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'A whole different relationship': Mayor Murray and the man who says he abused him

Jeff Simpson at his home outside Portland, Oregon.
Thomas Teal for The Stranger, licensed for KUOW
Jeff Simpson at his home outside Portland, Oregon.

The first time Ed Murray noticed him — really noticed him — he was 8.

“We all walked down to the chow hall. Basically the staff and the kids, and we lined up to get to a table.”

It was the mid-1970s at the Parry Center for Children, a group home in Portland, Oregon. The boy was Jeff Simpson.

“Ed had picked a 50-cent piece out of his pocket and held up the coin and said, ‘Anybody who can name the president on this coin can have it,’” Simpson said.

Murray asked one kid, who didn’t know. Then Jeff, skinny and eager, desperate for attention, shot up his hand. This was a child whose mother had gone to prison after he was born, whose adoptive parents returned him to the state at age 6. He was a boy who wished desperately for family, but for whom loneliness was the only constant.

“It’s John F. Kennedy!” Simpson shouted out. Murray, then in his early 20s, seemed surprised and delighted.

“He’s like, ‘Jeff, you’re absolutely right,’” Simpson said. “‘Wow. How did you know that?’ And I don’t know how I knew that, but I did. And he gave me the 50-cent piece, and after that it was like a whole different relationship.”

A whole different relationship – on that, three decades later, they agree. How they disagree:  

Simpson said that Seattle Mayor Ed Murray groomed him and then raped him throughout his teens, from 13 to 17. Murray denies this vehemently and has mounted an aggressive public campaign to counter claims by Simpson and three other men who have accused him of sexual abuse. 

In an editorial published in The Stranger, the mayor wrote that Simpson’s “extensive criminal history is very relevant. I would never suggest that those with criminal histories cannot be victims of abuse. Rather, his criminal history proves he cannot be trusted.”

But for decades, Simpson has stuck to his story, even though it hasn’t done anything for him. What he has always wanted, he said, is for Murray to admit to the allegations.

So when two reporters from The Seattle Times showed up to his apartment a few months ago, wanting to hear his story, he told them. He said he had prayed for that to happen, for someone to knock on his door. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has been accused by four men of sexual abuse when they were teenagers. ", "fid": "117446", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201505/IMG_1482.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Deborah Wang"}]]Jeffrey David Simpson was born Anthony D’Div Solem, the child of a 17-year-old white woman who did drugs, and a black man he knows nothing about.

His grandmother picked him up from the hospital where he was born and cared for him for the first nine months of his life. Then the state stepped in.

“My mother secretly put me up for adoption, and nobody knew she had done that,” Simpson said. “All of a sudden, one day, Children’s Services Division came to the door and took me away — that’s what my grandmother told me.”

He was adopted by Nancy and Frank Simpson – a couple with three biological children who wanted to adopt “a minority child specifically,” according to notes written by an investigator who interviewed Nancy Simpson for Murray’s defense in 1984.

The Simpsons renamed the baby Jeff.  

A year later, they adopted a second boy and Simpson, still a toddler, apparently resented his new sibling.

In 1984, Nancy told the investigator that Jeff was a difficult child and had a "total refusal to obey."

But she also described behavior typical for a preschooler: “When Jeff turned approximately 3 years old, those first few months, at least six months, every day she had to keep him from running out in the middle of the street,” the investigator wrote.

Overwhelmed, Nancy said she took Jeff to a psychologist who observed the little boy in a controlled room. According to Nancy, the psychologist suggested more discipline. 

Jeff discovered matches when he was 4, Nancy said. During the holidays that year, Frank and Nancy left the kids with a babysitter — that’s when Jeff set fire to the Christmas tree.

Nancy admitted to Murray’s investigator that she and Frank had marital problems at this time. A year after the fire, Nancy and Frank split up, and Nancy was left to raise the five children on her own. When Jeff continued playing with matches, she saw an attorney about severing her parental rights.

Jeff was 6. Sent to a group home, he tried to contact Nancy, but she ignored him. She agreed to speak with him after a counselor told her to tell him she was no longer his mom.

Looking back, Simpson said he was devastated: “I remember being really upset about that and crying for a long time. I just wanted my biological mom to come and get me, my dad to come and get me. Unfortunately, that never happened.”     

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With Murray, Simpson felt he belonged with someone.

“He started teaching me about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and started teaching me about history and the importance of voting – all these little nuances that I didn’t have, that nobody had taught me or were teaching me,” Simpson said.

Murray also looked out for him.

“I broke my front teeth out one winter sliding on the ice,” Simpson said. “It was on a weekend night and the whole town was in an ice storm. Everybody was panicking, and Ed just kind of took charge and called and found a dentist, and he personally rushed me to the dentist and followed up.

“He started becoming my relative – he was my father, or who I would come to see as my father,” Simpson said.

