Testimony continues in Shepard trial

Angie Mayes • Nov 16, 2017 at 8:59 PM

Testimony continued on the second day in the statutory rape by an authority figure trial of a 16-year-old Wilson Central softball player by her former coach, Michael Shepard.

The victim took the stand Thursday and outlined a day in the life of a softball player.  She said they would go to school and then practice, condition or play games. In the summer, they would play travel softball, which is not affiliated with the school team. The players would also hold camps and attend camps on their own.

Read more about the Shepard trial

The players would also hang around their coach during the school year during non-class time.

“We’d eat lunch in Mr. Shepard’s room about every day,” the victim said. “[The players] liked to hang out together, and he was in there.”

The victim said during her sophomore year, she and Shepard began to text more frequently about random stuff.

“At first it was, ‘how’s it going?’” she said. “Or ‘What are you doing?’ Then it was talk about his marriage and the problems he was having. He would tell me what was wrong. I wanted to tell him no, but he was my coach, and you can’t tell your coach no.

In March 2016, Shepard began texting more uncomfortable things, the victim said.

“He told me it was OK for me to date boys and to not want to because of him,” she said. “He’d comment more on my body and how I look. By the time I realized how wrong it was, I didn’t want to tell my parents or anyone about it. I didn’t want to change everyone’s life. I thought about my family and his family. He has kids. They didn’t need to be raised without a father in their lives.”

As the months went by, the victim testified Shepard “kept talking about my body. He called me one morning and asked me to come out and run. He had driven to my house from his house in Mt. Juliet. He parked on the corner, away from my house. He wanted me to get into his car so we could talk.”

They drove to the Tyree Access boat ramp off Highway 109, and she said Shepard led her onto a walking path, away from the boat launch area.

“He said he wanted to show me the trail,” she said. “I didn’t know why he wanted to take me there. I asked him what he was doing, and he didn’t answer. He brought a pink-and-orange blanket and led me down the trail. Then, I knew what was going to happen. He found a spot next to the trail, put the blanket on the ground and had me lay down on it. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I just knew I had to get home.”

The victim testified Shepard had sexual intercourse with her, using a condom. After he was finished, he took off the condom, flung it into the brush away from the blanket and left the condom wrapper lying on the ground.

That was the first instance, the victim said. She said the second happened a week later with almost the exact same situation. That time, he did not use a condom.

Read about the jury’s verdict for Michael Shepard.

Both times, she said Shepard sent her a text after he dropped her off at home and told her how much he liked what they had done.

When the victim’s dad found her phone and subsequently the more than 600 texts between the two, he and his wife confronted the victim and she admitted they had sex.

Wilson County sheriff’s Detective Maj. Robert Stafford worked in the unit that investigated mobile devices when the incident happened in 2016, he said on the stand Thursday morning.  He said he made a detailed report of the victim’s cellphone, which culminated in more than 10,000 pages of information, including texts, phone call information, contacts, photos and more.

Stafford said he received the phone when the victim’s parents called sheriff’s detectives to tell them what happed to their daughter. Her phone was turned over to the sheriff’s office at that time.

A portion of the report was given to the jury and studied by the prosecution. Stafford said he used one particular form of software to retrieve the information from the phone. The program can find information still on the phone, as well as deleted information, in some cases. Not all deleted information can be found, he said.

There was a substantial gap in data between the end of March and the end of June, which Stafford could not explain. He said the victim could have deleted it.

Defense attorney Adam Parrish questioned the gap in data, saying it might indicate the victim was in charge of the situation. He referred to a particular post in which she referred to herself as “the boss.”

“Nothing in these texts indicates that Mr. Shepard forced or coerced her,” Parrish said. “This appeared to be a two-way situation.” 

The defense’s argument throughout the trial was not about the sex but about whether he was an authority figure over her at the time of the acts. Shepard, who taught high school algebra, was never the victim’s teacher, since she took the class in eighth grade when she was in middle school. The defense argued he had no authority over her as a teacher.

“He never taught her, and he had no influence over her as a teacher,” Parrish said. “After softball ended, and he ceased to be her coach, she was playing travel ball. It was not on school grounds or at a school event.”

He said Shepard wasn’t going to be her coach again until the next fall, when she began her junior year. 

Former teammate Kayla Varner was a witness for the defense. She said she saw Shepard as a “father figure.”

“Coach Shepard took the place of my dad who isn’t around,” she said. “I have a bad relationship with my dad, and the first time I met Coach Shepard, I knew he would be a big part of my life. He was just kind of a welcoming, stand-up guy.”

She said Shepard never asked her to go anywhere or do anything “inappropriate.” She added she played on a travel team during the summer and wasn’t allowed to talk to coaches during what the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association deems as a “dead period,” when coaches and players cannot communicate.”

Varner said, “[the victim] was always with him, but she watched his kids. She was also wearing his hoodie. If we ever wanted to find him, all we had to do was ask [the victim]. She knew.”

Assistant District Attorney Tom Swink asked Varner why she kept referring to Shepard as “Coach Shepard.”

“Because he’s an authority figure,” she replied. “It’s a sign of respect.”

Wilson County sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Jeremy Reich said he was tasked with looking for the evidence of the sexual act at the boat ramp. He found the area where it took place and looked for the condom. He found the wrapper but had to quit for the night, because it was dark. He didn’t want to destroy evidence if he came upon it.

In the meantime, the victim’s parents came out, found the condom and marked a spot a few feet away. Reich was able to easily find it the next morning. 

The condom, the victim’s underwear, the blanket, listed as a towel and a cheek swab of the victim, were submitted to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s forensic unit. There, the items were tested, and the DNA was identified as belonging to the victim and an unknown man. Once Shepard’s cheek swab was taken, the unknown man was identified as Shepard.

Derek Proctor, a TBI special agent, who worked in forensic biology and serology at the time, processed the evidence for the detectives.

The DNA inside the condom eventually boiled down to Shepard’s with a standard of one in a number greater than the current world population of African-American, Caucasian and southwest Hispanic populations. The other DNA on the evidence was the victim’s. There was a third unknown DNA, but it was a tiny DNA sample that was possibly transferred when packaging or upon arrival at the TBI, Proctor said.

Brandon Sutton was an assistant coach at Wilson Central when Shepard was head coach. Sutton said Shepard told him about the situation, and Sutton became upset about what happened. 

“We were very Christian-oriented,” he said. “Our team was based on faith. We had lots of success with that.”

Sutton said he first heard about the situation when Shepard heard him crying, saying he wanted to drive off a bridge. Sutton told Shepard to meet him at McGavock High School in Nashville. He chose that school, because he knew no one would be at the school in the summer.

“For about an hour, he just let me talk,” Sutton said. “He didn’t hardly say a thing. I was angry. He said he was no different than his dad. I thought he was a good guy, a good Christian guy. For seven years, he was one of my best friends. Our families would get together. He was a hell of a teammate. This was totally out of character for him. He just totally undermined everything we do for the kids. It was all detrimental to everything we teach.”

Ashley Hall, who was the best friend of Shepard’s then-wife, Tabitha, said she found out about the situation at the end of June when she learned of Shepard and the victim texting each other. Then, he and Tabitha came home July 1, 2016 and found flowers and a package with a card that said the sender would be praying for their family. 

Hall said she didn’t understand what that meant, so she called Shepard who admitted to her what had happened. 

Shepard opted not to take the stand to testify Thursday.

Both the state and the defense wrapped up their cases Thursday. Closing arguments will take place Friday at 9 a.m., and the case will then be handed over to the jury for deliberation. A verdict is expected Friday afternoon.

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