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Victims speak at sentencing of ex-South Royalton principal who secretly recorded them

  • Former South Royalton School Principal Dean Stearns hugs his mother Barbara Stearns during a morning recess at his sentencing in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., on Jan. 22, 2020. In December 2018, Dean Stearns pleaded guilty to secretly recording five teenage girls during stays at his home in Sharon, Vt., in 2016 and 2017. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • Detective Eric Jollymore of the Vermont State Police holds screen shots printed from cameras found hidden by former South Royalton School Principal Dean Stearns, who used them to secretly record five teenage girls in his home in Sharon, Vt., during Stearns' sentencing hearing in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction, Vt., on Jan. 22, 2020. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • Adam Stearns speaks about his father, former South Royalton School Principal Dean Stearns, during Dean Stearns' sentencing hearing in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction on Jan. 22, 2020. The younger Sterns testified about a time his father rushed into a burning building. "He put himself in harm's way to help other people," he said. (Rick Russell photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/22/2020 10:17:49 PM
Modified: 1/23/2020 11:52:46 AM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — A teenage girl stood at the podium in Windsor Superior Court on Wednesday morning and in a shaky voice recalled the moment she learned a former South Royalton School principal had been secretly recording her at his house.

“It’s a constant reminder of how vulnerable I was and I am,” the teen told Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Mann. “It never goes away.”

The victim was one of several individuals who spoke Wednesday at the first day of an emotional two-part sentencing hearing for 57-year-old Dean Stearns. The former educator was convicted of using hidden cameras to film five girls — some of whom lived with him and his wife — as they undressed and used the bathroom in his Sharon home in 2016 and 2017.

In December 2018, Stearns pleaded guilty to two felony counts of promoting a sexual recording or image and five misdemeanor counts of voyeurism. Prosecutors say he should spend at least five years in prison with an additional five to 10 years suspended, but defense attorney Michael Shane is arguing that the entire sentence should be suspended.

The hearing is scheduled to continue on Thursday, after which Mann will make the final determination on Stearns’ sentence.

On Wednesday morning, the court heard testimony from three of the victims, who recounted the trauma they’ve suffered since finding out about the recordings.

“I was really scared, I didn’t know what to do,” one victim said through tears, adding that she’d learned about Stearns’ arrest in a phone call before school one day.

The teen said she remembered crying in the back of her school assembly that morning until she felt so sick that the nurse sent her home. Now, she said, she has a hard time trusting people in her own community.

“I can still picture myself walking down the hallway, feeling like people were staring at me,” she said.

Another victim echoed those sentiments, saying that Stearns had welcomed teenage girls into his home and gained their trust by being “outgoing.”

She recalled being shown a picture of herself in the shower during the investigation and not recognizing her own body.

“We should never in a million years have to go through that,” she said.

A mother of one of the victims wept as she testified about her daughter, who she said was a “brave kid” and a good student. The mother also said she no longer will allow her other children stay over at friends’ houses following the incident.

“If you can’t trust the principal, who are you going to let take your child?” she said.

Stearns, who has been out on bond since March 2018, appeared in court in an off-white button-down shirt Monday and didn’t speak. He was supported in the gallery by around 10 relatives and friends, several of whom took the stand Wednesday.

“A lot of people in life make big mistakes, but he has a good soul and a kind heart,” his aunt Sandra Green said.

His son, Adam Stearns, described his father as being supportive and “there for others.” He recalled a time his father — who once served as a Hartford firefighter — ran into a neighbor’s burning house to rescue the people inside, adding that he “put himself in harm’s way to help people.”

“I haven’t lost any respect for him whatsoever,” Adam Stearns told the judge.

Beginning in the fall of 2016, Dean Stearns used hidden cameras for about a year to film two girls who lived with him and his wife, as well as some of their friends who visited the house and stayed over for sleepovers, according to prosecutors.

Detective Eric Jollymore, who testified at the hearing Wednesday, said Stearns took upward of 200 videos of the girls — some of which included day-to-day activity, and some of which showed them in “various states of undress.”

He testified that Stearns used cameras disguised as various household items to take the videos, like a phone charger with a “pinhole” camera in the bathroom and another camera that was disguised as an alarm clock in one of the girls’ bedrooms.

He uploaded the videos on his tablet computer, which he also used for work, Jollymore said.

“That was the hub of the wheel,” the detective said of the computer.

One victim discovered the cameras in the fall of 2017. She described her experiences in a phone call to the court Wednesday, saying she first became suspicious in earlier 2017, when she found a phone that was recording in a room where she was changing. She said she confronted “the family” about the phone and Stearns assured her it was an accident.

It wasn’t until several months later when she tried to use what she thought was a broken phone charger in the bathroom and discovered the small pinhole camera. The girl told the court that she immediately searched the home and found more cameras, before calling a friend who called the police.

“I trusted and loved him as family, but he failed me,” she said.

The hearing will continue Thursday with the defense attorney expecting to call more witnesses to give testimony. Mann is expected to make a decision on Stearns’ sentence following the testimony.

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

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