Then one weekend, Murray offered to take Simpson to Seattle, Murray’s hometown. They spent the first night, Friday, at Murray’s apartment in Portland.

It was there, Simpson said, that Murray beckoned him to his bedroom.

“I came and sat down and we were sitting on the bed,” Simpson said. “He had taken off all his clothes.”

Simpson said they watched basketball on the television, Murray behind him. He said Murray started massaging his leg and told him to take off his gym shorts and get into bed with him. Simpson did and said Murray grabbed his penis. Then Murray told the young teen to suck on his penis.

Simpson said he agreed – but then became upset. “I started crying, and we stopped, and he kind of freaked out,” Simpson said.

Murray said this had to stay between them, Simpson said.

Still, Simpson remained attached to Murray. And after he returned from yet another foster home, Murray applied to foster Simpson himself. 

The abuse continued, Simpson said, sometimes at night, often when Murray returned home from his job at the Metropolitan Defenders Office. Murray had told Simpson he wanted to be an attorney; he said his ambitions would be destroyed if their secret got out.

But Simpson didn’t want to tell anyone.

“The worst thing in the world for me is to be abandoned again,” he said. “I would go to any length to try not to go back to group homes. To be bounced around again to God knows what – another foster home where they’re going to abuse me? Or end up getting beat up or who knows.

“To tell what was going on was basically putting myself back in jail.” 

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And then he told someone.

He hadn’t meant to. He thought she would keep it a secret.

Simpson had just moved out of Murray’s apartment after about a year and a half because they’d been fighting. Simpson was smoking pot, dropping acid and skipping school, and Murray told him he had to go.

“You know, that’s the worst thing for a kid who has already been abandoned several times,” Simpson said. “And the only person I considered my father – he too now was abandoning me. I guess I really must be garbage.”

Child Protective Services took Simpson to a group home — his fifth since he was a kid.

“I hurt so much,” Simpson recalled. He went upstairs to shower, found a razor blade and cut a four-inch gash into his wrist, hoping to bleed himself to death.

“I really had no desire to live,” he said. “I didn’t want to keep going through the hell of going through group homes. Being abandoned, nobody loves me, nobody wants me, why doesn’t anybody care?”

Staff found him and took him to the hospital where he got eight stitches. He was placed on 24-hour watch, and that weekend, he went home with a staff member.

“She told me, ‘You know, Jeff, I know something’s going on. I know you’re not telling me something. You’re not trying to kill yourself for no reason.’”

Simpson told her everything. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Caseworker Judy Butler's conclusion in 1984, when she investigated whether Ed Murray, Seattle's mayor, had sexually abused his foster son, Jeff Simpson.", "fid": "138379", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201708/judithbutler-finding_0.JPG", "attribution": ""}]]His case was assigned to a Child Protective Services caseworker named Judy Butler.

Butler learned that Simpson’s behavior had “deteriorated” after moving in with Murray.

In her report, she wrote: “During the 1982-83 school year, Jeff had done fairly well at Lincoln High School. He had then had a CETA job and done fairly well working throughout the summer.”

But then Simpson started running away and staying out all night. Butler heard from others that his moods had become “vile,” and he always seemed stoned. His high school attendance was so dismal that he was withdrawn.

When Butler interviewed Simpson, the teen was reluctant to repeat what he had told the staffer. “He’s not taking care of kids anymore, so I don’t see why it matters,” he told her.

Still, he shared his account. Butler wrote: “Throughout this period of discussion, Jeff stared at the floor and appeared to be very depressed. At times his voice would shake as he described his disappointment when Ed Murray, whom he had trusted and seen as the only consistent adult figure in his life, began a process of sexual abuse.”

Simpson told her that “fairly early on, Ed began to pay him for sexual interactions.” He got $10 each time, he said.

Four days after Butler started investigating, she learned that “Mr. Murray had been calling the group home constantly all week attempting to have contact with Jeff. Often he had threatened the group home with lawsuits when he was denied contact.”

She concluded her report saying that she believed Simpson had been abused by Murray.

“There certainly is no motive for a child to make something like this up knowing that they are blowing their last available family resource,” Butler wrote.

A Portland police detective also investigated the case and sent his narrative to the district attorney.

Ultimately, the deputy district attorney chose not to pursue the case. Simpson was emotionally unstable, the district attorney wrote to Butler, and he had run away, which made him an unreliable witness.

“We could not be sure of meeting the high burden of proof in a criminal case – of proof beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty,” the district attorney wrote.

“However,” she continued, “this in no way means that the District Attorney’s Office has decided that Jeff’s allegations are not true.” 

[asset-images[{"caption": "A letter to caseworker Judy Butler from the Multnomah County deputy district attorney.", "fid": "138378", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201708/da_letter_1.jpg", "attribution": ""}]]A few months after the investigation, Murray moved to Seattle.

