John Austin Hopkins. a former gym teacher at Clearcreek Elementary School, during a pretrial hearing. STAFF

Ex-Springboro teacher’s trial opens: Sex abuser or sexually naive? Lawyers paint different picture.

Opening arguments in the sexual abuse case against a former Springboro teacher saw prosecutors and defense lawyers give two different explanations for the same videos taken inside a gymnasium where authorities say 28 first-grade girls were abused.

Warren County Assistant Prosecutors Julie Kraft told the jury the videos show John Austin Hopkins, 25, touching the students for his own sexual gratification.

Defense attorney David Anthony Chicarelli, the son in the father-son duo representing Hopkins, said his client is an autistic man who is sexually naive and didn’t know what he was doing could be construed as sexual.

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Prosecutors showed two of the videos during their portion of opening arguments. In both, a young girl can be seen in Hopkins lap, nuzzled up to him as he gives the girls a long hug. In an interview with authorities that was partially played during the opening, Hopkins told law enforcement that he only offers children “side-hugs” and high-fives.

“This case is about the sexual abuse of 28 little girls they were subjected to by this defendant for his own sexual gratification,” Kraft said.

She said there will be other videos showing Hopkins kissing, hugging, having students sit on his lap, pulling them into him, groping them and rubbing their thighs with his hands inside of their clothing.

“These are things that 6-year-olds should not have to know about, talk about, let alone experience,” Kraft said.

But Hopkins’ attorneys told the jury during opening arguments that the videos don’t show a criminal act. Chicarelli said the videos lack perspective and that other teachers at the school embraced other students in a similar way. He showed the jury a video of a female teacher holding a young boy in the gymnasium.

“There is a little boy seated on an adult faculty member’s lap with his legs spread wide open. Sometimes her hands are wrapped around his waist, sometimes her hands are on his crotch,” Chicarelli said.

He said the defense agrees the videos do show young girls being hugged and held by Hopkins, but that he wasn’t touching them for his own sexual gratification.

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“We do not contest the fact that Austin did hug his students, that they crawled into his lap, that sometimes he assisted them in getting up into his lap, that he rubbed their backs, that he tickled their tummies, that sometimes, even briefly, his hands were inadvertently placed in areas such as the thighs, the buttocks. We agree that this happened. Those facts, however, are not the issue in this case as you will soon discover,” Chicarelli said. “Because Although a picture and a video can say 1,000 words, it cannot tell you what’s in the mind, and that’s what this case is going to be about.”

He said his defense team plans to call several expert witnesses to testify during the trial.

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