FARGO – The wife of the 2014 North Dakota Teacher of the Year accused of having sex with a student in 2009 corroborated much of the testimony Aaron Knodel gave when he took the stand in his own defense Friday.
The suspended West Fargo teacher disputed a former student’s claims that they had a sexual relationship, saying he only tried to help her outside the classroom with personal issues.
Knodel often ran his fingers over a small cross he kept clasped in his hands while he was on the stand in Cass County District Court. He choked back emotion while telling the jury what he has learned from being accused of having sex with a teen student six years ago.
“Just because you’re trying to do the right thing, things do not always turn out OK,” the 36-year-old Knodel said. “I’ve been a very dedicated teacher, to the detriment of my family sometimes because I put in a lot of time. “
Earlier this week, prosecutors presented evidence of 93 calls between Knodel and the student in late 2008 and early 2009. Lisa Gemar, a criminal intelligence analyst, testified that she found five calls between 60 and 120 minutes long and three calls that were more than 120 minutes long. She found 23 calls between the student and Knodel after 10 p.m. and six after midnight, including one 240-minute call after midnight.
Knodel testified the student likely got his cellphone number from an information sheet meant for parents of Student Congress members. He said he talked with the student on the phone about problems she was having in her personal life.
“When she would call me, it was because, I’m not going to use the term emergency, but an issue she wanted to deal with or resolve or talk about,” Knodel testified.
Knodel testified Friday that he recalled once when the student called him after midnight. He said he remembered the call because he was on his way home from the Spitfire Bar and Grill in West Fargo, what he described as a West Fargo teacher hot spot. He said his wife was in the car at the time.
When defense attorney Robert Hoy called Marie Knodel to the stand, she testified that she knew the student had called Knodel many times and saw the call logs from their family phone bill, which she pays.
She said it was not uncommon for her husband to help students outside of school hours.
Marie Knodel also testified why her phone number was found in the student’s cellphone that was entered earlier in the week as evidence. She said at one time, her husband’s cellphone battery was dying and Marie Knodel offered her number so the student could reach him.
The former student, now 23, testified Wednesday that after Knodel ended their relationship, he gave her his wife’s phone number and said not to answer if his wife called. She then saved the number on her phone, listing it as “Don’t.”
Because Marie Knodel, 36, works as a parole officer for the state of North Dakota and often works with local law enforcement and prosecutors, the West Fargo Police Department asked the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation to investigate the case.
Marie Knodel testified that she spoke to the state BCI agent who was investigating the case on the phone, but decided against meeting him in person.
“I had no information about any contact with the student and I told [the agent] that Aaron was a good man and I didn’t have any information for him,” Marie Knodel said as she wiped away tears.
“So instead of giving up information that might clear him, you’ve now kept it to yourself until the day of the trial,” said state Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Byers, who is prosecuting the case.
“I didn’t think [It would go to trial.]” she replied. “Me not giving a statement to law enforcement does not mean I cannot tell you the truth in a trial.”
Marie Knodel also testified Friday that she never saw a text from the former student to her husband.
The student testified Wednesday that her relationship with Knodel ended when she “broke the rules” and texted him before he made initial contact on his 30th birthday, March 9, 2009, and his wife saw the text.
Aaron Knodel testified he asked the student in March 2009 not to contact him anymore after he noticed a subtle advance from her and later confronted her at West Fargo High School about a rumor that began to circulate about them.
“I told her I had heard a rumor, I was concerned about that rumor and I believe she had started that rumor,” Knodel testified. “She denied it. I did not believe it. Whether she had started this rumor or not, I was no longer going to have communication with her outside of my class.”
During the Friday morning court session, Knodel’s defense moved for a mistrial, but it was denied just before a break after prosecutors asked Aaron Knodel about a handwriting expert the defense may call.
Knodel also denied writing handwritten notes left in a copy of a “Twilight” novel, which the student testified on Wednesday she gave him and he returned with sticky-notes attached.
“I’ve never even read that book,” Knodel testified.
The notes referred to passages in the book and the alleged-relationship. One read: “It’s amazing how the emotions parallel us so much.” Another note read: “The wait for you is sometimes unbearable.”
A criminal intelligence analyst, testifying for the prosecution on Thursday, said the handwriting on the notes was likely Knodel’s, although her opinion was not strong. She did not believe the notes were written by the student.
Byers asked Knodel if he had a theory about where the notes came from if he did not write them. He said he did not know.
Knodel became assertive during the cross-examination, prompting the judge to direct him to wait to speak before Byers was finished asking a question.
During questioning about the handwriting, Hoy claimed Byers started to ask a question about an analyst who may testify on Knodel’s behalf, but has not yet taken the stand.
Because Knodel interrupted and Byers did not fully ask the question, the judge denied a mistrial.
During the former student’s testimony Wednesday, prosecutors submitted a diagram of Knodel’s home based on the now-23-year-old woman’s memory. She has claimed she and Knodel first became physical in his home. During his testimony, Knodel said the diagram of his home was completely inaccurate.
Marie Knodel said photos of their home could be found online in late 2009 when the couple put it on the market.
Knodel was charged Aug. 22 with five counts of felony corruption or solicitation of a minor. Knodel faces two Class B felony charges for alleged sexual acts in his classroom and three Class C felony charges for alleged acts that took place at his residence and in the student’s car. If convicted of all five charges, Knodel faces up to 35 years in prison.
The West Fargo School District on Aug. 25 suspended the highly decorated teacher and academic coach without pay or benefits. The district placed Knodel on paid leave in February while the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation investigated the allegations.
The Forum typically does not identify possible victims of alleged sex-related crimes.
The trial continues Monday when Marie Knodel returns to the stand for questioning from prosecutor Byers. The defense and prosecutors expect to give their closing arguments Monday afternoon.
Thursday's coverage: Defense calls character witnesses, Knodel trial to resume Friday