Deputies take Todd Phelps into custody after the jury verdict this morning in Lewis County Superior Court.
Updated at 3:18 p.m. on Saturday April 28, 2011
By Sharyn L. Decker
Lewis County Sirens news reporter
CHEHALIS – The jury came back with guilty verdicts in the rape trial of former Pe Ell High School softball coach Todd Phelps.
It took six men and six women a little more than four hours between yesterday afternoon and this morning to make their decision.
Phelps, 52, was handcuffed and taken down to the jail.
The benches in the the courtroom in Lewis County Superior Court were packed, except for about half of them on the defendant’s side of the room.
Phelps faces as much as six years in prison when he is sentenced in the case involving a 16-year-old student player.
A sentencing date has not been set.
The expected four day trial that began last week extended into eight days as prosecutors attempted to prove Phelps gradually seduced a girl already troubled with low self esteem and depression and ultimately had sex with her they said was clearly against her wishes.
Jurors heard witnesses testify about thousands of texts exchanged between the two, before and after Phelps was forced to quit his coaching job because of boundary violations with the player.
Defense attorney Don Blair painted a picture of a caring father-figure who was attempting to prevent a suicide. Blair said his client never thought he did anything inappropriate.
The now-17-year-old girl spent a day and a half on the witness stand
Phelps did not testify.
He was found guilty of third-degree rape as well as second-degree sexual misconduct with a minor in connection with encounters last spring and summer with the high school student.
The jurors also found he used his position of trust with a particularly vulnerable victim, meaning the judge can sentence him above the standard sentencing range.
The potential sentence is anywhere between six months to six years, according to Deputy Prosecutor Will Halstead.
Phelps’ family and lawyer quickly vanished from the courthouse following the verdict.
The victim’s family slowly made their way out of the courtroom in Chehalis as they exchanged hugs with each other and others. It was very quiet.
Judge Nelson Hunt had warned spectators there should be no outbursts when the verdict was read.
Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer said he had little to say since the sentencing is pending.
“As always, we have trust in the jury system,” Meyer said. “But the case isn’t over, so that’s all I can say.”
Before the jury began deliberating on Thursday afternoon, they heard an almost three hour summary from both sides about what they should consider.
Deputy Prosecutor Halstead spoke for more than two hours reminding jurors of the many details – lots of talk with sexual overtones – they’d heard that suggested Phelps had a different motive than helping a troubled teen.
In mid-April of last year, after the assistant coach was told by the school and her parents to stop having contact with her except at fast pitch, it continued with constant texting including one from him the following morning, according to Halstead.
“This should have been the end of all of this,” he said. “The state would submit to you he has a different agenda.”
Defense attorney Blair subtly told jurors it was her word against his.
None of the lawyers were involved in the situation when it was going on, he said.
“We can’t tell you, we have to rely on what everybody else said happened,” he said.
Blair agreed there were a lot of “contacts” but reminded jurors the content of the messages were unavailable, and said the prosecutor’s case relied upon a lot of smoke.
The defense attorney spoke of how Phelps had coached for as long as 18 years before “all of the sudden” something like this comes up.
His client was concerned because he learned the girl had been cutting on herself, something her father yelled at her about when it came to his attention, Blair said.
He made no secret he was trying to help her, Blair said.
Blair argued some of the prosecution’s witnesses were mistaken and that the April 2 incident at Phelps house about kissing and Phelps pressing his body against the girl’s did not happen.
“I’m not saying any of these folks did or did not lie,” Blair said. “But we know all of the stories can’t be true, because of the lack of consistency.”
The detectives found no blood on the carpet in Phelps’ brother’s house, which the girl said soaked through a towel, Phelps’ computer wasn’t analyzed and much of the prosecutor’s case relied upon what the girl and her friend said, the defense attorney said.
“Other than the contact, we don’t have that hard proof,” he said. “It’s just not there.”
On the topic of the alleged rape on July 27, Blair offered indications of both his client not even being present and if he was, that it did not amount to rape.
