February 19, 2018 10:28 PM
An investigation recently unsealed in Chisago County reveals how a teacher who sexually abused a student avoided criminal investigation for nearly 25 years.
The investigative file, obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS through a public data request, exposes a flaw in the state's mandated reporting law that victim advocates and prosecutors say must be fixed.
The records contain dozens of love letters written by former Rush City High School teacher Jon Hughes. Hughes was convicted last year of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct for having repeated sexual contact with a student in the late 1980s.
The records also contain a recorded interview with a former school administrator who admits he suspected Hughes had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with the student, and later obtained evidence that confirmed his suspicion, but chose not to contact police.
Tim Eklund first had an "icky feeling" about Hughes during the 1988-1989 school year, according to a board memo included in the investigative file.
Eklund, the school principal at the time, told investigators he became suspicious when Hughes left his class unattended to pick up a student who had walked away from school.
"That was enough for me to go, 'that's a little unusual,"' Eklund said in a 2016 recorded interview with a Chisago County sheriff's deputy.
Eklund did not contact law enforcement or confront Hughes about his suspicion, according to investigative records. Instead, he asked the student and her mother if there was anything inappropriate going on involving Hughes.
"There was kind of flat denial at that point," Eklund says on the recording, adding he then considered it a "dead issue."
Now, Eklund maintains he did nothing wrong. In a recent phone interview from his winter home in Florida, he blamed the student for lying to him "with her mother in the room."
Erin Stephens, the assistant Chisago County attorney who prosecuted, says the victim should not be blamed for the failure to report Hughes.
"She was a kid when this happened," Stephens said. "She had no responsibility in this."
The former student eventually reported her relationship with Hughes to authorities in 2014. It led to the criminal investigation and the revelation that the school district had known additional details about the allegations for more than a decade.
In 2000, the victim's family reported Hughes' sexual abuse to the school. Eklund, who had become the district's superintendent by that time, again chose to not contact law enforcement.
"Why would I put the school district or myself in legal jeopardy when I don't know if it's substantiated?" Eklund told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS earlier this month.
Instead, Eklund met with the former student who handed over dozens of love letters she had received from Hughes.
The Love Letters
In those letters, Hughes called the student "beautiful," expressed his love and stated "I will dream about you."
Many of the letters and notes are dated and signed with Hughes' initials.
His writings were complimentary, encouraging and, at times, sexually suggestive.
"I hope you never feel uncomfortable or cheap about our friendship," Hughes wrote in one letter. "I look forward to the day when I can visit you at college. No worries or barriers to think about. Example—people interrupting—or you and I feeling uncomfortable about our love for each other…" he added.
"I viewed this as predator who groomed his victim for years and took advantage of her—you can see that in the letters" said Stephens, whose office finally obtained the evidence 14 years later.
In another letter, Hughes asked if he could still give the student rides home once in a while after she got her driver's license.
"Being able to talk to you and just being together during those times was really nice and special to me. I hope we will still have some of these moments," Hughes wrote in the undated letter.
The former student, who regularly babysat Hughes' kids, later told investigators those rides home often included stops in a church parking lot where she performed oral sex, according to the investigative records.
In a recorded interview with a sheriff's investigator in 2016, Hughes admitted his relationship with the former student was not normal but denied engaging in any sexual acts with her.
"I have nothing to hide," he told the investigator.
However, Hughes did have something to hide.
He asked the student to throw the letters and notes away.
"I know you don't want to but—but I worry about them falling into the wrong hands," Hughes wrote back in 1990. "You can keep some—that have no statements in that could me any trouble (sic)."
Eklund told investigators the love letters left little doubt and confirmed his initial "icky feeling."
"It looked like pretty indicting material," Eklund said in the recorded interview.
However, he did not share the evidence with law enforcement.
"She was adamant against that," he told investigators more than a decade later.
Instead, Eklund told Hughes to resign and reported him to the Board of Teaching.
The letters Hughes wrote are included below:
'Betrayal' of the System
Since Eklund informed the board, he was not legally required to alert the authorities.
Today, principals and superintendents who know or have "reason to believe a child is being … sexually abused" can still report abuse to the board instead of criminal investigators, according to the state's mandated reporting law.
The board also failed to report Hughes—and at least 16 other teachers accused of engaging in sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior with students—to law enforcement.
"It's a betrayal of what we hope the system will do," said Caroline Palmer, legal affairs manager at the Minnesota Coalition against Sexual Assault.
Palmer says the state's mandated reporting laws need to be clarified so that school administrators and the Board of Teaching automatically alert law enforcement.
"Sometimes it takes situations like this—where we thought common sense would come into play—where we have to spell it out into law."
Updated: February 19, 2018 10:28 PM
Created: February 19, 2018 09:26 AM
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