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Ex-Springboro teacher’s young students to testify at sex-crimes trial

John Austin Hopkins
John Austin Hopkins

Four young Springboro students were cleared Tuesday to testify next week in the sex crimes trial of their former teacher, John Austin Hopkins.

The interviews followed the final pretrial hearing in Hopkins’ case in Warren County Common Pleas Court.

Hopkins, 25, of Springboro, faces three dozen charges related to 28 first-grade girls in his gym class at Clearcreek Elementary School in Springboro. He was indicted on June 17, after a lengthy investigation of the alleged classroom incidents from December 2018 to March 2019.

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On Tuesday, Judge Robert Peeler, lawyers on both sides and a child advocate participated in private sessions with the potential child witnesses. Only Peeler was to ask questions.

The interviews were held in Peeler’s chambers in the courthouse in Lebanon to determine whether the children are competent to testify in the case.

On Monday, Hopkins’s lawyers filed a motion outlining the questions that were to be asked of the children to determine whether they will be permitted to testify in open court.

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The interviews were designed to ensure the children understood the difference between lies and the truth as well as inconsistencies in what they alleged happened during gym class with Hopkins.

For example, David Allen Chicarelli suggested Peeler ask one of the children, “Why did you not tell Ms. Emily that Mr. Hopkins touched you on your privates during the first interview?”

A fifth child witness, selected from the 28 alleged victims, is to be interviewed in the judge’s chambers during the trial, scheduled to begin on Monday.

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Hopkins sat with his lawyers during the open court portions Tuesday. He is wearing an electronic monitor while on house arrest at his parents’ home.

In December, Peeler suggested a plea bargain might be reached, so “some of this can be spared.”

In addition to classroom surveillance video, prosecutors are expected to call as many as five of the 28 alleged victims as well as up to 28 parents of the alleged victims.

Hopkins’ lawyers are expected to call two experts, Dr. Frederick Peterson, a psychologist, and Ronald “Skip” Carter, a past psychology professor at the University of Dayton. It was unclear if Hopkins would take the stand.

Springboro Detective Terry Dunkel is also expected to be called. Hopkins’ statements to police could also be used in the trial.

Hopkins’ lawyers have compared his actions to those of Santa Claus listening to children describe what they want for Christmas while seated on his lap.

Video evidence shows Hopkins putting his “bare hand up multiple children’s shirts,” a skirt, “nuzzling into the neck of several children” and “spreading several children’s legs to have the children straddle his crotch,” according to a prosecutors’ memorandum.

RELATED:Forensic interviews key in ex-Springboro teacher’s sex crime case

Other evidence includes videos of forensic interviews done with each victim.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Chicarelli challenged the forensic interviews done by specialists from the county’s child advocacy center, pointing to an expert’s report suggesting problem areas.

“The interviews were not conducted according to national standards and there were numerous matters that caused the reliability, competency and credibility of those interviews to be challenged,” Chicarelli said.

Chicarelli said the interviews by two of the special interviewers were “tainted” because the interviewers were “overly suggestive.”

Peeler said, “That can be addressed at trial.”

A federal lawsuit filed against the school district, employees and Hopkins on behalf of some of the 88 families with children whose videos with Hopkins were presented to a grand jury remains stalled in federal court.