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Conner Changes Plea to Guilty

Former Melrose YMCA employee is sentenced to 20-30 years in state prison.

(Editor's note: Warning — this article contains graphic language. This article was updated at 4:55 p.m.)

Former Melrose YMCA employee James Conner pled guilty today to 20 charges stemming from the rape of two children, closing the final chapter in a scandal that shocked the community and led to an overhaul of the YMCA.

Conner, a 52-year-old North Reading resident, was originally scheduled to go to trial today in Middlesex Superior Court on five counts of rape of a child by force, with those rapes taking place when the victims were between the ages of 7 and 13, according to the Middlesex District Attorney's Office.

Conner faced 15 additional charges including: four counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14; two counts of posing a child in a state of nudity; two counts of posing a child in sexual conduct; four counts of possession of child pornography; photographing or videotaping a nude person without their knowledge; interception of oral communications; and intimidation of a witness. He originally pled not guilty to all charges at his indictment in April 2009.

Justice Jane Haggerty sentenced Conner to 20-30 years in state prison on the child rape charges and concurrent 18-20 year sentences on each of the four charges of indecent assault and battery on a child under 14; those 18-20 year sentences will also run concurrently with the 20-30 sentence. For the remainder of the charges, Conner will serve 10 years probation upon his release from prison; be required to wear a GPS device; register as a sex offender and undergo sex offender treatment; and have no direct or indirect contact with the victims or their families.

When questioning Conner on the stand, Haggerty said she had a "number of conferences" with Middlesex Assistant Districty Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who was prosecuting the case, and Conner's attorney Alan Tuttman, and that she indicated to each of them what sentence she would impose on Conner.

Last week, the trial was postponed and no new start date was scheduled, while yet another conference was scheduled for today. The trial was initially scheduled to begin on April 5 before being postponed until June 7. When the start date of the trial was pushed back, a final pre-trial conference was scheduled for April 14. That wasn't actually the final pre-trial conference, however, as three pre-trial conferences have been held within the past month, with Conner attending all three with Tuttman.

Conner was taken into custody immediately after the conference ended. Since his arrest almost 16 months ago, Conner has been under house arrest and required to wear a GPS monitoring device after posting $25,000 bail. He has been allowed out of his home for work, medical and attorney appointments.

Fitzgerald asked Haggerty to sentence Conner for life imprisonment, citing the "numerous years of extensive abuse" by Conner, who he said was a "trusted" member of the Melrose YMCA community and received an "extreme outpouring" of support upon his initial arrest. He added that Conner manipulated the victims', the victims' families, the Melrose YMCA community and the community as a whole in gaining their trust.

"This defendant was beloved by everyone and had everyone fooled," Fitzgerald said, adding that beyond the obvious impact on the victims and their families, "The YMCA was essentially decimated."

Tuttman recounted the work Conner has done with other children and families throughout the years, saying he was "a positive role model for hundreds, if not thousands of kids." He also noted that Conner had a heart attack in March 2008 and was hospitalized in September 2009 at Lahey Clinic for a stroke.

"He accepts full responsibility," Tuttman said. "He hopes that his plea today will provide (the victims and their families) some closure."

Attorney Kelly Spencer read an impact statement written by one of the victim's mothers, who said her daughter was "courageous" for coming forward and exposing Conner and that Conner was a "coward" and a "monster."

"He ultimately brainwashed her into not speaking up by convincing her there was no one to talk to," Spencer read.

The victim's mother's, in her statement read by Spencer, also said that the "lack of oversight and supervision" at the Melrose YMCA "empowered" Conner to commit his abuse. She added that after her daughter came forward, because Conner was so trusted, she was "re-victimized by her peers" and the family eventually moved from Melrose to escape the "endless" media coverage, which she hoped would end with Conner's guilty pleas.

In handing down Conner's sentence, Haggerty said, "I don't think Mr. Fitzgerald's recommendation is unreasonable," stating that the "breach of trust ... is indeed reprehensible." Conner's health problems, Haggerty said, were the only reason that the life sentence was not adopted by the court.

State lays out disturbing facts in case summary

The former site director of the Melrose YMCA's after-school program at the Beebe School for children in grades 3-6 and a YMCA youth sports coach, Conner assaulted two girls, both of whom he had coached through the YMCA, at various locations of YMCA after-school programs in Melrose and at his home in North Reading, Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone announced last year after Conner's second indictment and arraignment in April 2009.

