Update: Judge John Nobles sentenced former Isaac Bear teacher Michael Earl Kelly to 192 to 291 months (roughly 16 to 24 years) years on the state’s most severe charge of First Degree Sexual Exploitation and statutory sex with a minor. Over fifty additional charges were consolidated for judgment; Nobles issued a second sentence of 20-84 months to run after the completion of the first sentence.
Nobles did not amend the sentence with either aggravating or mitigating factors, despite a lengthy please by Kelly’s attorney.
Kelly will receive sexual offender therapy and will eventually be eligible for work release. Kelly will be subject to no-contact order with all of his victims and will have to register as a sex offender for 30 years.
WILMINGTON — Former Isaac Bear teacher Michael Earl Kelly pleaded guilty to all charges against him on Tuesday morning.
Kelly, 50, was arrested in February 2018 after the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office charged him with over two-dozen sex-related crimes against children. The investigation, which included the FBI, later generated numerous other charges, now totaling over 50 and including at least eleven victims of sexual exploitation of a minor, indecent liberties with a minor, and other alleged offenses.
Kelly’s arrest also led to increased scrutiny of the New Hanover County Schools after Caroline Kuebler, a parent of an alleged victim, produced a copy of a complaint against Kelly she filed in 2003 when Kelly taught at Laney High School (as first reported by WECT). The school district said it does not maintain complaints filed before 2004. Dr. Rick Holliday – currently deputy superintendent – was the Laney principal at the time; Holliday denies any knowledge of the alleged incident.
At his first appearance, Kelly said he had “made some bad choices,” but has remained silent since, remaining in custody at the New Hanover County Detention Center under at a $2.1 million secured bond.
At Tuesday’s hearing, no cameras or recordings were allowed. Kelly arrived, handcuffed, rips in his detention center clothing, and sat quietly for the majority of the hearing.
Introducing the case, Superior Court Judge John E. Nobles said, “The maximum penalty is life in prison without parole … the mandatory minimum is, well, I’m not sure there is a minimum.”
Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan spent over an hour detailing Kelly’s crimes — all of which he pled guilty to — and detailing, one by one, over a dozen victims. In the majority of the cases, Jordan detailed how Kelly would first “normalize sexual conversations” and then introduce pornography (including videos of a minor and photos of his own genitals) and, in repeated incidents, exposing himself to students.
Jordan detailed how victims described Kelly as using a “father-figure” persona to encourage the development of a group that discussed sexual topics while at Isaac Bear and shared sexual imagery via text message and Snapchat (Kelly sent over 1,000 texts to students). In one case, Kelly arranged to meet with a student – who was 15 at the time – and engaged in a sexual act on him while filming the incident.
Jordan also detailed how Kelly used Craigslist (until its personal section was taken down) to arrange meetings for sex on both the UNCW and Isaac Bear campuses, as well as at other locations. When Jordan mentioned that, in one incident, Kelly had used a photo of his own son (a clothed photo, including his son in a football uniform), Kelly’s attorney objected saying that while these details did corroborate victims’ accounts such corroboration wasn’t necessary since Kelly was pleading guilty.
Kelly’s attorney called the case “extremely difficult” and asked Judge Nobles to consider a range of mitigating factors, including Kelly’s lack of prior record, his track record as a teacher (including winning WWAY’s ‘Teacher of the Week’), and the numerous students interviewed by law enforcement who only had positive things to say about him. The attorney also cited Kelly’s Christian faith, his role in his community church, the support of his family – including his wife.
The attorney asked the court to consider that victims had not been forced or coerced by Kelly and that the student that Kelly engaged in sexual activity with was “15 and a half,” or near to the age of 16; the attorney noted that sex with a 16-year-old would still have been a crime, but one with a less severe punishment. (Judge Nobles did apply any of these mitigations to his sentencing.)
Kelly himself spoke to the court.
Kelly called teaching the “great joy of my professional life” and said despite his “egregious mistakes” and failure to maintain boundaries with his students, he was proud of the academic successes of his past students.
Kelly told the court he took full responsibility for his actions and the repercussions of his “destructive behavior.” He told the court he had been the victim of childhood sexual abuse and asked the court to try and forgive him as he had worked to forgive.
Victims and families speak out
Jordan then introduced the mothers of two victims; the first spoke through an interpreter saying she wanted to be “the voice for all mothers” who wanted to speak out but could not. She said Kelly had “betrayed” the trust of parents and was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
A second mother read a statement from her child, who noted that his relationship with Kelly began well, but that “his friendliness was a facade, and it took me far too long to see the signs.” The mother read her own statement, noting that Isaac Bear was resistant to her attempts to have her son graduate early.
Both mothers reiterated the psychological damage done to their children and families, adding that there were “so many other moms” and “many other victims the court will never hear about.”
Finally, a former student from Kelly’s time at Laney spoke briefly, addressing the court to say that the “mitigating factors” presented by Kelly’s attorney were in part to blame. The former student told the court that “the pedestal” that the community put Kelly on was a major reason that allegations against him were kept quiet, saying the culture of covering up incidents protected Kelly “countless times.”
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