BEMIDJI – Two days before the first of three victims of alleged sexual abuse at Central Elementary School in Bemidji came forward, John Thorn Wangberg resigned after a 30-year teaching career.
Wangberg, 58, of rural Cass Lake, was arraigned Wednesday on two felony counts of sexual conduct in the second degree and a gross misdemeanor charge of non-consensual sexual conduct in the fifth degree.
The felony charges allege that Wangberg engaged in sexual contact with victims between the ages of 5 and 7 on school property. The first victim reported the alleged abuse on March 16, 2011 – two days after Wangberg resigned, according to a search warrant application filed by the Bemidji Police Department and obtained by the Pioneer.
Prior to his resignation, Wangberg’s work computer was seized, and on it, a Bemidji police officer allegedly found images of young girls in bikinis. According to the search warrant application, the first victim told police that Wangberg had shown the images to her saying, “when you grow up you can be in a bikini and look like my daughter.”
Wangberg’s attorney, John Undem, said that his client was not a flight risk, and asked Beltrami County District Judge John Melbye to release the former physical education teacher and hockey coach on his own recognizance.
“He’s a well respected member of this community,” Undem told Melbye. “If he was going to flee he would have done so by now.”
Wangberg’s bail was set at $5,000 by Melbye.
“It’s obscene to ask for such a high bail in this case,” he said. “These allegations were brought more than a year ago.”
Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver, who recommended the bail amount to Melbye, disagreed.
“The matter contained in count two only very recently came to our attention,” Faver said. “It’s a matter of public safety, not of him making appearances.”
The two felony charges carry a penalty of 25 years in prison, a $35,000 fine, or both, for each count. The gross misdemeanor charge is punishable by one year in jail, a $3,000 fine, or both.
Wangberg will next appear in court on March 4 for an omnibus hearing – an appearance that allows for the discussion of evidentiary issues.
It wasn’t until two other victims reported alleged abuse to police – one on March 6, 2012 and the third on Dec. 4, 2012 – that a search warrant was issued. That warrant, applied for on Dec. 7, 2012, allowed Bemidji police to confiscate materials from Wangberg’s home.
In the first count, the victim’s mother told police that her daughter was “unusually quiet” after picking the student up from school. The victim then told her mother that she “was in her gym teacher’s office, that her pants were down and that (Wangberg) touched her,” according to the criminal complaint filed Wednesday by Faver.
In count two, Bemidji police received a report of abuse, allegedly occurring in 2010, to a former student at the school. The victim, now living with her family Texas, was interviewed by police there. Law enforcement in Texas then shared their findings with the Bemidji Police Department. The complaint stated, in part, that Wangberg “touched her inappropriately.”
The third victim told police that Wangberg allegedly took pictures of her private areas, according to the search warrant application. That student also said that she had played a game with Wangberg called “‘guess the food,’ which involved closing her eyes and trying to guess what type of food” was put in her mouth, according to the complaint.
Wangberg’s resignation was accepted one day before the first victim came forward, and on March 17, he was placed on paid administrative leave “pending investigation of alleged misconduct.”