In court today, Fitzgerald presented a summary of the case against Conner, stating that he met his first victim while employed at the Andover/North Andover branch of the Merrimack Valley YMCA, from which Conner was fired for inappropriate conduct with a child. Conner coached the child's third grade AAU basketball team and befriended the child and her family, who began coming to the Melrose YMCA after-school program. 

Conner encouraged the victim to use the hot tub at his home, asking the victim to change in and out of her bathing suit in his younger son's bedroom, where Conner had hidden a camera and "strategically placed" furniture in the room so the victim would have to undress in front of that hidden camera, Fitzgerald said.

In that bedroom, Conner fondled the victim, penetrated her with his fingers and on one occasion made her touch his exposed private parts, all caught on the video Conner was covertly recording and retrieved by law enforcement officials from Conner's home after his arrest in February 2009.

The second victim met Conner through the Melrose YMCA playing basketball, Fitzgerald said, and became Conner's "helper" for the afterschool program. Because Conner was allowed to carry a camera in violation of Melrose YMCA policy, Fitzgerald said, he gained the ability to hide cameras in locations of the Melrose YMCA after-school programs. Recordings from those cameras showed Conner penetrated her with his fingers.

Fitzgerald said the second victim also later spent most weekends at Conner's North Reading home, where Conner repeatedly assaulted and raped her in his home office or in the living room when no one was around, using an adult toy he kept in his office desk and once performing oral sex on the child seated at his office desk.

Fitzgerald said some of the tapes were found in a black bag that also contained young girls' clothing, including a rolled up pair of underwear decorated with butterflies and ladybugs. Also, the Middlesex District Attorney's Office stated that several thousand images and videos depicting children unrelated to the investigation were recovered from Conner's external computer hard drive —  images and videos that have been widely disseminated by others in the past and were previously known to and identified by law enforcement officials worldwide.

After a YMCA bus driver notified YMCA officials with concern over Conner's behavior — and the victim's mother became concerned about the amount of phone calls Conner placed to her daughter — YMCA officials made Conner agree not to contact the victim anymore, Fitzgerald said. Conner did anyway, telling the victim they could "get into a lot of trouble for what you did."

After Fitzgerald finished reading the summary of the state's case against Conner, Haggerty turned to Conner on the stand and asked if he committed the acts as described.

"Most of them," Conner said after fumbling with his words for a few seconds.

"Are there some you say you didn't commit?" Haggerty asked.

After conferring with his attorney, Conner said, "Yes I did (commit the acts as described)."

Victim came forward, leading to arrest

Conner was first indicted in February 2009, after one of the victims came forward and reported to Melrose Police that Conner had assaulted her. After Conner's arrest, police discovered the videotaped recordings at Conner's home that Leone announced last year led to law enforcement officials discovering a second victim.

Before operating out of the Beebe School, the YMCA's after-school programs also operated out of the Roosevelt School, Winthrop School, YMCA Sports Center on Tremont Street and the YMCA building on Main Street, mainly due to the construction of the new Melrose Veterans Memorial Middle School that placed sixth graders at the Beebe School. Former Melrose YMCA President Richard Whitworth told the Melrose Free Press last year that Conner worked at the Roosevelt School during that time.

Also in April 2009, the state Department of Early Education and Care (EEC), which licensed the Melrose YMCA after-school program, released a report alleging that YMCA senior administration officials ignored red flags and complaints made about Conner. The EEC subsequently placed nine sanctions on the YMCA's after-school program license.

The fallout lasted for months. Former Melrose YMCA Vice President of Child Care Services Karen Dauteuil was fired shortly after the release of the report and sanctions. Public outcry continued into the summer, leading to Whitworth's retirement and an announcement that Melrose YMCA Vice President Nancy Madden would be leaving the organization. Melrose Public School officials announced they would not renew the YMCA's lease of the Beebe School and that the school district would start its own after-school program.

Interim CEO Ralph Yohe took over control of the YMCA and earlier this year, the EEC announced that the YMCA's license had been restored to full status. In March, Yohe announced the Melrose YMCA would begin a management partnership with the Greater Lynn YMCA and new Branch Director Diana Ganz would take the reigns in Melrose. Also, a reformed YMCA Board of Directors now has only 13 members, down from the 24 members listed in the YMCA's 2008 tax filing, the most recent list available. Six members previously on the Board of Directors remain on the board.

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