OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The mother of a 20-year-old Oklahoma man charged with molesting Kenyan orphans testified Tuesday that her son was frightened when the allegations were leveled against him and that she told him to “say whatever you need to say” in order to return to the United States.
Melissa Durham testified during the federal trial of Matthew Lane Durham of Edmond, who is charged with 17 counts of sexual misconduct, including aggravated sexual abuse and engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places. He has pleaded not guilty and faces up to life in prison if convicted.
Federal prosecutors have shown the 12-member jury several handwritten, signed statements he gave to orphanage officials after he was confronted with the allegations. Prosecutors have described the statements as confessions by Durham.
“I would take her to the bathroom at night and hold her down and rape her. This happened on several occasions,” part of a statement pertaining to the alleged assault of a 12-year-old girl says.
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“At night I took him to the bathroom and had him perform oral sex on me,” states part of another.
But Durham’s defense attorney, Stephen Jones, has questioned the credibility of the statements, arguing they were coerced by orphanage officials who kept Durham isolated and seized his passport. Jones also has suggested that orphanage officials used the case to obtain more than $17,000 from the U.S. government to install security cameras at the orphanage.
A total of five children, four girls and a boy, have testified in the case. The children, who speak Swahili, testified through an interpreter after officials cleared the courtroom to shield the children from the public and the media.
Durham had been a volunteer at the Upendo Children’s Home in Nairobi, Kenya, since 2012 and was on his fourth visit to the orphanage when he was accused of molesting children between April and June 2014.
His mother testified Tuesday that her son had asked to arrive at Upendo days before other volunteers.
“He wanted to spend more time there,” Melissa Durham testified. She joined her son at the orphanage on May 25, 2014, and, like him, asked to stay at the orphanage instead of in off-premises housing that is customary for volunteers. The orphanage specializes in neglected children and provides food, housing, clothes, and educational and religious instruction.
“I wanted to spend more time with the kids,” she testified.
She returned to the U.S. about two weeks later. On June 13, 2014, he son telephoned her to say he was coming home early after being accused of molesting children at the orphanage.
Melissa Durham said her son claimed he had not done anything to the children.
“He was upset. He was scared. He didn’t seem like himself,” she testified. She said she believes her son had been crying prior to some of his telephone calls.
She said she urged her son to cooperate with orphanage officials, including Upendo founder Eunice Menja, and to “say whatever you need to say” to leave Kenya and return to the U.S.
“He just needed to say whatever Eunice Menja told him to say,” Melissa Durham said. “That was my only advice.”
Durham returned to the U.S. in June 2014 before the allegations against him had been fully investigated by the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and Kenyan authorities.
Federal law gives U.S. prosecutors the authority to prosecute an American citizen who travels to a foreign country for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct with persons under the age of 16.