Former Manatee High principal Robert Gagnon acquitted in Frazier case

jdeleon@bradenton.comJune 18, 2014 

BRADENTON -- A judge Tuesday acquitted former Manatee High principal Robert Gagnon of charges he failed to notify the state of reports of abuse by former assistant football coach Roderick Frazier.

Judge Peter Dubensky rendered the verdict in response to a motion from Gagnon's defense attorney after the prosecution rested its case early Tuesday afternoon.

Attorneys for two other defendants in the case -- former assistant principals Gregg Faller and Matthew Kane -- made similar motions, which Dubensky denied. Their trial continues Wednesday.

Gagnon, as well as Faller and Kane, was charged with one misdemeanor count of failing to report child abuse and one felony count of failing to report child abuse in connection with the Frazier case.

"You have to have reason to suspect that there is abuse," Dubensky said. "Not one of those incidents in isolation … rises to the statutory level of abuse."

Dubensky cited state statue.

"Not only in isolation, but if you put all of those together, no reasonable person could believe that abuse was taking place," Dubensky said. "Everybody can recognize that Mr. Frazier's behavior was outrageous."

Following the hearing, Gagnon said he felt it was a vicious and targeted prosecution from the beginning.

"This fight is not over. It's just beginning and that's what I hope," Gagnon said. "And I hope that all the things that are going on in Manatee County schools right now, with the threats and the intimidation, our faculty and staff can keep their heads up and know that these attacks are not going to go uninvestigated and unwarranted."

Gagnon said he still wants "a job" with the district, but is unsure whether he wants to work with those still in power for ethical reasons.

Still waiting for a ruling on an appeal to retain his job, Gagnon and his attorney, Richard Reinhart, did not rule out taking action for being wrongly accused.

"A reasonable human being would want to be compensated for having their reputation almost ruined, so somebody needs to take care of that," Reinhart said.

Gagnon said he was outraged Frazier got a plea deal.

"If he did these things without our knowledge, and he did harm one of my children, he should have been prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We have to find out why," Gagnon said. "Why is he given a deal for committing what is potentially alleged to be one of the worst crimes anyone could commit?"

Assistant State Attorney Dawn Buff said later that only Frazier asked for a plea deal.

"Other than the pretrial intervention program that Debra Horne entered, none of the other parties spoke to us about wanting to discuss a plea agreement," Buff said.

While saying she respected Dubensky's decision, Buff said she still felt the state had sufficient evidence to prosecute Gagnon.

Faller and Kane are also charged with one misdemeanor count of failing to report child abuse and one felony count of failing to report child abuse. If convicted, they each face up to five years in prison.

Frazier, a former parent liaison and assistant football coach at Manatee High, pleaded no contest April 30 to four counts of battery and two counts of interfering with a student's attendance after being charged with inappropriately touching students and staff. The State's Attorney's Office dropped three counts of battery and two counts of interference in exchange for his plea.

Investigators say Faller and Kane, as well as Gagnon, all failed to report suspicions about Frazier to the state child abuse hotline, as required by law.

Manatee School Board Chairwoman Julie Aranibar said Tuesday schools are supposed to provide a safe environment for learning.

"I hope that we not allow this in the future," she said.

Testimony on Tuesday began with parent liaison Stephen Gulash testifying he saw Frazier place a water bottle between the legs of a student at a softball game. Gulash said he reported the incident to Kane and later spoke to Faller about it.

During cross-examination, defense attorneys questioned Gulash about whether he lied to Horne when she questioned him about the incident.

"You told Ms. Horne that you hadn't seen it?" Reinhart said. "You told Debbie Horne that if you had seen it you would have told Mr. Faller?"

Gulash admitted he had lied.

Brett McIntosh asked Gulash if he told Horne he had no personal issues with Frazier.

"I still have no personal issues with Mr. Frazier," Gulash said.

Gulash agreed when McIntosh asked: "When the Bradenton Police Department questioned him in 2013, did you tell them you had lied to Ms. Horne?"

Jon Weiffenbach, Faller's attorney, questioned Gulash about omitting he had witnessed the water bottle incident even though he included it in notes he provided to Stephen Rinder, district coordinator of dropout prevention and student intervention, when he prepared a letter to Manatee High principal Don Sauer.

"Mr. Sauer got exactly what he requested in this paper," Gulash said.

Dubensky asked Gulash to clarify details of his testimony. Gulash told him Kane first reported the water bottle incident two days after it occurred. He also said he spoke to Faller and told him he had not been 100 percent truthful to Horne about personally witnessing the incident.

"Gregg told me, 'Don't worry about it. Ms. Horne feels you have a personal vendetta against Frazier,'" Gulash said.

Horne was originally also charged with failing to report child abuse but she avoided prosecution by entering a pre-trial intervention program.

Jacqueline Peebles, Manatee High math teacher, testified about an incident where she walked into Frazier's office and saw a student sitting on his lap feeding him cake.

"I was shocked and I just blurted something like: 'What the hell is going on here?'" Peebles said. "And then they both just giggled and I expected something different."

The next day, Peebles said she went to Kane about the incident. She said he listened and said he would look into the matter.

Peebles also described an incident a student at the alternative school Horizons told her about. She was surprised to see the student had ended up at Horizons, she said.

"I had to. Mr. Frazier won't leave her alone," Peebles quoted the student as saying.

She asked her what she meant by that.

"She said he won't quit texting me, and like he is following me around me," Peebles testified.

Peebles then described an incident the girl told her about that occurred when she was at a local sports bar drinking with her boyfriend. She said Frazier came up behind her at the bar, and pressed himself against her.

Once she realized it was not her boyfriend, she turned around.

"She yelled at him, 'What are you doing?'" Peebles said. "Frazier told her, 'No, you are here, a bar is serving you, you are 21 so you are fair game.'"

Peebles said she reported what the student had told her to Faller, also mentioning the cake-eating incident.

Former school district attorney Scott Martin testified about the one conversation he said he had with Gagnon regarding the investigation into allegations against Frazier.

"There was some conversation that there had been rumors in the past," Martin said.

Martin said Gagnon told him: "If you find anything, bury him under the school, but just keep in mind there had been these rumors about Frazier before."

Horne also testified about a conversation she had with Gagnon in passing regarding Frazier where Gagnon made a similar comment.

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.

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