High school defends keeping football coach on during sexual assault investigation
The Hanover-Horton school district says while it was aware police were investigating high school football coach Johnnie Stewart for sexual assault, the district allowed him to keep coaching and teaching as the months-long investigation played out.
Update June 24 2019: Johnnie Stewart has been placed on "a non-disciplinary paid administrative leave," according to a letter sent to families on June 23rd. Superintendent John Denney says the district will be "conduct[ing] our own investigation" after receiving "a formal complaint" against Stewart on June 20th. That same day, Denney sent out a letter defending the district's decision not to place Stewart on leave, despite knowing he was under criminal investigation. The district has still not responded to Michigan Radio's questions.
Original post: A woman named Angela Sturgill says 20 years ago, Stewart groomed and coerced her into a sexual relationship. At the time, she says, she was a 16-year-old student at Hanover-Horton and Stewart was a teacher.
Sturgill and her husband also say the district has been aware of the details of their allegations since last fall, when a school liaison officer told them to stop harassing Stewart.
In a letter sent to district families on Thursday, Superintendent John Denney defended the decision to keep the coach at school during the investigation, and addressed a press release sent by the Sturgill’s attorney on Wednesday asking the school to investigate.
“I have been asked why Mr. [Johnnie] Stewart has been allowed to continue teaching and coaching based on these allegations,” school superintendent John Denney said in the letter.
“At this time, no formal/informal complaint has been provided to the district relative to Mr. Stewart nor have any charges been filed against Mr. Stewart. As such, no action has been taken by the District relative to Mr. Stewart’s status as an employee of the district.”
Prosecutor declines to charge coach, citing statute of limitations and lack of evidence
Jackson County prosecutor Jerry Jarzynka says he received the Michigan State Police investigation into Johnnie Stewart this spring, and declined to press charges in May.
Jarzynka told Michigan Radio the statute of limitations had run out in Stewart’s case, and there’s “insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed.”
From the district’s letter, it appears the school didn’t know that decision had been made. “I am aware that the Michigan State Police are investigating the former student’s allegations against Mr. Stewart,” Superintendent John Denney wrote in his note to families. “The district will cooperate with that investigation in every possible way.”
Angela Sturgill says even she didn’t know about the prosecutor’s decision until a state trooper called her Wednesday afternoon.
“I looked at my husband and said, ‘I’m going to throw up,’” Sturgill says. “My stomach was in knots. It was awful. I said, ‘This man is going to walk free. And he doesn’t deserve to.’”
Johnnie Stewart’s attorney, Alfred Brandt, says these allegations are a “selective attack” against his client, and have now been proven false.
“She [Sturgill] made an allegation, it’s been investigated, MSP had it for months, did multiple interviews, turned it in, and there’s no prosecution,” Brandt says.
Sturgill’s story: a flirtatious teacher who “made me feel special”
But Angela Sturgill says she can’t let this go. Her family moved back to this small community southwest of Jackson a few years ago from Kentucky, and she says she sees Stewart regularly when she’s picking her kids up from school.
“He now teaches middle school, which he didn’t used to teach, and my niece will be there in the fall… I cannot fathom the thought of him teaching my children, or others. It took me years to figure this out [that I had been abused]...and I don’t know why it took me so long, but now that I know he’s a predator, I want my story out there to stop this man.”
Back in the late 1990’s, Sturgill says she was “a sheltered...mess” of a high school sophomore. Her parents split when she was little. Her dad was rarely home, working multiple jobs to support her and her brothers.
At 16, Sturgill says she “felt special” when a young teacher, Johnnie Stewart, starting “talking me up. You know, he made me trust him,” she says. He was flirty, she says, and slowly started sexualizing their relationship.
Sturgill told police the “first time he ever made physical contact” was in Stewart’s office in the boys locker room. She says Stewart walked into the attached bathroom and dropped his pants, knowing Sturgill could see him. Another time in class, she says, he reached under a desk and began caressing her inner thigh.
“He tested me about how I was going to react,” Sturgill says. “Yeah, I would say he tested me a lot, until he knew ‘I’ve got this one.’ He got me, and he knew it.”
A yearbook note: “Follow your dreams and then come find me.”
Sturgill says Stewart would buy her alcohol and drive her around in his truck - to his trailer home that he shared with a friend, a Super 8 motel, or a secluded spot near a sod farm where her brother went hunting. She told police she estimates they had sex between 15-25 times, including one incident where Stewart didn’t use a condom.
“I remember at that point going home and balling [sic] my eyes out thinking that of course I was going to be pregnant from my teacher,” Sturgill told investigators in a 79-page Michigan State Police report obtained by Michigan Radio. In the report, detectives press Stewart for minute details: was Stewart’s truck a two door or four door? Who owned that sod farm? What color were the curtains inside Stewart’s trailer home?
Sturgill answered their questions, and provided police with a yearbook note she says Stewart wrote her in high school. It doesn’t look like Stewart’s handwriting, Sturgill tells police; he doesn’t usually write in all caps. But she says she knows he wrote it.
“...You have matured into a beautiful young woman,” the note reads. “It’s no secret that you will always have a place in my heart. You mean far more to me than perhaps you know. It’s not all talk…[punctuation his.] Remember when we used to say “18” well 27 weeks of school and just over a few months huh! Follow your dreams and then come find me.”
