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October 16, 2019

Jamie Taylor/River News

Oneida County assistant district attorney Mary Sowinski points at a diagram of the Cassian School during the sexual assault trial of Stavros G. Iliopoulos Wednesday, Sept. 4. A jury convicted Iliopoulos on all counts.
Jamie Taylor/River News

Oneida County assistant district attorney Mary Sowinski points at a diagram of the Cassian School during the sexual assault trial of Stavros G. Iliopoulos Wednesday, Sept. 4. A jury convicted Iliopoulos on all counts.
9/6/2019 3:56:00 PM
Former janitor convicted in school sexual assault case
Rossing testimony stricken from the record
Heather Schaefer and Jamie Taylor
Of the River News

An Oneida County jury on Thursday convicted a 66-year-old Tomahawk man of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old child in a Rhinelander elementary school closet last November.

The jury of five men and seven women deliberated for less than 90 minutes Thursday afternoon before finding Stavros George Iliopoulos guilty on all three counts - child enticement, false imprisonment and first-degree child sexual assault.

Iliopoulos was accused of intercepting the child as she was leaving a restroom and forcing her into a closet. Once in the closet, the child reported Iliopoulos kissed her on the lips, touched her upper chest and stomach, and put his hand up her pant leg to touch her thigh. Iliopoulos was working in the school as a janitor at the time but was fired after the girl came forward.

The panel began deliberating at approximately 3:30 p.m. after hearing closing arguments from prosecutor Mary Sowinski and defense attorney Andrew Morgan.

At approximately 4:40 p.m. it was announced that a verdict had been reached. Iliopoulos showed no reaction as a Greek interpreter translated the jury's decision for him.

In their closing arguments, both attorneys discussed the time - 6 minutes and 8 seconds - that elapsed from the moment the girl went into the bathroom to when she returned to her classroom, as captured by the school's surveillance system.

Sowinski took the jury through the girl's entire day on Nov. 20, 2018 - which she called both "ordinary and extraordinary" - from the toast she had for breakfast to the 6 minutes and 8 seconds when she was kissed and fondled against her will to her interviews with police later that day and her trip to Wausau for a sexual assault examination.

"You have everything you need to decide this case," she said before listing eyes, ears, reason and common sense as the tools necessary to reach a just verdict.

For his part, Morgan argued the state failed to prove its case. He questioned whether 6 minutes and 8 seconds would be enough time for everything the girl said happened to take place. He also stressed that no DNA was found in some of the locations the girl said were touched.

"Maybe something happened that angered (the child) with Stavros, but you don't know," he concluded. "You should not convict a man when you don't know (what happened)."

In a brief rebuttal, Sowinski demonstrated just how long 6 minutes and 8 seconds is and argued it can be "an excruciatingly long time" when one is being detained in a closet and fondled against their will.

The state called four witnesses Friday - the child accuser, a sexual assault nurse examiner, a sheriff's detective and a DNA analyst from the state crime lab in Madison.

The child's time on the witness stand was very brief as Sowinski asked her to verify her age and assert that she told the truth during her interview with investigators back in November. Jurors watched a video of that interview Wednesday.

When it was time for cross-examination, Morgan announced that he wanted to have the surveillance video of the school hallway played while he questioned the witness. However, the School District of Rhinelander employee who operated the equipment Wednesday was not present and no one else was capable of operating the necessary equipment.

Judge Michael Bloom also noted the defense attorney failed to give notice that he intended to use the video footage during his cross-examination.

"The Court is not in a position to accommodate what you have requested," Bloom said. "Had you articulated on the record yesterday these things it's possible some accommodations may have been able to be made."

After the court denied his request to have the footage played during cross-examination, Morgan announced he had no questions for the child.

Next on the stand was the emergency room nurse who performed a sexual assault examination of the child. After explaining her education and experience, as well as the procedure for such an examination, the nurse testified that she swabbed the girl's upper chest after a fluorescent light showed a foreign substance there. She also testified that she noted an abrasion "on the outer aspect" of the girl's right thigh.

