BILLINGS- An investigation over a decade ago into a longtime Miles City athletic trainer accused of molesting hundreds of teenage student-athletes was dismissed because of lack of evidence, even though the trainer had confessed, according to a document provided by the Montana Department of Justice.
In October of 2003, then-Montana Assistant Attorney General John Connor told Agent Gary Hatfield from the state Division of Criminal Investigations that there was not “sufficient enough evidence to pursue criminal charges.”
The investigation into James Jensen, 79, did not proceed to prosecution, and during that time Connor requested that the file be closed.
Jensen is currently in jail awaiting federal sentencing on charges of coercion.
At the same time, a massive civil suit brought forth by 32 of Jensen’s victims continues to move forward. Those sexual-assault survivors accuse Jensen of sexually abusing hundreds of male student-athletes by using his position at Custer County High School as an athletic trainer to perform various sexual activities on the boys.
According to a Friday federal court filing by Jensen’s defense attorney Steven Babcock, Jensen was interviewed in 2002 by state and federal law enforcement. That document was in response to the prosecution’s sentencing recommendation.
According to Babcock, Jensen admitted to the sexual abuse, but the charges were never filed because it was determined “that the State of Montana statute at the time did not cover the offense conduct.”
John Barnes, spokesperson for the Montana Attorney General’s Office confirmed Monday, that the state of Montana’s Department of Criminal Investigations did investigate the allegations against Jensen.
Barnes said he couldn’t supply the specifics of the case referencing state law.
“Any files or documents related to that investigation are evidence in the Custer County Attorney’s current prosecution of Jensen,” said Barnes. “Consequently, state law regarding confidential criminal justice information prohibits us from releasing them.”
However, Barnes went on to say that no current administrator, prosecutor or investigator at the Attorney General’s Office and Department of Justice had any role in the case or decision, or even worked at the agency in 2002 and 2003.
“Since first learning of the allegations against Jensen, however, our investigators and prosecutors have been working hard on both the federal and state cases,” said Barnes.
The original civil suit was filed in September against Jensen and the Miles City Unified School District, where plaintiffs allege the school knew about Jensen’s actions and never did anything to stop it.
Also, in September, Attorney General Tim Fox directed the Montana Department of Justice to provide investigative assistance with allegations recently made against Jensen.
Jensen’s defense lawyer also said in his filings on Friday that it was “unknown” why the federal government did not pursue charges.
Late Monday, MTN News spoke with two plaintiffs in the civil suit, who said they recalled speaking with an investigator in the early 2000s about the case.
“It the most sinking feeling of shame when I found out he (Jensen) didn’t do anything wrong. I was pretty devastated. It sent me into a pretty destructive path,” the man said.
One victim remembered being interviewed by a federal agent, while the other said he was interviewed by Hatfield, a state agent.
Both said they were devastated by the handling of the investigation 17 years ago.
One victim said the investigator ignored the deception element and focused on the age of consent
“It wouldn’t matter the age of that person, with the amount of manipulation involved. To ignore that is just evil,” the man said.
The U.S. attorney at the time, Bill Mercer of Billings, told MTN News Monday that it would be improper for the FBI to be involved in the investigation into Jensen back in 2002 and 2003 because the agency lacked jurisdiction.
“The federal government doesn’t have jurisdiction to prosecute cases where the conduct is happening outside of Indian Country,” said Mercer, the current Republican state representative for House District 46.
MTN News also reached out to the office of the current U.S. attorney in Billings, Kurt Alme, seeking public records on filings related to the 2003 investigation of Jensen. MTN is awaiting a response.
Mercer also said he has no recollection that an investigation into Jensen came across his desk at that time.
“I don’t recall hearing anything about this,” said Mercer. “Sex offenses were a high priority for us. We took sex offenses very seriously.”
However, Mercer’s involvement in the case already struck a chord for Jensen’s victims.
During the 2019 legislative session, plaintiffs in the civil case took issue with the Billings lawmaker, saying he was trying to sabotage a bill to change Montana’s civil statute of limitations laws.
Mercer originally opposed House Bill 202, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Shane Morigeau of Missoula, designed to extend or end the current three-year statute of limitations for civil lawsuits by sex-abuse victims.
“Victims of abuse often don’t realize their abuse for decades,” one victim anonymously told MTN News in February.
At that time, Mercer said he’s prosecuted many child sex-abuse cases and said no statute of limitations for civil cases seemed like a very bad idea.
A compromise bill was eventually passed in this last session.
As of Monday, Jensen was moved back to the Yellowstone County Detention Facility from the prison in Shelby where he was previously being held.
He awaits sentencing at 3 p.m. Tuesday in Billings federal court.
-Andrea Lutz reporting for MTN News