Crime & Courts

Former Bethel principal sentenced to 15 years for trying to sexually entice a child

A former elementary school principal in the Lower Kuskokwim School District was sentenced Tuesday to 15 years in prison on a federal charge of attempted coercion and enticement of a minor.

During the hearing, prosecutors and the victim described a pattern of sexual abuse involving children.

Christopher Carmichael, 57, is scheduled to be sentenced next week on a separate state charge for sexual abuse of a minor, but officials said during Tuesday’s hearing that the anticipated 15-year state sentence will be served simultaneously with the federal sentence. Carmichael pleaded guilty to the state charge in April.

The parents of two girls reported to be victims of Carmichael filed a civil lawsuit against the school district in state court in Bethel. The district has denied that sexual abuse occurred. A jury trial is scheduled for November.

Carmichael, the former principal of Gladys Jung Elementary School in Bethel, was arrested in December 2019 after Bethel police partnered with the FBI to conduct an undercover investigation that showed he sent sexually explicit messages to a girl he believed to be 13 years old and that he had an ongoing relationship with a former elementary school student, according to the federal charges filed against him.

Carmichael “admitted to having a sexual attraction to children,” the charges said.

During Tuesday’s hearing, a statement from the victim was read aloud by Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Doty. She detailed a pattern of grooming behavior from Carmichael and said that the relationship turned sexual when she was 9.

“He was quick to start talking to me and spending time with me,” she said. “I was only 9 and lonely -- the other girls in my classes, who I had known since first grade, would never invite me to sleepovers, birthday parties or even to sit with them at lunchtime. Principal Carmichael wanted to know my interests, hobbies, and I finally seemed to have a friend.”

Eventually, she said, Carmichael began to grope her, including while they were on the playground with other teachers nearby. She said she believed the behavior was normal because the other teachers witnessed the groping and did nothing.

She said she realized while sitting in a room with federal agents, clutching her stuffed horse while she helped record a call with Carmichael to be used in the case, that all he wanted “was for me to have sex with him as a fourth grader.”

Parents had complained about Carmichael to police at least twice in the four years prior to the FBI investigation. An Alaska State Troopers investigation in 2016 did not result in charges, although Carmichael admitted behavior to his supervisors that could have cost him his teaching certificate.

He was placed on administrative leave after the investigation and after another investigation in 2018 when he was accused of groping a different student.

Carmichael, who was with the school district for nearly 20 years, was fired after the federal charges were filed.

Prosecutor Doty said Carmichael was one in a succession of educators and caregivers who located to rural Alaska communities to gain “unfettered access to children far from the watchful eyes of society.”

“The defendant’s crimes didn’t just devastate (the victim), they didn’t just devastate the 11-year-old girl that formed the basis of the other charges in the state case, they didn’t just devastate the 14-year-old girl that he had been sexually messaging a few years ago -- it devastated the trust of the entire community in the Lower Kuskokwim School District,” he said.

The victim said in her statement that Carmichael’s actions have left her with anxiety, distrust in authority figures and fear.

“I have nightmares now sometimes, but my fear doesn’t come in the nighttime,” Doty read. “I don’t trust the world as much as I used to. I get nervous at school that someone, old or young, man or woman, will hurt me again. If they want to get to know the other students and I, is it because we’re their students? Or we as their students have the body they want?”

The girl said she wanted to see Carmichael imprisoned for life.

Her mother highlighted that Carmichael was entrusted to care for hundreds of children and said her daughter was not his first victim.

“As hard as it is to believe, my daughter is the lucky one,” she told the judge. “Principal Carmichael spoke of another girl that he got close to. Somewhere out there, there is a young woman that grew up thinking that this was normal. Perhaps she will raise her daughter and think that any abuse is normal and the cycle continues.”

Carmichael was well liked, and the mother said some people in the community have a hard time believing he committed the crimes and dismiss the severity of it.

Federal prosecutors asked that Carmichael serve 40 years in prison, and defense attorney Allen Dayan requested that he be sentenced to 15 years.

Dayan called Carmichael’s actions reprehensible but said he does not deserve to spend the rest of his life in prison. Carmichael, he said, is motivated for treatment and has taken responsibility for his actions.

Carmichael directly addressed the courtroom near the end of Tuesday’s virtual hearing. He said he had a rough childhood and had been physically and sexually abused when he was young. He said he spent his life “attempting to lead people into making good decisions for their lives.”

Carmichael said he considered that he needed to seek counseling after the first investigation in 2016, but his religious views had prevented him from doing so.

“I felt really conflicted about my behavior and I knew that there was something really wrong inside of me that I needed to address and I didn’t do it because my spiritual convictions that I allowed to get in my way.”

Carmichael sounded tearful during the hearing as he apologized to the people he’d hurt.

U.S. Chief District Judge Timothy Burgess said Carmichael’s crimes were a serious abuse of trust that affected the entire community.

“The defendant, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say, has stolen the innocence of the victims in this case,” Burgess said. “You robbed them of their childhood.”

Three federal charges, including attempted coercion and enticement of a minor, possession of child pornography and attempted transfer of obscene material to a minor, were dismissed as part of a plea agreement.

Carmichael will spend the rest of his life on supervised release after he completes his prison sentence.

“No child should ever have to go through this. Parents and communities entrusted Carmichael with a great responsibility, but he abused that position of trust in the most disgraceful way imaginable,” Robert Britt, special agent in charge of the FBI Anchorage field office, said in an online statement. “Carmichael will now be held accountable for his horribly disturbing conduct.”