Federal prosecutors will recommend a sentence of nearly 20 years in prison for Scott James Nichols, a former West High teacher and basketball coach who admitted sexual exploitation and child porn charges.
Nichols, 42, of Billings, faces sentencing Oct. 7 for his guilty pleas to two counts of coercion and enticement, two counts of attempted coercion and one count of child porn distribution.
Nichols’ defense attorney, Jay Lansing, is seeking a 10-year term, which is the minimum mandatory sentence for the coercion crimes.
The prosecution and defense outlined their sentencing recommendations for U.S. District Judge Susan Watters in court records filed recently in the case.
Nichols also submitted a letter to the judge in which he apologized for his conduct and described steps he’s taken to get treatment and to rebuild his life.
Nichols said he has battled various addictions, including alcohol, and wondered what would have happened if he had sought help. “Instead, I just denied my problems and felt that I could manage them,” he said.
“I am staying positive and am looking forward to the day when I am released from custody,” Nichols said in his letter.
“I used to have goals of winning games and making state tournaments. I now have goals that are so much more important. I want to serve and help people who are struggling with similar issues as mine. I want to focus on being kind, generous, sincere, empathetic, loving and a law-abiding citizen,” Nichols said.
“If my experiences can help others to not repeat my mistakes, then I would like to help,” Nichols added.
Nichols pleaded guilty in June to the five counts as part of a plea deal in which an indictment charging 23 counts is to be dismissed. He also agreed to forfeit three computers and a cellphone used to commit the crimes.
The former teacher and coach admitted that beginning in 2012, while employed at West High, he used the Internet, including social networking sites, to entice minor girls to send him sexually explicit pictures of themselves.
Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Ole Olson said the evidence indicated that most of Nichols’ conduct involved computer addresses associated with the high school and that some of the activity happened while Nichols was on the road with his team for basketball games.
Olson described Nichols’ activity as “prolific” and that it led to the creation of child porn. “Hundreds of images and movies of child pornography were found on his electronic devices,” he said in court records.
The prosecution will recommend Nichols receive a 19-year, seven-month sentence with 10 years of supervised release, Olson said. The term is the low end of a guideline range that runs from more than 19 years to 24 years and five months.
The government will not seek a fine. No restitution has been requested.
Nichols faces a maximum of life in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Olson said Nichols sexually exploited multiple children while working as a teacher.
“His actions have eroded the public’s confidence in the dedicated public servants who we all entrust our children to everyday,” he continued.
While there was no evidence Nichols engaged in “hands on” conduct, that is “probably of little comfort to the many parents who entrusted their children to his man,” Olson said.
Nichols’ attorney is recommending the judge depart from the guidelines and order a 10-year sentence followed by 10 years of supervised release.
A 10-year sentence is sufficient punishment, Lansing argued, saying Nichols did not engage in any “hands on” conduct.
“At no time did Mr. Nichols ever have any type of actual sexual contact or ever make any attempt to physically meet any of the adolescent females with whom he had contact on the Internet. Rather, he stayed in his fantasy computer world, and he never crossed that line of engaging in ‘hands-on’ conduct with a minor,” Lansing said.
Polygraph tests taken by Nichols also confirmed that he was truthful about not having had sexual contact with anyone younger than 16 and about denying having “any intentional physical sexual contact with a current student or athlete while serving as a teacher or coach,” Lansing said.
Nichols also has taken positive steps since May 2013, during the investigation, by getting a psychosexual evaluation, in which he was determined to be a low- to moderate-risk sexual offender, and beginning sex offender treatment, Lansing said.
In addition, Nichols has worked two jobs for the past 18 months. He has a summer lawn business and also works as a night auditor for a local hotel.
Lansing also asked the judge to consider the positive effect Nichols had on students and players during his 17 years in teaching. Nichols was “held in high regard by other teachers and coaches throughout Montana,” he said.
Lansing submitted letters of support for Nichols from relatives, retired and working teachers and educators, friends and addiction sponsors.
School District 2 placed Nichols on leave in May 2013, and he was let go after law enforcement officers told school officials that he was under investigation for inappropriate use of computers.
Nichols had been at West High for less than a year and had come from Livingston, where he coached and taught for 15 years. In Billings, Nichols taught physical education and coached the girls basketball team.