The defense attorney noted phone records that showed Phelps and his wife were texting late that afternoon.
“In order to get a text and reply 30 second later, one would think you’re at your phone, not committing a sex crime,” he said.
Deputy Prosecutor Halstead pointed out the records showed texts and phone calls, not all of which were answered immediately and argued they supported what the teenager told detectives.
“The defendant’s whereabouts, despite the testimony from his daughter, cannot be accounted for,” Halstead said.
Halstead reminded jurors of testimony from others that would help them understand why Phelps asked the teenager to meet him at his brother’s house the day of the rape.
He knows his brother is working out of town and his sister-in-law is going shopping with his wife, Halstead said.
“I guess he was either there, or he wasn’t,” he said. “If he was there, I guess you are to believe (the girl) consented.”
He detailed the girl’s actions and words that he said showed clearly she was not consenting to sex.
Consent is not an issue for the other charge, only that the girl was a student and the defendant was her coach, according to Halstead.
Halstead gave numerous examples of Phelps’ “grooming” the girl for sexual activity.
He also noted that after the April 2 kiss – when she was asked to show her coach the self-inflicted cuts on her thighs – a girl who had never been kissed told the youth pastor’s wife the very next day.
“She needs to express something to someone, but doesn’t want to get the defendant in trouble,” he said.
He pointed out another kiss, which Phelps said was on the forehead, was witnessed by Phelps’ daughter who told two individuals about it but denied it when she took the witness stand.
Halstead admitted the girl played a role in the continued contact between the two, although he blamed Phelps for isolating her from others, leaving him as a lone trusted confidante.
“I think it’s pretty clear she had a crush on him,” he said. “She trusts him, she probably likes the attention, she’s 16.”
Her reliance on her coach was part of why there was little physical evidence showing their conversations via text, according to Halstead.
For example, when she got caught texting him in class, she erased everything, according to Halstead.
“She’s upset, she didn’t want this to get out,” he said. “She deletes all heir texts from her iPod, her mom actually has to go under the stall (in the school bathroom) to grab the iPod.”
Halstead reminded jurors of corroborative testimony and evidence the two continued communicating after he was no longer her coach; through girls who said they acted as go-betweens, and when the teenager gave Phelps her password to him so he could message her using her hotmail account.
Two emails from September submitted as evidence were found inside a special folder called “For my little star” were important, according to the deputy prosecutor.
One was a love song by Mariah Carey called “Without you“, the other a frowning face with the words I’m sorry.
“Who is sorry? What are they sorry for?” Halstead asked.
He pointed out jurors had heard testimony the only individuals with the password were the girl, Phelps and Phelps’ daughter.
“Remember what he said to his co-worker, ‘My life would be over if they found my text messages’, ” Halstead said.
The same co-worker Mark Miller testified Phelps was “obsessed” with the teenager, Halstead reminded the jury.
“Mark warned him, stay away from her Dude, you’re a truck driver, not a shrink,” he said.
Halstead suggested Phelps misled his family, suggesting the girl was in imminent danger of harming herself and nobody was doing anything about it, when actually her family already knew about the cutting and had gotten her counseling.
He related that to a motive Phelps family members may have had to remember facts in a skewed manner when they testified, in particular Annette Phelps when she told what time she last saw he husband on July 27.
“She’s in denial, the reason she’s in denial is she doesn’t have all the information,” he said.
Halstead told the jury the girl told very detailed, consistent stories; that it took courage for her to testify.
“She was cross examined for four and a half hours,” he said. “Consistent. Nothing inconsistent with her story.”
Judge Hunt told the attorneys to return next Thursday when a sentencing date for Phelps would be set.
The second-degree sexual misconduct with a minor conviction is related to an incident that occurred on or about April 2, 2011. It is is a gross misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail.
The third-degree rape conviction is related to July 27, 2011. It is a felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Attorneys gave closing arguments in front of a large audience in Lewis County Superior Court.