LEBANON, Ohio — Side hugs and high fives or nuzzling and inappropriate touches?
The case of a former local gym teacher will likely come down to video evidence.
Parents of 28 first-grade girls in the courtroom when trial began Monday were in tears while prosecutors played video of John Austin Hopkins grabbing and hugging and letting them straddle him during his gym class at Clearcreek Elementary.
Hopkins’ defense team said he wasn't the only teacher who behaved this way.
“Go by the training. They say high fives and side hugs, that's what it is,” Hopkins told investigators in a recorded interview when they asked about his interactions with kids.
But in video played Monday in court — video we won't show you in order to protect the identity of a very young victim — he appears to do something else.
“Despite his statement, one girl after another after another was hugged, nuzzled, kissed, had his hands up inside their shirts and vaginal areas, was placed upon his lap and positioned so that they were straddling his genitalia,” First Assistant Prosecutor Julie Kraft said.
Hopkins, 25, is charged with 36 counts of gross sexual imposition based on video from his Springboro Schools gym class.
"This case is about the sexual abuse that 28 little girls were subjected to by this defendant for his own sexual gratification,” Kraft said in opening statements.
But Hopkins' defense team said the case doesn't make sense, even showing video of other teachers holding and hugging students in a similar way.
“This case is the story of a 25-year-old, sexually naive, autistic virgin that has dedicated his entire life to the care and education of children and has been actively involved with them for the last 10 years in numerous roles,” defense attorney David Chicarelli said.
Hopkins' defense team said it has three psychologists who will testify about his autism and declare that his interactions with those girls weren't about sexual pleasure.
Opening statements started late after a morning of motions and an afternoon of quizzing potential jurors.
Judge Robert Peeler ruled jurors would not see newly discovered video after the defense accused the state of “trying to sandbag us.”
Prosecutors had already submitted 200 hours of video from the school gym classes where prosecutor allege the crimes took place and asked to be allowed to use additional video they said they found last week.
“This is an attempt to sandbag us,” said defense attorney David Allen Chicarelli. He said the defense’s expert witnesses had not been able to view the new footage since the prosecutor didn’t turn it over until Friday.
“Once the edit was done Friday morning, once we had a completed edit, we shared with counsel that we had it,” prosecuting attorney Kevin Hardman said.
“This is totally improper and completely prejudices the jury,” Chicarelli said.
On another matter, Chicarelli asked the judge if every parent of a child who was allegedly a victim of Hopkins was going to be allowed to testify. Chicarelli said he feared prosecutors were trying to initiate a “parade” of people to gain sympathy with the jury. Prosecutors said each parent may have different insights into the abuse.
Peeler said he would allow the parents to testify but could change his mind if the testimony becomes repetitive.
When Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell indicted Hopkins, in June, 2019, he said the case involved more victims than any other case in Warren County.
Fornshell said video recorded from inside the school gym showed Hopkins touching 88 girls between December 2018 and March 2019.
“They all took place inside the gymnasium area … we have video of all of them," Fornshell said. A grand jury determined that Hopkins' touching rose to a criminal level with 28 of the girls, Fornshell said.
In December, 2019, Hopkins' defense tried and failed to have the case dismissed.
“He did nothing more than Santa does when a child is hurt, upset or crying," attorney David Chicarelli said. “They’re throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what will stick. The court should review the video.”
Fornshell said the allegations against Hopkins are more severe than putting kids on his lap. The prosecutor said some instances on the video show some of the victims "straddling [Hopkins] in what I would describe as a sexual manner." The video also allegedly shows Hopkins putting his hands up the victims' shirts and skirts, according to Fornshell.
However, Chicarelli said the prosecutor deliberately created confusion in this case by submitting more than 200 hours of video evidence. This amount of video, Chicarelli said, is too much to examine, and he suggested the prosecutor list specific instances at specific times.
“If that’s their issue, we’re happy to sit down with them and say, ‘That’s the kid,’” a state prosecutor responded in court.
The Journal-News contributed to this report.