Sig Hansen, the hard-charging fishing-boat skipper on TV’s popular “The Deadliest Catch,” says the lawsuit is “nothing more than an old-fashioned shakedown.” The future of the lawsuit now lies with the state Court of Appeals.
The estranged daughter of celebrity Alaskan crab boat captain and cable TV star Sig Hansen claims her father sexually abused her as a toddler, while her parents were divorcing nearly three decades ago, according to interviews and court records.
As a result of the alleged abuse, Melissa Eckstrom, now a 28-year-old family law attorney in Seattle, contends in a lawsuit that she battled depression, eating disorders, suicidal thoughts and other trauma throughout her childhood. She also claims that she still harbors memories of her father’s abuse of her as a 2-year-old in 1990.
“I have memories … of being in a room alone with my father and crying out in pain,” Eckstrom stated in a court declaration.
Her lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court last year, includes medical findings, a therapist’s evaluation and a state Child Protective Services supervising caseworker’s findings from the time of the alleged abuse, among various records to support her claims. A Snohomish County deputy prosecutor’s letter, written in 1990 to Eckstrom’s mother, also shows prosecutors declined to file charges because they doubted they could prove the case “beyond a reasonable doubt” — even though they believed Hansen had sexually abused his daughter.
Hansen — who has gained fame as the hard-charging Norwegian-American skipper of the Seattle-based fishing vessel The Northwestern on the cable TV series “The Deadliest Catch” — adamantly denies Eckstrom’s allegations.
“This is nothing more than an old-fashioned shakedown,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s a completely frivolous lawsuit full of lies that my ex-wife made up to take away my daughter, and still uses to try to extort money from me. It’s blackmail.”
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The case now hangs in legal limbo while the state Court of Appeals decides whether a King County judge’s ruling that would allow it to go to trial is legally sound. The appeals court’s decision could shape legal precedent in Washington for determining whether victims of alleged childhood sex abuse can still pursue claims as adults, even though such abuse allegations have been adjudicated in prior civil proceedings.
Many of the key records cited in Eckstrom’s suit are protected under seal as part of the court file for Hansen’s divorce and custody case with Eckstrom’s mother, Lisa Eckstrom, that was finalized in 1992. Hansen’s lawyers tried to prevent Melissa Eckstrom from including copies of records contained in the divorce file in her lawsuit, but Judge Suzanne Parisien denied their motion.
Hansen contends Melissa Eckstrom’s claims are based on records “cherry-picked” from the sealed file and don’t provide the full story.
Among other things, a judge in the divorce case ultimately ruled Hansen didn’t commit the abuse, agreeing with a court-appointed psychiatrist’s assessment that “the probability of (Eckstrom) having been sexually abused by her father is extremely low,” according to a copy of the court’s findings.
Hansen’s lawyers attempted to get Eckstrom’s lawsuit dismissed on grounds that he’d already been exonerated of the allegations during the divorce trial. Last month, Parisien denied that motion, citing since-established state law that allows childhood sex abuse victims to pursue civil claims into adulthood.
Hansen’s lawyers then asked Parisien to have the appeals court review her ruling. Parisien granted that motion this month.
Hansen’s attorneys contend that allowing Eckstrom’s lawsuit to go forward would be the civil-law equivalent of double jeopardy — prosecuting a person twice for the same crime.
“We all understand the concept of a fair shake or the right to a fair trial,” said Lafcadio Darling, one of Hansen’s lawyers. “Well, not only has this been tried, but it was tried in (Hansen’s) favor. That should be able to stand.”
Eckstrom’s attorneys, Lincoln Beauregard and Dean Standish Perkins, counter that their client has never been afforded the chance to present in court “the very strong record establishing that (Hansen) did it” or how the alleged abuse subsequently affected her.
According to Eckstrom’s suit, her mother and other relatives became aware of the alleged abuse in the spring and summer of 1990, following Melissa’s visitations with Hansen. After one visit, Melissa’s grandmother noticed while bathing the girl that her rectum was swollen and discolored, court records state. Melissa also complained to her mother and relatives at times that her “daddy put his finger in my potty-pot,” the records state.
In July 1990, doctors at Harborview Medical Center examined Eckstrom, finding “several significant medical findings, which when viewed in combination, are strongly suggestive of sexual abuse,” Dr. Mary Gibbons, then director of Harborview’s Sexual Assault Clinic, later wrote.
The girl later met several times with a therapist, telling her that her father “hurts my potty pot,” among other disclosures; and she drew pictures and used dolls to depict abuse by her father, her therapist reported.
Edmonds police arrested Hansen in 1990, but Snohomish County prosecutors declined to file criminal charges because of what they viewed as problems proving the case at trial.
“This is not to suggest we do not believe the allegations,” Deputy Prosecutor Paul Stern wrote to Lisa Eckstrom in a letter dated Aug. 6, 1990. “To the contrary, the information at hand suggests that Mr. Hansen has acted in a sexually inappropriate manner toward Melissa.”
Prosecutors reviewed the case at least three times, according to another letter sent by Stern in 1991. While acknowledging he didn’t mean to imply the abuse didn’t occur, Stern cited “insufficient evidence to convict” Hansen.
“Until new and compelling evidence is obtained, this decision will not be re-evaluated a fourth time,” the letter concluded.
