A Westhampton Beach Middle School gym teacher pleaded guilty Wednesday morning to secretly filming seven female students as they were changing their clothes in the girls locker room last winter.
Thomas Sheppard, 28, of Speonk entered guilty pleas to all the charges filed against him, including one felony count of second-degree unlawful surveillance and seven misdemeanor counts of endangering the welfare of a child—one for each of his victims who were either 13 or 14 years old.
Mr. Sheppard, who had been suspended with pay since his arrest last March and free on $25,000 bail, is expected to receive five years of probation for the felony count and three years of probation for the misdemeanors, though they are expected to run concurrently, when he is sentenced on December 18 by Judge Barbara Kahn.
But lead prosecutor James Chalifoux, the deputy bureau chief of the Major Crime Bureau at the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, said he will still seek a prison term of between 16 months and four years, which is the maximum sentence allowed, for Mr. Sheppard.
As part of his sentence, Mr. Sheppard is also expected to be forced to register as a sex offender for at least 20 years, though the level he must register at—offenders are ranked on a scale of 1 to 3, based on the likelihood of re-offense—has not yet been decided by the courts. Additionally, seven orders of protection will remain in place, prohibiting Mr. Sheppard from contacting any of the victims.
Mr. Chalifoux also noted after Wednesday’s appearance in the Suffolk County Criminal Court in Riverhead that Mr. Sheppard and his attorney, Peter Brill of Hauppauge, had been attempting to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors since Mr. Sheppard’s arrest seven months ago.
Before accepting his guilty plea, Judge Kahn required that Mr. Sheppard admit that he purposely planted his cellphone, with its recording feature turned on, in the girls locker room on February 26. Prosecutors, who recovered the recording even though Mr. Sheppard had deleted it, said the video clearly shows seven girls changing their clothing.
Mr. Sheppard, who did not address the eight family members of the victims who were sitting in the audience, offered only one-word responses in the affirmative when questioned by Judge Kahn. The victims were not present in the courtroom.
“Guilty,” said Mr. Sheppard, who was dressed in a navy blue suit and did not offer any explanation for his crime, when asked to enter his plea. He was accompanied in court by his parents.
Mr. Sheppard remains free on bail and left the courtroom without offering any comment.
After the proceedings, the mother of one of the teenage victims said she was relieved that Mr. Sheppard would be forced to register as a sex offender, though she and other parents still hope that he will also serve time in jail. The woman, who did not offer her name in order to protect the identify of her daughter, noted that all of the victims had been unfairly treated by the community since the arrest of Mr. Sheppard, a popular gym teacher and coach, explaining that many students accused them of lying about the incident.
“It was basically, ‘Look what these girls did to this man,’” the woman said. “And now, hopefully, it’s, ‘Look what this man did to these girls.’”
She added that it was shocking to hear him admit to filming her daughter and six other girls. One of the other parents left the courtroom in tears.
“They’re all affected at varying degrees,” the mother said, referring to the victims. “They’re kids. They’re going to be okay, because they have awesome parents that are going to make sure they’re okay. [But] they’ll always remember it.”
Mr. Brill, Mr. Sheppard’s attorney, said his client was “extremely remorseful” for what occurred, noting that is the main reason why he agreed to plead guilty rather than fight the charges and force a criminal trial, which most likely would have forced the victims to testify in court.
“He didn’t want to put the families and the victims through anything else,” Mr. Brill said. “He didn’t want to further embarrass his school community, and he thought this was the best way to go for those reasons.
“The fact that he did a lot of good in his career as a teacher should not be overshadowed by this one admittedly, incredibly stupid action,” he added.
Michael Radday, the superintendent of the Westhampton Beach School District, wrote in an email that Mr. Sheppard submitted his letter of resignation to the district on Monday. Mr. Sheppard, a tenured teacher, was making about $80,000 at the time of his arrest.
In late February, school district officials contacted the Westhampton Beach Police Department to investigate the complaint, and the case was later handed over to the State Police. Mr. Sheppard was arrested in March.