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Conner pleads guilty to child rape

Posted by Alix Roy  June 8, 2010 04:48 PM

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james.jpgFormer Melrose YMCA employee James Conner will spend up to 30 years in prison after years of manipulating and sexually assaulting young girls under his care, according to the terms of an agreement reached between Conner and the Middlesex District Attorney's office on Monday.

Conner, 52, of North Reading, pleaded guilty to all 20 charges, including five counts of rape of a child with force and four counts of indecent assault on a child, during a conference at Middlesex Superior Court in Woburn. By changing his plea, Conner avoided standing trial on the case, which has dragged on for the past 16 months. 

Prosecutors said Conner sexually assaulted two girls numerous times while employed as a girls' basketball coach for the Melrose YMCA and used hidden video cameras to record himself in the act. Prosecutors said Conner committed the crimes at his home and at YMCA after-school programs. Both of the victims were under 14 at the time.

Judge Jane Haggerty listened to statements from Assistant District Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and Conner's Somerville-based attorney, Alan Tuttman, before sentencing Conner to 20 to 30 years in the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Cedar Junction for the five counts of rape of a child by force and 18 to 20 years - to be served concurrently - for the four counts of indecent assault.

Conner also will serve 10 years probation following his release from prison, during which time he is required to register as a sex offender, receiving sex offender treatment, stay away from the victims and their families, wear a GPS monitoring bracelet, and hold no job in which he is in contact with persons under 18.

Conner showed no emotion during the proceedings, shaking his head as Fitzpatrick described his relationship with both victims, who frequently visited his North Reading home. When asked by Haggerty if he committed all of the crimes described, he responded “Most of them, yes.” After a few words with Tuttman, Conner responded, “Yes, I did, judge.”

An audience of 20 sat in silence during the conference, which lasted just over an hour on the seventh floor of the Woburn courthouse. Several onlookers broke down into tears upon leaving the conference room. Both Tuttman and Fitzpatrick declined comment following the ruling.
In determining the length of the sentence, Haggerty said she took into account Conner's age and failing health. According to Tuttman, Conner suffered a heart attack in 2006 and was hospitalized for a stroke in 2009.

“The breach of trust here and the manipulation of the victims is indeed reprehensible,” she said. “Were there not the health and age [issues], I would be very much inclined to adopt the Commonwealth's recommendation” of a life sentence.

In an impact statement delivered by attorney Kelly Spencer on behalf of the victim's family, Spencer called Conner a “master manipulator” who preyed upon innocent children entrusted to his care.

“He inflicted a life of harm on my daughter ... I hope your future holds nothing but misery,” the statement read.

Melrose Mayor Robert J. Dolan  called Conner a "monster" who caused "irrevocable damage" to victims and harmed a community institution.

"He hurt an institution that for 100 years has only helped people," Dolan said late yesterday afternoon. "That is a sin of the highest proportion."

Dolan added he was relieved that because of the plea deal, children would not have to testify at Conner's trial.

"You think of a child on the stand [in an abuse trial] and that certainly makes the hairs on your neck stand up," he said, adding that Conner had ruined "dozens and dozens of lives" by his actions. 

Conner has been confined to his North Reading home since his arrest in February 2009.  His trial was originally set to begin in April, but was postponed along with several pre-trial hearings at the request of the defendant, Middlesex District Attorney spokeswoman Jessica Venezia said at the time.

Peter Nuytkens, chairman of the Melrose YMCA Board of Directors, issued the following statement: "On behalf of everyone at the Melrose YMCA, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families."

Frank Nestor, a longtime member of the YMCA board, said he would rather have seen Conner go to trial. "I don't agree with [the sentence], but I'm not a judge," said Nestor.  "I just think what he did is unforgiveable .... I feel bad for the two girls."

School Committee member Carrie Kourkoumelis said she hoped the plea agreement would help bring closure to the affected families.

"I know this has torn the community apart and that efforts are being made to create increased awareness so that this can never happen again," she said.

Had the case gone to trial, the District Attorney's office would have introduced evidence proving that Conner sexually assaulted two girls under the age of 14 repeatedly while employed as a Melrose YMCA site director, Fitzpatrick said during the conference. Videotapes, digital cameras, and computers recovered from Conner's North Reading home contained images of both victims engaged in various sexual acts and poses, he said. Neither victim was aware of the fact that they were being recorded, he added.

The cameras also contained thousands of images of other non-identified children, some of whom were secretly photographed while using changing facilities and bathrooms at the  Merrimack Valley YMCA, where Conner worked from 1995-2001, Fitzpatrick said.  After hiding cameras in the bathrooms, Conner splashed water on the floor to encourage children to change in areas of the room where they would be captured on camera. His status as a trusted and friendly coach and employee at the Melrose YMCA allowed many of his actions to go unnoticed, Fitzpatrick said.

"This defendant was beloved by everybody and had everybody fooled," Fitzpatrick said. "I cannot tell you the impact this has had on the families."

The charges rocked the Melrose YMCA, leading to the resignation of president and CEO Richard Whitworth and vice president Nancy Madden. Karen Dauteuil, who was Conner’s direct boss, was fired by the Melrose YMCA board of directors.

After Conner's arrest, an investigation by the state Department of Early Education and Care found that Melrose YMCA administrators “failed to protect children from abuse.’’

The state report found that YMCA administrators hired Conner even after learning of allegations of inappropriate behavior at other facilities.

They also kept him on staff last year, after he signed an agreement to stay away from a girl who attended the Melrose program, the report said.

The Melrose YMCA gave up its license to run after-school programs last June after the state Department of of Early Education and Care - which licenses after-school programs at nonprofits - reported in April that YMCA administrators hired Conner despite knowing of allegations of impropriety at other facilities. Until recently, the YMCA was forced to operate under sanctions requiring administrators to increase the staff-to-student ratio and implement additional training. The sanctions were lifted in March and a new license was issued.

Kathy McCabe and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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