MOORHEAD — A Moorhead man was sentenced Monday, Jan. 6, to 280 months in prison for sexually abusing three young children at separate times over a span of 20 years.

Michael Dean Stearns, 62, wore glasses, a blue inmate uniform and chains as he listened in Clay County District Court to impact statements from two adult survivors he abused when they were children, as well as a letter from a third victim’s mother. The third child was about 9 years old when the abuse happened between May 15 and July 8, according to court documents.

“She will carry with her what you did to her forever,” the child’s mother said in her statement.

Court documents detail how the third child’s testimony prompted detectives to investigate Stearns’ abuse of two other children, who are now adults. The third child told investigators Stearns digitally penetrated her multiple times when she was asleep.

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That led police to a second victim, who is 30 years old, after they heard reports of other children being abused. This woman was 9 years old when Stearns repeatedly touched her in an inappropriate manner between 1998 and 2003, according to court documents.

She described one incident during which she woke up to Stearns rubbing her in a car, a complaint said. When she became a teenager, she intentionally started to avoid Stearns, court documents said.

That woman said family didn’t believe her when she told them Stearns had sexually abused her multiple times. They told her she made it up and wanted attention, which is why she never reported it to law enforcement, according to court documents.

Another victim, now 22 years old, said she was 7 or 8 years old when Stearns inappropriately touched her between 2004 and 2005, court documents said. She only remembered one incident — she was sitting on Stearns’ lap as he touched her while she was under a blanket, court documents said.

The woman said in her statement a nightmare of Stearns pursuing her a few years ago prompted her to tell her family about what he did. They supported her, she said.

“For 15 years, I kept it a secret from my parents, my family and friends,” she said in her statement. But once she told her family about the incident, “I was able to live my life without pretending something didn’t happen to me.”

Stearns faced four felony charges of criminal sexual conduct — two first-degree counts each carried a maximum punishment of 30 years in prison, and two second-degree charges had a maximum prison time of 25 years.

“Quite frankly, the time he is getting is a gift to him,” Clay County prosecutor Pamela Foss said, noting the family was consulted about the plea agreement that dismissed one of the first-degree charges.

The victims didn't know Stearns was abusing the others until the investigation started in early July. That led to charges being filed July 25.

It’s possible Stearns may not get out of prison because of his age, but he only has to serve two-thirds of his sentence behind bars, or 186 months, if he complies with the terms of the agreement.

For the safety of the victims and other children, Stearns should be put in prison, Foss said.

Stearns admitted to allegations laid out by the youngest victim and the woman who is 30 years old, but he said he didn’t remember the remaining victim’s accusations, according to court documents.

He made a brief statement to the court before he was taken away by sheriff’s deputies to serve his sentence. Stearns said he spent his life protecting the people of the U.S. through his military service, his employment with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other humanitarian work.

One bad decision destroyed that whole image of moral standing, he said.

The youngest victim's mother said Stearns’ “unforgivable, disgusting” actions destroyed her daughter's childhood.

“Whenever you look in the mirror, just remember there is a pathetic child molester looking back,” she said.