After his arrest, Hansen voluntarily took and passed a polygraph exam, during which he denied the abuse, according to a letter from the examiner who gave him the test. Results of lie-detector tests are generally not admissible in court.
During a recent interview, Hansen claimed his daughter was “brainwashed and programmed by her mother and multiple members of her family” to believe he abused her.
His lawyers point to statements made by a social worker assigned to the divorce case who raised concerns that “later allegations of child sexual abuse might emerge” based on a comment Lisa Eckstrom made in 1988 — that Hansen would “probably play with” their daughter if she allowed him to change her diapers.
An ex-boyfriend of Lisa Eckstrom also claimed in court statements that she and her family schemed to concoct lies about Hansen — including blaming him for a fake domestic assault — to keep Hansen from winning custody of Melissa.
“She poisoned my relationship with our daughter through years of vile lies,” Hansen said.
Dr. John Dunne, a court-appointed psychiatrist in the 1990 divorce case, concluded then that sexual abuse probably didn’t occur, but more likely the girl’s claims were due to “parent alienation syndrome” instigated by her mother. The controversial theory — which many legal and mental-health experts have discredited in recent years as “junk science” concocted to counter abuse allegations — posits that false sexual-abuse claims or other accusations emerge when a custodial or preferred parent repeatedly denigrates an estranged parent to the child.
Dunne also concluded the medical findings of abuse likely represented typical pediatric problems, and he dismissed Eckstrom’s spontaneous claims of abuse as unconvincing. A guardian ad litem assigned to the case also concluded he couldn’t determine whether Eckstrom had been abused, but if she had been, “I am of the opinion that Sig Hansen was not the perpetrator.”
Judge Peter Steere ultimately ruled Hansen hadn’t abused Eckstrom and granted him visitation rights.
But a supervising state social worker, who considered Dunne’s findings and questioned the guardian ad litem’s objectivity, came to a different conclusion.
“I found this investigation to be thorough and conclusive of sexual abuse,” Christine Robinson, a Washington Division of Children and Family services supervisor, wrote in a 1992 letter. “The only perpetrator named by the child is (Sig Hansen). In addition, medical findings corroborate the child’s statement.”
Giving up parental rights
Hansen, a fourth-generation fisherman, has appeared with his family boat, his two brothers and their crew on “The Deadliest Catch,” which first aired in 2005. The popular show, which highlights Alaska’s grueling crab fishery, enters its 13th season next month.
Hansen has since leveraged his celebrity to write a best-selling book, work as a voice actor in the Disney Pixar animated film “Cars 2,” appear on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” and make various TV and speaking appearances.
His daughter sued Hansen last year, three months after the now 50-year-old Shoreline resident suffered a highly publicized heart attack. Hansen has been married to his second wife, June, since 2001, and has adopted her two daughters as his own.
He wasn’t part of Eckstrom’s life after her parents divorced, Eckstrom said. The couple was together only briefly, separating before their daughter was born. Hansen, who was awarded visitation with his daughter at the conclusion of the divorce trial, instead chose to relinquish his parental rights.
“It was probably the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Hansen said last week, with tears streaking his face.
He made the decision in Melissa’s “best interest,” he said, based on a court recommendation citing the toxic relationship with his ex-wife.
Hansen claims Eckstrom’s lawsuit is simply her family’s latest attempt to extort a big payout by threatening to spread the false claims. In 2010, Eckstrom contacted her estranged father to seek his financial help to pay for her law school, and Hansen hired a mediator to conduct “reunification sessions” with her, records show.
But the reconciliation disintegrated after Eckstrom and her mother threatened to “go to the media” if Hansen didn’t pay his daughter $300,000, he said. Eckstrom later told the mediator she planned to write a tell-all book.
Hansen reported the incident as “extortion” to police. A deputy interviewed Lisa Eckstrom, who reiterated the abuse accusations against Hansen and claimed he reneged on a promise to pay her $50,000 to support Melissa when he relinquished custody rights (Hansen’s lawyer contends he paid the money). Police took a report, but didn’t refer a case to King County prosecutors.
In her lawsuit, Eckstrom’s lawyers also “have threatened to go public to ‘People Magazine’ or blow (Eckstrom’s) allegations up and put them on a ‘billboard on the freeway’ if her economic demands were not met,” Matthew Campos, an attorney for Hansen, stated in a court declaration.
Eckstrom, who initially filed her suit anonymously, using only her and Hansen’s initials in court papers, recently opted to reveal the identities in the case, citing her father’s and his attorneys’ increasing hostility and false extortion claims.
In an interview last week, Eckstrom denied that money is motivating her.
“Justice,” she said, when asked why she’s suing. “Accountability for what my father did to me.”
Hansen’s TV fame in recent years has opened old wounds and exacerbated the emotional trauma caused by his past abuse, Eckstrom added.
A tentative agreement to settle the lawsuit for $1.5 million was reached in mediation last year, according to Eckstrom’s lawyers. But the deal fell apart because Hansen presented a proposed draft that sought to have Eckstrom agree to the potential loss of her lawyer’s license “if word of the settlement leaked to the public,” Beauregard said.
Darling, one of Hansen’s attorneys, said state law prohibits him from speaking about what happened during mediation, but he noted: “Sig considered just trying to get rid of (the lawsuit) for protection of his family.”