Michigan Radio sent a picture of the yearbook note to Johnnie Stewart’s attorney, Alfred Brandt, late Wednesday evening to ask if this was written by his client. As of Thursday afternoon, Brandt said he had not yet had an opportunity to ask his client about it.
Witnesses say there were “rumors” about Stewart, but deny sexual relationships
In the police report, Michigan State Police Trooper Ravin Toner describes interviewing a handful of other women that Sturgill believed may have also been in romantic relationships with Stewart as students.
The women’s names are redacted from the report. One of them told police “there was rumors of flirtatious types of behavior [sic]” on Stewart’s part, and that he “tried to date her after she graduated high school.”
"I know that he probably made some girls uncomfortable," the woman told police, but she “advised [police] that she did not know any specifics,” according to the report.
Another woman was asked if Stewart ever hit on her while she was in high school. “...[S]he said there were flirtatious advances but never anything beyond that.”
Still other witnesses told police they “adored [Stewart] as a person” and denied having a sexual relationship with him. One said “honest to God, put it on the Bible she is beyond shocked to hear about this,” according to the report.
Confronting Stewart - and the school district
Sturgill says she continued a sexual relationship on and off with Stewart after her high school graduation. She also told police she was still seeing Stewart occasionally in her early 20’s, after she started dating her now-husband - a detail Angela says she hadn’t told her husband until just last year.
But early in their marriage, she did tell Kevin that she’d had a sexual relationship with Stewart beginning at age 16. He encouraged her to see a family counselor, Sturgill says.
“I know what [Stewart] did to me, but I blocked it, I didn’t even know what grooming meant until recently,” Sturgill says. “Now I know, I was groomed. I had no idea. And talking to a family counselor, she taught me all of this. I had no idea what had happened to me... It took me years to figure this out.”
About five years ago, the Sturgills moved back to the Hanover-Horton community. Angela Sturgill says she wasn’t ready to come forward publicly with her allegations against Stewart. But she and Kevin agreed they needed to get Stewart, who by then was the 2014 “Coach of the Year” and a teacher at the high school, away from other kids.
That’s when Kevin Sturgill says he started sending Stewart furious, threatening emails, trying to get him to resign.
“I put in the emails what he did to her, [saying] ‘You’ve done this to too many girls, you don’t use a condom, you’re sick, I can’t wait, you need to be out of this community,’” Kevin Sturgill says.
After about six weeks of this, Kevin Sturgill says he was dropping his kids off at school when he got “pulled over” by the school district's liaison officer. The officer told Kevin to stop threatening Stewart.
“Um, he told me we, you know, they needed to hear from [Angie,]” Sturgill told police. “That me threatening, that I wasn’t doing any good by threatening and calling him. If there was something there, then I needed to stop doing that. He told me that the teacher, had, that I harassed you know, he could potentially file harassment charges against me but that he chose not to.”
According to Kevin Sturgill, the school officer also said administrators were aware of his emails to Stewart and the allegations; but the officer said superintendent John Denney, “did not have anything else in the last, in the time he has been [superintendent,] he did not have a complaint [against Stewart.]”
If they wanted the school to do something, Sturgill recalls the officer saying, Angela would have to come to the school administrators directly. But neither Angela nor Kevin say they felt like the school would “be on our side.” So in December 2018, they went to the police.
The school's response
On Wednesday, the Sturgills sent out a press release, saying they were formally asking the school district to investigate Stewart, and were providing admininstrators with the yearbook note and a screenshot of a Facebook message Kevin Sturgill says he sent Stewart in 2009, asking him to stop contacting his wife. They weren't suing the school, the release said.
"I don't want money," Angela Sturgill said in the statement. "I want the truth to be known so no one else goes through what happened to me."
On Thursday, the school fired back.
"There are a few allegations in the [Sturgill] press release that are untrue, and I wanted to address them directly with you," Superintendent John Denney wrote in a letter to families. "To date, the Distrct has not received a formal or informal complaint regarding these allegations from the former student or her legal counsel...Finally, at no time has the High School Principal, the President of the Board of Education, or myself, been contacted by this former student or her legal counsel."
Angela Sturgill's attorney, Sarah Prescott, says that's a carefully-worded dodge.
"Read the District's statement very, very closely," Prescott said in an email Thursday. "They say they do not have a complaint from me or my client. That's hiding behind the truth: her husband had reported it, and they refused to listen to him. Maybe more importantly, they also knew that Mrs. Sturgill personally filed a complaint to the state police months ago, so how do you put out a press release saying there is no complaint? Is a known state police complaint not good enough?"
Yes, Prescott says, they mailed the formal investigation request and documents to the district on Wednesday, and then sent out the press release - so she admits the school wouldn't have actually received their request at that point. She says she spent Thursday morning emailing and playing phone tag with the school district's attorney. And then, the superintendent sent out a public letter to families.
For her part, Angela Sturgill is still hoping that the school will launch its own investigation into Stewart. She believes there are others out there who also have similar stories about him.
“In my eyes, I’m concerned that it’s still going on,” she says. “And I happened 20 years ago. So how many happened between now and then?”