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.”