Cass County Judge Tristan Van de Streek handed the case against 59-year-old Ronald Jeffrey Thompson to the jury around 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 14, about 10 minutes before jurors were dismissed for the day. Deliberations will begin in earnest Friday morning.
Thompson is charged with luring a minor by computer, a Class B felony that carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. The trial began Tuesday with jury selection. Testimony started on Wednesday, and closing arguments happened Thursday afternoon.
Prosecutors alleged Thompson initiated what became a sexually explicit conversation online in late October 2019 with U.S. Air Force Special Agent Travis Askew, a civilian detective posing as a 14-year-old girl named Gabi.
The conversations included asking what the “girl” fantasized about, talking about sex, requesting photos and initiating a video chat that was never answered by Askew, according to messages shown in court.
One online conversation happened while Thompson was at school, West Fargo Police Detective Derek Werner confirmed. Using his email address with his real name, he told “Gabi” what he would do to her, seemingly roleplaying having sex with her.
“The defendant did what he did,” said Cass County Assistant State’s Attorney Ryan Younggren, who prosecuted the case with Assistant State's Attorney SheraLynn Ternes.
Askew alerted the West Fargo Police Department after learning Thompson was a teacher in West Fargo, noting he was concerned that Thompson had access to children. Police determined students were not targeted by Thompson.
After being interviewed by police for the investigation on Feb. 2, Thompson submitted his resignation as a career and technology education teacher for Sheyenne and West Fargo high schools the same day.
The defense did not put on a case, and Thompson did not testify. That decision came after prosecutors said they would produce evidence during rebuttal that allegedly would prove Thompson was lying to police when he told them they would find nothing on his work computer.
Police found online conversations Thompson had with other minors and an image depicting a young nude child, Younggren said. The defense objected to that evidence being offered, saying it hadn't received discovery for it to be offered.
Since Thompson didn't testify, prosecutors didn't offer it. Though a child porn charge was dismissed ahead of trial, it's possible it could be re-filed, Younggren told The Forum.
Defense attorney Jeff Bredahl argued that his client did not commit a crime as laid out in North Dakota Century Code. Prosecutors have to prove Thompson used computer communications to have sexually explicit conversations with a minor. They also have to prove he knew the person on the other end of the conversations was a minor.
Finally, the defendant has to “importune, invite or induce” a minor to engage in sexual acts or conduct with the adult or convince a child to participate in a sexual performance in front of an audience for the adult’s benefit.
Thompson did not set up an in-person meeting with a minor, Bredahl said, claiming the intent of the law is to prevent people from luring minors to a physical location to have sex with them. The state did not present evidence as to why Thompson wanted the photos or to see the child in video chat, and sexting or having phone sex is not a crime, he said.
“A sexual act is between humans,” Bredahl said. “It never happened in this case.”
During cross-examination of the state’s three witnesses, Bredahl suggested Thompson was living out a fantasy, and the state did not prove Thompson believed he was talking to a minor.
“He would be either the stupidest criminal in the world, or he thought what he was doing was not against the law," Bredahl said.
Thompson didn’t need to meet a minor to be charged, Younggren said. He argued Thompson was the “audience” and was encouraging “Gabi” to perform for him sexually.
“Luring minors covers a lot of activity and includes exactly what happened here,” Younggren said.
Younggren noted Thompson used his real name, age, occupation and location when talking with the detective, suggesting this was not a fantasy but real for Thompson.
When Thompson asked “Gabi” how old she was, the detective on the other end said he was “14 going on 15,” Younggren added.
“May I ask why you come to this room?” Thompson responded to that message shortly after. “You like to be naughty?”
“Right there, is that the kind of response you would expect from a teacher, a referee, a responsible member of society?” Younggren asked. “A person ... who spends time with kids? Who would be fooled by somebody saying '14 going on 15' and then continuing immediately to talk about sex?”
Bredahl painted his client as a lonely, broken man who had marital problems, noting Thompson hadn’t had sex with his wife in 10 years. The attorney suggested Thompson was entrapped by a fantasy while seeking companionship online.
Van de Streek denied two requests by the defense to declare a mistrial during closing arguments. Defendants have a right to be treated fairly and equally under the law, but Bredahl said Younggren was attempting to convince jurors that teachers should be held to a higher standard.
He also claimed Younggren tried to "vouch for evidence" by saying, "I don't know if he (Thompson) is being truthful."