There was a bite to the autumn wind in Mankato, Minn., last week, a hint of the freezing temperatures soon to come. The locals are unfazed by the advance of winter, but they have found a different kind of climate change to be far more chilling. A story is unfolding in Mankato with sadly familiar elements—a well-regarded college football coach, young children and allegations of inappropriate conduct. In our post-Sandusky world everyone is more wary of possible predators, determined not to repeat the lapses of Penn State. But can discomfort turn too quickly into paranoia? Has it caused an innocent man to be mistaken for a monster?
This is an article from the Nov. 26, 2012 issue
There are those who are sure that is happening at Minnesota State--Mankato, where a dream and a nightmare are unfolding at the same time. The Mavericks are 11--0 and ranked fifth in Division II, with a second-round playoff game scheduled for Saturday. But they have accomplished this without coach Todd Hoffner, who has been on paid leave since he was arrested in August because of videos on his university-issued cellphone in which his children, ages nine, eight and five, are naked. Hoffner, 46, has been charged with making and possessing child pornography, and while the legal process continues—both sides are awaiting a judge's ruling on a defense motion to dismiss the case—the university administration has not allowed him any contact with his team.
At the Wagon Wheel Cafe, one of the oldest restaurants in town, you can get a hearty breakfast and a full helping of support for Hoffner. "I'd say 99% of people around here are 100% behind Todd and can't believe this case hasn't been tossed out," says his friend John Harrington, a longtime Mavericks fan. "The only one who sees anything pornographic in those videos seems to be the prosecutor."
Hoffner testified at a pretrial hearing that he recorded two of the videos, which last for a total of a minute and 42 seconds, in June, after his son and two daughters had gotten out of a bubble bath and wrapped themselves in towels. They asked him to record them performing a skit and dropped their towels while he continued to film. (There is a third video included in the complaint, in which, according to the defense's brief, Hoffner wakes one of his daughters to remind her to use the bathroom.) Hoffner said he hadn't watched or even thought about the videos when he turned in the phone to the university for repairs in August, which is when a technician discovered them and informed school officials.
Hoffner and his wife, Melodee, contend that the videos, which have been sealed by the court, merely show three uninhibited kids at play. The prosecution, which claims that there are points at which the children touch and sometimes fondle themselves, saw something darker. "These videos are not the proverbial baby in the bathtub photographs," Blue Earth County prosecutor Mike Hanson said in a brief opposing the motion to dismiss. "This is not a case about nudity but about masturbation and the lewd exhibition of genitals."
Is the prosecution overzealous? Hoffner has no history of inappropriate behavior toward children, and investigators found no child pornography on his home computer. He has no shortage of community members willing to vouch for his character. "I would have absolutely no problem leaving my own children in his care," says friend Kristine Schimek, who organized a candlelight vigil in his support. An in-home evaluation as well as a viewing of the videos and interviews of the children by the county's Human Services department "did not indicate sexual abuse was occurring," according to the child protective specialist's report, and revealed no need to separate Hoffner from the children.
Or is it more prudent to view this case through the prism of Penn State? University officials, faced with the question of legal liability as well as moral obligation, escorted Hoffner off the practice field when the videos were turned over to them in August; they will never be accused of dragging their feet or engineering a cover-up. There has been no talk publicly, from school or team, of supporting or condemning Hoffner. In fact, there has been almost no talk of him at all. Requests to interview players or interim coach Aaron Keen about the case have been denied.
"Being away from his players is very frustrating for Todd," Harrington says of the coach, who is 34--13 in four seasons. "He put that team, that coaching staff, together. I haven't tried to talk to him much about the games. I can imagine how hard that would be for him."
Even if he is acquitted, Hoffner's reputation has been damaged beyond repair. His players have put together one of the best seasons in school history while they act as if he doesn't exist. If he is guilty, he deserves no sympathy, but what if he is just a dad who recorded his kids playing after bath time? Then his life has been unfairly ripped apart over a few harmless minutes, a casualty of the desire to avoid anything remotely resembling another Sandusky.
"If these videos do not cross the line," the prosecutor asks in his brief, "then where is the line?" In the eagerness to catch predators, it's important to remember the cost of jumping to the wrong conclusion. Those who pursue have to ask themselves, Where is THAT LINE?