Search comes up empty in porn case vs. Mankato coach

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 15, 2012 - 8:39 AM

Cellphone videos of his kids set off investigation in Mankato.

Courtesy Blue Earth County Jail. Booking photo of Coach Todd Hoffner.

A search of computers, videos and other electronic equipment taken from the home and car of a Mankato football coach last month has turned up no potential evidence in the child pornography case against him, a Blue Earth County Sheriff's captain said Friday.

Todd Hoffner, 46, faces two counts of child pornography for three home videos he shot on his campus-issued cellphone this summer. He has been on paid administrative leave from Minnesota State University, Mankato, pending the outcome of a school investigation.

"We didn't find any additional child pornography," Capt. Rich Murry said Friday, after investigators from the city of Mankato and the sheriff's office finished analyzing and reviewing items taken from Hoffner's home and car.

"At this point," Murry said, "I guess it's in the court system and it's going to be up to the prosecutors and defense to figure it out."

Jim Fleming, Hoffner's attorney, said Friday that he was not surprised investigators found nothing to bolster their case. He has consistently said that the images found on the videos were "private family moments" that are not sexual, graphic or exploitative.

"We didn't expect that they were going to find anything," Fleming said. "I think law enforcement always approaches these things very cynically, and they were expecting they were going to find this cache of videos and child pornography and away we go, and it didn't materialize."

Blue Earth County Prosecutor Mike Hanson could not be reached for comment.

Barring additional evidence, the case, should it go to trial, will boil down to how a potential jury interprets what it sees on the cellphone videos, said former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner, who has prosecuted many child sex cases.

Are the images pornographic, as the prosecution contends, or are they private moments recorded by a parent who arguably exercised poor judgment?

"Without seeing the videos, I can't judge," Gaertner said. "But the fact that [prosecutors] didn't find anything else supports what the defendant and his family have been saying -- that this is innocent conduct that has been misunderstood."

'Kids being silly'

Two of the videos Hoffner shot on his cellphone were made the same day in June and lasted no more than a minute. They showed the children dropping towels and jumping around nude. In one, Hoffner's 8-year-old son fondles himself and his daughters bend over and spread their buttocks. In another video, shot in August, one of the girls is awakened in her bed and told by a male voice to go to the bathroom. She is followed to the bathroom with the camera focused on her underwear.

Hoffner's wife, Melodee, has called the charges against him "ridiculous and baseless." She has said that the videos were "innocent videos of typical kids being silly," and showed their children "in all their craziness."

She said that the video showing her daughter walking to the bathroom was taken to show the girl, who was so sleepy when awakened that she did not remember the moment.

On Friday, Fleming reiterated Melodee Hoffner's view that the images were "innocent."

"There's a whole 'nother issue here and it's 'What is his intention in making these videos?'" Fleming said. "There's no evidence that he's disseminating or sexualizing. This wasn't something he was anticipating. It just happened. He's a father. He doesn't see his children sexually. He doesn't see his children that way."

Fleming said he plans to push prosecutors to drop the charges.

"I'm certainly going to be saying 'Let's reconsider this. Let's have reasonable people reevaluate this thing and quit looking at this in the most cynical way,'" he said.

Hoffner was entering his fifth year as coach of the Mavericks when he was arrested Aug. 21. At that time, investigators showed up at his house in Eagle Lake and took desktop and laptop computers, CDs and DVDs, digital cameras and other items. The next day, they obtained a search warrant for his car after arriving at the house on the 21st and seeing Hoffner putting several pieces of electronic equipment inside the vehicle, parked in the garage.

Murry said Friday he didn't anticipate any additional investigative work in the case "or anything new, but you never know."

Meanwhile, three colleges that employed Hoffner before he took the Mankato job in 2008 are conducting reviews of his computer and cellphone records while he worked at those schools.

Phil Carter, a spokesman for the University of South Dakota, where Hoffner coached from 2006 until taking the Mankato job, said an informal review of Hoffner's employment records, requested by the school president, turned up no evidence of anything improper.

Officials from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point said Friday that they have yet to finish their reviews.

"We're just doing our due diligence," said Kate Worster, a spokeswoman for UW-Stevens Point.

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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