Despite a change extending the statute of limitations for sex crimes last year, it's unlikely allegations of sexual abuse against a former Miles City high school athletic trainer will be criminally prosecuted in Montana.
James Jensen, 78, is the target of a lawsuit alleging that he sexually abused dozens of boys during his time at Miles City from the early 1970s to 1998. The suit identifies at least 18 alleged victims, but says it's likely far more victims haven't been identified.
State and Custer County investigators are still urging anyone with information about Jensen to come forward.
But a state law passed in 2017 that extended the statute of limitations for child sex crimes from 10 to 20 years applies only to crimes that occurred after the law was passed, according to the Department of Justice.
Department spokesman John Barnes stopped short of saying cases outside the 10-year window couldn't be prosecuted and emphasized that the department wasn't issuing a stance on any current or past events.
"We're not really at that point yet," he said. "(Investigators) are focused on more finding, identifying, contacting alleged victims, and starting there."
The lawyers leading the suit were more explicit.
"James E. 'Doc' Jensen cannot be prosecuted for his crimes in Montana, as his dozens (if not hundreds) of victims are not within the statute of limitations for criminal child sexual assault in Montana," said a press release from lawyers Dan Rice, Bryant Martin and John Heenan, citing information they received from the department.
“There is no reason that Montana should allow child molesters to sleep easy after their victims reach a certain age,” according to the release.
The lawyers called on the Legislature to meet "immediately" to make the law retroactive and eliminate the statute.
"They can do this right now," Heenan said.
Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill into law in 2017, extending the statute from 10 to 20 years for sexual assault victims under the age of 18, effectively extending the possibility of prosecution until victims turn 38 years old.
But the law is not retroactive. It applies only to crimes committed after Oct. 1, 2017, according to the Department of Justice.
According to a 2013 report from The National Center for Victims of Crime, a majority of states have no statute of limitations for major sex crimes committed against children, though age limits vary.
The lawyers said statutes make sense for things like contract disputes or jaywalking, not for child sex crimes.
"The Legislature chose to protect all child molesters who have victims that have already turned 28 years old, to include James 'Doc' Jensen — a prolific and successful child abuser and sexual predator," the release says.
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Rice did say he's pleased with the response from local and state police since the suit was filed Friday.
"The problem is not law enforcement," he said. "They're doing a great job."
The state Department of Criminal Investigation was already interviewing alleged abuse victims Saturday, he said.
DOJ spokesman Barnes emphasized that investigators are still working the case and looking for new victims.
"We don't want anyone's perception of a statute issue to prevent them from coming forward," he said.
Montana's Department of Justice is using a phone number and email address to take reports of abuse by Jensen from the public: 406-438-2354 and MCSupport@mt.gov.
According to the lawsuit and Gazette interviews with several of the victims, Jensen developed an elaborate scheme he called “The Program.” It was a system he promised would enhance the athletic performance of the boys, some as young as 14, by boosting their strength, fitness and testosterone levels.
Jensen instead preyed on young athletes' competitive drive and trust in him as a school official, the lawsuit says.
The grooming regimen began with routine, state-mandated annual athletic physical exams in which Jensen touched the boys’ genitals under the guise of a hernia check, although the suit said he has no known medical training. The touching escalated to nude massages, masturbating the boys, measuring their penises, collecting their semen for “testing,” oral sex and digital anal penetration, the suit alleges.
When contacted by the Gazette, Jensen admitted to some of the abuse while denying other accusations.
The suit, filed in Custer County District Court in Miles City, names Jensen as a defendant, along with the Miles City Unified School District, the high school, and John Does A-Z representing as yet unnamed school and athletic officials who may have known of Jensen’s alleged sexual abuses and failed to stop him.
The lawyers are looking into the possibility of federal charges, but they said without legislative action on the statute of limitations, Jensen will be a free man under Montana law.
Rice said that the group would begin informing victims of the 10-year statute issue Monday evening.
"They're going to be crushed," he said. "They had held a lot of hope that they're going to get to see this guy die in prison."