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Ex-principal gets five years in prison in video voyeurism case

  • Former South Royalton School Principal Dean Stearns, third from right, stands with family members and friends at the end of his sentencing hearing in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., on Jan. 22, 2020. (Rick Russell photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2020 12:41:25 PM
Modified: 1/23/2020 10:09:25 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A former South Royalton School principal was sent to prison for five years on Thursday for secretly recording teenage girls at his Sharon home in 2016 and 2017.

Windsor Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Mann told Dean Stearns, 57, he “stole the innocence” of his victims as she imposed the sentence, which includes an additional five to 10 years suspended, and probation upon his release.

The sentence follows a plea deal Stearns struck in 2018 when he pleaded guilty to two felony counts of promoting a sexual recording or image and five misdemeanor counts of voyeurism.

Despite the deal, there was still disagreement about how much actual time Stearns should spend incarcerated, with Windsor County Deputy State’s Attorney Heidi Remick arguing that he should receive five years in prison, and defense attorney Michael Shane arguing that the entire sentence should be suspended.

Stearns, who had been out on bond since March 2018, addressed the victims in court Thursday during the second day of a sentencing hearing, apologizing for the way he “exploited the situation” and telling the victims they “did nothing wrong.”

“I began to groom myself to believe that there were no victims if they never knew,” he said in court, facing the judge while two of the victims buried their faces in their hands. “I stand before the court today a humbled and shamed man.”

Shane argued that Stearns was a loving father and husband who has a history as a firefighter for Hartford and Bethel and an EMT, and that he’s taken responsibility for the crime.

He also referenced testimony from several of Stearns’ friends and relatives who took the stand to speak in favor of him during the hearing this week.

“In both his personal life and his professional life he is a literal lifesaver,” Shane said in court Thursday.

He urged the judge not to send Stearns to prison, noting that the former principal has already been punished for the crime by losing his job and seeing the death of his father, who suffered a fatal heart attack in November 2017 when Stearns told him about the charges. And he’s got more punishment to come, even without a prison sentence, Shane said. As a registered sex offender, Stearns’ house will be subjected to searches by police, and he’ll never be able to own or use a firearm.

“He’ll no longer be able to go hunting with his son or his grandson,” Shane said.

But Remick urged the judge to focus on the victims in the case, reminding the court of the pain each of the five girls suffered.

“These were teenagers, students, athletes, travelers … girls on the cusp of womanhood full of plans and dreams and adolescent insecurities.... He made them victims,” Remick said. She added that it’s been difficult for the teenagers to listen to Stearns’ supporters and family members speak out in favor of him over the past two days of the hearing, especially when they call his actions a “mistake.”

What he did wasn’t a mistake, it was “purposeful conduct, repeated over and over again,” she said.

Remick also turned to the victims and addressed them directly in court Thursday, reminding them that they are “not only victims.”

“You are brave and strong…. and your lives will not be defined by this terrible experience.”

In making her decision, Mann said she considered the argument that Stearns has taken responsibility and faced punishment, but that he still stole the “innocence and trust” of the teenagers.

“Where Mr. Stearns has had to start over at (57-years-old), his victims have had to deal with this just as they are starting out,” she said.

A mother of one of the victims gasped, and two of the victims held each other and cried as Mann delivered the prison sentence. Stearns was taken into custody after the hearing Thursday and sent to Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt.

In an interview following the hearing, one of the mothers said that she instantly felt relief at the sentence, adding that her family thought the outcome could go either way. But the five-year sentence is an indication that her daughter’s voice was heard, she said.

“It showed that the girls really mattered and that the community mattered,” another mother said in the interview.

As a general practice, the Valley News doesn’t identify the victims of sex crimes.

One of the teenage girls said she has been touched by the support, and she’s relieved that she won’t have to run into Stearns around her town.

But in an interview following the hearing, Shane said the sentence was “certainly not justice.” He said that other people, including those who have sexually abused children, have received less time in prison than Stearns.

“This is clearly the court being influenced by fear of the public being unhappy,” he said.

The sentence stems from a period of time between the fall of 2016 and late 2017, when Stearns used hidden cameras to film five teenage girls in his Sharon home. Two of the girls were living with Stearns and his wife temporarily, and three were visiting friends at the house, prosecutors have said.

Vermont State Police Detective Eric Jollymore testified Wednesday that Stearns hid video recording devices in a charger in the bathroom, an alarm clock in one of the girl’s rooms, a nightlight in a bathroom and in other household items around his home. He was arrested after one of the victims discovered the camera in the bathroom in November 2017.

Stearns worked as the principal in South Royalton from 2014 until his resignation in December 2017, shortly after the charges were filed. Prior to his time in South Royalton, Stearns worked for six years as the technical education director at River Bend Career and Technical Center in Bradford, Vt.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@ vnews.com or at 603-727-3216.

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