A long line of defense witnesses was presented to the jury Wednesday in the case of a former teacher and coach facing charges of inappropriate behavior.
Randy Burke, 56, of Hamler, faces multiple charges of gross sexual imposition and sexual imposition involving female cross country athletes he coached at Napoleon High School in 2018 who were mostly freshmen and sophomores when the charges were filed last year.
On Wednesday, several former athletes, male and female, as well as parents of athletes, took the witness stand to defend Burke. At times, the witnesses became emotional speaking of the positive impact Burke had on their lives.
“He is the reason who I am,” said Meredith Hoops, before briefly pausing due to emotion.
Hoops ran for Burke in cross county at Napoleon High School from 2008-12 and in junior high as well. She has lived in Denver the last three years.
“I came back solely to testify here,” she added.
Hoops also said she sought Burke’s advice while she continued her running career in college, as well as when she pursued her own coaching goals.
Kelly Sonnenberg testified she ran cross country with Burke has her coach from 1998-2001. She testified she is still an avid runner thanks to Burke.
“Initially I just thought I would run cross country to train to get better as a basketball player, but cross country became one of my favorite sports,” Sonnenberg told the jury.
“To this day I am an avid runner, and I owe a lot of that to Mr. Burke, not just the athletic, physical side of it, but also because of the other skills it takes that apply to life itself, such as hard work, positivity, care, encouragement, all kinds of skills,” she added.
Sonnenberg also testified she would be fine with her daughter, who ran junior cross country the last two years, running for Burke. However, due to a foot injury, her daughter will only be playing soccer instead of trying to play soccer and run cross country, which is in the same season.
Hoops and Sonnenberg both testified they had themselves received hugs from Burke during their high school careers, and neither was uncomfortable with it and in fact hugged him back.
“This is why I’m here today,” Sonnenberg said between sobs. “This man hugged me I can’t tell you how many times. He’s hugged my sisters.”
She added in all four years of her high school cross country career she never saw any behavior exhibited like what Burke is being accused of now.
“Not just me, but all four years, none of my teammates,” she said.
Hoops also said she was hugged by Burke and also gave him hugs, especially following successful cross country meets.
They both said it was not unusual for Burke to hug athletes and parents, or to receive hugs back. This also went for parents.
Both Hoops and Sonnenberg testified Burke never touched them inappropriately, nor did they witness him touching anyone else inappropriately or saying anything inappropriately during their time in cross country. Neither was uncomfortable being around him.
Tiffany Fellers said Burke coached her daughter and son in cross country and she has known him nine years. She testified she was among those who went to a Napoleon Area City Schools Board of Education meeting in 2016 to show support for Burke, whom the board initially chose to not rehire as cross country coach due to allegations of safety of runners and behavior concerns filed by a parent of a runner.
That complaint was filed with then-Athletics Director Josh Meyer.
“I was shocked,” Fellers responded when asked by defense attorney Scott Coon if she was surprised by the non-renewal of Burke’s cross country contract.
She said she then led an effort by many cross country parents to get Burke rehired as coach. She met with then-school Superintendent Dr. Stephen Fogo to point out items she disagreed with that were brought up in the letter to Meyer.
Fellers added she believes that meeting resulted in Burke being rehired as cross country coach.
During cross examination, Fellers admitted she was aware of a plan of improvement that was included in Burke’s file as part of his rehiring in 2016.
She also said she never saw Burke take any inappropriate action toward any of the cross country athletes, male or female. Fellers said she did witness hugs given to both boys and girls on the team by Burke or vice versa, adding she never saw anything that caused her concern.
In fact, all 23 witnesses to take the stand in Burke’s defense stated they never saw the coach take any inappropriate action toward either themselves or athletes. They also stated they never heard Burke make inappropriate comments. All of them stated they had been hugged or given hugs to Burke, and that he had even hugged parents.
“He hugged everyone, he was friendly,” said Scott Stewart, who ran cross country under Burke from 2014-18.
Many of the athletes also testified Burke, and the other coaches, would frequently give high fives to the runners, but that it wasn’t anything that made them uncomfortable.
One female, a junior this year at Napoleon High School who ran cross country and track in 2017 and 2018, said she was asked by some girls last year to go to the athletics director’s office with them. She said she didn’t know why they were going but she was stretching before practice so didn’t go to the meeting.
She testified that when she later heard of the allegations against Burke, “I cried.”
She added she didn’t see any of the things happen that were being alleged, and that some of the girls tried to get her to lie that Burke had “touched her bottom.”
She said it didn’t happen.
She said her relationship with the rest of the girls team after that “was bad,” and she mostly stayed away from the female team members. She said she was bullied at times for what she believed in.
“I thought Coach Burke was innocent,” she said.
The witness also testified to an allegation brought up Tuesday that during pool training one day Burke broke the athletes into groups of two girls and one guy, stating “This is every boy’s dream.”
