PALMER — A once-popular Wasilla elementary school teacher accused of sexual offenses against 11 victims was sentenced this week to serve 46 years in prison.
Lukis Nighswonger, now 40, taught at Iditarod Elementary from 2005 until his 2018 arrest on sexual abuse charges. Nighswonger, known at the school as “Mr. Nigh,” received a BP Teacher of Excellence award in 2015 — the same year the families of several student victims first reported concerns about inappropriate touching.
He wasn’t arrested for another three years.
Nighswonger during his arrest in 2018 told investigators he was a pedophile who “has been attracted to kids for as long as he can remember,” according to charging documents filed at the time. A grand jury indicted him on 19 counts of sexual abuse of a minor and sexual assault.
On Tuesday, Palmer Superior Court Judge Jonathon Woodman sentenced Nighswonger to 46 years in prison with an additional 40 years of suspended time, according to the Alaska Department of Law.
Nighswonger, in an agreement reached in July 2022 with prosecutors, entered a guilty plea to 11 counts of sexual offenses involving minors. His victims ranged in age from 9 to 16, according to a sentencing memo filed in the case.
Ten of the victims were students in Nighswonger’s classroom, according to law department spokeswoman Patty Sullivan. Several also volunteered after school in the classroom or for sports Nighswonger coached, which included track, cross country and basketball. The first victim in the case involved someone at a store in Anchorage where Nighswonger worked before he began teaching.
Nighswonger identified himself as a “pedophile” and described his impulses as seeing something he wanted with no thought process to stop it, Palmer District Attorney Melissa Wininger-Howard wrote in the sentencing memo filed last week. “When confronted with photos of some of his victims, the defendant stated, ‘I ruined these people’s lives all over again. … I’m so sorry.’”
Nighswonger said he was proud of his teaching and “wondered that somehow in his warped mind if he could somehow take education to the next level or show something new to his students,” the memo states. He also acknowledged there would be more victims.
Wininger-Howard commended Nighswonger’s victims for their “tremendous bravery” in coming forward and “seeing the process through to the end, so their abuser is held accountable.”
A separate civil lawsuit was filed in 2019 against Nighswonger and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District and school officials. Families involved in the suit claimed school officials did nothing to act on concerns of inappropriate behavior and accused some of discouraging parents from acting and not alerting authorities as required.
The civil lawsuit is ongoing.