A Frederick County Circuit Court judge on Thursday set bail for all three former Jefferson School employees charged with the sexual abuse of two teenage students at the special education school and residential center.
While two of the defendants, 27-year-old Hagerstown resident Ariel Carrine-Krieman Eppard and Wesley Jerome Dean, 32, of Montgomery Village, were given $25,000 fully secured bail, the third, 35-year-old Frederick native Jermaine Dontay Thomas, was ordered held on $50,000 bail. The hearings occurred in back-to-back video conferencing sessions before Circuit Judge William R. Nicklas Jr.
The allegations stem from a joint investigation by Maryland State Police and Frederick County Child Protective Services that was opened June 5 when a 17-year-old female student of the school told another employee of the Jefferson school that Dean had sexually abused her, according to prosecutors and police.
As the investigation progressed, state police identified a second student, an 18-year-old woman, taking contraband cellphones from both teens that further corroborated their accounts with text conversations and other evidence.
According to prosecutors, the teens were given cellphones against regulations in order to set up sexual encounters with the defendants.
Dean, who was charged with sexual abuse of a minor, a fourth-degree sex offense and two counts of engaging in a sexual act with an individual who was ordered to obtain services by a court-ordered services provider, had sexual contact with both of the alleged victims, including one instance that both he and Eppard were involved in, according to prosecutors. Eppard also acted with Thomas, who was a supervisor, to facilitate what prosecutors described as the repeated sexual abuse of the 17-year-old girl, prosecutors said.
“[Thomas] would have … Ms. Eppard sign the minor victim out to take her on what were basically like field trips, and instead she would take her to [Thomas’] house and he would then take her to a local motel for sex and he would videotape it,” said Frederick County Assistant State’s Attorney Tammy Leache, speaking to members of the media after the bail review hearing.
While Eppard and Dean were believed to have acted together at least once, the investigation had not determined any incidents that involved both Thomas and Dean. The victims also only overlap through Eppard, according to the indictments handed down by a Frederick County grand jury late last month charging all three defendants.
“The one 18-year-old victim, the only allegation that we have charged at this time only involves her and Mr. Dean, not the other two defendants,” Leache said.
At the hearing, Leache also described sexual acts involving Eppard and the victims, as well as additional illicit contact between Dean and both girls.
Leache, the newly appointed chief of the state’s attorney’s office’s Family Violence Division, also described videos that Thomas made of himself having sex with the 17-year-old that were seized by detectives through the course of the investigation.
“This is the most serious case that we have, he was in a position of higher authority [than Dean or Eppard],” Leache told Nicklas during the hearing. “... He actually made multiple recordings of the [acts] where you can clearly see his face and the victim’s.”
Assistant Public Defender Laura Garcia, who represented both Dean and Eppard, and Mary Drawbaugh, a private attorney hired to represent Thomas, impressed upon the judge the lack of any prior criminal history of all three defendants, as well as their strong ties to the community. Multiple family members appeared in court Thursday to show their support for each of the three defendants.
Thomas’ parents surrendered both of his passports, one for the United States and the other from Hungary, where he obtained dual citizenship during a professional basketball career. Garcia also emphasized the lack of detail provided in the indictments.
While Nicklas agreed that the charges were serious, particularly in Thomas’ case, he ultimately decided to set fully secured bail in all three cases along with conditions prohibiting them from contacting either of the alleged victims or one another.
Eppard was visibly shaken when the judge granted her bail, gasping before readily thanking the judge and assuring him that she would have no contact with the alleged victims or her former co-workers. Several of Eppard’s relatives left the courtroom, one in tears, after the judge’s decision.
A man who identified himself as Dean’s father disputed the accusations against his son in a brief statement when approached by reporters in front of the courthouse.
“That’s not my son,” the man said, referring to the characterization Leache presented of Dean before the judge. “That’s my son, but he did not do what [was said in court].”
Neither Drawbaugh nor members of Thomas’ family could be reached for comment after the hearing.
Leache said she was not surprised by Nicklas’ decision, given the lack of criminal histories for any of the defendants.
“I was aware that the judge would likely grant some type of a bond,” Leache said after the hearing.
Leache also discussed the larger investigation — which remained open as of Thursday — including the possibility that more alleged victims may be identified in the near future.
“The two [alleged victims] that we charged on are the ones that we have enough evidence to proceed on at this time ... there are [also] multiple allegations involving other students but we’re still investigating them,” Leache said.
One of the complicating factors was that some students interviewed by detectives expressed an unwillingness to disclose further details due to the authority held by the people facing charges.
Leache mentioned another case her division is handling involving sex abuse charges against another former Jefferson School employee that came to the attention of authorities several months prior to the three most recent arrests. John Randolph Gordon, 66, of Frederick, was charged in April with two counts each of sexual abuse of minors and fourth-degree sex offense, as well as a count of second-degree assault after allegations surfaced that he sexually abused a male student of the school.
Prosecutors have not linked Gordon’s alleged offenses with the alleged actions of Thomas, Dean and Eppard, but Leache said the recent arrests indicates the need to closely examine the policies and practices in place at the Jefferson School.
“It does seem that there was a lot of abuse of discretion, a lot of use of contraband cell phones, sexting going on at this school and kind of a culture that everybody was aware [of],” Leache said.
Tamara Chumley, a spokeswoman for the Sheppard Pratt Health System, which operates the Jefferson School, responded to The Frederick News-Post's request for comment with a written statement. The new statement reiterated the health system's message in a previous statement issued Wednesday following the arrests of Thomas, Eppard and Dean.
"The safety and well-being of our students and residents is always our foremost priority," Chumley's statement reads. "We are cooperating with authorities in this ongoing investigation. We are committed to continuously reviewing and improving processes to ensure the safety of those in our care and to provide the highest standard of education for each student."
As of 6:30 p.m. Thursday, both Thomas and Eppard had posted bail and would be released from the Frederick County Adult Detention Center shortly, according to a corporal answering phones at the detention center. Dean had not posted bail and remained in custody.
This story has been updated to include a statement from the Sheppard Pratt Health System on behalf of the Jefferson School.