouse and turntable in the center of town, Metolius has always been a train town, Metolius Mayor Carl Elliott told The Bulletin.

“One of the reasons we bought the train was because it represents the city of Metolius. That’s why we refurbished it, and it’s just a beautiful-looking train set,” he said. “Some people feel that we took something negative and made it into a positive item.”

In February, Ruwaldt nearly wrecked her car when she saw the train for the first time in years, now completely restored and proudly displayed in the center of town.

“I about had a heart attack,” she said. “I pulled over and I just froze. I called my mom crying. I just couldn’t believe it was out like that. I was like, how does this even happen?”

Ruwaldt attended the next Metolius City Council meeting in March, along with her husband, LeRiche and other supporters. She read the council a letter explaining the train’s history and imploring the council to remove it. With April being Child Abuse Prevention Month, she suggested the city burn the train in honor of child victims of sexual abuse. She even offered to buy it from the city, including the restoration cost.

She said she was not prepared for the response she got. Audio from the meeting confirms she was met with resistance from councilors, who told her the city had invested money into restoring the train and they hoped she could see it as something beautiful coming from a tragedy.

“We look at it as a really positive thing for our city,” Councilor Patty Wyler told Ruwaldt.

Elliott, the mayor, told The Bulletin the city was willing to work with Ruwaldt on a sale, and the train was removed from display. But over three months, Ruwaldt didn’t respond to calls or emails left with her, her mother and LeRiche, Elliott said. The city polled residents about what to do with the train and an overwhelming majority supported displaying it outside City Hall, he said.

“It was a tough decision, but what do you do? I commend the council for really thinking it through,” he said. “I know it’s not a good issue. I would like to, you know — but it’s not my money. It’s all tax dollars and you gotta go by the rules on that. I wish she would have got back to us, I really do.”

Ruwaldt’s husband, Bryan, a licensed counselor, said the train re-entering his wife’s life led to weeks of nightmares, anxiety and depression. The negative reception by city councilors brought on further stress.

“Everybody should want that taken down,” he said. “Nobody wants their kids playing on something like that, or having it symbolize their community. We are flabbergasted that this is even still a thing.”

LeRiche said public officials should be sympathetic to crime victims who might see an object and be reminded of the worst things that have happened to them.

“This was literally paraphernalia used by an offender in the grooming of a child,” he said. “It was actually used in the course of a molestation.”

The train now sits outside a city warehouse on Washington Street, visible from the highway though not officially on display. City Recorder Tasha Alegre confirmed the city still plans to display it outside City Hall though she didn’t have a date.

Ruwaldt said she’s lived her life determined to not let abuse define her. She’s worked a varied career including stints as a juvenile justice officer, hair stylist and photographer, and has earned degrees from Portland State University. Today she runs a jewelry business and a photography business, while she and her husband of eight years raise two children.

She thinks a fitting end for the train would involve a bonfire and, if she can track it down, the wooden truck Pickett built along with the train. She’d like Metolius city councilors to attend.

As for the lawn outside Metolius City Hall, LeRiche believes a suitable replacement would be something that honors Ruwaldt.

“She’s overcome all odds,” he said. “If they’re going to have any type of monument, it should be to someone like her and others like her who have survived hellish childhoods and blossomed and become strong people.”

Reporter: 541-383-0325,

gandrews@bendbulletin.com

(14) comments

Average American

It is abhorrent that this town would celebrate the work of a convicted pedophile who used this train in his sex crimes. I can understand that they didn't know where the train came from, but now they do, and they should be ashamed to want to continue to display the train as a point of pride for the town. Are you celebrating pedophilia? How many people in this town's government are secretly pedophiles? Is that why they keep insisting on displaying this train? Would you like Metolius to now be known as "Pedophile Land"? Because thats where this is going. This train should be burned and everything that man built should also be burned, just as that man will surely burn in h*ll.

Karen Yeargain

I'm pretty proud of this brave young woman! We place so much emphasis on allowing survivors of abuse to heal and to avoid intentionally resurrecting their trauma. While I understand that the City of Metolius didn't realize the history behind the train, now that they do, the right thing is to destroy it as Cassie requests; that it's cute and they have invested a relatively small amount of money restoring it, to set that aside and refuse to honor a symbol of child sexual abuse is a much better investment than displaying it!

Cassandra Ruwaldt is my niece-in-law, and has molded herself into a well-rounded woman, wife and mother. Celebrate her, not her former abuser!

BuckeyeDuck

Well stated. I'm not only amazed that the city would still plan to go ahead with this display, but also the lack of empathy from Counciler Dulaney in his comment as reported by KTVZ last night. "She doesn't have to come thru Metolius to either go to work or go home. She can take Highway 97, if it's such a dam* bother to her." Ooof.

oncefallendotcom

Dulaney is right, Cassie AND YOU are both wrong. End of story.

BuckeyeDuck

Such empathy. What a beautiful person you must be. "Once fallen"? As in Angel? That would explain your comments.

oncefallendotcom

There's nothing brave about destroying an inanimate object just because someone dislikes the person who made it, and i think Cassie is lying about the relevance of the train to get what she wants, namely her 15 minutes of fame. She's not brave, she's just a professional victim.

Tamara.isakson

There's someone posting comments on here as 'oncefallendotcom' who seems to be stalking thr message boards for this story. Id bet my last dollar its a member of metolius' city council and theyre slandering cassandra publicly. Maybe time to look into getting a lawyer and filing a lawsuit for libel and a no contact order against the person doing the slandering.

Funding Secured

I don't know, most likely just a troll attracted by the pure cussedness of the 'for pedo's train' position. Probably better to just ignore. Few if any adults will be swayed by their imbecilic '15 minute of fame' argument.

Funding Secured

''This was literally paraphernalia used by an offender in the grooming of a child,” he said. “It was actually used in the course of a molestation.”

WTF is wrong with that town? It never ends. Preserving a pedos lure because they sunk 3k into it? Reality. You can't make it up.

oncefallendotcom

I don't believe Cassie's story. I think she made up the part about the train just to get what she wants.

Tamara.isakson

'Oncefallendotcom' you aren't as clever as you think you are. It's a safe assumption that you're a member of the metolius city council. I wonder if your fellow council members are aware that in addition to your complete lack of empathy towards a woman who's childhood was defined by sexual abuse and exploitation, youre here rubbing salt in the wound by stalking this message board and slandering her publicly. Youre not just an insensitive jerk, youre a criminal. I hope that train is worth having your town remembered as a place that celebrates childhood sexual trauma. Its a fitting monument to your stupidity.

COCContheROCK

DA LeRiche should get some pointers from DA Hummel. Use taxpayer dollars as Deschutes County does to partner with Allyship in Action. That’s a “woke” bunch if there ever was one.

BuckeyeDuck

Not sure of the relevance of your statement since none of it was mentioned in the article. It does appear that you're in favor of a pedophile's display though.

COCContheROCK

BD, please quit stalking me.

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