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Police Say South Royalton Principal Secretly Recorded Five Minors

  • Former South Royalton School principal Dean Stearns, right, sits with his attorney Michael Shane in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., on March 19, 2018. Stearns pleaded not guilty to several charges of voyeurism and promoting sexual recordings. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dean Stearns. (Vermont State Police photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2018

White River Junction — Former South Royalton School Principal Dean Stearns is alleged to have surreptitiously recorded a total of five girls under the age of 18 during stays at his Sharon home, based on a Vermont State Police analysis of several electronic devices found inside his residence.

Stearns now stands charged with six felony counts of promoting sexual recordings and 30 misdemeanor counts of voyeurism. He pleaded not guilty to all charges at his arraignment on Monday in Windsor Superior Court, and Judge Timothy Tomasi released him on a $25,000 bond.

Prosecutors in November charged Stearns with one count each of promoting a sexual recording and voyeurism, accusing him of recording a girl inside her bedroom and bathroom while she was staying in his home. A police investigation into the allegations concluded on Monday, and investigators announced they found evidence of four additional victims who also were guests in Stearns’ home.

Investigators recovered a total of 205 pictures and video files depicting partially or fully nude teenage girls as they changed, showered and used the bathroom in Stearns’ home, according to the Vermont State Police Technology Investigation Unit’s analysis report, which was filed in the White River Junction courthouse.

The media files were located on several devices that were seized from Stearns’ home, including devices that resembled a cellphone charger, an alarm clock and a night light, but which all had hidden cameras embedded in them.

One of those devices — the fake charger — helped guide the first victim to police at the end of November. The girl told police Stearns, 56, gave her the charger to use in her primary bathroom inside his home. When she realized it didn’t work, she unplugged it and left it on the counter, only to return later to see that it was plugged back into the wall, according to the first affidavit filed in court.

Suspicious, she examined the charger and found the hidden camera, prompting her to eventually tell an adult that she believed Stearns had been spying on her since the summer. That adult in turn went to authorities, according to the affidavit.

Stearns acknowledged to police in a Nov. 30 interview that he bought three hidden surveillance cameras on the internet and installed them in the girl’s bedroom and bathroom in October, according to that affidavit.

Police continued to investigate after citing Stearns into court in November, examining the contents of the recording devices found inside his home, as well as a tablet, digital memory cards and cellphones, among others.

On some of the devices, police found photos and videos of the underage girls, as well as at least one picture of Stearns’ face as he appears to adjust a device. Investigators met or communicated with each of the girls, who confirmed their identities in the images.

The victims ranged in age from 14 to 17 when the alleged incidents occurred and appear to have attended either Whitcomb High School, in Bethel, or South Royalton School.

One of the girls lived with Stearns and his wife in fall 2016, while another lived there for roughly four months in 2017. The three other girls were guests at the Stearns residence in the latter half of 2017.

At least two of the girls were under the age of 16 when Stearns allegedly victimized them, resulting in the felony promoting sexual recordings charges. That charge falls under Vermont law prohibiting the sexual exploitation of children, and prohibits any person from knowingly promoting “any photograph, film or visual recording of sexual conduct by a child, or of a lewd exhibition” of the child’s private parts.

After evidence surfaced of the first victim, investigators searched South Royalton School, where Stearns had been principal since 2014, but said they found no cameras or recording devices.

One of the victims told investigators she went on vacation with Stearns and his wife in August 2017 and she found a cellphone propped up on the bathroom counter recording her. On another occasion, she told police, she saw Stearns watching her through a window of his home as she changed, the affidavit said.

In a statement issued on Monday, White River Valley Supervisory Union Superintendent Bruce Labs reiterated to the school community that police had thoroughly swept the district’s buildings for hidden cameras.

“It is our understanding that everything that Mr. Stearns has been charged with took place outside of the school and outside of school hours,” Labs said. “I will be working along with our administrators and school counselors to continue to provide support to our students, faculty and staff that are affected by his actions by making several counselors available.”

“As a community, we will continue to respond to the impact of these charges. We are a strong, compassionate and resilient community with a history of a caring response to challenges on behalf of our children,” Labs continued.

Before Tomasi released Stearns on Monday, Deputy Windsor County State’s Attorney Heidi Remick and defense attorney Michael Shane argued over the bail amount, as well as conditions of release.

Remick sought $250,000 cash or surety bail, but Shane objected, saying bail in Vermont is to ensure future court appearances and that Stearns isn’t a flight risk.

“Mr. Stearns couldn’t have stronger ties (to Vermont),” Shane said, adding that Stearns currently holds a full-time job in the state.

But the new, “very serious” charges could be reason to flee, Remick said.

“The state submits (the court) should take multiplicity of offenses into account when determining flight risk,” she said.

Tomasi ultimately instituted the $25,000 bond, which is $10,000 more than the bond a different judge set at Stearns’ November arraignment on the first charges. Stearns has remained out in the community on conditions of release, two of which stipulate he possess only one cellphone and that he not have contact with juveniles under the age of 18, except for his grandchildren.

Tomasi on Monday kept the cellphone provision in place with the understanding that Stearns not take pictures or make photo-related postings to the internet, but agreed to allow Stearns to have supervised contact with all juvenile relatives. That condition forced Stearns to miss the funeral of his father, who died of cardiac arrest on the day police investigated Stearns in November.

According to the affidavit, Stearns said he wished he had taken his own life before speaking with police.

Stearns resigned from his job as principal in October amid complaints from teachers about a “stressful workplace climate” at the school, a decision that followed an approved merger between the Royalton and Bethel school districts. In a resignation letter to the Royalton School Board at the time, he cited “personal and professional reasons.” That resignation was set to take effect in June.

After pleading not guilty to the November charges, Stearns resigned his position, effective immediately, in early December.

Prior to being hired as South Royalton School’s principal, Stearns worked for six years as the technical education director at River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt.; before that, he spent 11 years as the coordinator of work experiences for the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center.

He graduated from Whitcomb High School and Community College of Vermont, and also worked as a firefighter and EMT in Hartford from 1988 to 1997, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Stearns is next due to appear in court on Aug. 7.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com.