Therapist sex abuse case reveals dark past, ethical concerns
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Two years after accusing her former therapist of sexual abuse, she idly plugged his address into an online directory and came across an unfamiliar alias. A search of that name turned up decades-old newspaper articles about the death of a 10-year-old girl.
“What’s that got to do with Peter?” she wondered.
A pair of obituaries she found next pointed closer to a connection. But she was still circling the perimeter of the truth when she sat down at a public library computer in January 2020. On a newspaper archive site, she scrolled past several small, blurry photos until a larger one popped up.
“Bingo,” she thought. “That’s him.”
Her next thought?
New Hampshire is one of 10 states that allow people to change their names while incarcerated, though their criminal records remain accessible to police and employers conducting criminal background checks. But the public has no way of knowing someone’s earlier identity unless they go to the county courthouse where the change was approved, or do some serious sleuthing.
That allowed Peter Dushame to become Peter Stone, who faces new charges more than 30 years after he was sent to prison under his old name. What happened in between raises complicated questions about the right to forge a new life after incarceration and what patients can or should know about a mental health provider’s past.
There’s another question with no simple answer: Who is Peter Stone?
He was 33 years old, drunk and named Peter Dushame when he plowed his Pontiac into a motorcycle parked alongside the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Nashua, New Hampshire, on Oct. 1, 1989. Lacey Packer, a fourth grader on her way home to Massachusetts from a Toys for Tots benefit with her father, died two days later.
It was his third fatal crash — though the first to involve alcohol. At age 17, he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a pedestrian crash after killing a former fellow student at his high school. At age 22, he was acquitted of vehicular homicide after a crash that killed a 61-year-old woman.
Because he held a valid driver’s license despite five previous drunken driving convictions, the 1989 crash became a flash point. Both Massachusetts and New Hampshire enacted new laws in response, and Dushame became the first person in New Hampshire to be convicted of manslaughter for a drunken driving fatality. The Boston Globe called him “the most notorious drunk driver in New England history.”
But over time, he dedicated himself to helping people in addiction recovery, earning a master’s degree in counseling psychology from behind bars, and leading treatment programs for other inmates.
“I have a gift,” he told The Boston Globe Magazine in 1996. “I can look at a person and feel his pain.”
Two years later, he legally changed his name from Peter Dushame to Peter Stone. He was released from prison in 2002 and eventually set up shop as a licensed drug and alcohol counselor in North Conway.
“I stand as evidence that people can change,” Stone wrote to state regulators in 2013, telling them that contrary to their concerns, his past had helped clients gain perspective on the dangers of drunken driving.
“They respect my sincerity and honesty,” he said.
Then, last July, he was charged with sexually assaulting a client who says he was anything but honest.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, the 61-year-old woman said she developed romantic feelings for Stone about six months after he began treating her for anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse in June 2013. Though he immediately told her a relationship would be unethical, he eventually initiated sexual contact in February 2016, she said.
“‘That crossed the line,’” the woman remembers him saying after he pulled up his pants. “‘When am I seeing you again?’”
“It was almost comical,” she told the AP, which generally does not name people who allege sexual assault. “Except that it was terrible.”
Laws related to name changes differ across the country. While 26 states have no restrictions on name changes after felony convictions, 15 have bans or temporary waiting periods for those convicted of certain crimes, according to the ACLU in Illinois, which has one of the most restrictive laws.
New Hampshire does not prohibit felons from becoming therapists, and Stone appropriately disclosed his criminal record on licensing applications and other documents, according to a review of records obtained by the AP.
And so, despite “a misguided sense of it being wrong somehow,” it’s a nonissue legally, said Albert “Buzz” Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.
“The deeper question is, to what extent do we want to tar somebody for the rest of their life?” said Scherr. “Should every therapist be forced to reveal to any incoming patient that they’ve been convicted of a crime? Of certain crimes?”
Gary Goodnough is a Plymouth State University professor who teaches ethics to aspiring mental health counselors. It’s not unusual, he said, for people in recovery to become counselors and to use their experiences to build greater empathy and support for clients.
Disclosure isn’t mandatory, but he believes clients have a right to know in some scenarios.
“One of the principles that underlies the counseling profession is the notion of veracity,” he said. “We should tell the truth. Particularly with something as profound as a murder or vehicular homicide. In my opinion, that would be something that should be disclosed.”
Stone’s former client said uncovering his past made her angry, at both Stone and the state, which she believes should not have licensed him as a therapist under his new name.
“I think in his capacity to become a therapist, it was wrong, because that’s such a trusting position,” she said. “If he was going to be a car mechanic, that would be different. Because when I go to my mechanic, he doesn’t get into my head and pull strings.”
The woman described Stone as an unorthodox counselor, blunt and arrogant, with a tendency to swear. She said he told her he used to drink vodka and beer starting first thing in the morning, had once been homeless and didn’t drive because he had PTSD from his time in the military. In fact, as she later learned, his driver’s license had been permanently revoked after his conviction.
After their first sexual encounter, she said, she got up to leave and found the door to his office locked when it never had been before.
“I felt duped, because in my mind, I thought it was spontaneous,” she said. “But then I knew it was planned.”
Stone, who declined to be interviewed by the AP, faces five counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault under a law that criminalizes any sexual contact between patients and their therapists or health care providers. Such behavior also is prohibited by the American Psychological Association’s ethical code of conduct.
According to court documents, he told investigators that the woman fondled him on one occasion, but that he didn’t know how his DNA ended up on her shirt. The state issued an emergency order suspending his counseling license in December 2017, and he voluntarily surrendered it four months later while denying the allegations.
A hearing to determine Stone’s competency to stand trial is scheduled for September. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment, and the prosecutor declined to comment on any aspect of the case.
But Scherr, the law professor, said that if the case goes to trial, Stone’s past convictions or name change are unlikely to be used against him.
Prior convictions, Scherr said, generally can’t be used to prove a defendant’s guilt, though they sometimes can be used to impeach a defendant’s credibility if he testifies. And although it makes him appear sneaky or crafty, Stone had a legitimate reason for changing his name, Scherr said.
“You don’t want to carry that around in public for the rest of your life,” he said. “I’m inclined to say it doesn’t tell you anything about whether he committed the crimes he’s charged with.”
Though Stone changed his name in 1998, news accounts of his 2001 parole hearing refer to him as Dushame, suggesting that authorities used only his original name in public and, perhaps unintentionally, eased his effort to start fresh. Several members of the parole board from that year have since died; two others told the AP recently that they remembered neither the specific case, nor how the board handled name changes.
But Gordon and Donna Packer haven’t forgotten the man who killed their daughter. In a recent interview, Donna Packer said they would have opposed his name change but were notified by the state only after the fact.
She and her husband, who became prominent activists for tougher drunken driving laws, also were aware that Stone was working as a counselor but didn’t know of his arrest until contacted by the AP.
“The minute I heard about it, I was disappointed,” she said. “I know that sounds strange, but Gordon and I, we’re Christians, and we believe in forgiveness.”
Gordon Packer offered forgiveness to Stone years ago in a letter. Donna Packer said he responded by asking for help getting out of prison ahead of schedule, which struck the couple as manipulative.
Still, she hoped that after everything he had done, after causing so much pain for so many people, he had changed.
“I hate that he’s still victimizing people,” she said. “It didn’t need to be this way.”