NAPOLEON — Wednesday brought a full day of witness testimony from the defense in the case against Randy Burke, a former Napoleon High School coach and gym teacher accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with students.
Burke, 56, Hamler, was indicted on seven counts of gross sexual imposition, all fourth-degree felonies; and five counts of sexual imposition, all third-degree misdemeanors.
Jurors in Henry County Common Pleas Court heard from several of the alleged victims Tuesday about the behavior they said Burke exhibited during their time as runners on the school’s cross-country team. That behavior allegedly included touching of the buttocks, shoulders, thighs, stomach and back, as well as inappropriate sexual comments.
One student alleged Burke told her, “I don’t care, you can run in your sports bra and panties if you want.” Another claimed he told her if he had to revive her using CPR, he “liked strawberry or watermelon Chapstick.” Other alleged incidents included Burke pulling on the attached underwear of a female athlete’s shorts, and telling another he would consider leaving his wife for her.
Burke, who is accused of sexual contact with five girls ranging in age from 14-18, was placed on administrative leave Sept. 21, 2018. The school board accepted his resignation in April. He had been with the district for more than three decades.
At the start of Wednesday’s proceedings, the state rested its case and Burke’s attorney, Scott Coon, moved for a judgment of acquittal, which was denied.
Wednesday’s testimony began with Jeff Ressler, a Napoleon resident and Liberty Center High School teacher who began coaching with Burke in 2008, and said he’d never witnessed this type of behavior from him. Ressler said the team was “like a family” and “tight-knit,” and added that hugs and high-fives were common between the athletes and coaches.
In all, 23 witnesses for the defense testified Wednesday, with another expected to testify at the start of today’s proceedings.
Meredith Hoops, a team member from 2008-12, said she traveled from Denver, Colo., solely to testify in defense of her former coach.
“He is the reason I am who I am,” Hoops said. She too denied ever seeing anything from Burke that made her uncomfortable.
Napoleon resident Kelly Sonnenberg, who teaches sixth-grade language arts at Anthony Wayne Local Schools and was coached by Burke from 1998-2001, became emotional as she came to her former coach’s defense.
“Never once in my four years did I ever encounter anything like what he’s being accused of,” Sonnenberg said.
It was the same message delivered by many of the day’s witnesses, most of whom had been coached by Burke, or were parents of those who had.
Claire Birkhold, who ran cross country during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, said she was encouraged by teammates to file a complaint about Burke, despite Birkhold’s claim she never witnessed any inappropriate behavior from the coach.
“They tried to get me to lie that he was doing something wrong,” Birkhold said.
Her mother, Patricia Birkhold, also testified.
“He was always caring and compassionate with his runners,” Patricia said. “He was concerned for them.”
Common themes in the day’s testimony were that the team was “like family,” and that hugs were commonplace as a way of congratulating or consoling the student athletes.
Dr. Michael Carpenter, a resident of rural Napoleon and owner of Dental Excellence of Napoleon, also testified on Burke’s behalf, as did his wife, Janette, and their daughter, Sarah, who participated in cross country for four years beginning in 2013.
“Something like that would have stuck in my mind,” Michael said of the allegations. “I’ve never had a single concern.”
On cross examination, Henry County Prosecutor Gwen Howe-Gebers pointed out that many of the day’s witnesses had not been around the team during the 2018 season, when the incidents prompting the charges allegedly took place.
Following testimony today from the defense’s final witness, the prosecution may call rebuttal witnesses, and jury deliberations are expected to begin this afternoon, said Judge John Collier at the close of Wednesday’s proceedings.