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HEIDELBERG, Germany — A former Mannheim High School teacher and cheerleading coach was sentenced last week to 5½ years in prison for molesting girls in his charge.

Sean O’Neal was convicted Thursday by a five-judge panel in a Mannheim court of three counts of sexual abuse of wards and one count of sexual abuse of a child — in this case, a 13-year-old girl.

The other victims were 15- and 16-year-old high school girls, including two members of the cheerleading team, according to Joseph Hall, international law chief at the 21st Theater Support Command’s Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.

O’Neal, 34, was accused of kissing and sexually touching the girls in his care — and the 13-year-old sister of one of his friends, who was visiting from Croatia. The molestations occurred between November 2004 and February 2006; one of the incidents occurred in O’Neal’s office and another on a school bus returning from a sporting event, according to Hall’s recap of court proceedings.

O’Neal pleaded not guilty, saying the events in question hadn’t occurred and that he would not behave that way toward girls because, in fact, he said, he is gay.

After O’Neal’s sentence was decided, “He was totally destroyed,” according to O’Neal’s defense lawyer, Frank Müller-Fricke. “I think he was sitting a half an hour in the courtroom without being able to recognize anything.”

German law provides for a sentence of three months to five years on each count, according to the Mannheim prosecutor’s office.

O’Neal would have been given a 12- to 18-month lighter sentence if he had pleaded guilty, Müller-Fricke said.

German criminal prosecutions are headed by an inquiring judge, who asks most of the questions, Hall said. But other judges on the panel, including two laypeople, along with defense attorneys, prosecutors and the defendant, may also question witnesses, he said.

The trial lasted four days, said Hall, who oversees U.S. trial observers provided to attend proceedings of military members and Defense Department civilians being prosecuted in foreign courts, according to the Status of Forces Agreement.

O’Neal asked the witnesses many questions, Hall said, some of which seemed designed to show that he was not an aggressive or angry person and would not force himself on anyone.

O’Neal had previously taught in two states in the U.S., Müller-Fricke said inquiries were made into whether similar accusations had been made against O’Neal in the past, and that nothing was found.

O’Neal was arrested June 12 while clearing out sports equipment as 16 students in the Defense Department school gym looked on, authorities said.

Since then, he has been held in the German Mannheim jail. He will serve his prison sentence in Germany, Hall said.

The accusations against O’Neal, who had been a Department of Defense teacher for nearly two years, came to light in June. According to Hall, O’Neal revealed the incidents to a friend, and the 13-year-old girl told her sister, who told the same friend.

That friend told the chaplain, Hall said, who sent the matter to the Army Criminal Investigation Command, which referred the case to German authorities.

That scenario appears to differ from Department of Defense Dependents Schools officials’ explanation in June. DODDS said then that a tipster told the school’s vice principal that there were rumors about O’Neal’s behavior, and that that information made its way to the school principal, the Mannheim garrison commander and the CID.

O’Neal was fired from DODDS two days after his arrest.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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