ILLUSTRATIONS BY RICHARD WATKINS / AJC

Spiritually manipulated, sexually exploited

A psychiatrist used religion to ply patients for sex, and the state let him quietly retire

Psychiatrist Kyle L. Stewart

The women went to Oklahoma psychiatrist Kyle L. Stewart already broken — sexually molested as children, anxiety-ridden and depressed.

Stewart shattered them, the two women have alleged, seizing on their religious beliefs, terrifying them with stories of evil spirits and witchcraft, and sexually molesting them in his office.

“He sat me down on the sofa. He took his clothes off and climbed on top of me,” one recounted to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently. “And I was just crying. … I couldn’t believe that I was in this position, and I didn’t know whether to scream or what to do.”

When the state medical board investigated the first woman’s complaint, it called it predatory sexual behavior. Stewart surrendered his medical license in 2014 and admitted he was guilty of manipulating a patient into sex, using his intimate knowledge of her to push boundaries.

That wasn’t enough to prompt the board to notify law enforcement. Nor was it enough when the second victim later came forward with nearly identical allegations.

“My assumption would be they certainly have a moral obligation to at least have a sex crimes detective look at this and see if there are any violations of the law,” David McKenzie, chairman of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s criminal law section, said.

A church elder with fatherly charm, Stewart was one of only a few psychiatrists in Bartlesville, a small town north of Tulsa where Phillips Petroleum was founded a century ago. The first victim who came forward told the AJC that after only a few sessions, Stewart told her she suffered from multiple personalities, which another psychiatrist has since debunked.

Her story, as well as documents from her malpractice lawsuit, a deposition Stewart gave and the medical board order, portray a doctor boring inside a woman’s mind, but not to help her:

He said she was afflicted by evil spirits and that fallen angels could be inside her. He said her mother had given her over to witchcraft when she was still in the womb and that at night she would involuntarily leave her home to take part in satanic rituals. He prayed over her and said he might have to perform an exorcism.

“I was in a state of terror,” the woman recalled through tears in an interview with the AJC, which does not publish the names of sexual exploitation victims.

He also gave her back rubs. She told him about a dream in which she danced with Jesus, so he asked her to dance with him during a session. When they danced again at a later session, the woman said, he grabbed her buttocks and kissed her neck and chest.

Eventually, Stewart persuaded her to take off her clothes. In a deposition this year, he described sitting naked with her on the patient chair and fondling her: “There was holding of each other and — and touching and kissing.”

The woman told the AJC she didn’t go to the police because Stewart told her it would do no good — the district attorney attended the same church as Stewart and both victims, and Stewart said he and the DA were friends.

She eventually confided in a social worker friend, who filed a complaint with the medical board.

“My assumption would be they certainly have a moral obligation to at least have a sex crimes detective look at this and see if there are any violations of the law.”

David McKenzie, chairman of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s criminal law section

Later she attended a meeting where the medical board let Stewart surrender his license to avoid a hearing. The woman recalled that one board member balked at that unless the board also reported him to the district attorney, but others argued that isn’t their job.

Board members contacted by the AJC either refused to be interviewed or said they didn’t recall the exchange. Meeting minutes recorded that “the Board discussed what more could be done, including reporting the doctor for possible filing of criminal charges.”

The woman said that outside the hearing, she asked the board’s attorney if she should pursue the case criminally. “I remember him saying, ‘I’ve seen what they do to these poor victims on the stand. They will destroy you and your family, and he will probably walk ,’” the woman said.

The attorney says it was the victim who didn’t want to go to police. In a statement through board Executive Director Lyle Kelsey, attorney Joe Ashbaker said he told the woman that if she changed her mind she should go to police, not the district attorney’s office because it’s not an investigative agency. Ashbaker and the investigators didn’t report Stewart themselves, Kelsey said, because they didn’t have a good-faith belief that Stewart’s actions were criminal.

The second woman complained to the medical board after Stewart sent patients a letter announcing his retirement, shortly before giving up his license.

“I need to focus on my health and my family at this point in my life,” the letter said, “so that I enjoy fully the years my God has laid out for me.”

“I feel he is a criminal,” the woman told the AJC. “Because I think what he did to me was cold and calculated and planned. To take my life from me that many years, to put that kind of fear in me.”

But she said a board investigator told her nothing could be done because Stewart already had given up his license and there was nothing criminal to report to police.

No one from the state will discuss her case.

Sex between a therapist and a patient isn’t a crime in Oklahoma, as it is in some other states. But McKenzie, of the Oklahoma Bar, said other charges could have been possible.

“That behavior is so out of line that maybe a jury should decide,” he said.

Had police looked into those cases, they might also have assembled a more complete picture of the doctor’s history with female patients. The AJC learned that another Stewart patient, Andi Higbee, believed her parents had dedicated her to witchcraft and that she involuntarily took part in satanic rituals after dark. She may have held those beliefs before she started sessions with Stewart, her former husband, Geoff Higbee, told the AJC.

Andi Higbee committed suicide in 2003. It is unclear whether her death was connected to her treatment.

In a brief conversation with the AJC, Stewart said the events that ended his career were related to his deteriorating health.

“I don’t talk to anyone about any of this stuff,” he said, “because of what it does to me physically.”

Ryon Horne/AJC

» Video: Doctors & Sex Abuse: No report, no justice