FARGO — A former West Fargo teacher charged with luring a minor by computer did not ask a detective posing as a 14-year-old to meet him for sex, a defense attorney said in arguing that Ronald Jeffrey Thompson did not commit a crime when having sexually explicit conversations with the detective.
The strategy to defend 59-year-old Thompson started to materialize Wednesday, Oct. 13, during the first day of testimony for his trial in Cass County District Court. He was charged Feb. 24 with a Class B felony.
Prosecutors alleged Thompson believed he was speaking with a 14-year-old girl starting Oct. 31, 2019. They have to prove he used online means to "importune, invite or induce" a minor to engage in a sexual act.
“We're here about a man, that man, Ronald Thompson, who was entrusted in our community to care for and educate children,” prosecutor SheraLynn Ternes said in opening statements. “But behind screen names, he violated that trust. Behind screen names worked a child predator.”
Defense attorney Jeff Bredahl argued in his opening statements that Thompson did not try to set up a meeting with the girl and that no crime was committed. The conversations were inappropriate, but they were fantasy, Bredahl said.
“The question is whether you have the guts and the courage to listen to this sexually explicit, offensive, morally inappropriate conduct, put that aside and follow the law,” Bredahl said in arguing the law suggests he would have had to set up an in-person meeting with a minor to have sex.
Prosecutors started their case with U.S. Air Force Special Agent Travis Askew, the detective who posed as a 14-year-old girl named Gabi. Online messages exhibited in court showed how Thompson initiated the conversation, which didn’t turn sexual until Askew said he was “14 going on 15.”
“May I ask why you come to this room?” Thompson asked in one message. “You like to be naughty?”
Thompson said he was 57. Then asked Askew for an email before moving the conversation to Google Hangouts. From there, the messages became sexually explicit, with Thompson describing what he would do to “Gabi.”
Thompson asked if he could call and requested a photo from Askew. He also attempted to video chat with Askew, but the detective didn’t answer.
Thompson wrote he was a teacher and asked if that was weird. He also sent a photo of himself.
During cross-examination, Bredahl said Thompson was in a chatroom titled “Adult women looking for sex.” The attorney suggested Thompson was a lonely man with low self-esteem. Thompson, with his poor marital relationship, hadn’t had sex with his wife in 10 years, Bredahl added.
His client was “entrapped” by a fantasy, Bredahl said.
Thompson discussed sexual acts while chatting with Askew, but “he did not suggest meeting in person to perform the sexual acts or actions,” Askew acknowledged.
The detective said there is no filter to exclude children in the chatroom. Askew was playing along with Thompson, allowing him to guide the conversation, the detective said.
Ternes countered Bredahl’s arguments by noting Thompson used his real name, age, occupation and location.
Prosecutors then called West Fargo Police Detective Derek Werner, who interviewed Thompson at a West Fargo high school about the investigation on Feb. 2. He testified that school administration wanted to remove Thompson as a teacher when they first heard about the allegations in late January.
Werner asked administration to hold off on any decisions so police could obtain a search warrant and set up an interview with Thompson.
Thompson acknowledged talking with people online, including at least two who were under the age of 18, during the 90-minute interview that was played in court.
“I will take responsibility for what I did,” Thompson said in the recording. “This will shatter my life.”
He denied doing anything with students, as well as saying he didn’t get aroused by chatting or fantasizing about having sex with girls. Police have confirmed no students were involved.
“I never tried to lure someone here or there,” Thompson said in the interview.
At times, he shook his head and cried as he listened to the recording, including when Werner said in the interview he had contacted his wife about the investigation.
Thompson and his wife separated after finding out he was having sexually charged conversations online with adults, he said during the interview. They got back together, and he said he was just getting to a good place with her.
“Talk about stupidity,” he said in the recording.
Thompson’s wife filed a request for a legal separation on Feb. 17 in Cass County District Court. That means the couple is still married, but they do not have legal responsibilities to each other.
Thompson, who taught career and technology education at Sheyenne and West Fargo high schools, resigned Feb. 2.
A juror was dismissed after falling asleep during Bredahl's cross examination of Askew.
Werner is expected to finish his testimony on Thursday, with prosecutors potentially resting their case after he leaves the stand. Closing arguments could begin Thursday.