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New allegations surface against HS football coach placed on leave

C/O Ben Hershey via Unsplash.com

Two graduates of Hanover-Horton High School’s class of 2000 say it was an “open secret” that Johnnie Stewart, the school’s football coach and physical education teacher, was in a sexual relationship with underage students.

Separately, they say they feel compelled to come forward now that another former student, Angela Sturgill, alleges Stewart groomed her and began a sexual relationship with her when she was 16.  

Angela and her husband, Kevin Sturgill, say the school district became aware of their complaints last year. But the district allowed Stewart to continue teaching and coaching for months, even as the Michigan State Police investigated him for criminal sexual conduct. In May, the Jackson County prosecutor declined to prosecute Stewart, citing “insufficient evidence” and an expired statute of limitations.

On June 23rd, the district put Stewart on “non-disciplinary paid leave” pending a school investigation.

Stewart, through his attorney, has always maintained his innocence, and says the prosecutor’s decision proves Sturgill’s “attacks” are baseless.

But Sara Pienta (maiden name Maharas) says she saw Stewart “making out” with Sturgill in a hot tub at a high school party. When Stewart realized she'd seen them, Pienta says he shouted, “Maharas, keep your mouth shut!” 

And Nate VanEpps, who now lives in Texas, says he confronted Stewart about an inappropriate relationship with a second female student. VanEpps says Stewart threatened to "kick his ass" if VanEpps reported him.

“How could the school not know?”

In her junior year of high school, Sara Pienta says she went to a house party that felt a little wild for her.

“It was 20 years ago, there are a lot of details I don’t remember, [but a lot of the people there] were older than me,” she says. “It was kind of like, I was going to a party that I shouldn’t have really went to, you know? It was a big party, and I remember [people] saying, Johnnie [Stewart, a teacher at Hanover-Horton] did buy alcohol for some people, but not for everybody in the whole party.”

Pienta says Stewart was not only at this party with students, he was in the hot tub, “making out” with Angela Sturgill. Sturgill was a student at the time. Several people walked by the hot tub and saw them, Pienta recalls. But she says Stewart looked up and singled her out, shouting, “Maharas! Keep your mouth shut!”   

Pienta thinks that’s because even in high school, she was one of the “good” kids, a rule follower. “I’ve always been who I am now, kind of a right-sider, I’m not surprised [he said something to me.]”

Yet at the time, it didn’t seem weird that a teacher was openly involved with a student, Pienta says.

“It sounds stupid for me to say now, but it was just how it was. He [Stewart] was what, maybe eight years older than her? And as a child, I didn’t know the background [of how he allegedly groomed her.] I just thought they were a couple. That’s what I thought.”  

Plus, Pienta says, there were already rumors about at least two other teachers also being involved with underage girls. “Now the other two teachers, [people talked about them a lot] because there was more of an age gap. Those seemed weirder to me, which sounds dumb.”

Still, “everyone knew” about Stewart, she says. “These guys, they preyed on weak, you know what I mean? It was kind of weak people, to be honest. People that don’t have high self-esteem were the ones who got in the relationships.”

Then, earlier this month, Pienta saw the news that Sturgill was publicly accusing Stewart.

“When the article came out, when we all saw the message that Hanover-Horton said, basically, ‘It’s not true,’ it was enraging!” Pienta says. “Like, how could they not know?”

So on June 25th, Pienta sent an email to school superintendent John Denney, telling him about seeing Stewart kissing Sturgill at a party some 20 years ago. She also included the names of two other (now former) teachers she believes were also in relationships with students:

“I hope this helps if u [sic] have any questions please feel free too [sic] contact me. I know there must be alot [sic] of emails coming in making u [sic] feel sick but this will pass and Hanover will be great again!”

Two days later, she received an emailed response from superintendent John Denney. 

“Thank you sharing your concerns with me on such a sensitive topic. I apologize for not responding to you sooner; I have been traveling...and have not had much signal. “Please know that we take the allegations seriously and will make sure that your voice is heard in our process. “Again, thank you, John.”

Still, Pienta feels conflicted about coming forward. She doesn’t want to hurt her community, she says. “I say hi to my [former] teacher at the Y[MCA.] This is a really good school, with really good people. And I feel bad talking negatively, because I loved that school.”

“He said he was going to kick my ass”

For years, Nate VanEpps thought Johnnie Stewart was the man.

“Johnnie Stewart was my…coach when I was a sophomore,” VanEpps says. “He was like, the coolest guy in the world to us. He let us put our names on the back of our jerseys! I mean, I liked the guy, he was cool, he was fun to be around, he was a good weightlifting instructor. But when all this happened my senior year, all this changed my perception of him going forward.”

In 2000, right after spring break, VanEpps says a female student came to him with concerning allegations against Stewart. (Michigan Radio is not naming this woman at this time, because she lives out of the country and we haven’t been able to contact her directly.)

“She proceeded to start telling me of this time that she was in a relationship with [Stewart],” VanEpps recalls. “She never said if they had sexual intercourse at all – or if she did, I don’t remember. She said that he had gotten a hotel room for them, and he took her to this modeling agency thing. And she showed me pictures of the modeling that she did. And she showed me many pictures where she was modeling on the hood of his truck.”

VanEpps says he “got pretty upset about that.” So he confronted Stewart. “I have no idea what I said to him, probably something like, ‘You got to leave high school girls alone,’ or something like that.”

Soon after, VanEpps says he was walking to his locker near the art room when another teacher called out to him from a classroom. “He asked me, ‘Hey Nate, do you mind coming in here and talking to me for a second?’ So I said, 'Sure.'”

Once in the room, he says this teacher walked out and closed the door behind him. “And at the back of the [room,] there’s Johnnie Stewart, standing there behind the teacher’s desk. And if you knew how [the teacher’s room] was laid out, his desk was at the back of the room, and you had to walk all the way across the room to get to his desk. He said, ‘Hey Nate, come over here.’”

VanEpps says he’s spent years replaying what he says Stewart said to him next.

“He proceeded to tell me that I need to leave [this female student] alone and stop talking to her, and if I ever told anyone about what she told me, that he was going to kick my ass. And he basically threatened me right there in the room. And then, you know, did the song and dance like ‘You ok, man? Everything’s going to be cool.’ And then I left the room. And that has always bothered me, to this day.”

VanEpps says he's coming forward now, because it feels like the right thing to do. He doesn't want Angela Sturgill’s allegations against Stewart dismissed as a “he said, she said.”

Michigan Radio reached out to both the Hanover-Horton school superintendent, and Stewart’s attorney, for comment about Sara Pienta’s and the VanEpps’ allegations. While they didn’t immediately respond, we’ll update this story if they do.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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