Four more victims have come forward to accuse a once-popular Wasilla elementary school teacher of touching them inappropriately or sexually assaulting them.
That brings the total to eight victims in what started as a child sex abuse case filed last fall against Lukis Nighswonger, the 36-year-old former Iditarod Elementary teacher who told investigators he is a pedophile.
Several victims complained about his conduct to Wasilla police and school officials years before Nighswonger was arrested last September for accusations that now date back to 2002.
Nighswonger had taught at Iditarod since 2005 and was fired last year after being charged with five counts of sexual abuse of a minor. His arrest stunned the school community.
A new grand jury indictment handed down in Palmer last week added 14 counts reflecting the new victims and accusations that occurred up to the month he was arrested. The charges are for sexual abuse of a minor and attempted sexual abuse of a minor as well as a sexual assault dating back to 2002. Many occurred in 2017 and 2018.
Nighswonger entered a not guilty plea to the new charges during a Palmer Superior Court hearing Monday. He already entered a not guilty plea to prior charges last year.
Palmer Superior Court Judge Jonathan Woodman on Monday raised his bail from $100,000 to $500,000 cash performance and $500,000 appearance at the request of prosecutors concerned that Nighswonger is a “huge risk” to the public and a significant flight risk.
He told investigators that if he got out of jail, he “might as well split for Mexico” where he could “suppress his memories” and start over, assistant district attorney Melissa Howard said during the hearing.
Wasilla police are still investigating reports from potential victims, Howard said. “It’s the state’s position there are even more victims likely out there.”
All of the abuse and assaults occurred in the classroom, prosecutors say. Most involved children.
At times, Nighswonger locked his door and closed the blinds, Howard said. Some little girls used code words to help others escape their teacher.
Howard read a statement from one male victim, asking that Nighswonger remain in jail while he awaits trial: “This man knows my life. He knows where I live ... I feel it is not safe for my family and the community if he is out.”
Another victim, who participated in the hearing by phone and now lives out of state, read a statement in which she described being “robbed" of childhood memories and a feeling of safety in school. She also asked that Nighswonger stay in jail and said she feared for her little sister: “Every day, I find myself looking over my shoulder in public places to make sure that Lukis isn’t there.”
School officials, as well as Wasilla police, failed to protect the students and the community, two lawyers for several victims said during the hearing.
Nighswonger admits he molested students, knew his behavior was being reported, and carried out his abuses on students knowing there were other adults nearby, said Reilly Cosgrove, an attorney representing two victims.
“He knew he had to get caught eventually, and he didn’t care,” Cosgrove said.
A Mat-Su school district spokeswoman attending the hearing said Monday the district had yet to see the indictment and had no immediate comment on the new charges or claims the district didn’t protect students from Nighswonger.
The dates of the alleged abuse span 16 years, according to prior interviews and last week’s indictment: a student who was a fourth-grader in 2014; a student who was 9 in 2008; an older girl in 2013-14; a child in 2015-16; a student who was about 10 when the abuse started in 2014-15 and continued until last year; a student who was apparently 15 when sexual contact started; a student who was about 10 when an attempt at sexual contact was made in 2017-18; and a person of uncertain age when sexual contact occurred in 2002.
The sexual assault charge, an unclassified felony, requires the use of force, Howard said.
Along with the significantly higher bail, Woodman also approved conditions of release including no contact with minors or victims and house arrest on electronic monitoring without passes except for court appearances.
Nighswonger’s attorney, Neal Ainsworth Jr., told the judge his client “has no desire to bond out.”
Nighswonger said nothing.
A half-dozen young people attended the hearing, most sitting in the front row.
Cosgrove and another attorney conferred with several clients in the hallway after it ended. A teenage girl and a relative emerged from the courtroom.
“You guys doin’ OK?” the attorney asked. The girl started to cry. Someone else put an arm around her.