Saturday, March 2, 2024

Reader questions: What’s going on with former NHCS employee now facing child sex charges?

Nicholas Lavon Oates, 39, was arrested last year for statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child --- but it was for from his first arrest. (Port City Daily photo / New Hanover County Sheriff's Office)
Nicholas Lavon Oates, 39, was arrested last year for statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child — but it was far from his first arrest. (Port City Daily photo / New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office)

WILMINGTON — As the court date for former New Hanover County School employee Nicholas Lavon Oates was moved again this month, questions remain about his hiring, his relationship to a top school administrator, and why the initial investigation into his sexual relationship with a young student went nowhere.

Over the past several months, readers have repeatedly contacted Port City Daily with some of the above questions, as well as general requests for an overview of the Oates case. Unfortunately, it seems that many of those questions will have to wait for Oates to stand trial or take a plea deal before they are answered.

Timeline of events

Myrtle Grove Middle School, where Nicholas Lavon Oates worked for a little over a year between 2016 and 2017. (Port City Daily photo / Google)
Myrtle Grove Middle School, where Nicholas Lavon Oates worked for a little over a year between 2016 and 2017. (Port City Daily photo / Google)

In the decade before he was hired by New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) Oates was repeatedly accused of violent behavior. According to records from several law enforcement agencies and New Hanover County District Court, Oates was accused of communicating threats, false imprisonment (kidnapping), physical and sexual assault, threatening multiple women with a firearm, as well as repeatedly threatening to commit suicide if women broke off sexual relationships with him.

Related: Former NHCS employee had history of alleged violent sexual assaults against women before he was hired

Oates was apparently ordered into an anger management program but was never convicted of a violent felony. The district said two of these incidents showed up on a background check, but that NHCS was not aware of some of the details, although those details are all public record.

Oates was employed by NHCS as a teacher’s assistant working with special needs students at Myrtle Grove Middle School from January 19, 2016, until he resigned on February 1, 2017.

While he was employed – during December of 2016 – Oates was investigated by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO). Oates was never arrested; the reason for that remains somewhat murky, although NHCSO has stated they did not at the time have a cooperative victim. Oates was also suspended twice without pay — the second suspension ended when Oates resigned. NHCS has declined to say if there were plans to fire Oates, citing state law and the district’s own personnel policy.

Oates was later hired at Communities in Schools Cape Fear, where he worked for less than two months between October and December of 2017.

Oates was arrested on July 7, 2018, and charged with having a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old female student at Myrtle Grove Elementary.

Recently, Oates has appeared each month on the New Hanover County court calendar, but these have largely been administrative dates — meaning the District Attorney’s office do not expect Oates to appear or for anything of substance to occur in court.

Did a recommendation from a top administrator help Oates get a job?

(Left) Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jerry Lamont Oates; (Right) former New Hanover County School employee Nicholas Lavon Oates. (Port City Daily photo / File)
(Left) Brunswick County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jerry Lamont Oates; (Right) former New Hanover County School employee Nicholas Lavon Oates. (Port City Daily photo / File)

It’s not clear why Oates’ track record did not serve as a red flag to those who hired him to work with special needs students.

According to NHCS spokeswoman Valita Quattlebaum, because it was a personnel issue, the district can not discuss the details of Oates’ hiring or who provided references for his employment. Louise Hicks, the executive director at Communities In Schools of Cape Fear, also said references were confidential.

It has been suggested that Nicholas Lavon Oates is related to Dr. Jerry Lamont Oates, a former New Hanover County employee – and one-time ‘principal of the year’ at Williston Middle School. Dr. Oates was hired as the Executive Director of Human Resources for Brunswick County Schools (BCS) in July of 2015 and became the Superintendent there in October of 2018 (although the district later acknowledged it ‘inadvertently’ broke the law during the hiring process).

Superintendent Oates did not respond to repeated emails and calls over the course of the last month, asking if he was related to Nicholas Oates (and if so, how), if he was aware of the history of allegations against Nicholas, and if he provided letters of reference for Nicholas. The Brunswick County Board of Education also declined to respond to emails urging the Superintendent to respond.

While Superintendent Oates and the Board have not responded to questions BCS spokesman Daniel Seamans did issue the following statement in response to the above questions:

“Superintendent Dr. Jerry L. Oates is leading a new era in Brunswick County Schools that brings a sense of pride in a work environment like no other. His innovative approach to education, like the #IFiredBenDoing movement he just initiated district wide, inspires our staff to look at improving our own lives to, in turn, improve our student’s lives. We feel it is inappropriate to discuss matters that do not pertain to our school system. Thank you.”

What happened to the original 2016 investigation into Nicholas Oates?

