Erickson sentenced to 15-30 years in prison
WEST BRANCH — Former Rose City Middle School teacher Neal Erickson was sentenced to 15-30 years in prison for first-degree criminal sexual conduct July 10.
Erickson, 38, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor during a pretrial in 34th Circuit Court in West Branch May 8.
Erickson was charged with CSC in December 2012 after the findings of a Michigan State Police investigation linked him to the crime. The investigation was started in October of last year, and the findings alleged Erickson and a student who a minor engaged in sexual conduct from August 2006 to August 2009.
Attorney Mike Juarez, who represented Erickson, challenged the Michigan Department of Corrections’ sentencing recommendations during sentencing in an attempt to receive downward departure for Erickson. However, Circuit Court Judge Michael Baumgartner disregarded the challenges.
Juarez contended that the victim, a student who was 14 years old when the sexual incidents occurred, did not suffer severe psychological damage due to the encounters, referencing two recorded interviews, one with the Michigan State Police during the investigation last fall.
“I think the victim, to me, sounded like a well-adjusted, confident young man,” he said.
However, Ogemaw County Prosecuting Attorney LaDonna Schultz claimed that in a separate interview, one conducted in June of this year, the victim confessed he suffered emotional trauma and had difficulty coping.
“He, (the victim), is saying he was a confused child,” she said.
Points against Erickson in the sentencing guidelines alleging predatory conduct were also challenged by Juarez.
“He didn’t use his authority as being a teacher to get him there,” he said.
Schultz once again rebutted Juarez’s claim, saying Erickson sent the victim text messages about the victim’s sexuality, sexual relationships and pornography. Baumgartner sided with the prosecution, dismissing both of the challenges made by the defense.
The number of incidences of sexual penetration in the DOC’s sentencing guidelines, and whether there was a continuing pattern of criminal behavior as stated in the DOC report were also called into question by Juarez. Baumgartner rejected both of those challenges, which would have decreased the points against Erickson listed in the sentencing report, as well.
A tearful Erickson read a statement before being sentenced, saying he took responsibility for his actions and apologizing to the victim and victim’s family, his family, the community and the West Branch-Rose City school district, where he was employed for 17 years.
“I’ve worked here for 17 years,” he said. “This has been my life, and I let you down.”
While addressing the court, Erickson also told of the relationship he and the victim had after the acts that led to the investigation and eventual guilty plea. He said the victim continued to ask him for guidance in high school, and that he proofread papers for the victim and wrote letters of recommendation for scholarships for the victim.
Erickson asked that Baumgartner keep in mind that after the crime happened, he got married and was raising a stepdaughter. He added the family is struggling financially, struggles that will only get worse. Erickson said he also has a great amount of shame regarding the crime, and that he had trouble leaving his home after the investigation was made public.
“I’m begging the court for the lowest amount of punishment as possible,” he said.
The victim’s mother also spoke prior to sentencing, telling Erickson he violated her son and caused a rift in the family. She said the family appeared happy on the outside, but on the inside, the home was a “battle zone.”
“We couldn’t figure out why (the victim) hated us,” she said. “He went after his father. There were physical fights.”
“Our daughter lost her only brother,” she added. “He wasn’t there for her. He wouldn’t talk to her.”
The victim’s mother said the victim shut them out to hide his shame. She said the victim looked up to Erickson, and was betrayed.
“You were his teacher,” she said. “You were his mentor. You were his friend. And you violated him.”
She added the victim kept the sexual encounters a secret and suffered because of it.
“He kept all of this a secret, and he went through emotional pains,” she said. “He went through emotional pains.”
The victim’s mother said he does not want to come back to the area due to the shame from the sexual acts.
“He won’t come home because of you,” she told Erickson.
After making a decision on the sentencing, Baumgartner said he could not believe people were supporting Erickson after the issue came to light.
“I’m appalled and ashamed that the community could rally around, in this case, you,” he said.
“What you did was a jab in the eye with a sharp stick to every parent who trusts a teacher,” Baumgartner added.