And at 16, Simpson ran away from the group home. He lived on the streets of Portland and Seattle, occasionally meeting up with Murray when he was in town. He spent most of his time on Capitol Hill, sometimes spending the night in Volunteer Park.  

"It went to that aspect — sex for money, living on the streets," Simpson said. "Working the streets to do whatever I could to get money."

At 17 or 18, he doesn't remember when exactly, he was sentenced to prison for robbery. He stayed there nine years. 

A few years after his release, he turned his life around. His son, Stormy Knight, was born. His parole officer gave him a second chance. He met a woman named Janice, now his wife, who loves him, no strings attached. And he found God. He is now the sort of person who peppers his language with religious turns of phrase. 

As an adult, Simpson stayed in touch with Murray. He invited Murray to his wedding, sent him photos of his baby boy and signed his emails, “Love, Jeff.”

Murray, too, was kind in his emails, which he provided to KUOW. In February 2007, he wrote:

Hello Jeff: Thanks for the email! I have been thinking of you a lot. Congratulations on the wedding. I hope I can be there! I hope you are doing well. I am getting over the flu, lucky me. So what do you think of a guy with a white mother and a black father running for president! Love Ed

These emails may surprise outsiders, given Murray and Simpson’s apparently toxic history.

When asked why he would stay in touch with someone who had accused him of rape, Murray said he did it to support Simpson, who was in recovery.

“He chose to stay in touch with me, and I think that the exchanges … were me being very polite and sensitive to him,” Murray said. “Responding kindly but certainly not welcoming him into my life. You know, he was going through a 12-step program and I believe that if someone really wants to ask for forgiveness, I believe that process can heal someone. So I was willing to have those exchanges.”  

And why would Simpson reach out to a man he says raped him as a child?

“I was still living in my fantasy world,” Simpson said. “You know, pretending that he is my father and that he has not done anything.”

Simpson said counseling made him face his past.

“I started slowly seeing what I had – the damage that I was really doing by continuing to live like that,” he said. “One of the things that had kept me getting loaded and relapsing was not working through the sexual abuse.

“My whole life I have been pretending that it hadn’t bothered me and that it was okay.”

Simpson said that when he saw Murray as an adult, Murray would ask if he had worked through his issues.

“I never really knew what he was talking about,” Simpson said. “My counselor told me, ‘The reason he's asking you that is because the statute of limitations starts running for any sexual abuse case when you start seeking counseling on that and start working through that.’”

By August 2007, just months after their last friendly exchange, Simpson had retained an attorney.

But Simpson didn’t file a lawsuit; his attorney said the statute of limitations had passed. 

[asset-images[{"caption": "Caseworker Judy Butler's recommendation in her 1984 investigation into whether Ed Murray sexually abused his teenage foster son.", "fid": "138381", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201708/judithbutler-recommendation_0.JPG", "attribution": ""}]]In 2014, Murray became Seattle’s mayor.

And in April 2017, a man named Delvonn Heckard filed a lawsuit against Murray, saying that the mayor had paid him for sex when he was 15. Murray dismissed Heckard’s lawsuit as a conspiracy to bring down an openly gay mayor from a liberal city.

The Seattle Times broke the story and included Simpson's account. The Times' reporters were reminded that Simpson had approached the newspaper about Murray in 2007. 

Murray told KUOW that Simpson had intended to discredit his civil rights work – specifically gay marriage in Washington state.

“Just about the time the marriage bill was hitting the floor [of the state senate], this started to come up,” Murray said. “And by the way, it did go to a grand jury, it did go to a prosecutor, and they didn’t find any reason. So at some point, if you’re found innocent, you’re found innocent.”

He said this before the 1984 file became public. But even after those old reports surfaced, Murray held firm:

I have said from the beginning that I never harmed or had an inappropriate relationship with Jeff Simpson. That remains just as true today as when I first said it. I have never engaged in sexual activity with Jeff Simpson or with any other minor…

Jeff’s case worker at CPS never interviewed me or shared her findings with me or my attorney. That she believed Jeff's claims at the time and advocated on his behalf is painful to see, but does not change the fact that, based on the totality of the evidence that was collected, the District Attorney declined to file charges.

Murray remains mayor, although he isn’t running for reelection. Two city council members – Kshama Sawant and Lorena Gonzalez – have asked him to resign, but the remaining council members have stood by him.

He recently endorsed Jenny Durkan, the former U.S. prosecutor, to replace him. After Durkan read the 1984 file, she said Murray should consider stepping down. Still, accepting the endorsement of someone accused by four men of rape hasn’t hurt her campaign – she is currently the leading mayoral candidate. 

Meantime, Delvonn Heckard dropped his civil suit against Murray. His attorneys said he wasn’t ready to take on the case.

And Jeff Simpson continues to talk with whoever will listen, acting in a way as the voice of the men who have accused Murray of abuse. “We just have the truth of what has happened to us,” he said.