The nurse also testified that the girl told her that Iliopoulos wore plastic gloves during the assault.

Under cross-examination, Morgan asked the nurse whether a gloved hand could cause a scratch/abrasion.

"It's possible," the nurse replied.

Next on the stand for the state was Det. Sgt. Kelly Moermond who recounted her investigation of the girl's report, including her interview of the defendant in which he admitted to being in the closet with the child. On cross-examination, Morgan asked Moermond if she saw any red marks on the girl's arms or any other physical signs of a struggle between the girl and an adult male. Moermond responded that she did not look at the girl's arms because she didn't want to disrupt evidence that would later be collected by the nurse examiner.

The state's final witness was a DNA analyst from the state crime lab in Madison.

The analyst testified that the swab the nurse examiner took of the girl's upper chest matched Iliopoulos's DNA.

She could not determine what type of cell or fluid left the DNA or how the sample was deposited, only that it matched Iliopoulos, she testified.

As testimony continued Thursday morning, a concern was raised that the jurors might be able to hear comments coming from the gallery. This prompted Bloom to deliver a stern warning about proper courtroom behavior.

Rossing issue

During the jury's lunch recess, the judge and the lawyers discussed a legal issue that had arisen related to a witness from the first day of testimony, former Oneida County detective sergeant Ryan Rossing.

As Bloom explained, during the first recess the parties became aware of a Northwoods River News story published Thursday about Rossing.

In the article, investigative reporter Richard Moore quoted transcripts and an audio recording of two interviews Rossing had with two Oneida County sheriff's captains last spring regarding his conduct as an alderman for the city of Rhinelander. In one of the interviews, Rossing told the captains he looked former city attorney Carrie Miljevich in the eye and lied to her about who wrote a letter signed by four alderman, including himself, and Rhinelander mayor Chris Frederickson, questioning the behavior of council president George Kirby.

The River News has alleged the four aldermen and the mayor participated in a walking quorum related to the letter.

Rossing's disclosures to his superiors regarding the so-called walking quorum investigation were pertinent to the Iliopoulos trial as defense attorneys can use prior instances of "untruthfulness" to impeach the testimony of police officers. Thus, Morgan would have a legal right to ask Rossing about his statements to the Oneida County captains.

All parties indicated the revelations about Rossing came as a surprise to them.

Bloom accepted Sowinski's statements that she was not aware of Rossing's disclosures to sheriff's department investigators and that while the district attorney's office received "materials" related to the internal investigation of Rossing on Aug. 27, the understanding was that Rossing had resigned from the department. (He offered his letter of resignation Aug. 9 and has since taken a job with the Eagle River Police Department).

For his part, Morgan said the Rossing issue "came out of the blue" as far as he was concerned.

"Cat's out of the bag now," the judge said, his voice rising. "It's on the front page of the paper."

Sowinski suggested the appropriate remedy would be to strike Rossing's testimony in its entirety and instruct the jury to give it no weight.

"There's no reason why (Rossing's) testimony couldn't be stricken and simply allow the state to proceed on testimony and evidence that has been offered by the other witnesses," Sowinski argued, noting that the testimony Rossing offered on Wednesday was "foundational" in nature. "There's nothing about his testimony that would cause the result of this action (the trial) to be different," she added.

Morgan objected to the move to strike but Bloom chose to take the prosecutor's suggestion.

When the jurors returned to the courtroom, Bloom told them they may not consider Rossing's testimony in their deliberations. He also said the reason for his decision to strike the testimony would not be disclosed as it was "not pertinent to their role as jurors".

After Bloom finished his explanation, the state rested its case.

After a short recess for a final consultation with his attorney, Iliopoulos advised the court he would not take the stand in his own defense.

This set the stage for closing arguments which in some ways mirrored the opening statements delivered Wednesday.

