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MANKATO - A Mankato football coach took the stand Wednesday and adamantly asserted that cellphone videos he shot of his naked children this summer stemmed from a family skit and contained "nothing inappropriate."
Speaking publicly for the first time since his August arrest on child pornography charges, Todd Hoffner, 46, asked a Blue Earth County district judge to dismiss those charges, arguing that he should have never been arrested.
"There was nothing inappropriate about any of these videos," the Minnesota State University, Mankato, head coach said of images a technician found on his school-issued cellphone when he took it to the campus IT department because it had malfunctioned.
Hoffner's testimony came near the end of a three-hour hearing in which his attorney, Jim Fleming, pressed investigators about whether they thought the videos were, in fact, pornographic when they first saw them.
One said there was some question in his mind about what he was seeing and that he needed "more context" before making a determination. Several called the images "disturbing."
Blue Earth County investigators eventually took the images to prosecutor Michael Hanson before deciding to make an arrest.
"I would say it was very disturbing what I saw," said Capt. Rich Murry of the Blue Earth County Sheriff's Office. "Knowing it may be criminal, I wanted to confer with a prosecutor."
During Wednesday's hearing, Hanson said the answer was clear: "Adults should not make videos of children in lewd poses -- period," he said.
Hoffner, the university's head football coach since 2008, faces two felony counts of child pornography involving three videos of his children dancing naked and touching themselves.
Two of the videos, shot the same day in June, lasted about a minute, and are considered by prosecutors to be the most troubling. They show the children, ages 5 to 9, dropping towels and jumping around nude. In one, Hoffner's 8-year-old son grabs his penis and his daughters bend over and spread their buttocks.
In a third video, shot in August, one daughter is awakened in her bed and told by her father to go to the bathroom. As she is followed to the bathroom, the camera is focused on her underwear.
While prosecutors consider the first two videos pornographic, Fleming has consistently said that there is nothing in them that is graphic or sexual. He has called the videos "private family moments." Hoffner's wife, Melodee, said publicly in August that the charges against her husband are "ridiculous and baseless."
The coach speaks
On Wednesday, Hoffner gave his perspective.
He said the two videos shot in June came as his children were taking a bubble bath in a family whirlpool tub as he worked in a downstairs family room.
After their bath, the children "came down with towels on and asked me if I would videotape them," Hoffner said. The children said they had been working on a skit and wanted their father to record it.
Hoffner said he grabbed his Blackberry off the nearby end table and began recording.
"It started with their towels on," he said. "They were singing, dancing and laughing. They were doing silly things, having fun."
The children later dropped the towels, and at one point, his son, who he said seemed determined "to sabotage" the skit, jumped in front of his sisters and "grabbed his private parts" for just seconds.
Hoffner said his daughters, upset with their brother, asked their father minutes later to try recording it again. This time, Hoffner's son raced into view, wearing only a football helmet.
Hoffner said he laughed, but stopped recording when he realized his son was "determined to mess everything up."
Hoffner said he never watched the videos or showed them to anyone. In fact, he said, he had forgotten they were on his cellphone when he took it to the university's IT department in August.
Hoffner said he was surprised and confused when university officials escorted him from the practice field several days later and told him he was being put on "investigative leave." He said he repeatedly asked for answers, but was told "it was confidential."
"It was an eerie feeling," he said. "I felt like I got fired, but I didn't."
Four days later, investigators showed up at his house in nearby Eagle Lake and arrested him as he was watering his lawn. When told why they were there, Hoffner was stunned.
"What?" he said.
When an investigator mentioned the videos, Hoffner said he was "racking my brain trying to figure out what he was referring to."
Hoffner said the first time he viewed the June videos was when the officers showed them to him after his arrest.
After Hoffner finished his testimony Wednesday, Fleming reiterated in a closing statement that the images at issue are not pornographic. A search of computers and other equipment taken from Hoffner's home when he was arrested turned up no evidence to support the prosecution's case. And in late September, county social workers told the Hoffners that after interviewing the children and viewing the videos, they found no evidence that the couple's children had been abused.
But Hanson said jurors should decide.
"You typically have videos made to show to your friends or put on Facebook," he said. "That didn't happen here and it didn't happen for a pretty good reason."
District Judge Krista Jass, who has not yet seen the videos, gave attorneys until Nov. 14 to file written briefs. She said she'll decide on the motion after that.
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425