The witness said she heard Burke tell them to get into groups of two girls and one guy, but never heard the last part. She also said there were more female runners than male, so it made sense.
Also among the 23 witnesses was his long-time assistant coaches Jeff Ressler, who is currently coaching the boys cross country team, and Virgil Bohls.
Both Ressler and Bohls admitted there were moments when coaches hugged the athletes, male and female, and athletes gave them hugs. Neither said they ever saw anything that made them uncomfortable.
Ressler said he was first made aware of the 2018 allegations when Fogo told him Burke would be away from the program for awhile. Ressler said he was not told why, and was told by Athletics Director Andy Ham the absence should only be about a week.
Ressler also said he was “shocked” and “surprised” by the allegations once they came to light.
Ressler was asked to address testimony given Tuesday by one of the alleged victims who stated one day at practice she went to tell Burke she wasn’t feeling well. She testified Burke put his hands on her face and said, “I can see it in your eyes,” and he asked her, “You know you’re a special one, don’t you?”
Ressler said Burke believed that female runner, a freshman at the time, had potential to be a good runner because she had been successful in junior high. However, Ressler said the athlete was frequently injured and often absent from practice.
“He (Burke) did everything he could to get her healthy,” Ressler said.
Ressler also testified he was unaware of an incident during the 2018 team photo session in which another female athlete alleged Burke reached up and inside her shorts and pulled them down, revealing the top of her underwear. Ressler said he was at the photo shoot, and likely in close proximity to the team, but did not witness that alleged incident.
Under cross examination, Ressler was shown a photo of Burke giving a female runner a hug from behind with his arms wrapped around her front. When asked by Henry County Prosecutor Gwen Howe-Gebers, Ressler admitted he probably would not give a hug like that.
Later, Andrew Birkhold, who ran cross country at NHS under Burke from 2013-16 and was included in the photo, said what he saw was Burke congratulating the runner on a great race.
“It was nothing out of the ordinary,” he said.
One mother, whose daughter testified Tuesday that Burke had made her feel uncomfortable at times with his touching and that she saw things happen, said her daughter had not mentioned ever being uncomfortable around Burke until after the allegations were made.
“If she said it to the jury, then I hope she’s telling the truth,” the mother said.
Christian French, a former cross country runner for Burke at Napoleon, testified to an incident referred to Tuesday by one of the alleged victims in which she testified Burke put her hand on her thigh after she passed out during a cross country meet.
French said he had passed out at the same meet about 30 minutes before but had recovered by the time the female runner passed out. He testified he believed Burke was not even in the area where the girl was being treated, but he believed Ressler and Bohls were treating her.
McKenna Peckinpaugh, a 2018 graduate of Napoleon High School who ran track in 2015-18 with Burke as her coach, said she was also a student assistant for Burke when she was a junior and senior.
She explained as student assistant, she would run errands for Burke during his gym class if he needed her to do so. If there was nothing to do, Peckinpaugh said she would do homework or watch the gym class.
On Tuesday, two female students testified Burke made comments about having to touch them inappropriately if they passed out while running the mile, and that if he did have to perform CPR he would prefer they wear strawberry or watermelon flavored lip balm.
Peckinpaugh testified she never heard either of those comments made by Burke, nor did she see or hear anything inappropriate in any of his classes.
Under cross examination she testified she was not in every one of Burke’s classes, but a couple a day.
Bohls, who has been a teacher at Napoleon for 32 years and coached with Burke for 25, said he couldn’t recall any specific times he hugged an athlete, but he was sure he had.
He also testified that touching the cross country runners often can be an important part of evaluating their health, particularly in watching for cases of heat exhaustion.
Bohls also testified he never witnessed Burke touch anyone in an inappropriate manner, and stated he is a mandatory reporter, meaning if he sees a coach or teacher act in what he feels is an inappropriate way toward a student or athlete, he must report it to authorities.
“There is no doubt in my mind, if I saw a child at risk, or my job is at risk, which it would be if I didn’t report, I would always err on the side of the safety of the child,” Bohls said.
Howe-Gebers rested the state’s case early in the morning Wednesday. Immediately after, Coon motioned for an acquittal on the basis that the state hadn’t proven its case that Burke had done the things he was accused of for his own sexual gratification.
“The court can draw two inferences from the evidence, that is that he did it with sexual motivation or he did it because he was a coach congratulating his athletes,” Coon said.
Howe-Gebers argued there is no need for direct proof and that the jury is allowed to infer it.
Henry County Common Pleas Court Judge John Collier denied the motion, stating precedent, including the Ohio Supreme Court, states if evidence presented could reach two different conclusions by reasonable minds, an acquittal can’t be granted.
“Given the fact Mr. Coon you actually acknowledge there could be two different perspectives, the presumption must be given to the state, the court would deny,” Collier said.
The defense is expected to call on more witness Thursday morning, and Howe-Gebers has reserved the right to call possible rebuttal witnesses.
Collier said he expects to give jury instructions and allow the jury to begin deliberations by noon.