Saturday, June 25, 2022

Why does Peter Frank face almost 3 times more prison time than Michael Kelly? Attorney explains

Peter Frank

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Another New Hanover County Schools employee was found guilty of committing sex crimes against students this month. Peter Frank was convicted of 29 charges, 17 of which involved one victim, and pleaded guilty to a dozen additional charges.

The former Roland-Grise Middle School band teacher is one of two former NHCS staff members convicted for his crimes so far, but he’s one of five arrested since 2018.

Peter will serve at least 50 years in prison, a punishment that will likely stretch the rest of his life. The duration is notably longer than Michael Kelly, a once-teacher of the year who was sentenced in 2019 to 17 to 31 years in prison. Kelly pleaded guilty to all 59 of his charges involving double-digit students.

Both Kelly and Frank faced the most severe type of sexual offense, a B1 felony. However, the main difference between the two outcomes is that Kelly reduced his sentence by taking a plea bargain, whereas Frank denied allegations relating to one of his victims, explained attorney Martin Ramey. His firm, Rhine Law, is suing NHCS alongside the Lea/Schultz Law Firm for negligence in handling reports of both Kelly’s and Frank’s misconduct.

“You could probably say that Kelly did not force his victims to have to go through a trial, right?” Ramey said. “Prosecutors have a great deal of discretion in offering deals to defendants, especially if the defendant is going to avoid a trial and avoid further victimizing the victims.”

In Kelly’s case, the judge consolidated the most severe counts of statutory sex offense with a child and first-degree sexual exploitation into one B1 felony, totaling a judgment of roughly 16 to 24 years. His remaining 57 charges were also consolidated, adding 20 to 84 months to the prison sentence.

Frank was charged with six B1 felonies. At sentencing, the deputy attorney general prosecuting the case asked the judge to refrain from consolidating the charges. The judge ended up issuing three consecutive sentences.

One of the law firms’ suits — John Does 1-14 v. New Hanover County Board of Education et al. — claims Kelly would have faced more charges, but victims went undiscovered by law enforcement. Instead, survivors came forward after Kelly’s day in court.

The case has grown from an initial three John Does to 14 in the fourth filed complaint. The victims range in ages from their early 20s to mid-30s. Ramey said the years their abuse took place range from 2000 to 2019.

“Witnesses don’t always tell you everything upfront. It takes time to develop trust, and it takes time for the witnesses to realize what’s happened, especially when they’ve been able to put it out of their minds for so many years,” Ramey said. “You can imagine law enforcement showing up on your door, wanting to know something about what happened 10 years ago, and you want to push them away — ‘Stop, Get out of my life. You’re screwing everything up.’”

Michael Earl Kelly, a 26-year veteran of the New Hanover County School system, was arrested on February 6, 2018, on charges of indecent liberties with a child and sexual exploitation of a minor. (Port City Daily photo | COURTESY NEW HANOVER COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE)
Michael Kelly

During Kelly’s sentencing, New Hanover County Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan reported Kelly admitted to detectives upon arrest he was investigated by the school for misconduct. But in her own research, she couldn’t find proof the school system ever contacted law enforcement about the complaints. The condemnation gave power to the forthcoming civil case.

“I think that’s when some of the victims realized, ‘Wait a minute. I just went through hell. I just went through hell with this man. I see that he got arrested. He just pled guilty, and the school system knew?’” Ramey said. “That’s when the anger, I think, started percolating up.”

Then, Frank was arrested at the end of January 2020. Records retrieved through a search warrant of Frank’s personnel file at NHCS indicate a history of “inappropriate relationships” with students as early as 1999.

The law firm subsequently filed two cases involving Frank with three plaintiffs. Most recently in 2021, it filed Jane Doe 3 v. New Hanover County Board of Education et al. alleging Frank’s exploitation of a 13-year-old, who he had kissed, “sexted” and once encouraged to give oral sex on Wrightsville Beach.

In 2020 it filed Jane Does 1-2 v. New Hanover County Board of Education et al. Jan Doe 1’s case states the two would sit together on the bus like girlfriend and boyfriend and the girl was teased for their relationship. Still, it indicated their sexual interactions went on for two years on campus, usually in the band room.

Ramey confirmed the convictions will likely help his firm’s case. During the criminal trial, the principal from Roland-Grice confirmed a letter was written and placed into Frank’s personnel file acknowledging his relationship with a victim, he said.

NHCS is also under investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation for its actions, or lack thereof. The attorney general’s office would not comment on the ongoing investigation and did not respond to specific questions in regards to the duration, as it now reaches the three-year mark without a conclusion.

In addition to Frank and Oates, special education teacher’s assistant Nicholas Lavon Oates was accused in July 2018 of engaging in a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old at Myrtle Grove Middle School. He died of liver failure while awaiting trial. Oates was hired despite having a history of violent and sexual misconduct.

Two more teachers were arrested for sex crimes last year. In April 2021, David Bostian, assistant principal at Noble Middle, was arrested for having an inappropriate relationship with a high school student in the ‘90s when he was a teacher. Bostian killed himself after he was released from jail.

Ten days later, former New Hanover County Schools teacher and volleyball coach Ronnie Strickland was arrested on sex crime charges for incidents involving two teens outside of school, where he was acting in a parental role. His trial is still unscheduled.

Meanwhile, Rhine Law Firm is gearing up for the trial of the Kelly civil case in September. 

Speaking on behalf of his clients victimized by Frank, Ramey said they are relieved Frank’s criminal proceedings are over, but they still need to go through the civil case, putting them under another “microscope.”

“After 22 years, they are still dealing with the emotional suffering and trauma that go along with this,” he said. “This is not something that you offload by talking about it and testifying in trial, and all of a sudden and it’s, ‘woof,’ done. It affects your relationships. It affects your ability to trust people. It affects your own self-image and self-worth. All three of those ladies are still suffering. Just like the 14 guys in Kelly [civil case].”


Reach journalist Alexandria Sands at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or @alexsands_

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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