A federal judge Tuesday accepted a former Miles City athletic trainer's guilty plea to using the internet in a longtime scheme to sexually abuse "probably a hundred" high school boys.
James "Doc" Jensen sat docile in his wheelchair in the federal courtroom, quiet as any man resigned to spending what will likely be the rest of his life in prison. The 79-year-old had tried repeatedly to enter such a plea to the single count of coercion and enticement in the U.S. District of Billings, but had been stalled by a U.S. magistrate judge who sought to ensure the evidence matched up to the charge.
Chief Judge Dana Christensen, a U.S. District Court justice in Missoula, after hearing prosecutors outline a more detailed catalog of evidence than what had previously been entered in court documents, asked Jensen on Tuesday how he'd like to plea.
Jensen leaned forward briefly, entered his guilty plea and sat back again.
Learning about the guilty plea Tuesday, one of Jensen’s victims said, “This has been a long time coming and grossly overdue. This will give me a little closure knowing he will be going to federal prison.” Lee Montana Newspapers have a policy of not naming victims of sex crimes. The Billings Gazette knows his name and has verified his identity with his attorney.
Jensen worked for Custer County District High School as an athletic trainer, although he had no specific training, from the mid-1970s until he was let go in 1997 after suspicions were reported of his interactions with students.
The federal indictment alleges Jensen used materials from the internet to persuade students that his program using various sexual activities, including masturbation, would boost their athletic performance.
The indictment also alleges Jensen sexually assaulted high school athletes during trips out of state in the 1990s, including a wrestling tournament in North Dakota and an athletic event in California. A relative of Jensen also told federal investigators that Jensen contacted other boys online while masquerading as a teenager himself.
Separately, Jensen has been charged in state court with 10 counts of possessing pornographic images of boys as young as age 9. Investigators seized his computer after a staff member of the Miles City care home where he lived allegedly saw him viewing child porn. Jensen was booked in the Missoula County Jail on Tuesday. Before that, he was held in Yellowstone County Detention Facility.
In addition, a group of at least 31 former Miles City athletes have filed a lawsuit naming Jensen, the high school and school district officials, alleging they should have known about Jensen’s abuses and failed to stop him.
Because the state’s statute of limitations on sexual crimes against minors has expired, Jensen could not be charged with any of the alleged sexual assaults that occurred during his tenure at the Miles City high school. One federal document alleges the number of Jensen's victims could be “in the hundreds.”
Prompted largely by the Jensen case, lawmakers during the current Montana Legislative session are debating adjustments to the state’s civil and criminal statute of limitations.
As lawmakers grapple with such amendments, prosecuting Jensen for the abuse of dozens of boys has been a tricky knot to untie for authorities. Despite his immunity on certain charges granted by statute, Jensen has sought to plead guilty to the lone federal charge, only to be held back by a federal judge's demands prosecutors pile on more evidence to bolster the indictment. Before trying again in U.S. Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan's Billings court, Jensen asked for the case be heard by Christensen in Missoula.
In recent months, prosecutors have filed additional evidence, including details from multiple interviews with victims, and supplemental briefs to strengthen their case.
According to the recent court filings, one victim reported Jensen had promised "the program" could help him "probably play college football." Another said Jensen abused him at a wrestling tournament in Watford City, North Dakota, when he was in the seventh grade, and continued the abuse for at least another year.
After the trip to Watford City, "it just slowly turned, you know, went from, you know, like little therapy deals into more heavy massages, into talking you into things you know you shouldn't be doing," the alleged victim said, according to court records.
Jensen had said "the program" was simply some practice found online.
Federal defender Steven Babcock spoke on behalf of Jensen in disputing a few details of the new evidence brought by U.S. Assistant District Attorneys Zeno Baucus and Bryan Dake, but conceded there was enough to capture a conviction had the matter gone to trial, as well as the true number of Jensen's victims, which has so far been speculation.
"We would admit there were probably a hundred victims in this case," Babcock said.
Jensen's sentencing is set for July 30 at the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse in Billings.
Several of Jensen’s victims said Tuesday they were disappointed the plea hearing had been moved to Missoula, nearly 500 miles from Miles City where some of them still live.
“I would have really enjoyed watching him admit to at least part of what we all know he has done,” said one of Jensen’s victims.
As old and frail as Jensen is now, any sentence he gets will essentially be a life sentence.
“I’m 110 percent OK with that,” the man said. “It’s a great feeling knowing that Jim ‘the Miles City Molester,’ will more than likely die in prison.”
A third victim contacted Tuesday by The Billings Gazette said Jensen’s guilty plea is “a great step in the right direction.”
“It’s good news that it puts a stop to a monster,” he said. “But, it’s not-so-good news because he should have been stopped long ago.”