Single mothers, former drug addicts and other beaten down young women who came to wealthy businessman Henry Allen Fitzsimmons for a chance to climb out of their financial hole knew his help came with a catch. In exchange for an allowance, a place to live and promise of a college education, they agreed to be spanked if they broke his rules.
At least six of the women say his corporal punishment went too far, including one who says he sexually assaulted her, and the 54-year-old Virginia Beach restaurant owner faces felony charges.
"These women are victims. They're single moms. They need their bills paid," prosecutor Tom Murphy said at a court hearing Thursday. "It's bizarre, there's no doubt."
Fitzsimmons' attorney claims his slight, white-haired client is the victim, taken advantage of by women half his age who knew what they were getting into and filed charges only after a falling out.
"He's not a danger," Fitzsimmons' attorney, Moody (Sonny) Stallings Jr., told the AP. "Strange, but he's not a danger to anybody."
A judge on Thursday allowed a grand jury to decide whether to indict Fitzsimmons on two felony abduction charges and three felony object sexual penetration charges filed against him. Six other assault and sexual battery charges were dropped because prosecutors acknowledged the women had agreed to the spankings.
For months, Fitzsimmons gave each of the women $200 weekly, promised to pay for their college tuition, treated them to lavish nights on the town and even bought one a car as part of his so-called Spencer Scholarship Plan. They were spanked if they violated rules, such as failing to call Fitzsimmons or drinking too much alcohol.
Several websites, including one run by Fitzsimmons, tout the Spencer plan and the scholarship program, which provides full tuition, room and board in addition to an allowance for participants as long as they follow the plan.
It is unclear how many women have participated in Fitzsimmons' program. The six who filed the criminal complaints had all been members, but Fitzsimmons' attorney said there have been several others.
The Spencer Plan started in the 1930s as a form of "carefully regulated corporal punishment" between husband and wife. Couples agreed to a list of things the wife needed to change, such as not spending money frivolously. If the rules were broken, the husband punished her by spanking and it was put behind them. It has expanded through the years.
One 21-year-old woman testified Thursday that the day she joined Fitzsimmons' program in November, he spanked her and gave her $300. He paid for her to live in an oceanfront suite and gave her a $200 weekly allowance. In return, she was required to walk 20 blocks each day, keep a log of her meals and spending and refrain from drugs. When she didn't, she was spanked.
Fitzsimmons took it further, she said, when on three occasions he sexually assaulted her with a curtain rod, a hairbrush and a horse riding crop. When asked by attorneys why she allowed it to happen, she replied: "I'm not allowed to tell him no."
The Associated Press does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted.
Another 22-year-old woman said she thought the program was an amazing opportunity. She had only been spanked once before she went to him in January to discuss him paying for her three-year-old child's birthday party. She said he refused to let her leave until she let him spank her.
She and others said they feared Fitzsimmons, who walks with a limp. They say he made vague threats and convinced them they couldn't make it without him.
"He terrorized my life," one woman said. "He took me away from all my friends and family and convinced me nobody loved me but him."
None of the women filed charges until Fitzsimmons in April accused one of them of stealing money and fired her from his restaurant, the oceanside Envy Bar and Grill, where many of them worked. A week later, six women began filing charges.
On Thursday, that former employee's complaint was dropped, along with those of two other women whose only complaints were that they had been spanked.
"Who's the victim here?" Stalling asked in court. "They were taking the money and all of a sudden when the mother gets fired they all run down to the police station and want to file charges."
Fitzsimmons came to Virginia Beach last year from Minnesota, but much of his past is a mystery. He has a master's in business administration, but much of his attention is spent counselling young women and helping those in need, friends said.
Terry Schantz and his girlfriend are helping run Fitzsimmons' bar since he was arrested in April and denied bond. He said Fitzsimmons was a generous and caring man who would buy groceries for those in need or find the homeless a place to live. He said he can't imagine Fitzsimmons being violent.
Stallings admits the case is strange, but says Fitzsimmons is no predator.
"They're trying to say he preys on these women," he said. "These aren't 15-years-olds. These are all adults and they're getting the money from this old guy."