UPDATE: Hettinger surgeon pleads not guilty to sexual abuse of a minor

West River General   pleaded not guilty on Monday to 12 counts related to the alleged  of a teenage girl in Oregon.

Robert J. Gustafson
Robert Gustafson

Group Editor | bmartin@countrymedia.net

UPDATED July 16, 2015

West River General Surgeon Robert John Gustafson pleaded not guilty on Monday to 12 total counts related to the alleged sexual abuse of a teenage girl in Oregon.

Gustafson, 46, began working in November as a surgeon specializing in laparoscopic surgery at the West River Health Services hospital in Hettinger. He had relocated to the area from South Dakota and had previously worked at a hospital in Spearfish, S.D.

According to court records obtained by the Pioneer, Gustafson was charges with 10 counts of first-degree sexual abuse and two counts of first-degree encouraging child sexual abuse related to the alleged 2-year sexual abuse of a girl in Clatsop County, Ore. The abuse was said to have begun in 2009 when she was “not yet 14 years old,” according to a court complaint.

Bail for Gustafson was set at $250,000. He was ordered to avoid contact with minors unless it was necessary to his occupation but was allowed to leave the state.

It was indicated by the Associated Press that Gustafson’s attorney said his client would post the required 10 percent of his bail and return to Hettinger. His attorney said West River indicated they would hold his job for him.

West River CEO Jim Long told the Pioneer on Wednesday that he was not aware of the situation prior to Gustafson’s court appearance. Long said he knew that the doctor was taken into custody but didn’t know the charges until Tuesday.

Long said that he made an inquiry with West River’s physicians on how they should proceed. He also contacted the board of the North Dakota State Medical Examiner.

“It wasn’t a surprise what I was told there,” Long admitted.

The medical examiner’s office told Long that they could make no restrictions on licensing based on accusations; there would need to be a determination of guilt before they could act.

Long said there was a consensus among West River’s administration and staff to allow Gustafson to continue his employment with the health care provider.

A stipulation made by Long, however, is that Gustafson would not be allowed to see a patient under the age of 18 without another adult being present.

“It protects him as well as it protects us,” Long said.

Long explained that United Clinic Physicians is Gustafson’s actual employer—West River contracts with their service to utilize him as a surgeon.

His employment would also continue with United Clinic Physicians, according to Long.

“We’ll continue with him until innocence or guilt is proven,” Long said.

While Long admitted that it was not a good situation, he said it would have been wrong for West River to end his career without being able to defend himself or have an opportunity to prove his innocence.

Long said WRHS has had no prior incidents with the doctor. He explained his previous employment references were positive.

Before a physician is hired by West River, they complete a full credential verification procedure. According to Long, nothing appeared out-of-the-ordinary when it came to Gustafson’s check.

“Our hope in the end is that his innocence will be proven and that he will be accepted for his quality as a good surgeon and a good person,” Long said.

“If the opposite would turn out, we would have no options, we would have to release him.”

Gustafson was born in Minneapolis, Minn., and raised in eastern South Dakota. He attended UCLA and went to medical school at the University of South Dakota.

West River has several clinics in western North Dakota, including one in Bowman and Scranton.

Gustafson’s next scheduled court appearance is an early resolution conference in September for which it will be requested that he not have to appear in person.