WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A former New Hanover County teacher accused of dozens of sex crimes against his students pleaded guilty Tuesday morning.
***Warning: This story contains explicit sexual content.***
Former teacher of the year faces nearly 60 sex charges against minors
Michael Earl Kelly, 50, entered guilty pleas to 59 charges, including sexual exploitation of minor, indecent liberties with a student and indecent liberties with a child on Tuesday. Kelly was sentenced to 17.6 - 31.25 years in prison for the crimes.
Kelly, who was a science teacher at Isaac Bear Early College High School, has been behind bars since his initial arrest in February 2018. The investigation into Kelly began after a suspicious parent alerted authorities about inappropriate text messages they found between their child and Kelly.
As investigators started looking into the case, they found close to 20 victims, some as young as 14 years old. Some of Kelly’s charges date back to 2003 when he was a teacher at Laney High School.
The court’s findings
New Hanover County Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan explained to the court what a jury would have found if the case had gone to trial.
“He pled guilty straight up. He pled guilty to everything that he’s charged with. Sentencing was obviously up to the judge and the judge sentenced him to a little over 17 and a half to 31 and a half years in prison,” Jordan said.
Jordan revealed Kelly had a private Snapchat group with some of his students. In that group, students exchanged pictures of their private parts. Kelly would also send snapchat pictures.
Search warrants revealed Kelly had exchanged over 250 explicit text messages with one victim, and at least 1,000 text messages with students at Isaac Bear Early College High School.
It is against school policy to communicate with students via text message or social media. Kelly admitted he knew about the policy when questioned by investigators.
One victim said Kelly gradually normalized sexual talk in his class. Kelly sent that victim a pornographic video of another student. Kelly also exposed his penis to this victim.
Jordan spoke in detail about Kelly’s inappropriate communication with his students. In addition to the Snapchat group and text messages, Kelly tried to set up meetings with students outside of school.
Kelly also invented games with students, one called “the waiting game,” where students would receive points for exposing their private parts to one another. They would receive one, two, or three points based on “creativity.” Jordan noted that by the end of a fall semester, Kelly had received 70 points.
Kelly’s most serious charge
Jordan also talked at length about what she called Kelly’s most serious crime. He was charged with a felony for engaging in a sexual act with a child under the age of 16.
The charge stems from when Kelly arranged sexual acts with a student in the Watson College of Education on the UNCW Campus. Kelly had a student record him performing oral sex on the minor in a bathroom. Kelly was careful to conceal his identity with a hat and ensure the minor was not in the video.
Kelly posted the video to an explicit website. Both Kelly and the victim received $50 for the video.
WECT has reached out to UNCW about this incident. A spokesperson for the university said they had no comment.
Kelly told another victim about a website where he would post videos of himself masturbating with a mask on in exchange for $50. He even told one victim how to post videos online and make money.
The families and victims give emotional statements
Two families of Kelly’s 19 victims were in court Tuesday. One of Kelly’s victims, now an adult, was also in the courtroom to make his pain heard.
“I can talk for hours about the effect Mr. Kelly had on my education but the one thing I want to make sure the court is abundantly aware of, this pedestal his character is placed on, is a major reason in this being kept silent,” the victim said. “This has protected him countless times and I think it should not anymore. It affected me for many years. With the support of my wife I was able to decide, yes, I wanted to get involved. Early on it drew anxiety attacks, even issues of self harm"
Kelly looked straight down while his former student addressed the court.
Two mothers also spoke out. One read statements on behalf of herself, her husband and her son, one of Kelly’s victims.
“Every day since I learned that my son and so many other young men were victims of Michael Kelly, I have wanted to scream, I have wanted to cry, I have wanted to break down,” the victim’s mother said. “Here I sit sobbing over the computer because I did not protect [him]. I did not protect my son.”
The victim’s father also wrote a statement to be read in court.
“The obvious guilt of knowing this happened to my son, and not being able to stop it will haunt me for the rest of my days,” that victim’s father said. “This is something you can only survive and can never heal fully.”
Not just students
Kelly’s sexual misconduct did not just involve students. Investigators found different email addresses belonging to Kelly, from which he would solicit sex on Craigslist, using his home, multiple hotels and Isaac Bear High School as places to meet up.
One email address alone contained approximately 700 emails, most involving attempts to meet with other males on Craigslist for sexual contact. A second email address dating back to 2007 had approximately 18,000 emails, the majority, again from Craigslist ads for sexual encounters with other males.
Kelly speaks out in court
Kelly’s defense attorney, Miriam Thompson, did not dispute any of the findings presented by New Hanover County Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan.
“I have been practicing law for 23 years now and I have to say this is one of the toughest cases that has come across my desk,” Thompson said.
She presented six factors for the judge to take into consideration when sentencing Kelly, the first being Kelly admitted wrongdoing at the beginning of the investigation.
“I’m not asking anybody in this courtroom to feel sorry for Mr. Kelly,” Thompson said. “But Mr. Kelly is a good person who made horrible choices and went down a very dark path."
She continued to explain how Kelly has ruined his own life and his family’s and that his family has continued to be supportive.
Prior to his sentencing, Kelly apologized to Jesus, his family, his friends, and his wife and child, but not directly to the victims or their families that gathered for Tuesday’s court appearance.
“I know forgiveness is a difficult concept for most people, but I come to you with a humble and contrite heart, asking for forgiveness,” Kelly said when addressing the court.
Kelly also claimed he was a victim of sexual abuse when he was 7 years old.
“Our office is always focused on the victims in these cases and to make sure the defendant is treated fairly which in this case, he certainly was. The victims’ parents were very appreciative of the fact that their children didn’t have to come in and testify, that was very valuable to them. I don’t know if an apology really makes a difference when the kids have suffered the damage that they already have and their discomfort and concerns they have going forward with their school has just been really difficult for these families,” said Jordan.
Concerns with the school system
Both parents and the prosecution called out the New Hanover County School system, saying they feel it failed students.
“The system is failing our kids,” said the mother of one victim in court. “I am certain there are more victims the court will never hear about.”
Jordan talked about Kelly’s interview with the FBI and Wilmington Police, in which he willingly answered questions. Kelly admitted two students had made reports against him early in his career at Isaac Bear Early College High School.
“In the defendant’s confession, he said that it had previously been reported and that the school had done an investigation and that the school had cleared him from these acts. And that was at his beginning time at Isaac Bear High School. Now with the plea of the defendant, we know he has been guilty of these acts all along,” Jordan said.
A month after his arrest, Kelly was fired from Isaac Bear Early College High School by the New Hanover County Board of Education.
WECT reached out to the New Hanover County School System for comment on the case. A spokesperson for the school system sent us the statement below:
"New Hanover County Schools condemns the actions of Mike Kelly and remains committed to the safety of all students. Once district personnel knew of the allegations, we took immediate action to move for his dismissal.
The district is aware of the statements made in court today by Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan about Mr. Kelly's recollection of events from 2006. Upon learning about the statements, we contacted two former (retired) NHCS' administrators Dr. Sherry Broome and Ms. Matilda Gurley, the individuals who served as principal of Isaac Bear Early College High School during the 2006 and 2007 school year and spoke to both of them via phone. Neither Dr. Broome nor Mrs. Gurly investigated an incident involving Mr. Kelly for an allegation of indecent exposure during their tenure as principal. Both principals stated that no such incident was reported to them.
We will follow up with the District Attorney’s Office to discuss this matter."