Mills County Jury Finds Ex-East Mills Coach, Teacher Guilty Of Two Sex-related Charges

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By The Staff

A former East Mills teacher and coach could spend up to 12 years in prison after being convicted of third-degree sexual abuse and sexual exploitation by a school employee stemming from two incidents involving a 17-year-old female student in 2018.

A Mills County jury found Christopher Lee Irvin, 40, of Pacific Junction, guilty after six hours of deliberation late Friday evening. Third-degree sexual abuse is a Class C felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Sexual exploitation by a school employee is an aggravated misdemeanor punishable by up two years in prison. Irvin was immediately taken into custody following the verdict and is being held at the Mills County Jail without bond pending a sentencing hearing.

The guilty verdict followed a four-day trial that saw nearly a dozen witnesses testify and and over 100 exhibits entered into evidence.

Mills County Attorney Naeda Elliott presented the state’s case as one of a “small town girl” exploited and sexually abused by a coach she had known nearly 10 years and whom she considered to be a “second father” figure.

“Mr. Irvin gained her trust to satisfy his own sexual desires,” Elliott said in her opening arguments.

In initial court filings, the charges followed an August 2018 interview with the victim, who was 17 at the time, and questioning from an agent from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). In that interview, the victim, who was coached by Irvin, disclosed that in late July or early August, the coach touched her groin and buttocks area while in a sauna room at the Fit-4-Life gym in Glenwood.

In a subsequent forensic interview with Project Harmony in Omaha, the victim told investigators about a previously unreported incident in April of 2018, four months before the August incident, when Irvin rubbed one of her feet on his genitals.

In two days of emotional testimony during the trial, the victim, who has since turned 18 and graduated from a different high school, described her relationship with a coach she had looked up to since fifth grade. The two had a close relationship that transcended coaching her at East Mills. Irvin became the victim’s private coach and trainer and was well known to her family, sometimes attending family gatherings.

The victim also described in detail the two incidents that left her feeling “trapped,” “in shock,” “gross” and “small.”

In the course of her relationship with Irvin, the victim would sometimes babysit for the defendant and his wife and would on occasion stay the night at their house if the couple returned home late. It was during one of these occasions that the first incident of sexual abuse occurred.

As the victim’s primary trainer, it was not uncommon for Irvin to “rub the knots” out of the victim’s sore legs by massaging them. Late one night in April 2018, the victim testified that after massaging her legs for an unusually long time, Irvin began rubbing one of her feet on his penis while he masturbated. The victim believed Irvin thought she was asleep. In an attempt to end the act, she then pretended to wake up and grab her cell phone while Irvin covered himself with a pillow.

The victim graphically described Irvin taking his penis out of his pants and using her foot “as a tool” to masturbate while she lay on a couch.

“I froze, I thought this couldn’t be happening,” the victim tearfully told the court. “I told myself this couldn’t possibly be happening to me.”

The victim testified that the second incident occurred July 31, 2018, inside the sauna at Fit-4-Life gym in Glenwood following a workout. In that incident, the victim said, Irvin began massaging her feet before more aggressively working his hands up her legs and again beginning to masturbate.

The victim said she did not know what to do so she pretended to look at her phone and texted her mother to “come get me now.” She did not report the abuse to her mother, but a few days later, the victim told a friend and that friend’s father, who was involved in law enforcement, encouraged her to go to authorities.

As part of its case, the state played a video in court of a confrontation between the victim and Irvin on Aug. 21, 2018.  The 55-minute video, which was made on the victim’s phone at the behest of DCI Special Agent Daryl Simmons and unbeknownst to Irvin, proved to be a crucial piece of evidence.

The victim can be heard on the recording confronting Irvin and sobbing.

She says, “I wasn’t asleep.”

Irvin at one point says, “I’ll be honest, I don’t know exactly what I’ve done.”

After initially denying any inappropriate behavior, Irvin can be heard saying, “I know what you’re talking about.” He continues on, saying, “In that moment I started to make a horrible choice” and  “Thank God you woke up before I made it worse than it already is” and that he’d become, “too emotionally attached” to her.

Irvin is sometimes incoherent on the video, alternating between sobbing and cursing himself and asking the victim if she plans to continue participating in her sport.

Neither Irvin nor the victim specifically mention the details of either incident on the video and neither the words “foot” nor “masturbate” are ever said, but Irvin makes reference to his own sexual abuse history.

Irvin is overheard apologizing to the victim, telling her she is not the person who faltered and that he “F’-d up and crossed the line.”

“I’m going to go to my grave not forgiving  myself,” Irvin is heard saying. “I’m too F’-ing weak to overcome something I should be able to overcome.”

