By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — A controversial case that has Minnesota State University football coach Todd Hoffner facing felony child pornography charges for creating brief videos of his own children has taken another unusual turn in the form of a letter from a well-known child advocate.
Many people have voiced an opinion that Hoffner has been wrongly accused, but Nancy Sabin’s letter to District Court Judge Krista Jass is now part of Hoffner’s case file. The former executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center told Jass she believes, based on what has been made public about the case, that Hoffner is innocent.
Jass included a copy of the letter in correspondence she sent to Hoffner’s attorney, Jim Fleming, and the prosecutor who filed the charges, Assistant Blue Earth County Attorney Mike Hanson.
In the letter, Sabin told Jass she has been working to prevent the sex abuse of children since 2001.
“Yet after watching this case unfold it became clear to me that the evidence pointed more toward a naive father who violated workplace policies than someone who manufactured child porn,” Sabin’s letter said. “This is the first time I’ve stepped forward to support someone accused of heinous crimes against children ... So I did not send this letter without a lot of thought. I send it because I fully believe that Todd is innocent.”
Among other advocacy roles, Sabin was executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center from 2001 to 2009 and served on the team that launched the state’s AMBER Alert system. The resource center was started by the parents of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy who was abducted while with friends in St. Joseph in 1989.
Fleming filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Hoffner last month. During an Oct. 31 hearing, Hoffner took the unusual step of testifying on his own behalf. He told Jass he was working at home when his children told him they wanted him to record their “show” after they took a bath. Hoffner said he didn’t know his children planned to drop towels they were wearing.
It wasn’t uncommon for the children to be naked in the house, so he didn’t think twice about continuing to record after the towels were dropped and the children, a boy and two girls between the ages of 5 and 9, started dancing in the nude, Hoffner said. He also said he forgot about the videos, which were recorded on a cellphone issued to him by MSU, until he turned his phone in for repairs and they were found by another employee.
Hoffner and his wife, Melodee, have described the videos as innocent family antics. Hanson said he filed felony charges because he believes they show the children in lewd performances including masturbation.
Beyond the videos, search warrant requests and reports from two deputies who investigated, Hanson hasn’t offered much more publicly to support his case against Hoffner. In a brief filed Wednesday arguing against Fleming’s motion to dismiss the case, he said a jury should decide whether the videos are child pornography.
Hanson, a West High School graduate, is not new to prosecuting cases involving criminal sexual conduct, including child pornography. He has handled similar cases since he started working as a prosecutor for Blue Earth County in 2005. He also served as an assistant chief deputy prosecutor for sex crimes at the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office in Indiana for three years.
In his brief, Hanson pointed out that different people can come to different conclusions when they read what Hoffner is accused of doing. He cites something Alison Feigh, a current program director for the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, told a reporter from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
“When you read the words, is there really a question about this being OK?” Feigh told the reporter.
“Apparently, experts disagree,” Hanson said.
There are lessons to be learned from what Hoffner has admitted to doing, Sabin said. Everyone should know better than to create private family videos on devices that are easily accessible to others, especially when those devices are owned be a government agency or private business.
“I fully understand why the ‘red flag’ went up the pole, however the actions following the ‘red flag’ have been hurting innocent, confused children in the Hoffner family and within Blue Earth County,” Sabin said. “The merry-go-round needs to stop to allow everyone to move on. Let’s use our limited resources to get ‘the real bad guys’ instead of wasting them on those who are innocent.”
Sabin also commended the Minnesota State University employees and law enforcement officers who acted quickly after they saw the videos. But she added that the justice system also needs to act quickly if someone has been unfairly accused of a crime.