Family members sat silently, occasionally crying, as a former Madison County teacher was sentenced to 35 years after pleading guilty to molesting eight children.
Jason Ehlers, 38, was a teacher in the Triad and Bethalto school districts for years before he was investigated and ultimately charged with the sexual abuse or assault of eight children between the ages of 13 and 18 over a period of three years. He was charged in April 2014 and subsequently resigned from Triad District 2.
“Our community is a safer place today because Jason Ehlers, a loathsome man who committed despicable acts, is going to prison for a lengthy time,” Madison County State’s Attorney Thomas Gibbons said in a news release. “This was an especially complicated case to prosecute, however, with the support of our partners in law enforcement and child advocacy, we were able to ensure that the defendant faced severe consequences for his crimes.”
Investigators determined that no current or former students were among Ehlers’ victims, whom they believe were abused at Ehlers’ home in Bethalto. All of the victims knew him prior to the abuse.
Jill Griffin, assistant superintendent of Bethalto School District, said the case has affected the entire school district. The first victim’s initial disclosure was to his school counselor, most of the children who were molested were in Bethalto schools — and Ehlers had worked as a teacher in the district. She said the teachers were heartbroken for the children, and they ended up bringing in counselors from Wellspring to work with the staff.
“How did we miss this? How did so many kids become victims?” Griffin said. “It’s gut-wrenching, because had one of them come forward, we could have stopped all of this… But now we know, he was grooming them. He was making them feel like they could trust him, and he desensitized them… These kids were trained to trust a teacher.”
Several parents and other family members spoke about the enormous impact that Ehlers’ crimes had on their families.
“My life was turned completely upside down the day I received a phone call about what you did to my boy,” said the mother of one of the victims. “I was taught to have compassion, to love and to forgive, and I never knew hate, real hate that consumes you. But you have shaken me to my very core.”
She said that “all the boys have received a life sentence” from Ehlers due to his pattern of abuse, which included bringing the boys into his basement for sexual acts. “What could we have done to protect him from you? Everyone has told me, it’s not your fault. My head knows it, but my heart always says… it was my job to protect him.”
My life was turned completely upside down the day I received a phone call about what you did to my boy. I was taught to have compassion, to love and to forgive, and I never knew hate, real hate that consumes you. But you have shaken me to my very core.
Mother of one of the victims of Jason Ehlers
Several parents spoke about feeling betrayed, that they believed Ehlers to be a trustworthy person as a teacher and family man.
“A sense of safety and security was permanently stolen from my family,” said the sister of one of the victims. “Jason Ehlers is a name I never want to see or hear again,… but I would read this statement every day if it meant my brother would be free.”
The father of one of the victims said he never thought of Ehlers as a threat to his son. “We as parents have a responsibility to our children to protect them and let them know we would never let anyone hurt them,” he said. “Each one of Jason’s victims have been affected in ways that they will struggle with for the rest of their lives.”
Another father said the news that his son had been molested was “horror, absolute pain,” and that everyone had been manipulated by Ehlers.
“As a father, you have one job, and that one job is to protect your family,” he said. “As a teacher, I’ve seen the same videos and done the same training Jason has done. I knew what to look for. And to not have seen any of it… the amount of guilt is more now than even that day in April. Had I noticed what was happening with (my son) when he was in sixth or seventh grade, I could have done something about it. And we wouldn’t have (other victims) had I just done something about it then, had I seen it.”
The mother of the first child to speak out about his abuse said that he was transformed by speaking out, that his depression and sadness were alleviated by disclosing the abuse. She said her son wrote in his journal, “The center of all my problems and all my depression has disappeared in just two days. I am overwhelmed with joy.”
She said her son’s courage saved countless numbers of potential future victims. “He is the bravest person I know,” she said. “No one should ever commit crimes like this and get away with it.”
Most of the speakers were parents of the victims. One victim spoke on his own behalf. He described Ehlers as controlling, dominating every part of his life, including friendships with other kids and relationships with girls. He said that disclosing his abuse was freeing for him. “I felt relief that it was over for me, but pain and regret that it was just starting for (others),” he said.
Ehlers’ voice broke as he apologized for his “unforgivable and inconceivable actions.” He commended the boy who first disclosed the abuse. “I know it was not an easy decision,” he said. “It is my sincerest hope that as time passes these individuals will be able to move forward.”
Ehlers said he felt like he was living as two people: one was a teacher and upstanding member of the community, and the other was an “insane monster.” His attorney, Jessica Koester, said it was a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation,” and said that sentencing must be for punishment and for rehabilitation.
“If Jason were truly as evil as people are suggesting, he would not have confessed and pled guilty,” Koester said. She said that if the sentence is longer than 20 years, he will have access to fewer services, and requested a lower sentence of 15 years.
“He will serve an extended period of time… but still be eligible to receive the treatment necessary for him,” she said.
Ehlers’ mother, Joni Hebblethwait, asked the court for mercy, saying that he was mentally ill and needed treatment.
But prosecutor Kathleen Nolan said that Ehlers’ actions were “the calculated moves of a predator.” She said the agreed 35-year cap was part of a plea deal negotiated by another prosecutor, and that the state would honor that deal, but that none of the family members felt it was enough.
Nolan said cases of sexual abuse have a “ripple effect” in which the impact is felt far and wide. “This case wasn’t just a stone being tossed in a river,” she said. “It was a meteor that struck Bethalto.”
This case wasn’t just a stone being tossed in a river. This was a meteor that struck Bethalto.
Assistant State’s Attorney Kathleen Nolan
Ehlers was charged with 10 felony counts and four misdemeanors. He eventually pleaded guilty to one count of predatory sexual assault of a child, a Class X felony; one count of sexual assault, a Class 1 felony; three counts of aggravated sexual abuse, a Class 2 felony; and three counts of sexual exploitation of a child, a Class A misdemeanor.
The remaining counts were dismissed as part of the plea bargain. Ehlers has been in custody at the Madison County Jail in lieu of $500,000 bail.
Prosecutors had agreed to a sentencing cap of 35 years, and requested the maximum.
Madison County Associate Judge Neil Schroeder said if Ehlers had gone to trial on the original 14 charges, he would have faced up to 90 years in prison on his assaults of one child alone; 157 years for two of them. But he said it was not his role as a judge to dispense either revenge or forgiveness. “Your conduct was consistent over a lengthy period of time, multiple sex acts with multiple victims,” he said. “I understand you may be a great candidate for treatment, but this case, with these charges, and this number of victims.”
In the end, Schroeder sentenced him to 20 years for one count of predatory criminal sexual assault of a child and 15 years on one count of criminal sexual assault. The sentences will be served consecutively, with the defendant required to serve at least 85 percent of the sentence. Ehlers was also sentenced to seven years each on the three aggravated criminal sexual abuse charges, three years on the felony sexual exploitation of a child charge and 364 days in jail on the two misdemeanor sexual exploitation charges. These will run concurrent to the sentences on the Class X and 1 felonies.
Ehlers is required to serve 85 percent of his sentence. However, Gibbons said that upon completion of his sentence, Ehlers is eligible to be deemed a sexually dangerous person and thus could be committed to a maximum security mental institution for the rest of his natural life.
“The sheer number of victims, the young people hurt by this monster, is staggering,” Gibbons said. “I am so grateful that a victim could be so brave as to stand up and speak out… that victim is a hero.”