Irvin, who sat expressionless for most of the trial, did not look up to the view the video as it was aired in the courtroom.
In a sometimes terse cross examination, defense attorney Brian Tackett questioned the victim about discrepancies between her initial deposition and court testimony about alleged dates and times of the incidents and why she didn’t mention the April incident in her initial interview with the DCI.

The victim was certain the first incident occurred April 20, 2018, but there seemed to be contention of when the second incident occurred. The victim said July 31, 2018. But video and key fob evidence presented by the defense show the date as possibly being Aug. 1.

The victim conceded she might not be sure on the exact date of the second incident.

When pressed on why she didn’t report the abuse or stop having Irvin coach her, the victim said she did pull away but felt “trapped.”

“I had no other place to go,” she said. “He put me on a pedestal above the other athletes. He said I set an example. I didn’t feel like I had an option. I couldn’t leave, that I had to be coached by him.”

The victim said she avoided being in “certain situations” with Irvin, particularly in a one-on-one setting.

Defense attorneys continued to try and punch holes in the victim’s explanation, pointing to one-on-one training sessions the victim had with Irvin after the April incident and the number of text messages between the two. Prior to April 20, 2018, meta date recovered from both of their phones showed 167 text messages had been sent from the victim to Irvin, dating back to her freshman year in high school. From April 21, 2018, to mid-August of the same year, there were over 1,000 text messages sent.

Jessica Martinez, a social worker with Project Harmony, testified for the state. Most sex abuse, she said, occurs by people known and trusted by the victim.

“There are multiple reasons for delayed disclosure by victims,” Martinez said. “’People won’t believe me,’ the guilt or shame of telling people what happened to them.”

Martinez also stated it’s not uncommon for victims to continue having contact with the perpetrator after an incident of abuse.

The victim’s father also took the stand, testifying that before learning of Irvin’s actions, he considered him to be a “close personal friend.”

“I trusted Chris. He was her coach,” he said. “I’ve known him for a long time. I felt comfortable.”

After the state’s case came to a close, and without the presence of the jury, the defense asked for an acquittal on all charges, claiming the victim’s description of the incidents didn’t meet the definition of what Irvin was charged with.
Judge Richard Davidson denied the request, saying the victim’s description of what took place could be perceived as an act of a sexual nature by a reasonable person.

The defense’s two key witnesses both provided counter-arguments to the prosecution – by very different means.
The first, Dr. Colleen Conoley, a clinical neuro-psychologist from Omaha, diagnosed Irvin with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with dissociation and also male hypo-active sexual disorder related to him having been sexually and physically abused as a child.

Conoley testified that Irvin appeared to be experiencing dissociation on the state’s video recording of the confrontation with the victim. She said his behavior became “odd,” his speech pattern inconsistent with what was going on; he made little eye contact and appeared to brood like a child.

She went on to say Irvin did not “black out” during the confrontation but that he did not have a clear reference of how long it lasted.

Under cross-examination, Conoley admitted she did not know what Irvin was thinking at the time of the video confrontation, but that in her opinion he was experiencing a “dissociative state.”

The prosecution countered that Irvin had no history of psychiatric issues and that Conoley could not testify to his state of mind during either of the abuse incidents.

Conoley said it is not uncommon to see people with PTSD or other mental illnesses to not seek treatment and therefore remain undiagnosed.

Sean Kasal, a digital forensics expert who testified for the defense, studied the metadata on phones belonging to the victim and Irvin to establish a communication pattern between the two in the months leading up to and after both incidents.

Kasal testified that his analysis showed the text data between the two in the days before the victim reported the incidents to the DCI did not mirror each other in separate examinations. Kasal said there were seven text messages “selectively deleted” from the victim’s phone, but did not provide the context of those messages.
Kasal testified there were no records of texts from the victim to her mother on July 31, but there was one on Aug. 1 at 11:28 a.m. but he did not know the content of that message as it had been deleted.

The digital forensic expert went on to testify that a message sent from Irvin to the victim on Aug. 1 indicated Irvin was in Sidney at 10:38 a.m.

In his closing, Christopher Roth, a member of the defense’s legal team, noted multiple points of what he called “inconsistencies” in the victim’s actions, her recounting of the specific events, times and dates and a data stream between the two he hinted was a “math problem.”

“We’re not saying this or the PTSD excuses him from his crimes,” Roth said. “We’re saying the crimes didn’t happen.”

The jury, made up of nine women and three men,  disagreed.

Irvin will remain at the Mills County Jail without bail as he awaits sentencing. As part of his sentence, Irvin will be required to register as a sex offender and be placed on special parole for the rest of his life.