"In a perfect world, we would present this evidence to you in a completely chronological way, starting at the beginning, going to the middle and then ending up at the end." Sowinski told the jurors in her opening remarks. "In this particular case, however, the story starts with a young girl being assaulted, and so instead of starting with her story, we're going to start today with the first adult that she reported to (her teacher)."

Sowinski told the jurors that they would see surveillance video of the hallway where the janitor's closet is located but noted the videos would not be movie-quality, but rather choppy because of the manner in which they were recorded.

While Sowinski's opening statement was lengthy, Morgan went for an economy of words, using just 1:21 to set up his defense.

"The question put to you this morning, if there is one, is the defense hopes that the truth will come out," he said. "What the defense will show you is how the story the state wants you to believe falls apart upon close examination. No one can reach into the mind of a 10-year-old girl, but we will show that her story changed repeatedly, and (so did) the details, as she told it to different people. And in a trial where a man's good name, his freedom and his future are all at stake, details matter."

The first witness to testify was the school principal Alex Bontz.

Using an enlarged diagram of the school, Bontz pointed out the girls' bathroom and janitor's closet were directly across the hall from the classroom where he was teaching fifth grade.

When asked to describe the girl, who he has known from previous years, Bontz said "she's a very kind, quiet and shy student; very hardworking." He also added that the girl has mentored younger students in the building.

In response to questions from Sowinski, Bontz recounted the events of Nov. 20, 2018 when another student reported what had happened between Iliopoulos and the girl.

"Mister Steve (as Iliopoulos was called by students) pulled her off into the closet and tried to kiss her and hug her," Bontz said another student told him.

He also said the accuser seemed scared "and very shaken up," after the encounter.

"Her safety and well-being were my number one priority at that time," Bontz said.

He said he started reviewing surveillance video from the hallway and had his administrative assistant try to reach school district administrators to report the incident.

"It took me a while to find the footage just because I didn't have an exact time," Bontz said, adding that he still had to teach his fifth-grade class while doing all of this.

As the school day wound down, he was able to speak to the girl again and pinpoint the time to retrieve the footage from the computer server.

He also made contact with administrators and the school resource officer.

He said he didn't speak to Iliopoulos after the child reported the incident, opting to keep him on his regular schedule.

Under cross-examination, Bontz admitted he had never been in the closet and didn't know if sounds from inside it could be heard in the hallway.

After the lunch recess, Dan Wolter, the school district's network administrator, explained that all video from cameras in the school are saved to a central server and that not all camera clocks are synced to the server. He also explained the cameras are motion-sensitive, and once activated, record everything in view at a rate of 8-frames per second. This gives the footage a somewhat jerky quality.

Wolter also noted that the angle of the cameras does not allow for a view of the janitor's closet.

He explained that the goal was to align the cameras in such a way as to cover the most area with the fewest cameras.

Under the direction of both attorneys, Wolter then painstakingly played the two videos, pausing, rewinding and narrowing the view for the jury.

In a pretrial ruling, Bloom denied a defense request that the jury be allowed to visit the school and view the hallway in question.

After Rossing testified about the measurements of the closet as determined by investigators, Moermond was called to the stand to set up the video of her and Rossing interviewing the girl in the sensitivity room at the sheriff's department.

In the interview, the girl told the detectives that Iliopoulos had stopped her outside of the bathroom and asked her for a hug.

"Then he pushed me in there (closet) and shut the door and I couldn't get out," the girl said, adding that Iliopoulos turned off the light and tried to kiss her, but she said no.

She said Iliopoulos also pulled up her shirt despite her protests, and put his hand up her pant leg. She said he kissed her lips, upper chest and stomach.

"When he let me out, he said 'don't tell anyone,'" she told the detectives.

After the guilty verdict was announced, Bloom ordered a pre-sentence investigation and explained that a sentencing hearing would be scheduled in approximately 60 days.

Iliopoulos could be sentenced to life in prison.

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