In December of 2016, NHCSO investigated Nicholas Oates but did not arrest him. According to WECT, law enforcement was aware that Oates had sent sexually suggestive texts to his then 12-year-old victim, allegedly including messages about the size of his genitals and requests that the girl leave her boyfriend and date Oates.

According to a search warrant filed prior to Oates’ arrest in July of 2018 (but sealed by the court until several months afterward), the victim had been allegedly having sexual contact with Oates since she was 12, had begun a sexual relationship when she was 13, and had allegedly exchanged numerous phone calls, texts, and photos (including nude photos).

It remains unclear how much of this NHCSO knew in 2016, or how thoroughly the case was investigated by either the School Resource Officer (SRO) at Myrtle Grove, NHCSO, or the district itself.

NHCSO has suggested that there was not a cooperative witness (in this case, the young victim who would have been 12 at the time). It’s possible under North Carolina statute for law enforcement to secure an arrest warrant based on evidence, even without a victim’s statement, but it is certainly more difficult. However, it not clear if NHCS allowed the SRO to make a final decision to not arrest Oates, or if that decision came from a higher-ranking individual or Chief Ed McMahon himself. NHCS declined to answer who, specifically, made the decision.

NHCSO spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer said the Sheriff’s Office could not comment on the Oates investigation as it is still technically active.

However, law enforcement doesn’t always make the decision to arrest – or not – in a vacuum. While the decision to arrest is ultimately up to law enforcement, in difficult cases – like those involving child sexual abuse – it is common for District Attorney Ben David and his office to advise NHCSO and other local law enforcement agencies. In some cases, prosecutors will hold so-called ‘panel reviews,’ where the evidence in a case is reviewed by both assistant district attorneys and investigating officers or deputies.

According to Sam Dooies, spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office, “Pursuant to Ethics Rules 3.6 and 3.8, the District Attorney’s Office cannot make public comment on this or any other investigation pertaining to Nichols Oates while he has pending criminal charges.” These rules, among other things, ask that prosecutors “refrain from making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused.”

Dooies did add that “many of the details regarding this investigation will come to light during a trial or plea.”

Those details may include what NHCS found in its own investigation of Oates — and why Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley chose not to fire Oates. Under the school’s policy, sending sexual text messages would have been a fireable offense, although the district’s process for firing employees cannot prevent an employee from quitting before they are fired.

According to Quattlebaum, NHCS had no role in the decision to not arrest Oates in 2016.

“NHCS staff do not make decisions on whether an employee should be charged with a crime. In the Nicholas Oates case, NHCS staff reported the information it had to law enforcement but was not involved in the decision whether to charge him,” Quattlebaum wrote.

Quattlebaum, along with Markley and Board of Education Chairperson Lisa Estep, has repeatedly noted that NHCS has cooperated fully with law enforcement in all of their investigations into NHCS employees and incidents that have occurred on school grounds.

It does appear that, despite that cooperation, law enforcement still required a search warrant in order to review Oates’ personnel file. According to the search warrant, Oates’ personnel file was included specifically to gain access to the results of the investigation into Oates carried out by the administration. It’s not known what information in Oates’ file would be of use to law enforcement — the warrant indicates only that it is “key evidence.”

While that “key evidence” is under wraps for the time being, it may come to light when Oates eventually has his day in court.

What else might come to light — and when?

Oates is still in the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office detention facility, where he’s been for over a year. His next scheduled court date is October 21 — but it’s too soon to say if there will be any action on his case. The October date is ‘administrative,’ meaning attorneys and prosecutors have the opportunity to discuss the case but, in the vast majority of situations, it’s merely a placeholder and the defendant isn’t present, according to the District Attorney’s office.

Eventually, Oates will take a plea deal, be put on trial, or have the charges against him dropped by the District Attorney’s office. In each case, it has been the practice of the District Attorney’s case to lay out key details of the investigation.

For example, when the District Attorney’s office declined to press charges against Stephen Roger Hughes II for shooting and killing Marine Corporal Edwin Estrada, District Attorney Ben David provided many details of the investigation.

And, when former NHCS teacher Michael Earl Kelly took a plea deal earlier this summer, Assitant District Attorney Connie Jordan laid out over an hour of detailed information she said the prosecution would have presented had the case gone to court, giving those in the courtroom an in-depth look at how the case against Kelly was built. This included Jordan’s concern that, by Kelly’s admission, the school ‘investigated’ his sexual misconduct and did not contact law enforcement – a violation of state law.

Lastly, it is possible that both Nicholas Oates and NHCS could become defendants in a civil case — as is now the case in a lawsuit filed against the district and top administrators by the victims (both confirmed and alleged) of Michael Earl Kelly. Court filings from such a case would, in theory, help clarify much of the Oates case.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001

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